Part II: Lucerne, the “City of Lights”

In addition to writing about sightseeing at Lucerne’s lake and Alps in his1880 A Tramp Abroad Mark Twain reported on its city sights. To enjoy them as fully as possible I embarked on a walking tour set up by Luzern Tourismus led by an excellent English-speaking guide. Longtime resident Annamaria Rotach knows Lucerne like the proverbial back of her hand, and provided a history lesson and insights into Central Switzerland’s most important urban center. Such as the fact that the city’s name in Swiss German, Luzern, is derived from the word “luz,” which means “light,” derived from a miracle wherein an angel showed the village’s first residents where to build a chapel by shining a light — hence Lucerne’s nickname as the “City of Light.”

Annamaria led us along the river past the Luzern Theatre, with its busts of Schiller, Goethe and Wagner, and into the Jesuit Church of St. Francis of Xavier, with its baroque exterior and rococo interior where we were serenaded by another angel, strumming a harp. She led us past medieval murals and into a public square where the famous Lucerne Carnival takes place. Atop a gaily-colored fountain festooned with comical busts stands a statue of Brother Fritschi, the revelers’ jovial leader, clad in a suit of armor, bearing a sword and flag, as if he’s leading the carnival’s merrymakers.

Lucerne’s most famous, iconic sights are probably the “two long, covered wooden bridges which span the green and brilliant Reuss just below where it goes plunging and hurrahing out of the lake,” as Twain wrote. “These rambling, sway-backed tunnels are very attractive things, with their alcoved outlooks upon the lovely and inspiriting water. They contain two or three hundred queer old pictures, by old Swiss masters…”

The Missourian probably considered the medieval paintings at Lucerne’s Spreuer or Mill Bridge “queer” because the 65 plague-inspired panels by the aptly ghostly-named Caspar Meglinger depict the “Dance of Death.” In any case, much is different since Twain’s visit; notably Lucerne’s other “sway-backed tunnel,” the beloved 1333-built Chapel Bridge, which partially burned down in 1993, thanks to an errant cigarette. While its shell and adjacent Water Tower still stand, most of Kapellbrücke’s original paintings recording Swiss history went up in smoke and haven’t been restored yet.

There are other changes since Twain’s time; contemporary Lucerne is a cultural capital. To see antique cogwheelers like the one Twain delineated, one must now go to the Swiss Museum of Transport, where various conveyances are displayed. As is Hans Erni’s superb artwork, while the Picasso Museum features a major modern art collection.

Cementing Lucerne’s sophisticated artsy reputation is the Culture and Convention Center Lucerne (KKL); built in 1998 as a top musical venue and conference venue it is Lucerne’s Lincoln Center, the crown jewel of the city’s cultural scene. The Center’s long overhanging roof stretches towards the lake, giving the Jean Nouvel-designed KKL an architectural panache like Sydney’s Opera House, with its sliced eggshell design. Water even cleverly flows through KKL, which includes a 1,840-seat concert hall known for its acoustic perfection and a huge 4,260 pipe organ, ranging in size from half a centimeter to seven meters. I enjoyed pianist Martha Argerich’s performance of Schumann sonatas there before an appreciative, sold out audience. KKL includes several restaurants and offers periodic tours open to the public.

Six bus stops from KKL is the Richard Wagner Museum, where the German composer lived 1866-1872 in this Tribschen manor facing the lake, with Mt. Pilatus in the distance. The annual Lucerne Festival originated here in 1938, and is now held at KKL (this year, Aug. 12-Sept. 18).

Something is unchanged since Twain’s visit: “the hotels have little railed balconies, where one may take his private luncheon in calm, cool comfort and look down upon this busy and pretty scene and enjoy it…” And so I did at the Montana, an art deco hillside hotel boasting a perfect patio for dining, as Lucerne – the picture perfect city, lake and mountains – sprawl, in Twain’s words, as “a soft and rich and sensuous paradise.” I devoured my cold cucumber soup with salmon, red mullet, straw potatoes, leeks, Cappuccino and Peach Melba with as much relish as I did the divine vistas.

I also dined on one of Switzerland’s national dishes at the Fondue House, dipping Chinese style vegetables, chicken and bread into vats of frothy cheese. For desert I dipped tasty tidbits into cauldrons of chocolate. Located near the scenic Town Hall, Fondue House is designed like a traditional Swiss chalet. There, I was joined by two of my countrymen, Dan and Melissa Pilon, a young couple from, I believe, the wilds of Michigan. We three strangers soon became fast friends, united by our common Yankee Doodle heritage and love of fondue cheese, percolating like molten lava in a volcano. We discussed the musical play I’d co-written and had just brought to Switzerland where Still Standing was performed before enthusiastic crowds, and more. Fortified by camaraderie and cheese fondue, I was, once again, ready to assail the Alps.

Sidebar:

Luzern Tourismus AG (Tourist Board): www.luzern.com.

“Mark Twain in Lucerne”: A special city walk presented by Lucerne Tourism: http://www.luzern.com/en/navpage.cfm?category=CityExperienceLU&subcat=CityToursLU&id=340007.

Mark Twain Monument: www.weggis.net/sights/mark-twain-monument/

Pilatus: www.Pilatus.ch.

Rigi: www.rigi.ch.

KKL: www.kkl-luzern.ch.

Lucerne Festival: www.lucernefestival.ch/en/.

Richard Wagner Museum: www.richard-wagner-museum.ch.

Best Western Hotel Rothaus: www.rothaus.ch/; Kloster Strasse 4, CH – 6003 Luzern
Tel: (41) 41 248 48 48; Fax (41) 41 248 48 00; info@rothaus.ch.

Art Deco Hotel Montana: www.hotel-montana.ch.

Air Berlin: www.airberlin.com; (866)266-5588. This budget airline flies non-stop direct from L.A., San Francisco, Vancouver, N.Y., Miami or Fort Meyers to Dusseldorf, with connecting flights to Zürich.

Tramping Switzerland, part 1
Tramping Switzerland, part 2
Tramping Switzerland, part 3
Tramping Switzerland, part 4
Tramping Switzerland, part 5

Ed Rampell has traveled widely, to more than 100 Pacific Islands, Asia, Europe, Mexico and Africa. His travel writing and photography has appeared in: Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc, Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, etc. Rampell is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal. was interviewed at Tahiti for the CBS newsmagazine “48 Hours,” and National Public Radio’s “Savvy Traveler” interviewed Rampell about the Marquesas Islands. Rampell acted as a consultant for, and appears as the most used on-camera interviewee, in the 2005 Australian-European co-production “Hula Girls,” which has been seen by millions of viewers on Dutch, German, French, Swiss, Australian, etc., television on the Avro and Arte networks. Rampell’s Polynesian daughter Marina is a singer in Australia.