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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Lucerne

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On Sunday morning there was no mercy for jetlag. We needed to get an early jump on the road to Lucerne if we wanted to complete the Mount Pilatus circuit and see the old town before proceeding onward to Bern. Cleo and Ian did OK after being rousted from their beds and didn't even go back to sleep on the half hour ride to Lucerne. Beginning the road trip itself provided a whole new sense of exhilaration beyond the thrill of being back in Europe. We were really on our way now and those dozens of cities unknown to us were soon to be experienced in reality.

We parked in a garage close to the lake and the old town on the north bank of the Reuss. There were several garages closer to the ferry but we were planning to end the day in the old town anyway so we chose to take the scenic walk across the Seebrücke in the morning. Although not the largest lake within Switzerland, Lake Lucerne is the most well-known due to its often-photographed setting among the foothills of the Alps. Lucerne is the star attraction of the settlements that surround the lake but there are also numerous charming villages and historic castles along the shore. From the bridge we could see a line of classic Germanic apartment buildings along the shoreline interrupted by the twin belltowers of the Church of St. Leodegar. On the inland side of the bridge was the famous covered Chapel Bridge. The limited view of the lake gave little hint of its numerous large interconnected basins.

We were beginning the Golden Tour with the ferry ride to Alpnachstad so we bought the combined tickets at the pier. We didn't have Swiss Travel Passes so we had a lay out an impressive amount of money for the five of us. The views of the lake and the shoreline went a long way to justifying the high ticket price. The rolling landscape was dotted with chalets and beautiful churches with Pilatus dominating the horizon to the west. The ride was longer than I expected and at one point we began to head east along the main basin, in the opposite direction from Alpnachstad. I flagged down a steward anxiously and he informed me that we were indeed on the right ferry, that we it was a small detour to make a scheduled stop. Surely enough we soon docked and the ferry reversed course afterward. At Alpnachstad we grabbed a quick lunch at the station before joining the line for the rack railway to the top of Pilatus.

The vehicle that carried us up the side of Pilatus can be called either a cog railway or a rack railway, depending on whether one focuses on the cogwheels on the car or the rack on the ground that the cogs mesh with. This mechanism allows the car to ascend the track at a much steeper grade than would be possible for a typical railroad with smooth wheels and track. The Pilatus Railway is in fact the steepest rack railway in the world and at first glance it's hard to understand why it doesn't simply fall down the side of the mountain. The line has been in continuous operation for over a century so I didn't worry too much about the mechanism suddenly failing for the first time during our ascent. The best view was of the side of the mountain where we could see intrepid hikers making their way up the slope via switchbacks. Once at the top we followed a short path to the winding, vertiginous staircase to the viewpoint at Esel which is the second highest point on Pilatus. Some choose to take the longer and more adventurous hike to Tomlishorn, the highest peak, where one has a chance of seeing wild ibexes but we were on a tight schedule and weren't really in the mood to challenge ourselves. From Esel we could see most of Lake Lucerne which allowed us to appreciate its unusual, irregular topography. On the west side of the lake the city of Lucerne and its suburbs looked like a vast metropolis although I knew there couldn't be more than a hundred thousand people living there. The rest of the shoreline was largely mountainous although humans had carved out settlements along the shoreline and in small valleys between the peaks. To the south we could see a jagged line of snowcapped Alpine peaks. A legend on the platform purported to identify them by name but I was unable to match the peaks to the diagram. Recognizable names such as Matterhorn and Mont Blanc were not listed as they were far to the southwest and invisible from our location. There were paragliders here as well and from the whoops of excitement emanating from them it was clear that these were tandem operations for hire. Ian expressed some interest but I'm not sure I'm ready to see him suspended in the sky dependent on a sheet of synthetic fabric to keep him alive.

The next stage of the Golden Tour was the cable car ride down from Pilatus to the town of Kriens. I hadn't realized it in advance but there are actually two cable cars with a connection at a spot called Fräkmüntegg halfway down. When we disembarked I saw that there was a toboggan track that I hadn't been aware of and figured we would probably still have enough time for the old town if we spent an hour at this mid-station. We had a stiff uphill walk to the departure point and then almost a half hour wait before we finally arrived at the front of the line. Cleo and Ian were able to go by themselves but Spenser had to go in tandem with me due to his age, much to his disgust. The long ride down was suitably thrilling for the kids but my favorite part was the view of the hillside and the lake as we were towed backwards up to the starting point. The only thing that would have made it better would have been a toboggan track that went all the way down to Kriens, although I'm not sure how Mei Ling would have felt about that.

From the cable car station in Kriens it was a surprisingly long and poorly-signed walk to the bus stop where we eventually caught the bus back to the modern part of Lucerne south of the Reuss. The iconic sight of the city is the Chapel Bridge which is actually a reconstruction of a medieval covered bridge that was destroyed by fire in 1993. It's probably inaccurate to look at the current bridge as inauthentic, considering that the wooden bridge had to be restored and repaired so many times over the centuries that it was unlikely that much of the original wood used in the construction of the bridge remained even before the fire. Sadly most of the painted triangular panels that decorated the trusses of the bridge were destroyed, although a few were restored and returned to the rebuilt bridge. The adjacent stone water tower predates the bridge by a hundred years and survived the fire, although it was damaged and underwent extensive renovation.

From the bridge Lucerne's Altstadt looks very promising with the busy promenade along the Reuss lined with cafes and a row of distinguished hotels behind them. After passing that first street we were somewhat disappointed to find a much smaller old town than the one in Zürich with substantially less atmosphere. Perhaps the near-deserted streets on a Sunday evening had something to do with it but the rows of generic clothing and jewelry boutiques gave me the sense that no one really lived in that part of the city. There were a couple of attractive squares and colorfully-painted buildings but overall there wasn't much to capture our interest as we made our way to the medieval city walls atop Musegg hill. This proved to be a fairly interesting place to wander for an hour between the towers spaced along the wall. At the kids behest we ascended all the way to the top of the Zytturm clock tower for views of the city and of course Pilatus in the background. The mechanism of the enormous clock was on full display as well.

By the time we had returned to Altstadt we were in danger of missing dinner completely if we didn't eat before driving onward to Bern. Since most restaurants were closed on Sunday I had no choice but to accede to Mei Ling's request that we eat at a Thai restaurant she had spotted on the way to the wall. It was a cramped and stuffy little place with mediocre and inauthentic food, despite the usual positive online reviews. Mei Ling had to repeat our order four or five times to our waitress, who also seemed to be the owner, before she repeated it back correctly and then it still came out wrong. I hoped the lousy meal would mean fewer Asian restaurants on the road trip but I was already tired of sausages and tiny forty franc steaks myself. At least we could anticipate better food in France before returning to the Germanic offerings in the Netherlands and Rheinland.

In the end I was happy I had chosen not to spend a night in Lucerne. It had only taken us a couple of hours to see everything we wanted in the town and I wasn't particularly taken with the place. In fact it was much more what I expected Zürich to be like than Zürich actually was. I'm sure an outdoorsy person could find a different mountain in the area to hike up every day but when we're in Europe our focus is more on the cities, the food, and the culture. We embarked on our one hour drive to Bern looking forward to an early start on a brand new city.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:18 Archived in Switzerland Tagged pilatus road_trip family_travel chapel_bridge tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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I love Lucerne. There are so many beautiful opportunities there. I was there about six years ago and would love to return

by littlesam1

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