Switzerland brings to mind so many things – mountains, cheese, secret bank accounts, cleanliness and order, watches, knives, fondue and chocolate, trains running on time, Heidi and her goats, chalets with geraniums. It is a wonderful place to visit because they make it so easy, but it is expensive, so one must choose carefully when deciding where to go. There are, of course, the major cities of Geneva and Zurich. They each have their unique reputations, with Geneva being the home of the World Health Organization and Zurich the banking capitol. However, if your time is limited, for the quintessential Swiss experience for both a city and the countryside, you can’t do better than visiting Lucerne and the Lauterbrunnen Valley.
Lucerne (aka Luzern) is so pretty it doesn’t even seem real. Nestled on the shores of Lake Lucerne, with mountains hovering nearby, it is a calm yet vibrant city of 57,000. It is best known for its iconic Chapel Bridge, the oldest wooden bridge in Europe, built originally in 1333 connecting the old town to the rest of the city over the River Reuss. Constructed entirely of wood, it is decorated with painted panels inside, describing historical events. In 1993, a good part of the bridge was burned, but it has been completely restored, though there are still reminders of the fire with charred wood visible as you walk through the bridge. Adjoining the bridge is a picturesque water tower that reportedly was once used as a dungeon.
Lucerne looks like a fairly modern Swiss city, but it is in fact quite old, with numbers of well preserved medieval buildings. The first settlement dates back to 840, though it only became a significant town with the opening of the St. Gothard Pass in the 13th century, which then made Lucerne a trading center. There are city walls (the Museggmauer) with nine towers that date back to the 14th century. Walking around the city it is common to see buildings with several dates, the oldest often going back to the 1300’s, with later dates showing when the buildings were refurbished. The oldest church dates back to 1178, but the Jesuit church completed in 1667, is the first baroque sacred building in Switzerland with a gorgeous yet delicate interior. With fine acoustics, it continues to be used as a church as well as an excellent venue for concerts. Lucerne is an easy city to explore, especially for those traveling by train, with most sights within easy walking distance of the main station.
Other nearby attractions include the Lion of Lucerne, carved to commemorate the massacre of hundreds of Swiss guards in 1792 while trying to protect Louis XVI during the French Revolution. Mark Twain is said to have described the Lion as “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.” You can also go to the top of Mount Pilatus, reachable by gondola and cable car, where on a clear day you can not only see Lucerne and its wonderful lake but also 72 other mountain peaks.
But if you want to experience mountain peaks up close and personal, there is no better place than the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Located in the center of Switzerland, it provides more opportunities for a true mountain experience than either the Matterhorn or Mont Blanc, which seems Swiss but is actually on the border between France and Italy.
Lauterbrunnen is a small village just south of Interlaken known for its waterfalls and particularly Staubbach Falls, an impressive 1000 foot waterfall in the middle of town. But it is best known as the departure point for visiting some of the most famous mountains in the world, the Eiger, Jungfrau, and Schilthorn. On one side of the valley, you can take the train to Wengen, an auto-free village located at 4180 feet which is an excellent base for both hiking and climbing. You can also continue on by train from Wengen to the “Top of Europe.” You travel by train through the Eiger and Monch mountains (the train line and tunnel was built over 100 years ago) to Jungfraujoch, 11,323 feet high, where you can look out on an Eismeer (sea of ice) and walk through an Ice Palace full of ice sculptures. There is also a restaurant.
Alternatively, you can go up the other side of the valley to the town of Murren, another auto-free village set at an altitude of 5,361 feet. To reach Murren, you take a cable car up from Lauterbrunnen, then switch to a small BLM train from Grutschalp to Murren, where you will have the most wonderful view of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau (see photo above). Murren is a quiet village with a year round population of only 450, but has 2,000 hotel beds for its summer and winter visitors. Its timbered houses are covered in flowers, and the views of the neighboring valley and imposing mountains are simply breathtaking.
From Murren you can take two cable cars to the top of Schilthorn, 9,748 feet high. Schilthorn is also famous for Piz Gloria, a revolving restaurant that was also a location for a James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Excerpts of the movie and props from the filming are on display. From the terrace of either Schilthorn or Birg, the half-way point between the two cable cars, you look out over the Bernese Alps with towering peaks and deep valleys and the tiny town of Murren below. There really is nothing like it.
Grindelwald, Gimmelwald and Stechelberg are other villages in the Lauterbrunnen area that are a great base for exploring the area.
Switzerland is beautiful, but has always seemed to me a bit clinical – almost too perfect, without a lot of soul. This trip has changed that opinion. Instead we have found the people to be extraordinarily warm and friendly, particularly our hosts at the family-run Hotel Alpenblick in Murren, Jeannette Vogt and Thomas Gertsch. They went out of their way to be helpful and treated us almost as family. I can hardly wait to return.
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