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Holiday in Switzerland

Article by Ren�e S. Gordon

Photos by Ren�e S. Gordon and Swiss Tourism  

It has been stated that Switzerland is an island surrounded by land and to some extent that is true. The 15,940 sq. mile country, 216-miles wide and 137-miles in length, is situated in the shadow of the Alps in the midst of Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Liechtenstein and yet stands out as a totally unique destination. Most noted for its scenic beauty and extensive, year round, outdoor activities, Switzerland has many more one-of-a-kind offerings that will take your breath away.

 Evidence of human habitation has been found in Swiss caves dating from approximately 150,000 years ago. Around 4,000 BC area inhabitants began to build lake dwellings and information on these historically significant Neolithic homes can be obtained in eleven museums throughout Switzerland.

For 900-years, beginning in 500 BC the region was settled by Celts, the most prominent tribe being the Helvetians who gave their name to the country. The Romans, commanded by Julius Caesar, took control in 58 BC and ruled until 400 AD. Roman influence is still visible in numerous cities and several Roman ruins have been preserved. The country was referred to as Helvetia until the Swiss Revolution of 1798 when Schweiz, the vernacular name, came into common use.

Switzerland is comprised of cantons, comparable to our states, and its cities, towns and villages, more than any other European nation, are accessible via a variety of extremely reliable modes of public transportation. Over 9,000 trains depart daily, city buses are regularly scheduled and ferries, motorized boats and paddlewheelers ply the waters of the country's more than 6800 lakes.  For hikers and cyclists there are more than 37,000-miles of posted trails. and

All the methods of transportation are integrated into The Swiss Travel System to facilitate travel for international visitors. Several types of passes are offered for varying lengths of time, all at significant savings. Passes may also include mountain railways and museum admission. Prices vary and complete information is available online.

To put it simply, Switzerland overwhelms with its sheer physical beauty and one of the best areas to take in the sweeping panoramic vistas of high mountains and deep lakes is the Lake Lucerne Region. Known as the "Gateway to Switzerland," it has much to recommend it as a destination, a starting point for a grand tour of the entire country or as a base from which to explore the surrounding sites.

Sightseeing on Lake Lucerne 

It is widely believed that Lucerne was named by the Celts who settled in a "lozzeria" or marshland on the shore of Lake Lucerne. Location was everything and the city was founded in 1178 near the Alps' Mounts Pilatus and Rigi. Thirty-two years later the St. Gotthard Pass, the north-south route used to carry goods over the Alps, was opened.  Merchandise was brought by wagon and then loaded on boats to complete the 24-mile journey to Lucerne by boat for further transport. A road was opened in 1830 and in 1980 the 3rd longest tunnel in the world was opened over the 1,309 -mile high pass. The drive is considered one of the most scenic in the world.

Lucerne is a walkable city but no visit is complete without a ride on one of 5 original steamboats on the lake. The boats, both historic and new, constitute the largest fleet on any lake in Europe.

Tours of the city generally begin at the wooden Chapel Bridge, once part of the city's fortifications. The 656-ft. long bridge was completed in 1333 and named after the chapel because it was originally constructed to lead directly into St. Peter's Chapel. In the 1600s triangular paintings were added to panels on the covered bridge. There are two cycles, one honoring Leodegar and Maurice, the patron saints of the city, and the second relating Lucerne's history. It is the oldest road bridge on the continent.

The adjacent, octagonal, stone Water Tower was also once part of the protective wall. It has functioned as a prison, torture chamber, archive and treasury. The 112-ft. tall Gothic tower is the most photographed monument in Switzerland.

The Spreuer Bridge was completed in 1408. The 67 paintings on this bridge feature the "Danse Macabre," mankind's inevitable journey toward the grave.

Medieval Lucerne is dated from the 1178 appointment of a priest at St. Peter's Chapel with the town's fortifications being erected around 1230. The pedestrian only Altstadt, Old Town, is reminiscent of Lucerne's past as a significant trading center during its earliest days. Nine of the original ten towers remain as part of the 14th-century Musegg Wall, the original ramparts.  Three of the towers are open and one, the Zyt Tower, contains the oldest clock in the city. It was built in 1535 and is set to chime hourly, one minute before all the other clocks in Lucerne. Historic guildhalls dot the streets, notable for their exterior frescoes the most beautiful of which is that of the Baker's Guild. The guild dates from the 1400s and on the faade of the former hall you can still see the family crests of the first fifty-nine families

Panorama from Mt Rig 

The Renaissance-style Hotel des Balances, between the Wine and Fish Markets, was once the city hall. The tribunal was always held there on Tuesday, market day, outdoors with the spectators separated from the council by a red rope. The faade of the hotel is painted ornately and provides a wonderful photo op.

Swiss soldiers were renowned for their bravery and military skill from ancient times and so it became common for other countries to hire them as mercenaries. Their service was federally regulated and they were paid in goods and commodities, including salt, hence the word salary. In 1506 Pope Julius II installed 150 men as the Pontifical Swiss Guard and they have now served that function for more than 500-years. Switzerland's 1848 constitution declared mercenary service for a foreign nation illegal with the exception of the Vatican's Papal Guard.

The "Dying Lion of Lucerne" monument memorializes the Swiss soldiers who gave their lives on August 10, 1792 protecting Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the Tuileries Palace. The lion, carved from sandstone, has been speared and engraved on the rock are the names of the dead. The sculpture is 20-ft. high and 33-ft. long.

Modern Lucerne's premier attraction is the lakeside Culture and Convention Centre or KKL. Architect Jean Nouvel designed the center to appear to float on the lake. It is the site of the Lucerne Music Festival. Tours are available.

Three thousand objects are on view at the Swiss Museum of Transport, Switzerland's most visited museum. The museum interprets all modes of transportation including space travel. The complex also houses a theater with the country's largest screen and a planetarium.

Panorama of Lucerne 

Lucerne has an international reputation as a city of festivals with its most famous being the classical music Lucerne Festival. It dates from 1938 when Arturo Toscanini established the festival.

The 18th annual Lucerne Blues Festival kicks off in November with international performers including Irma Thomas and Sista Monica.  You can sign up for the newsletter and obtain schedules and ticket prices at

The Christmas Market is on display in Lucerne from November 23rd until December 23rd. More than 50 stalls feature arts, crafts and culinary delights against a magical alpine backdrop.

Six days and nights in February are reserved for the celebration of Carnival. The party is continuous and takes place throughout the center of town. The festivities begin on "Dirty Thursday" and culminate the following Tuesday in a Monsterkonzert.

Accommodations are plentiful and visitors have options in all price ranges and locations. Two hotels that I found offered all the amenities and personal attention are the Hotels Flora and De La Paix

The Ameron Hotel Flora is a few steps from the train station, one-block from the entrance to Old Town and two-blocks from the lake. It offers all of the standard services and free WIFI and breakfast.

The charming Hotel De La Paix is located in the heart of a shopping district and a short walk from Old Town sites. This historic hotel offers great service, breakfast, free WIFI and a restaurant recognized for its cuisine.

Swiss International Airlines flies nonstop from the United States to Zurich daily. You can leave in the morning and begin your Swiss adventure by that afternoon.

 "In Switzerland, on a high mountain, not far from Lucerne, there is a lake they call Pilate's Pond, which the Devil has fixed upon as one of the chief residences of his evil spirits."    Martin Luther

Mount Pilatus is part of the sweeping panorama that can be seen from Lucerne. The highest peak of the mountain stands 7,000-ft. above sea level and has figured in Swiss legend and lore for centuries. In the earliest references it was known as "Fractus Mons" or "Broken Mountain," and believed to house the lairs of dragons.

View from Mt. Pilate 

Pilatus is so called because of the legend that connects it to Pontius Pilate. The story states that Pilate was killed after the death of Christ, his body was thrown into the Tiber River and violent storms immediately erupted. The body was removed and the storms ceased. He was then tossed into the Rhone River where the weather took a turn for the worse. For a third time the body was moved, carried into the Alps and thrown into a small lake near Lucerne. Bad weather and flooding were then attributed to dark forces and the ghost of Pilate was said to haunt the area attempting to cleanse his hands. To protect the populace climbing the mountain was strictly forbidden.

In 1585 Lucerne's parish priest and a contingent of citizens ascended the mountain and exorcised the supernatural forces. To maintain their banishment nine-years later the lake was drained and it was not until 1980 that the waters were allowed to flow again.

Today no trip to the area is undertaken without completing the Golden Round, a trip to the summit of Mount Pilatus that involves five modes of transport.  Travelers take a boat from the port in Lucerne to Alpanachstad where they take the steepest cogwheel train in the world. The 30-minute ride achieves a gradient of 48% and travels through six tunnels carved into the mountain.

The Pilatus-Kulm Mountain Hotel and Hotel Bellevue are located atop the mountain and a night's lodging makes this exciting journey even more fantastic. The Bellevue is a 28-room hotel with views of Lucerne Bay and the Alps. The Pilates-Kulm is a remodeled 27-room historic hotel built in 1890. The complex is situated on a plateau that provides access to several hiking trails, a panoramic viewing gallery several restaurants, including the elegant Queen Victoria decorated in 1890's grand style, and a gift shop. Provisions are made for the disabled.

The trip back to Lucerne is equally spectacular. It begins with an aerial cableway descent to Frakmuntegg at a 4,649-ft. elevation. Travelers paused here to visit the largest rope park in Central Switzerland, experience the world's longest summer, 4500-ft., toboggan run and have an invigorating snack. Panorama Gondolas complete the descent to Kriens where a 15-minute bus ride returns you to the heart of Lucerne. Check the website because portions of the trip are seasonal.

The Seetal is a valley that has come to be known for its lakes, castles and natural landscapes.  Two of the most representative of the more than 1,000 palaces in the country are Castle Heidegg on Lake Baldegg and the Water Castle Hallwyl on Lake Hallwyl.

Castle Heidegg is first mentioned in the 12th-century when it was the residence of knights and the Heidegg family who ruled the area and guarded the lake. In the 16th-century it was modernized. The chapel is oddly shaped because it follows the footprint of an earlier tower. The castle is renowned for its garden filled with roses that are a result of a visit by Konrad Adenauer who stated that what the garden needed was roses.

The castle houses a museum with exhibits on several floors that interpret the lives of those who inhabited it. A gift shop is on the lower level.

Hallwyl Castle was a moated toll castle built in 1200 as a residential tower and to monitor lake traffic. In the 1300s a dry most was added. The castle remained in the von Hallwyl family until they donated it in 1993.

The castle's permanent exhibits contain eleven themes on three floors and relate 700-years of history. Acoustic guides are provided, for self-guided tours, in English. Highlights of the tour are a copy of a 1611 book of herbal remedies by Burkhard III. He was so ahead of his time that he recognized the value of cleanliness and allowed the poor to come to the castle and bathe. The 3rd-floor gallery tells the story of both courtly and peasant life in the Medieval Era. On display are helmets and jousting lances of incredible length.

The Jura and the three lakes region is comprised of the Cantons Jura and Neuch�tel, Solothurn and Biel. It is an ideal region to explore if you are seeking classic Switzerland with UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 9 historic cheese factories, Swiss watchmaking companies, nature trails, museums, medieval towns and a solitary fixed traffic light in the largest part of the area.

Solothurn is paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. It has more than 100-miles of trails and golf courses, sightseeing cruises on the river and a pedestrian Old Town filled with buildings that date from the early 1530s. The Romans built the first city here around 300 AD but arrows have been found dating from BC. While touring the city you can follow in the footsteps of Casanova who romanced a Solothurn beauty around 1760 or Napoleon who also stopped here.

Tours include several outstanding historic and architectural sites. The Baroque Jesuit Church, completed in 1689, is considered exemplary. There are 11 fountains, more than any other Swiss city.

The Clock Tower is the most unique site and the oldest structure in the city. Built around 1250 the astronomical clock was placed there in 1545. It has three mechanized figures, the king, a knight and Death. The clock's three hands indicate the hour and the placement of the heavenly bodies. The clock strikes and the knight turns to the right and asks Death if his time is up. Death's response is to turn the hourglass to indicate that time remains.

You can take the roadway but a scenic boat ride passes villages and vineyards and takes you to St. Peter's Island, now a peninsula. The island was inhabited as early as the Bronze Age but the documented history begins in earnest with a group of monks who erected a Romanesque monastery in the 1100s. No more than 5 monks ever lived there at one time along with their female housekeepers. They were chased from the island in the 1490s. Guest rooms were added in 1530 and in 1765 French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau lodged there.

French Parliament banned Rousseau's works and he moved to M�tiers, Switzerland. The citizens evicted him in 1765 and he moved to St. Peter's Island. This year is his 300th birthday and more than 30 commemorative events have been planned in the area.

The monastery is now the historic Monastery Hotel renowned for its luxury accommodations, hospitality and fine wines that are unique to the hotel. People make the trek to see the rooms in which Rousseau lived and worked and shared his accommodations with a maid from Paris. The two rooms are furnished as they would have been but the real surprise is the trapdoor that allowed him to escape unwanted company and admirers. The 13-room hotel was the recipient of the 2010 Historic Hotel of the Year Award.

Saint-Ursanne is one of the most charming medieval towns in the entire country. It was named in honor of 7th-century St. Ursicinus. The 1728 stone bridge, replacing a wooden bridge from 1629, leads into the city through St. John's Gate. Once inside tours include numerous historic structures. Highlights of a visit are the 14th-century cloister, the 1321 Collegiate Church and the 1296 St. Paul and 1522 St. Pierre Gates. This is a do not miss site.

Neuch�tel is first mentioned in a document dating from 1011 when the Burgundian king gifted his wife with the Novum Castle. Neuch�tel means "new castle," after a castle built in the 900s. Archaeological excavations have proven the area was inhabited as early as 13,000 BC and a Gallo-Roman barge has also been uncovered.

The Lat�nium Archeology Museum and Park is one of only a few UNESCO World Heritage Sites inscribed for its underwater cultural heritage. It was listed in 2011 because the museum features among its 3,000 objects the stilts of Neolithic pile dwellings on the site of the original village of Champr�veyres. The website is not in English but you can see photographs of the site.

 The historic center of the city is rich with medieval structures. If you only have time for the castle and one site that site must be the Collegial Church built around 1185. The church has both Gothic and Romanesque elements and the interior showcases the Monument of the Counts, a sculptural piece with 15 life-sized figures including female mourners.

An excellent choice for dinner is the Restaurant Petit Hotel de Chaumont that is reached by a panoramic funicular. Once at the summit visitors can climb a tower that provides a panoramic view of the Alps.

La Maison du Prussien, a former 18th-century brewery, is an ideally situated hotel located in a gorge. It has been fully modernized and offers all the amenities including down comforters, breakfast and WIFI. You will be enchanted.

Switzerland is a year round destination that offers something for everyone. It has a huge number of unique sites and attractions and a full schedule of festivals. Swiss International Air Lines Ltd. flies nonstop from the United States and provides world-class service.

You can plan your trip, see photographs and make reservations at

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