Armed with the very versatile and cost-effective Swiss Pass, my mission was to check out as much of Switzerland as possible in a week via rail, water, and bus.
“The idea of the Swiss Pass is to encourage people to get off the roads and onto trains and buses,” one of the locals had informed me – adding that it would also save the Alps from the evils of pollution. The Alps, surrounding the unquestionably beautiful city of Lucerne , looked pretty permanent to me, but I’m all for saving the planet. I took him at his word.
My pass provided me and my gear with easy entre from Zürich Airport by train and bus to my hosts in Lucerne in just over an hour. Here was a multiple transportation key to a quick, flexible, cost-effective way to avoid ticket booth lineups.
Lucerne, in the centre of Switzerland, is undeniably a charming, tourist-friendly city. In summer the entire city and suburbs traditionally dress in a riot of brilliant seasonal flowers. An easy city to see on foot, or by bus, you will shop (or window shop) ’til you drop. I warn you too, you will be unable to resist the enticing sidewalk bistros and their delicious chocolate treats.
Take time out to stroll, or join the joggers, along the broad promenade from the old world charm of the elegant century old Palace Luzern Hotel to the city centre around the lake head. The views are worth every step. You can even swim in the lake, too, if you so desire.
Mount Pilatus, reputed to be haunted at its summit by a friendly dragon, was only a bus ride away from my hotel. Swiss Pass holders are entitled to 50% off the cogwheel fare from Lucerne’s Alpnachstad up the mountain, or by cable car via the nearby suburb of Kriens.
Boarding the steepest cogwheel railway in the world, we wound our way up to an altitude of 2,132 meters (6,965 feet above sea level) for the 30-minute ride to Pilatus Kulm. If you prefer to hike up plan on just over five hours for the ascent, or just under four hours for the descent.
To avoid the steepest forested part of the hike take the railway to Amsigen (the middle station), and hike the rest of the way through the meadows. On the brilliant summer day of my visit, this seemed to be a popular alternative for many locals and tourists.
Lunch on the terrace at the top, or Kulm, as Queen Victoria did. Although she was transported to the top in a less comfortable fashion – via donkeys – she declared it was definitely worth the trip. Wander around the summit to marvel at over 70 alpine peaks, listen the alpenhorns, or test the local beer at the self-serve mountain tap.
If you have children with you, get off the cable car at the Seilpark Pilatus. The trails around this part of the mountain sport assorted stations offering a zip-line (try the Dragonita if you dare!), log and rope, and other challenging activates. Prices include instruction and equipment rental. It was a hive of activity the day I was there with children of all ages having the time of their lives. You can also try the Frakigaudi Rodelbahn, Switzerland’s longest summer toboggan run. Length? An exhilarating 4,429 feet.
We chose the cable car ride for our return to base, plus the short bus ride from Kreins to Lucerne.
The following day, I headed back to the Alpnachstad. It was time to test the water. Steamers ply Lake Lucerne twice a day between April and October with special sailings at Christmas and New Year. The colourful Wilhelm Tell Express was waiting to sail us from Lucerne to Gotthard.
It struck me as ironic that this leisurely, historic sailing tradition was to transport us to view rail history in the making. We were to view the construction site of what will be the world’s longest railway tunnel.
With Swiss clockwork precision the paddle wheeler trimmed effortlessly from one dock to another along the shores of Lake Lucerne. Photographers jockeyed for position on deck hoping to capture images of immaculate Swiss villages spilling down mountains and hills – often apparently linked directly to mountaintops by trams and cogwheel railways. Hikers and cyclists casually on and off-loaded at one picturesque village dock after another.
Even in sun-drenched June, it was easy to imagine a winterlude scene replacing bikers with skiers and snowboarders crunching through the snow. It was almost too good to be true. But – that’s Switzerland.
We completed our last few days in this area inspecting the Gotthard Tunnel Visitors site – a recommended stop for engineers and those fascinated by rail history. After 50 years of planning, engineering, and major construction, the Gotthard Base Tunnel is scheduled to go into operation in 2016. The AlpTransit Gotthard will be 57 kms long and is billed as the construction project of the century.
If you go:
Previously published in print and on-line by Black Press Group Ltd., and Today’s Senior News.