Cuckoo clocks and pocket knives
In 1998 we briefly visited Lucerne as part of a 47-day Ultimate Europe Contiki tour and although we were there little over an hour, we agreed Lucerne was somewhere we’d like to visit again. Unfortunately that particular trip ended with me breaking my arm in Prague so we never made it back. Now, as we were running ahead of schedule, we decided it was time to return. It was a long drive over the Alps from Neuschwanstien to Lucerne, but the scenery was stunning. First we crossed back into the Austrian Tyrol, a land of lovely rolling green hills and picturesque villages. At the high Fern pass we stopped by a little lake and debated taking a time out to canoe around the lake, but it was now getting towards 4pm and I wanted to move on. There were still a lot of kilometres to cover. With hindsight we should have said damn it all to hell and enjoyed ourselves, but such is life.
The days drive covered four countries - Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. By accident, as we missed the turnoff for Vaduz and got on the wrong highway. This cut Liechtenstein out of the picture and lost us over an hour as we tried to navigate back to the right highway. It SHOULD have been as easy as back tracking the way we’d come, but of course it wasn’t. After several such instances (on the German, Dutch and Belgian borders) I have become convinced that certain countries don’t particularly want to advertise cross border cities or the routes out of their countries.
After a frustrating hour detour we finally drove past Vaduz. What a strange place Liechtenstein is. It can’t really be called a country, more a political anomaly. Liechtenstein is a small sliver of land on the eastern side of the river that separates Switzerland from Austria. Steep mountains rise up a few hundred metres from the bank and form an almost impenetrable barrier between Liechtenstein and Austria. In this tiny, strange, border netherworld Liechtenstein does what it does and, of course is the reason it continues to exist. Liechtenstein really doesn’t have any industries or natural economy as such. What it does provide is a place for neighbouring countries to circumvent national laws, taxes and launder money.
Our drive across the length of Switzerland had now become a race with the sun as it’s not much fun arriving in a city at night. We had about three hours (sunset is approx 9pm). As we were travelling on a highway this seemed achievable. But of course you can’t just drive across Switzerland and not be awed by its natural beauty so we made a couple of stops to take photographs. Cutting it very close, we arrived in the city at dusk. Lucerne is a small city and we’d hardly arrived before we turned a corner and there was the famous water tower that is the symbol of the city. It took us a while to navigate around the narrow, confusing, labyrinth of one way streets. In the end we just gave up, pulled over, parked the car and decided to walk into the centre. We were very fortunate in snagging the last room at the imaginatively named Tourist Hotel, which was close to the centre of the city and cheap. We decided to stay two nights.
Our first night was a bit of a write off. By the time we’d checked in, moved the car, unpacked and got tidied up it was after 10pm and most the restaurants were shut. We ended up having a slice of pizza near the train station and then went home. An AFD - alcohol free day!! (Shelly wants it known that that was not her first AFD).
The next day we opted to go to Pilatus Mountain. Pilatus is 2432 metres high and offers spectacular views over Lucerne and the surrounding areas. You can even see Zurich from there. From one side of the mountain there is access by cable car and the other by funicular railway. We opted for the cable car although I am generally terrified of heights. I needn’t have worried. It was a smooth 45 minute ride; the last section being over a dramatic gorge. The sun was dazzling at the summit and there were plenty of people just lazing around in deck chairs soaking up the rays. Europeans really love the sun - perhaps a little too much. It’s fine when you’re young but it takes its toll as you get older. Yet everywhere you go across Europe you see old men and women as brown as berries and as wrinkled as prunes.
We wandered around the summit for a while. There wasn’t really that much to do - sunbathe, shop, eat at one of the overpriced restaurants, take photos of the view, or, if you were completely insane, you could go paragliding. We watched a couple of adventurous souls launch themselves over the edge. We were surprised to see a couple of mountain goats clambering up a nearby peak. They were right on the summit and bounded around with surefooted ease. A large audience gathered to watch them and there were several gasps from the crowd as they ventured right to the edge of a chasm and then trotted over the other side. I guess vertigo has been naturally selected out of mountain goats.
Afterwards we travelled back to the city for sightseeing and shopping. Lucerne’s lakeside position is extremely beautiful and there are numerous paddle steamers chugging up and down, giving the place a nineteenth century spa town air.
The most famous and photographed monument is the water tower in the middle of the river separating the old and the new sides of town. It was originally part of the city fortifications. It later became a torture chamber and was then used as a support for the famous Chapel Bridge. This 16th century wooden bridge was the main link between the two sides of the town for centuries and was decorated with religious and historical paintings. Unfortunately in the 1990’s it caught fire and was almost totally destroyed (there are only a few very blackened sections left). As almost all the original 16th century artwork was destroyed this was a tragic loss, however, ironically some important paintings survived as they had been removed by city authorities in the late 16th century as they were deemed ’too political.’ A short distance from the Chapel Bridge is the Bridge of Death, as I like to call it. This bridge too was decorated with paintings, but these are altogether more ominous, highlighting the myriad of ways death comes to us all. There are of course all the usual scenes of death - plague, war, starvation, murder, etc. But the painter, whomever he was, also managed to insert some quite political and subversive images into his work - Death as the doctor come to heal the patient; Death as the babysitter come to relieve the tired mother; Death as the Emperor leading his courtiers around the palace; Death as the Pope leading a procession of nuns and priests.
From Lucerne we drove north back towards Germany. We stopped briefly at Bern, the capital of Switzerland. Like Canberra or Wellington or Pretoria, Bern seems an unlikely choice as a capital, but not because it is a modern, artificial city, but because it seems so quiet and laid back with none of the political and financial buzz of Zurich. Bern feels distinctly - and comfortably - regional. Old Bern sits in the natural bend of a river, surrounded on three sides by steep slopes and gorges. What was once a fabulous defensive position is now simply scenic.
We crossed the old bridge into the old city and took a long walk up the main thoroughfare. Impressive 18th and 19th century buildings ran along the entire way. Notably, each building had a cellar opening onto the street and most of these are now restaurants and shops. Although it was around 3pm, the streets were almost empty. Even around the main clock tower, with its glockenspiel, the cathedral and the parliament building there was a distinct absence of both visitors and residents. Lack of trees in the centre, especially down the main street makes for a hot city and the temperature was around 32c. People were looking for all kinds of ways to cool off, some opting to sit in one of the many public fountains lining the main street. Looking down from one of the bridges we noticed that the river that circumnavigates the town was filled with people, floating or drifting along in inner tubes. The river was running so fast that people were swept along as if in a water ride. Indeed the parks along the riverfront was positively overflowing with people sunbaking and swimming.
It would have been nice to stay longer, but we’d already decided to travel on to Freiburg in Germany so that we could drive the Black Forrest so we dared not linger. As it was we stopped at Lauterbrunnen, where we had stayed on our Contiki trip. It hadn't changed a bit in ten years and was still just as beautiful as we remembered. Then it on to Germany.