Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021

© Christof Sonderegger / Swiss Tourism

Lucerne’s best-known landmark is the Kapellbrücke, a fortified wooden bridge off the harbour.

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The other Swiss riviera

The original outdoorsy retreat, the towns of Lake Lucerne have been drawing visitors for 180 years

SSipping champagne on the deck of the century-old paddle steamer, I watched as night’s black curtain fell swiftly over Switzerland’s majestic Lake Lucerne. First, the silhouettes of the surrounding Alps were draped in darkness; then the meadows on their slopes were quickly cloaked in shadow. Soon all we could see from our boat was the long seam of the lakeshore, stitched with waterfront villages shining like sequins in the velvety evening.

Out on the water, the famous föhn wind was whipping up as the steamer’s paddle wheel churned on relentlessly. The glow from the town of Lucerne had dimmed, eclipsed by the lights of a parade of ships in our wake. There were four other nostalgic steamboats, along with a dozen large “salon” cruisers, deluxe ferries boasting onboard restaurants.

Suddenly, the procession of vessels began a series of synchronized movements as pairs of boats swept away in opposing directions, made tight turns in tandem, and then fell back in line. Within minutes, the water was crisscrossed by ships tracing an elaborate aquatic choreography, and I realized I was witnessing the traditional maritime waltz of the Vierwaldstättersee, as Lake Lucerne is known locally — a mountain setting so spectacular that Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” was later named for the play of the stars over its lapping waves.

Deep in the heart of the Swiss Alps, its steep shores dotted by rustic villages and cut by hiking trails, 90-kilometre-long Lake Lucerne has been a holiday destination for 180 years. Long before kayaks and wind surfers, this tranquil region 45 minutes from Zurich was one of the very first places to popularize the idea of an outdoor recreational vacation, a concept originated by well-healed tourists who flocked here in the 1800s inspired by Romantic concepts about the power of nature.

Today, Lake Lucerne’s fjord-like scenery still draws visitors. An irregular east-west squiggle on the map, the lake spills across four mountain valleys and is made up of distinct bodies of water linked by narrow channels.

Settled centuries ago, the area offers a mix of rural tradition, outdoor exploration and amenities that are quite exotic to Canadians who are mainly used to more desolate wilderness destinations. This isn’t to say that Lake Lucerne is built up, or that hiking the Alps isn’t enthralling. It’s just that the convenience, ambiance and access to nature here makes for a uniquely enjoyable high-altitude holiday.

Queen of the lakes

Hundreds of metres deep and entirely navigable, Lake Lucerne has always linked small communities whose inhabitants carved meadows into the mountain flanks and blazed trails in the Alps. By the time England’s Queen Victoria visited in the 1860s, she and her retinue were able to travel the lake on regular ferries, wander pastures above remote hamlets, and climb “a hill of stairs” to a summit lookout. The Queen’s husband, the German Prince Albert, thought their accommodations “quaintly lavish,” and delighted in the efficient ferries so much he tried to buy one, telling a royal friend the surroundings were “utterly feasible, though quite fantastical.”

The prince’s sentiments have held true over the years, as I discovered arriving in Lake Lucerne recently. Although roads now circle the lake, travellers and locals rely most often on the same ferry line ( that Victoria and Albert used, one of Europe’s oldest. Its ships call regularly at 32 communities and also stop at swimming areas and hiking starting-points. Given the short distances usually involved, ferries are quick and a great way to explore both day hikes and longer stays in different parts of the lake.

Another way to view the lake’s mountainous scenery is aboard period paddle steamers and modern salon-boats. The plush, traditionally-styled vessels are outfitted with cafés, lounges and restaurants, often on deck. Concerts and culinary events take place onboard. The ships ( stop at famous lakeside destinations: a definite bucket-list cruise is the journey to the Bay of Uri, a long strait at Lake Lucerne’s eastern end where 1200-metre cliffs drop into the water.

Baroque beauty

I started my trip where most visitors do, at the western side of Lake Lucerne in the region’s eponymous capital. Built on the banks of the lake, with a harbour filled with ferries, steamers and swans, 1400-year-old Lucerne is one of Europe’s prettiest small cities, and a major tourist destination in its own right.

Strolling down its Baroque avenues, I passed museums filled with masterpieces, like the Sammlung Rosengart (10 Pilatusstrasse; which boasts an acre of Picassos, along with works by Matisse, Manet and Switzerland’s own Paul Klee. I found the town stately and imposing, especially for its small size (75,000 people).

On the waterfront, a grand Neoclassical train station faces off against the post-modern Culture and Congress Centre (1 Europaplatz; by star architect Jean Nouvel that features a concert hall partly submerged in Lake Lucerne, apparently for acoustic reasons.

Lucerne’s best-known landmark is the Chapel Bridge and Tower (Kapellbrücke), a long fortified wooden bridge off the harbour, first built in the 14th century. I wandered across it to the Old Town, a car-free zone where buildings decorated with frescoes line small squares of shops and cafés. It’s an easy place to wander, and I spent most of one afternoon sampling chocolate, trying on watches and sipping Swiss beer.

Wash your hands of this mountain

Wherever you do go in the town of Lucerne, you’re always aware of its mountain backdrop. The imposing peak south of the harbour, a behemoth called Mount Pilatus (after Pontius Pilate, Christ’s Roman judge) is a famous example of what the Swiss call “excursion mountains.” I got to its base after a 20-minute ferry trip from à Lucerne, at which point I had the choice of taking cable cars, revolving gondolas or the world’s steepest funicular to reach the summit. I plumped for the funicular (that’s a cog railway, by the way), which quickly proved to be as fun to take as it is say.

Up top, Mount Pilatus’ summit has views over Lake Lucerne. I wandered through the large information centre wedged on top of the mountain (with shops, restaurants and a bar) looking for my hotel, the neighbouring Pilatus-Kulm, an enormous 19th-century building hanging over a sheer drop that has its own ballroom, now used for fine dining.

This is probably the only time I’ve worn a suit over 3000 metres. But an encounter early the next morning with a wild mountain goat, as well as a glimpse of hiking paths threading nearby cliffs (I was advised to take a rope), helped make it clear that Swiss mountains cater to all kinds of visitors. They certainly testify to the character of the country’s people. Looking down a cliff-face of Mount Pilatus, I spotted an eggshell blue church incongruously perched on a narrow precipice: just seeing it cling to the small expanse of rock was enough to give me vertigo.

The Vegas of Switzerland

There was just a day left on my trip when I decided to visit Weggis, Lake Lucerne’s largest and best-known village. Pronounced like Vegas, Weggis is the place that started the local tourist boom back in the Romantic Period (composer Franz Liszt penned many celebrated works for the piano here).

Inhabited since the ninth century, Weggis sits on an isolated promontory in an usually warm micro-climate where even olives grow. Known as the “Rivieria of Central Switzerland” (or, alternately, one assumes, as the Vegas of the Rivieria), the village is a longtime health resort that at one time attracted all of Freud’s original patients, along with Carl Jung.

When I reached Weggis after a 20-minute ferry ride from the town of Lucerne, I discovered that today’s village now features five-star resorts, spas, mineral baths, and is lined with gourmet restaurants. Somehow, it retains an easygoing atmosphere, perhaps because only a few thousand people live here year-round. This community was one of the earliest in the Alps to combine sumptuous accommodations with opportunities for mountaineering (“roughing it in silk,” Mark Twain called it).

I made a beeline for the signposted hiking trails heading up from the village. Within minutes, I had climbed to a quilt of glossy meadows sprinkled with wild flowers: higher above me, I could hear the peals of distant cow bells as herds of cattle moved up slope with the sun.

Far above us, a large massif as jagged as vertebrae ran the length of the horizon. Called Mount Rigi, this sprawling mountain of many peaks is accessible by gondolas and funiculars (one runs from Weggis), but is much better appreciated if you decide, as I did, to make the long hike to the high country past the tree-line.

Once above the last straggling pines, I stood on a boulder and gazed down at Lake Lucerne beneath me. There were sailboats fluttering like butterflies on the lake’s open stretches, and paddle-steamers churning through cliff-lined channels — everywhere the mountains rose above meadows the colour of felt as the roofs of villages glittered alongside the lake water. Ready to head back down the trail, I closed my eyes for a second, and pretended I was the original Alpine tourist.

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