My Viking Rhine cruise began in Basel, Switzerland. And I could have spent a few days there, enjoying its historic old town and riverside patios before we cast off. But I wanted to see the iconic Switzerland — the one you see in the movies, with picture-postcard towns set on sparkling lakes and snow-capped mountains in the background. So I made a visit to Lucerne.
Why Lucerne? If you had to imagine an iconic Swiss city, this would be it. It’s a place with all the ingredients for an idyllic retreat: as Lonely Planet puts it, “take a cobalt lake ringed by mountains of myth, (and) add a well-preserved medieval Altstadt (Old Town) and a reputation for making beautiful music.” What you end up with is a place that’s been a magnet for the rich and famous for centuries. Lucerne has played host to luminaries including Queen Victoria, Mark Twain, composer Richard Wagner, the poet Goethe and the Belgian royal family.
And now The Travelling Boomer. OK, I’m no Mark Twain — but even so,, I was no less impressed by the city as I arrived for my two-day stay. Stepping out of the train station, I looked out onto a scene that could have been invented by Disney Studios. The sun glinted off the waters of the broad harbouur as I walked across the bridge to the centre of the Old Town.
Off to my left stood the Chapel Bridge (above), the city’s iconic covered bridge, dating from the 14th century and still a big tourist attraction. To the right, the waters of Lake Lucerne (photo at top), the perfect vision of a European mountain lake. And all around, encircling the entire scene, the Swiss Alps, with their icy white peaks .
My first order of business was to get to the top of those mountains, which — as I wrote in a recent post — I did in short order. But once I got back to town, I had some time to see some of the city’s charms. Since Lucerne is set on the water, much of the a town was built to provide beautiful views of the lake and the Reuss River, which runs through the Altstadt, Hotels, restaurants and public buildings are lined up along both sides of the river, providing the perfect setting for a lunch or dinner on the patio.
It’s not all about the waterfront, however. The Old Town is full of lovely architecture. Cobblestone streets lead to spacious squares where the city’s affluent burgers used to live. And of course, here and there are the inevitable ancient churches, and statues commemorating events that took place 300 or 400 years ago.
Of course, you have to take a walk across the covered bridge, which draws hundreds of visitors a day. It even has ramps to make it accessible — a little modern accommodation amid the ancient woodwork.
There’s lots of high-end shopping, as well. And as you’d expect, the Lindt chocolate store has a place of pride on the waterfront row. When you’re full of candy, you can continue your walk to the east side of town to see the sleeping lion, a sculpture created in 1820 to honour the memory of 600 Swiss guards massacred during the French Revolution. It’s set in a little garden with a reflecting pool — well worth a look.
But you really can’t make a visit to Lucerne without getting out on the water. A small fleet of tour boats lines the harbour, ready to take you on a spin around the lake. And on my second day, I climbed aboard for a pretty spectacular ride.
Being on the lake gave me a good look at the way the city has spread out along its banks. As you leave the downtown, the shore is studded with grand hotels and conference centres, looking like little castles.
It didn’t take long to get away from civilization, though, and the views were well worth the trip. Lake Lucerne is actually part of a large chain of lakes, four of which form a huge cross. The lakes weave their way among a number of mountains, and as we reached the centre of the cross, some of them appeared in the distance, still covered with snow in May.
The stunning landscape has made Lake Lucerne a playground for those who can afford it. As mentioned, they included Richard Wagner, who lived in a rather plain white house set among parkland from 1866 to 1872. While living there he composed some of his most famous works, including parts of the famous Ring of the Nibelung opera cycle. He also received numerous guests, including King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the mad monarch who built the fantastical Neuschwanstein Castle.
Speaking of royalty, there’s the sad story of the Belgian royal family, who spent their summers in a large estate on the lake until 1935. That was the year their stay was ended by a tragic accident. While out for a drive with his wife, Queen Astrid, King Leopold lost control of the car. It plunged down an embankment and crashed, killing the queen. The family never returned.
But many do return, year after year, making Lucerne one of Switzerland’s most popular holiday spots. It’s a lovely city, not only by day but by night. And on my last night there, I wandered through the Old Town after dark. Standing on the bridge by the harbour, I could see the light reflecting off the water from places where party-goers were celebrating the return of warm weather and thoughts of the summer ahead. As for me, my visit to Lucerne was over. There was a cruise in my immediate future — time to get back to Basel.