Day 6, and part 6 of my story. The first 5 days has been something of a strange and exhilarating experience. Never had something like it before, and haven’t had anything like it after (yet). I was on vacation for a full 10 days, no work to think about, and with time in my hands. I was on a strange land, untethered and I could literally have gone to any corner of the country I wanted. There was no agenda, no timetables…just pick a destination, and hop to the next train to get there. North, south, east, west…didn’t matter…as long as there’s a train that can get there. The traveller in me was let loose on a beautiful patch of land called Switzerland, and like a dog unleashed in the middle of a garden, I hopped like crazy from place to place.
This day though, my wife and I decided to be the usual, common tourists…taking the tour bus, joining a tour group, and having a tour guide to take our pictures. The destination on this day takes us to the heart of the country, where the confederation of the Swiss all began. Our first stop was Luzern, the first city to join the Swiss federation, and then we went on to Mt. Titlis on the canton Obwalden, one of the 4 founding cantons of the federation (Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden being the others).
Luzern (or Lucerne for the French speaking Swiss) is perhaps the country’s “postcard city”. Its most significant landmarks, the Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) and Wasserturm (Water Tower), are perhaps the most photographed and most publicized piece of Switzerland. We started the day by signing up for the tour in Zurich (in the bus station along Limmatstrasse). With us on the group were several asians (including a couple of elder Filipinos), and a few Europeans and Americans…we had a good mix of nationalities on the bus, I thought.
The tour bus took us from Zurich to Luzern, bypassing the highway for the most part. Instead, the bus took us into rural Switzerland, passing by farms, villages and hills along the way, the kind where you could picture the Von Trapp family singing “The Sound of Music”. This was like a “zoomed-in” view of the villages I saw on the trip to Geneva (day 3). Back then I was looking at them from the train, so obviously I could only see them from a distance (it makes no sense to put a house next to a train track). But this time, we are traveling by road, which winds through villages and passes right next to their farms and half-timbered homes.
It took around an hour for us to get to Luzern…and throughout that time the tour guide was describing to us the scenery in German-accented English, and also giving a few lessons on Swiss history, such as how different towns and villages banded together to resist the Habsburgs, the royal family that ruled Austria. It was this common desire to fight against the Habsburgs which brought this group of largely agricultural peoples together, to form what is now known as Switzerland.
As we get to Luzern, our first stop was the Lion Monument. The Swiss back in the day were known throughout Europe for providing soldiers in service of other nations, and the legendary Swiss Pikemen were considered next to invincible, before rifles came into large use in modern armies. Today the Swiss Papal Guard (or Swiss Guards for short), which provides security and defense for the Pope and the Vatican, is the sole, active remnant of this tradition. The Lion Monument, which comes in the form of a dying lion resting on a shield, was built as a tribute to these warriors, and in particular, to those who died defending the French King during French Revolution. The story is that the entire Swiss contingent defending the royal palace, save for one soldier, died fighting as they refused to withdraw from their position. The sole survivor, a native of Luzern, was on leave back in Switzerland when the revolution erupted. This survivor started the creation of the monument, in honor of his fallen comrades.
After buying the mandatory souvenirs at the few shops close to the monument, the tour bus whisked us off to what is perhaps the country’s most popular landmark, the Kapellbrücke, and the attached Wasserturm. Luzern isn’t that big of a city so the trip from the monument to the landmark was not that long. The bus dropped us off on one of the narrow streets deep in the city, and the guide told us the general direction to the River Reuss, over which the Kapellbrücke crosses. This was our free time, around an hour and a half to loiter around Luzern. We then took the narrow streets by foot, until we got to the River.
Luzern, like Zurich, Geneva and Lugano, is a lakeside city. It sits on the edge of Lake Luzern, right where the Lake spills into the Reuss. The lake’s actual name is Vierwaldstättersee (German, meaning “lake of the four forested cantons”), however, to avoid twisting people’s tongues, it’s commonly refered to as Lake Luzern, in reference to the city on its shores.
The Kapellbrücke is a wooden, covered footbridge, and is reputedly the oldest bridge of such type in Europe. It spans the width of the river, close to the spot where it meets the lake. The Wasserturm meanwhile is a tall hexagonal tower, entirely surrounded by the river. The only way in and out of the tower, is through the Kapellbrücke which is connected to it.
We crossed the bridge to the other bank of the river, taking pictures along the way. We then took a modern road bridge nearby, back to the other side, and went straight for the train station. No, we didn’t go there to take a train, but to look for lunch in the stalls and outlets that usually abound the stations of major cities.
On our way back from the station to the spot where the tour bus dropped us off, we came across a parade. Apparently it was Corpus Christi day, a holiday in the predominantly Catholic Luzern. I was also surprised to see what looked like a contingent of Swiss Guards, the Pope’s bodyguards at the Vatican, complete with their colorful uniform. At first it puzzled me a bit, since I couldn’t imagine what they would be doing hundreds of miles away from Rome, but I later learned that they were retired members of the Guard. The Swiss Guards are composed of volunteers coming from Switzerland’s Catholic cantons, and Luzern is one of those.
After the getting to the same spot where we began our free time, we waited a few minutes until the tour bus showed up again to pick us up. We are leaving Luzern, and heading to the next destination. Our tour is actually composed of 2 groups. One group will proceed to Mount Pilatus, and the other will proceed to Mount Titlis. We were on the second group.
The tour bus dropped off the first group at the cable car station for Mount Pilatus. Pilatus, the lower of the two mountains mentioned here, is the mountain close to, and overlooking Luzern. The mountain got its name from a legend that Pontius Pilate was buried there (yes, the Roman Governor who washed his hands by letting the mob decide whether to crucify Jesus Christ). Some of Switzerland did become part of the northern extent of Roman Empire, but whether that legend is true and how it came about, I don’t know.
After dropping off the first group, the bus then took us straight to the cable car station for Mount Titlis, which was still almost an hour away from Luzern. Titlis is part of the Alps, and is one of the northernmost members of this world famous mountain range. At 10,000 feet above sea level, it is just several feet shorter than Mt. Apo, the Philippines’ tallest. Yet even then, it is not yet among the list of tallest peaks in the Alps. This gives us some sense of how huge those mountains are. Unlike Mt. Apo too, where you have to hike 1.5 days to get to the top, in Titlis you can get from base to peak in less than an hour…via a series of cable cars.
The road to Titlis took us into the canton of Obwalden. It is a laid-back, and largely agricultural and mountainous canton, with several villages dotting the landscape, and houses sitting on the mountain slopes. This was the Switzerland of my imagination, the land of chalets and milkmaids.
Our jump-off point was the cable car station in the town of Engelberg. Engelberg itself is a lovely little town, sitting on what seems to be a valley in the Alps. From there we took the cable car up to the peak of Titlis.
The trip to the peak is actually composed of a series of three cable car rides, the last and highest of which is taken inside a “rotating cable car”, where the interior turns 360 degrees while travelling, to give the passengers a panoramic view of the scenery. During our trip though the mountain was entirely covered by clouds, so the only scenery we got was white clouds and white snow below…not too exciting. Titlis is also quite steep for a mountain, so the ride up may be a bit uncomfortable for the acrophibic.
We got to the peak, but it was unfortunately a white out condition. We were completely surrounded by clouds and there was very light snow falling. The ground was also covered by snow, as it is all year round in the peak. The combination of very white clouds, very white snow, and daylight, caused a kind of glare I haven’t experienced before. The surroundings became a very bright white, that I couldn’t help but squint all the time. I bet even Mr. Clean would also squint at that kind of whiteness.
Fortunately the cable car station at the peak also has a restaurant, a cafe, some shops, and even a photo studio where one can wear costumes and have their pictures taken. We only went outdoors for a short while to take pictures, then spent most of the remaining time indoors, having our pictures taken wearing traditional Swiss clothing, eating snacks and ironically, ice cream. They also have an “ice cave” there (they bore a tunnel through the glacier, big enough for people to walk inside).
After about an hour the tour guide gathered us again, and the we went back down to Engelberg. We then headed back to Luzern to pick up the group who went up Pilatus, then we were off to Zurich. It was early evening when we arrived back at Zurich, and after grabbing a bite for dinner at Subway near the Stauffacher area, we called it a day…a well spent day.
* We visited Luzern last May 2008. All photos taken by my wife with her Sony DSC T300