If you visit Switzerland, you need to do two things: eat some chocolate and see the Swiss alps. So when I landed in Basel, Switzerland in the run-up to my Viking Rhine cruise this spring, I already had a train ticket booked to the best viewing spot I could think of: the city of Lucerne.
I wasn’t disappointed. As soon as I stepped off the train, I looked up to see a huge, snow-covered mountain looming over the city. It was Mount Pilatus, a great massif that’s part of the Emmental alps; the highest of its three pinnacles rises 2,128 metres (6,982 feet). If ever there was a dramatic backdrop to a city, this was it.
Of course, I wasn’t there just to look at the mountain. I wanted to get on it. And happily, it’s not that hard: there’s a cable car ride to the top, as well as a cog wheel railroad. The cable car was the simpler option, and after a short a bus ride to the suburb of Kriens, I found myself in a little car headed straight up the mountain. A minute later I was looking down on the kind of Swiss landscapes you usually see on postcards.
After a few minutes, the cable car stopped at a station halfway up, so I could hop off for a stroll through the Swiss woods.
Then it was back on the cable car, and soon I was seriously up in the mountains, at the Fräkmüntegg station, about three-quarters of the way to the peak. The station has a full recreation centre: you can hike, bike, try a rope course or ride a toboggan down the steep slope. But why waste time when you can sit on the patio, or take a stroll and enjoy some of the most spectacular views in Europe?
I didn’t dawdle too long, though: I wasn’t there yet. So back onto a larger cable car, dramatically named the Dragon Ride, a reference to the myth that a fire-breathing dragon once lived on this mountain. It’s designed to create the sensation that you’re flying, and it does a pretty good job. With huge windows on all sides, the views of the mountain range around you and the landscape below were amazing.
It wasn’t a long ride, but it had its moments, As we approached the top and the snow slope loomed up just below us, I suddenly realized just how high we were — not a totally comfortable feeling. But a minute later I was safely in the modern visitor centre, and then out onto the viewing platform, with a chill wind blowing across my face. And the views were magnificent.
Standing on the platform, I truly felt I was on top of a mountain, with the world spread beneath me and nothing but the sky above. But as I looked around, an odd sight appeared. Out of nowhere, a fellow in a snow suit appeared with what looked like a tent. He spent several minutes spreading it out on the snow beside the platform — was he going to camp here?
A few minutes later, it became apparent what he was up to. As the perfect gust of wind blew in, he gathered up his skein of nylon lines and flew off the mountain. He circled around in front of us for a few minutes, and then he was gone.
It was time to go, so I headed back to the Dragon Ride for the long journey back to the bottom. But 20 minutes later, as I neared the ground above Kriens, there he was again, drifting above the town like a kite. I wonder if he landed in someone’s back yard.
As for me, I had seen the Swiss alps, and they were full value for the train trip from Basel. I took the bus back to downtown Lucerne: now I just needed a bit of chocolate.