Switzerland at its authentic best

Untamed white peaks, charming wooden bridges, medieval feel and great food

First Published:  HongKong Town Crier, Hong Kong

June, 2002

IT'S STRAIGHT OUT OF RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT ! Apparently Lucerne - the Alpine city in the heart of Switzerland, surrounded by majestic mountains that remain covered in snow all year round - was once a tropical palm beach 20 million years ago !

Well we would never have guessed ! There was certainly no sign of surf and sand that evening when we entered Lucerne; instead there was a rather cold wind blowing in from the Alps, making us shiver in our medium-heavy woollens. 

We had driven for many hours from Paris through changing landscapes, first through the tall grey forests of Fontanbleu and the green-gold wine country of Burgundy, then cutting across the rolling hills of Alsace, skirting the German border and finally entering Switzerland. Yellow Ferraris and Red BMWs had whooshed past us on the motorway, and left us staring at the tranquil green countryside lined with wintry conifers and Swiss cottages awash in pink and green and blue. Very beautiful and neat, we thought.

But nothing prepared us for the dramatic beauty of the Alps as we approached Lucerne. The city is calm and peaceful with hardly a ripple, the people precise and organised as the Swiss can be, but the peaks surrounding it - Pilatus, Rigi, Burgenstock - are wild and untamed. A rare juxtaposition - described by Goethe as the "combination of the colossal and the orderly" - that brought us our first feel of Lucerne.

As soon as we got over our Alpine welcome we realised one more thing: that you can't rush Lucerne. This picturesque town, with all its medieval charm delicately preserved, needs the Man with the Gentle Touch. Everything is so beautiful and so perfect that it seems someone put all the pieces together just yesterday and gifted it to you in a package marked FRAGILE. You have to handle it with care.

The feeling lingered while strolling on the creaky Kapellbrucke (Chapel Bridge), Lucerne's chief picture-postcard attraction. This 14th century covered wooden  bridge does not seem 'constructed'; it is almost lightly placed on the River Reuss, its octagonal stone water tower (Wasserturm) rising tall beside it. Hanging from the rafters of the bridge are more than a hundred 14th century paintings depicting the lives of the patron saints of Lucerne.

The story is the same in close cousin Spreuerbrucke, another covered wooden bridge a little ahead on the river. Together these two bridges give the riverside the timeless  Lucernian flavour. Besides being romantic haunts - all the people strolling on the bridge were couples like us - they link the north and south banks of the Reuss, each with its own distinctive personality.

The North Bank exudes a medieval town feel, with its 15th century buildings sporting colourful frescoed facades. We roamed around the cobbled paths of the old Townsquare and Weinmarkt, ducked under tiny arches to enter little alleys and nooks and passed stone houses, tapering church spires, small gothic fountains and ancient inn signs. Near the Kornmarkt  we found the Altes Rathaus (Townhall) an intriguing combination of an Italian renaissance body and Swiss farmhouse head.

Then, a moment of reflection. Further north we found the Lowendenkmal, a momument that Mark Twain called "the most mournful piece of stone in the world". Right in the centre of the courtyard, in a scooped out hollow on the wall, lies a mortally wounded lion carved out of stone. The forever-sleeping lion is a tribute to the 786 Swiss Guards who died defending Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the French revolution in 1792. A frenzied mob had attacked the palace at Tuileries, the king and queen were cornered, but the outnumbered Swiss Guards fought on bravely and perished doing their duty.

No such signs of sadness in the posh streets of Pilatustrasse and Bahnofstrasse however. Here the atmoshpere is distinctly swank, electric trolley buses gliding soundlessly by, shop windows straight out of the pages of Vogue, Rolexes and Patek Philippes  glittering inside the watch boutiques and the Beautiful People of Lucern packing the nightclubs in their Armani jackets and black leather pants.

And then there's the food. Sitting at a riverside restaurant and dipping pieces of crusty bread into a Fondue pot filled with hot melted Gruyere and Emmental cheese is one of the pleasures of being in Lucerne. Other chart-toppers include the local speciality Kugelipaschtetli (puff pastry stuffed with veal, chicken and mushrooms), Kutteln (tripe) in white wine and traditional Swiss favourites like Raclette and Rosti. And lots of fresh fish from the nearby Lake Lucerne - Egli (perch), Hecht (pike) and Forellen (trout). All washed down with crisp white wines from the Savoie region of France and Neuchatel in Switzerland. The finale: gourmet chocolates from the houses of Moreau and Teuscher.

On Day 4 the action shifted to Mount Titlis. A half hour drive took us to Engelberg (1000 m) where the adventure started. Act I Scene I was a ride to Gerschnwalp (1262 m) in a 6 person Gondola cable car, catching a quickly-disappearing view of the 12th century Benedictine Abbey sprawled out in the green valley below. The same Gondola hoisted us to Trubsee (1800 m) and suddenly everything around us was white and Engelberg was a tiny out-of-binocular-range speck. Then came the mind-numbing ride to Stand (2428 m): at times the Gondola didn't appear to be moving and we had this incredible feeling of being suspended in midair, at a godforsaken height, and mighty white peaks closing in on us in slow motion.

But the best was yet to come. Our final ascent was on the Rotair - the world's first rotating cable car which circles slowly as it goes up. We stood with our noses pressed againt the glass door and got 360 degree eagle-eye views of the grand white panorama all around. Finally we reached the top; the signpost read "3028 m, 10,000 ft". We were cold but we were happy.

If the ride was AXN, the top of Titlis was pure National Geographic. Giant glacial crevasses, icy crags, dazzling blue-white snow and magnificent views of white peaks and mountain passes all the way up to Black Forest in Germany.

Only the people around brought a sense of reality. There were tourists struggling on the ice, hikers resting their weary feet, photographers trying to decide between the Zoom and the Wide Angle, skiers in colourful gear, snowboarders, snowtubers. People were thronging the panoramic restaurants: some were sipping wine at the trendy Sternbar  while others were digging into steamy Nasi Goreng at the Golden Bamboo. We had a beer at Ofenbar - the highest bar in Europe, comfortably perched in the snow. There was even a Movenpick Icecream Boutique somewhere.

And away on one side was the remarkable Ice Grotto, a man-made ‘eternal ice’ cave tunnelled out of the glacier. Lots of nooks and crannies, with some parts almost 15 m below the ice surface. We were told we could hire it for parties !

Next morning I woke up really early , still dreaming of the soaring Gondola. Our bags were packed and it was time to go. We were ready to head off to Austria.