“Grappling hook, pickaxe and plenty of rope needed for this assignment” I heard the proprietor of Our Man on the Ground shout at me as I answered my phone. I was off to my favourite country, Switzerland. That nest of alluring mountains shrouding a bounty beauty, chocolate and more tellingly the repeat destination of so many people with taste, as I was about to find out. A little gentle trekking was all that was needed in the end to get the story I was after, as you’ll find out.
The beautiful city of Lucerne, city of light sits in the middle of Switzerland, where the River Reuss drains the eponymous lake. It’s obvious it has natural beauty and class but what else might the discerning traveller be interested in? Maybe the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe dating from 1333, Chapel Bridge is 669ft long the inner roof houses a series of 17th century paintings and is still in use. Or the impressive late Renaissance style Catholic Church of St. Leodegar erected in 1633 that provides the city’s distinctive twin needle towers silhouette and has an organ with 6000 pipes and a rolling drum ‘rain machine’ with small stones inside for dramatic use in recitals. Maybe Bertel Thorvaldsen’s mournful 1820 carving of a dying lion commemorating the death of hundreds of Swiss Guards killed in Paris during the French Revolution in 1792 hewn from a single rock face in the city centre? As interest grew in Lucerne with the Grand Tour ‘set’ it’s no surprise Lucerne is the home of Switzerland’s first luxury hotel The Schweizerhof opened its doors in 1847 and has been welcoming the great and the good ever since.
So what of today’s additions to this alluring lakeside city, surely one of Switzerland’s most charming and popular? Currently an unrivalled exhibition of J. M. W. Turner’s paintings and prints are on display at the Kunstmuseum. Signifying the 200th year of the museum and Turner’s love of Lucerne. He returned again and again to the city to paint and on the lake creating a unique perspective it was here he painted the world’s most expensive watercolour (£5.1m in 2005 when it was last sold) The Blue Rigi, a beguiling study of the nearby mountain. He painted it many times in different lights, but it is this version that captures it the best. It’s on display with 99 other works in an exhibition called Turner: The Sea and the Alps referencing his seascapes as being part of the journey to Europe. It is a stunning collection, superbly presented and curated by the museums’ Director Fanni Fetzer. Tate Britain has loaned the majority of the paintings (many not seen in public before) with additional works from Swiss owners. This is a must-see exhibition that runs until 13th October 2019. The entry (25CHF is reduced to 16CHF) with the purchase of the excellent Swiss Travel Pass the best way to zip about this abundantly railed country (privately I call it the dream ticket). It will of course take you from Zürich Airport to Lucerne as well.
So I saw the paintings and was inspired to actually see the Rigi close up. The first part of my journey was to ‘base camp’. This required a 45-minute steam paddle ferry on Lake Lucerne to Vitznau. I cannot tell how joyous this trip is. With a proud liveried crew smiling and beaming you aboard, you can enjoy a cup of tea, something stronger if you like, or sit on deck and watch the mountains drift by, read a book, whatever you like. If you’re so inclined the open steam engine attracts a certain type of enthusiast. The boat is over 100 years old and a star attraction in itself. The fare for the round trip is 45CHF but it’s included in the Swiss Rail Pass. I’m no mountain climber but enjoy a hike like the next man, so should you like to try ascending on foot the height is 1,798m which for the more adventurous a quite attainable challenge. But the solution for me was simple, catch the cogwheel train to the top and wander down at my own pace. The views are incredible, on the way up you get a splendid view of the lake you’ve just steamed along. The cost is 18CHF but you’ve guessed it, it’s included in the Swiss Rail Pass. See what I mean about this being the dream ticket.
Obviously hunger will set in. There’s nothing like a bit of Alpine air to cause a rumble in the tummy. Of course the ever resourceful Swiss are at hand with a solution: a picnic in an old school knapsack you pick up and wander down with, find a beautiful spot and then deposit the empties further down the mountain, a simple, elegant solution. And don’t worry, there’s a cable car you can pick up so you don’t have to walk the whole way down if you don’t want to!
You might want to follow in culinary Turner’s footsteps by dining at the excellent Café De Ville. Once part of a hotel that Turner stayed in, the views of the lake were mesmerising and the food superb. This is a family run restaurant headed up by the friendly, charming and efficient Nadia – every eatery should have a Nadia, nothing was too much trouble. Try to get a balcony seat if you can.
For me Lucerne offers so much in history, food, culture and beauty. So it’s no surprise that art again comes to the fore. This time I went to visit the Rosengart Collection (entry free with the dream ticket). Here I found the highest concentration of Picasso works of art I have ever encountered. There are other artists featured here but Pablo is dominant and for a good reason. The founder of the collection (now a trust) is Dr Angela Rosengart, her father was an art dealer and knew all the ‘up and coming’ artists of the 20th century. Angela took up the family business and ended up sitting for Picasso several times. These and so many more are hung in this grand old bank building. Fans of Swiss born artist Paul Klee will enjoy the expansive basement level, totally dedicated to a chronological display of his oeuvre.
I stayed as I would like to live in the 5-star Grand Hotel National Lucerne. Lake views, sublime food and service with marble and wall-to-wall glitz at every turn. This is Swiss hospitality at its best. It’s probably no surprise that those well-known masters of their trade Cesar Ritz and Auguste Escoffier both worked here before setting up shop together. It was built in 1870 with the maxim ‘To accommodate Kings you must first build a palace’. Needless to say it’s a very comfortable place to stay and everything is on your doorstep, a bit like Switzerland really.
For more information on Switzerland visit www.myswitzerland.com or call the Switzerland Travel Centre on the International freephone 00800 100 200 30 or e-mail them for information at firstname.lastname@example.org; for packages, trains and air tickets email@example.com.
Swiss International Air Lines SWISS operates up to 180 weekly flights to Switzerland from London Heathrow, London City, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh (seasonal during summer) and Dublin. The all-inclusive fares start from £84 one-way*, including all airport taxes, one piece of hold luggage and hand luggage, meals and drinks. Sports equipment, including bikes, can travel free if used as your baggage allowance, if not, charges apply.
*Fare shown is London to Geneva Classic fare and is subject to change and availability. Terms and conditions apply.
For more information visit swiss.com or call +44 (0)345 601 0956.
The Swiss Travel System provides a dedicated range of travel passes and tickets exclusively for visitors from abroad. The Swiss Travel Pass offers unlimited travel on consecutive days throughout the rail, bus and boat Swiss Travel System network. This pass also covers scenic routes and local trams and buses in around 90 towns and cities. The Swiss Travel Pass also includes the Swiss Museum Pass, allowing you free entrance to 500 museums and exhibitions. Prices start from £185 in second class. For the ultimate Swiss rail specialist call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or visit www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk.
Neil Hennessy-Vass is Contributing Editor for Our Man On The Ground as well as a widely-published globetrotting food and award-winning travel writer and photographer.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass