Lucerne, Gateway to Switzerland (Part One)
ABOVE PHOTO: The Chapel Bridge and Water Tower in Lucerne.
By Renée S. Gordon
"I do not know of a more beautiful spot in the whole world."
It has been stated that Switzerland is an island surrounded by land and to some extent that is true. The 15,940 sq. mile country, 216-miles wide and 137-miles in length, is situated in the shadow of the Alps in the midst of Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Liechtenstein and yet stands out as a totally unique destination. Most noted for its scenic beauty and extensive, year round, outdoor activities, Switzerland has many more one-of-a-kind offerings that will take your breath away. www.myswitzerland.com
Evidence of human habitation has been found in Swiss caves dating from approximately 150,000 years ago. Around 4,000 BC area inhabitants began to build lake dwellings and information on these historically significant Neolithic homes can be obtained in eleven museums throughout Switzerland.
For 900-years, beginning in 500 BC the region was settled by Celts, the most prominent tribe being the Helvetians who gave their name to the country. The Romans, commanded by Julius Caesar, took control in 58 BC and ruled until 400 AD. Roman influence is still visible in numerous cities and several Roman ruins have been preserved. The country was referred to as Helvetia until the Swiss Revolution of 1798 when Schweiz, the vernacular name, came into common use.
Switzerland is comprised of cantons, comparable to our states, and its cities, towns and villages, more than any other European nation, are accessible via a variety of extremely reliable modes of public transportation. Over 9,000 trains depart daily, city buses are regularly scheduled and ferries, motorized boats and paddlewheelers ply the waters of the country's more than 6800 lakes. For hikers and cyclists there are more than 37,000-miles of posted trails. www.myswitzerland.com/hiking and www.tavolago.ch
All the methods of transportation are integrated into The Swiss Travel System to facilitate travel for international visitors. Several types of passes are offered for varying lengths of time, all at significant savings. Passes may also include mountain railways and museum admission. Prices vary and complete information is available online. www.swisstravelsystem.com
To put it simply, Switzerland overwhelms with its sheer physical beauty and one of the best areas to take in the sweeping panoramic vistas of high mountains and deep lakes is the Lake Lucerne Region. Known as the "Gateway to Switzerland," it has much to recommend it as a destination, a starting point for a grand tour of the entire country or as a base from which to explore the surrounding sites. www.myswitzerland.com/en/lucerne
It is widely believed that Lucerne was named by the Celts who settled in a "lozzeria" or marshland on the shore of Lake Lucerne. Location was everything and the city was founded in 1178 near the Alps' Mounts Pilatus and Rigi. Thirty-two years later the St. Gotthard Pass, the north-south route used to carry goods over the Alps, was opened. Merchandise was brought by wagon and then loaded on boats to complete the 24-mile journey to Lucerne by boat for further transport. A road was opened in 1830 and in 1980 the 3rd longest tunnel in the world was opened over the 1,309 -mile high pass. The drive is considered one of the most scenic in the world. www.myswitzerland.com/en/andermatt-gotthard
Lucerne is a walkable city but no visit is complete without a ride on one of 5 original steamboats on the lake. The boats, both historic and new, constitute the largest fleet on any lake in Europe.
Tours of the city generally begin at the wooden Chapel Bridge, once part of the city's fortifications. The 656-ft. long bridge was completed in 1333 and named after the chapel because it was originally constructed to lead directly into St. Peter's Chapel. In the 1600s triangular paintings were added to panels on the covered bridge. There are two cycles, one honoring Leodegar and Maurice, the patron saints of the city, and the second relating Lucerne's history. It is the oldest road bridge on the continent.
The adjacent, octagonal, stone Water Tower was also once part of the protective wall. It has functioned as a prison, torture chamber, archive and treasury. The 112-ft. tall Gothic tower is the most photographed monument in Switzerland.
The Spreuer Bridge was completed in 1408. The 67 paintings on this bridge feature the "Danse Macabre," mankind's inevitable journey toward the grave.
Medieval Lucerne is dated from the 1178 appointment of a priest at St. Peter's Chapel with the town's fortifications being erected around 1230. The pedestrian only Altstadt, Old Town, is reminiscent of Lucerne's past as a significant trading center during its earliest days. Nine of the original ten towers remain as part of the 14th-century Musegg Wall, the original ramparts. Three of the towers are open and one, the Zyt Tower, contains the oldest clock in the city. It was built in 1535 and is set to chime hourly, one minute before all the other clocks in Lucerne. Historic guildhalls dot the streets, notable for their exterior frescoes the most beautiful of which is that of the Baker's Guild. The guild dates from the 1400s and on the façade of the former hall you can still see the family crests of the first fifty-nine families.
The Renaissance-style Hotel des Balances, between the Wine and Fish Markets, was once the city hall. The tribunal was always held there on Tuesday, market day, outdoors with the spectators separated from the council by a red rope. The façade of the hotel is painted ornately and provides a wonderful photo op. www.balances.ch
Swiss soldiers were renowned for their bravery and military skill from ancient times and so it became common for other countries to hire them as mercenaries. Their service was federally regulated and they were paid in goods and commodities, including salt, hence the word salary. In 1506 Pope Julius II installed 150 men as the Pontifical Swiss Guard and they have now served that function for more than 500-years. Switzerland's 1848 constitution declared mercenary service for a foreign nation illegal with the exception of the Vatican's Papal Guard.
The "Dying Lion of Lucerne" monument memorializes the Swiss soldiers who gave their lives on August 10, 1792 protecting Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the Tuileries Palace. The lion, carved from sandstone, has been speared and engraved on the rock are the names of the dead. The sculpture is 20-ft. high and 33-ft. long.
Modern Lucerne's premier attraction is the lakeside Culture and Convention Centre or KKL. Architect Jean Nouvel designed the center to appear to float on the lake. It is the site of the Lucerne Music Festival. Tours are available. www.kkl-luzern.ch
Three thousand objects are on view at the Swiss Museum of Transport, Switzerland's most visited museum. The museum interprets all modes of transportation including space travel. The complex also houses a theater with the country's largest screen and a planetarium. www.verkehrshaus.ch
Lucerne has an international reputation as a city of festivals with its most famous being the classical music Lucerne Festival. It dates from 1938 when Arturo Toscanini established the festival. www.lucernefestival.ch/en
The 18th annual Lucerne Blues Festival kicks off in November with international performers including Irma Thomas and Sista Monica. You can sign up for the newsletter and obtain schedules and ticket prices at www.bluesfestival.ch
The Christmas Market is on display in Lucerne from November 23rd until December 23rd. More than 50 stalls feature arts, crafts and culinary delights against a magical alpine backdrop.
Six days and nights in February are reserved for the celebration of Carnival. The party is continuous and takes place throughout the center of town. The festivities begin on "Dirty Thursday" and culminate the following Tuesday in a Monsterkonzert.
Accommodations are plentiful and visitors have options in all price ranges and locations. Two hotels that I found offered all the amenities and personal attention are the Hotels Flora and De La Paix
The Ameron Hotel Flora is a few steps from the train station, one-block from the entrance to Old Town and two-blocks from the lake. It offers all of the standard services and free WIFI and breakfast. www.flora-hotel.ch/en/ameron-hotel-flora-lucerne
The charming Hotel De La Paix is located in the heart of a shopping district and a short walk from Old Town sites. This historic hotel offers great service, breakfast, free WIFI and a restaurant recognized for its cuisine. www.hotel-de-la-paix-lucerne.h-rez.com
Swiss International Airlines flies nonstop from the United States to Zurich daily. You can leave in the morning and begin your Swiss adventure by that afternoon. www.swiss.com/web/EN
In part two we'll explore the Alps, water castles and a medieval town that has a "new" section built in the 1300s.
I wish you smooth travels!
Bucks County has a series of scheduled fall festivals and Halloween-themed events. Visitors can carve pumpkins at Shady Brook Farm, check out the scarecrows in the Peddler's Village Scarecrow Competition or take a New Hope Ghost Tour for an extraordinary experience. These and other equally fun activities are detailed at www.visitbuckscounty.com
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