Lucerne: Swiss lakeside luxury

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LUCERNE, Switzerland -- For a few tumultuous months in 1798, this city, nestled along the trailing western edge of Lake Lucerne and protected by the snowcapped Mount Pilatus and Mount Rigi, was the official capital of Switzerland.

But it was not long before royalty, politicians and the aristocracy left the heavy lifting of governing to Zurich, Geneva and Bern, and instead headed here for sun, snow and revitalizing wafts of crisp mountain air.

All these years later, the blue bloods still flock here for year-round vacation time, only now they have to make room for rabble like you and I to live the life of luxury, albeit for a few days.

And if luxury is what a visitor is after, this is the place for it.

There is no better place to start in Lucerne than the elegant lakeside thoroughfare known as the English Promenade, named after the swells who came here to see and be seen at the turn of the century.

A tour guide proudly informed me that "we have no kings in Switzerland, just hotels fit for kings."

Nowhere is that more evident than during a stroll down this tree-lined walkway, where a townbound visitor quickly comes upon three five-star properties: the magnificent Palace Luzern Hotel; the Grand National, the first hotel ever built by that avatar of Swiss hospitality, Charles Ritz, and the Schweizerhof.

Not far from the terminus of the English Promenade is the Kappelbrucke (Chapel Bridge), probably the best-known site in Lucerne.

The covered bridge was built in 1333 over the Reuss River to facilitate access to St. Peter's Church, which still stands and dates to 1178.

Unfortunately, in 1993, a fire -- fanned by Alpine winds known locally as foene, or "hair dryer" winds, for their intensity and super-dry heat -- destroyed most of the 17th century paintings that embellished the ceiling of the wooden bridge. Re-creations of the historical artwork have not been a total success.

The new paintings have an obvious violet tinge, and the unweathered oak that defines them does not yet match the original. Give the new paintings another 400 or so years, our guide assured us, and we won't be able to tell them from the originals.

For now, buy a bag of maroni (roasted chestnuts) from an outdoor stand located near the bridge and add a bit of your own wear and tear, for history's sake.

Standing astride the far end of the bridge is the Wasserturn (Water Tower). This octagonal fortification was built in 1300 as an integral part of the city wall.

Visitors also won't want to miss the Spreurbrucke, or Mill Bridge.

During a nine-year span in the early 17th century, Kaspar Meglinger painted a series of 67 murals called "The Dance of Death" on the gables of this covered river crossing, which was built in 1407 and restored in the 19th century.

The paintings, which depict the city during a plague, remain as forbidding as they are evocative.

Other sites worth noting:

  • The Muehlenplatz (Mill Square) and Weinmarkt (Wine Market Square). Off the right bank of the Reuss, these busy squares balance upscale boutiques and souvenir shops.
  • Here, too, are Old World dwellings whose exteriors are embellished with fresco-like paintings. One of these residences served as a hotel for a churlish Goethe, who upon visiting 19th century Lucerne wrote, "It is a stinking, unfriendly place where the people either become Jesuit priests or mercenaries of foreign powers." Seems a bit harsh.

  • Picasso Museum. Located in the stunning, 17th century Renaissance-style Am-Rhyn House next to the Town Hall, the museum features a three-floor collection of Picasso paintings and other art work as well as about 200 photos by David Douglas Duncan of the artist at work.
  • The Bourbaki Panorama. This 33x360-foot circular painting, with the viewer at its center, re-creates the abject conditions under which France's battered eastern army crossed into Switzerland in February 1871 to surrender its arms in the Franco-Prussia War.
  • The Lion Monument. This landmark, the figure of a dying lion carved into the face of a rock, honors the 700 soldiers of the Swiss Guard who were killed while defending the Tuileries in Paris during the French Revolution.
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