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Lucerne

Bridge over the River Reuss
Published in May 1994

EUROPE lies still, supine in mid-April, shocked into silence by the unusual cold wave. You go hopscotching like a mad dog or an Englishman in reverse from Frankfurt to Rome to Alps country. You board the Schnellzug at Zurich Hauptbanhof for the one-hour train ride that zooms you through Thalwil, Baar, Zug, Rotkreuz, and onward to your final destination. Across the pristine landscape, pine, fir and cedar stand helpless but unbowed by the white mantle of snow that covers the landscape with its unseasonal conquest. Cherry-tree flowers, tulips, dandelion and crocus lie in a state of uncertainty, their buds half-open, waiting for the three week-long cold wave to subside so that they can show off their fancy colours.
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Lucerne’s own fancy colours are subdued for the moment but it still glistens like a well-cut diamond. Its mountain faces (Pilatus, Titles, Rigi) reflect the feeble light that sometimes peeks through and its placid lake provides a grey, pearly setting. Lucerne is often called the City of Lights, thanks to a miracle of light that is said to have happened here. According to an old legend, an angel guided Lucerne’s first settlers with a light to the place where they should build a chapel in honour of St Nikolaus, patron saint of fishermen and sailors.

There is no fishing or sailing being done on the lake, thanks to almost zero-degree temperatures. Even time seems to be frozen as you come out of the Hauptbahnhof and catch your first glimpse of the Chapel Bridge to your left. It’s a scenario right out of a John Le Carre novel and you half expect to see Smiley or Jonathan Pine leaning against a lamp-post with a well-lit pipe, surveying the possibilities, but all you want right now is the comfort of a warm room.

The Hotel Montana, with an 80-year-old existence on the hillside and a superb view of the lake, is ready to embrace you within its cheerful folds. Run with clockwork efficiency and unexpected friendliness by the charming MrsBroniGubser, the hotel’s 67 rooms and 110 beds are dressed in a classic and refined style. A hearty meal relished in the Panorama restaurant, and you are ready to hit the sack and get your batteries recharged for the following day’s festivities. No ordinary festivities; this is a worldwide celebration to reopen the Chapel Bridge which was burnt down by a devastating fire last year.

To put these festivities into proper perspective it is necessary to delve a bit into Lucerne’s past. Lucerne was a small fishing village in the Middle Ages. Teased and called a ‘little wooden stork’s nest’, it developed into a blooming trade centre over the centuries. The location on the Gotthard transit pathway through the imperious Alps led to fruitful international relations in commerce and culture.

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The two medieval covered wooden bridges that connect the old and new parts of town have always been the focal points of Lucerne. The Chapel, Bridge at the end of the lake bends at an angle over the Reuss and is named after St Peter’s Chapel on the right bank. It was built shortly after the Water Tower (approximately 1300) and is connected by a footbridge. The sturdy octagonal tower, Lucerne’s landmark, served as an archive, a place to store captured loot, as treasury, jail and even torture chamber. The Chapel Bridge has been called the largest model in the world, which isn’t too far off. During the tourist season, almost every minute there’s a camera snapping a photograph of Lucerne’s grand old lady. In a way, the bridge has come to symbolise Lucerne’s beauty. And then the fire took place. No one will ever forget the shock caused by the fire on August 18, 1993. It was a symbol of a whole country, that had burnt down. Given this historical context, one can well understand the huge birthday party that takes place on the morning of April 14. The conductor of the grand ceremony is the affable Kurt Illi, managing director of the Lucerne Tourist Promotion Board who has been the man behind this ambitious restoration, helped by his deputy, Beat Bachler, Pierre Freimuller, public relations director of Swiss Air, and Hans Peter Frank, public relations director of the Swiss National Tourist Board. Ever been to the opening of a bridge? Me neither. But this is no ordinary bridge, and this isn’t an ordinary party. At 9 am in the morning, 30 journalists from across the world and lots of Swiss citizens are gathered at Lucerne’s town hall. American Express offers everyone white wine, the Mayor makes a speech, and then we wend our way in a procession through the town’s beautiful streets to the soon-to-be-baptised bridge. At precisely ten, speedboats below the bridge vroom into life, emitting smoke. The Chapel Brige is shrouded in white, symbolising life in primitive times when the first arrivals attempted to cross the raging river Reuss. Cosmic music fill the valley and fireworks trace patterns across the sky. The-Pilatus dragon flies across the Reuss and erupts into flames. If you had a piece of Emmental cheese in your mouth, you would probably have choked on it, for suddenly, from over the mountaintops, into the valley through the fog, zooms a Swiss Air Airbus 310 to signify our flight into modern times. If this does not suitably impress you nothing will, for the plane has flown directly from Zurich airport; circled endlessly to come in at exactly 15 minutes past 10s (only ten seconds late) in a scripted but never rehearse choreography.
Dying Lion of Lucerne
Now, of course, everything erupts in a riot of colour, music and dance. Lucerne’s churchbells start pealing, folk orchestras follow cavorting dancers, brass brands follow mime artists, rock musicians follow…A ballerina pirouettes on a wooden plank on the lake, harp players drift by on a boat, rock musicians set phallic symbols on fire. A helicopter buzzes overhead showering Lucerne with flowers; free wine is being distributed in the streets (the sausages you have to pay for) and a carnival spirit pervades from, morning to well past midnight. ‘The Dying Lion of Lucerne’ is one of the world’s most famous, monuments. It was hewn out of natural rock in memory of the heroic death of the Swiss mercenaries at the Tuileries in 1792. Gobe-trotter Mark Twain described the Lion as “the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world.”
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If you want to get really high, the wine and the food will transport you to unknown heights, but to get as high as 7000 feet, take a trip to Mount Pilatus. Close to the city, Mount Pilatus creates a rugged skyline and dominates the landscape. The ever-increasing flow of visitors to Mount Pilatus led to the construction in 1954 of a gondola cableway from Kriens, on the outskirts of Lucerne, to Frakmuntegg at 5000 feet. From there an aerial cable car, built in 1956, carries its passengers in a spectacular swing to the summit. Lake Lucerne lies spreadagled far below in a toyland of city houses and village farms, laced with rivers like silver threads.

Toyland, did I say? Lucerne keeps in store everything a human being could ask for: high culture for the connoisseur, relaxation for the weary, a hectic nightlife for the pleasure seeker. You leave this fairytale city with regret, laced with a longing to return. Even if it’s for the fondue which you promised yourself you would indulge in but forgot to.

FACTFILE

How to get there: Lucerne lies on Europe’s most important north-south rail route and is also linked to the Swiss federal rail network in six directions. Direct trains connect Lucerne,with the international airports at Zurich and Geneva.
You can also travel to Lucerne by car using the extensive network of freeways and highways linking it to all major Swiss and other European cities.

Tourist information:

‘Frankenstrasse 1 (next to railway station/western exit), 6002 Lucerne
Telephone 041/517171
Telefax 041/232262

‘Hotel and Lodging:

In the five star category there arethe Grand Hotel National, Haldenstrasse 4.
Tel (041-501111) Fax (041-515539); and the Palace, Haldenstrasse 10. Tel (041-502222) Fax (041-516976)
Four-star hotels include the Chateau Gutsch, Kanonenstrasse Tel (041-220272) Fax (041-220252); Monopol&Metropole, Pilatus-strasse 1 Tel (041-230866) Fax (041-236001); Montana, Adligenswilerstrasse 22. Tel (041-516565) , Fax (041-516676).