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In Lucerne, Beauty Lies Within

By Patrick Chew

Located in central Switzerland, Lake Lucerne is the fourth largest lake in the country.
Lucerne Tourism Board
Located in central Switzerland, Lake Lucerne is the fourth largest lake in the country.

First impressions matter. We might not like to think they do, but we know it’s true. We do judge a book by its cover. We do take into account a person’s dressing and hairstyle when we first meet him or her. And we do start to form an impression on a city the minute we arrive; an impression largely influenced by the weather and scenery before us.

At first glance, Lucerne is spotless, almost blameless — probably the most blameless city in the world. It is clean, it is green, and it is sparkling. By day Lake Lucerne sparkles in the sun; by night it sparkles in the glow of thousands of warm light bulbs.

Lucerne Tourism BoardSteamboat
Steamboat "Schiller" on Lake Lucerne.

Situated in the heart of Switzerland, Lucerne is, by all accounts, unabashedly beautiful. It’s nestled in stunning landscape, framed by magnificent mountains and its eponymous lake. Indeed, Lucerne is a visual spectacle to be enjoyed leisurely. Everything is worthy of a photo or more: century-old churches, muse- ums, rock-solid bridges and towers, a duck paddling across the river over a submerged bicycle laying on the river bed.

Within minutes of leaving the train station and stepping out into the warm Lucerne autumn sun, I already found myself muttering, “Lucerne, I love.” Perhaps it was the quiet streets, calm ambience and the lack commuters’ chitter-chatter that I found as inviting as the tingle of Christmas Eve. Or perhaps it was the brief nods exchanged with a group of locals who strolled passed while I smoked a cigarette outside a café — the perfect amount of interaction I like to have with strangers: polite greetings, before walking away very, very quickly. Whatever it was, my first trip had barely started and I was already planning a second visit.

Lucerne Tourism BoardThe Lucerne Jesuit Church, the first baroque built in Switzerland.
The Lucerne Jesuit Church, the first baroque built in Switzerland.
Lucerne Tourism BoardWeekly open-air farmers' market along the streets of Lucerne.
Weekly open-air farmers' market along the streets of Lucerne.

After a while, however, Lucerne’s overwhelming beauty gets to you. As someone living in a room on the second-floor, with nothing but a lonely streetlight on a lonely road for a view, I never thought I’d ever be one to say there’s such a thing as too much scenery. But to me, it’s like a fondue — okay to dip into, but too much of it and you start to feel heavy.

And that’s the danger when it comes to in-your-face beauty: its novelty soon wears off. And when it did in the case of Lucerne, I was left with hauntingly beautiful, empty streets with seemingly nothing to do apart from taking photo after photo of what was beginning to look like the same, identical backdrop. This might be why the few tourists I eventually encountered and spoke to had only planned for a day trip in Lucerne before moving on elsewhere, nothing more. I had a five-day media junket ahead of me.

Lucerne Tourism BoardThe Kapellbrücke or Chapel Bridge, which spans diagonally across the river.
The Kapellbrücke or Chapel Bridge, which spans diagonally across the river.

Lucerne is rich with history. The city’s most recognisable attraction, The Kapellbrücke, or Chapel Bridge, for instance, is Europe’s oldest covered wooden footbridge, spanning diagonally across the River Reuss. The bridge’s uniqueness lies in the triangular-shaped paintings that are suspended under its roof, which date back to the 17th century. Executed by local painter Hans Heinrich Wägmann, each painting depicts an event from Lucerne’s history.

Another historic landmark that’s impossible to miss is the largely intact Musegg Wall, which runs across the city from west to east and is lined with nine historic towers, each offering expansive views of the city below. But more than that, each tower holds stories of the city’s rich past. The Pulver Tower, for example, used to be a storage area for gunpowder, while the Zyt Tower houses a massive clock that chimes a minute before all other public clocks in the city.

Lucerne Tourism BoardA view of the Kapellbrücke in winter.
A view of the Kapellbrücke in winter.

With such a rich and deep history comes the need to protect it. Lucerne is no stranger to hazards and disasters, such as the August 1993 fire that broke out on The Kapellbrücke, burning two-thirds of the bridge and destroying 100 paintings. The fire was believed to have been caused by a discarded cigarette.

It is with this that cultural heritage protection exists in Switzerland. According to the Swiss Agency for the Protection of Cultural Property, it refers to the measures taken for the protection of cultural heritage of the country from damage, destruction, theft and loss. In a nutshell, it is, in part, why its centuries-old churches, museums, bridges and towers can still exist, and why its landscape and facade are unlikely to change at all in the years to come.

Lucerne Tourism BoardHotel Schweizerhof Luzern
Hotel Schweizerhof Luzern

Almost every city and town in Europe revolves around a square, which can be likened to its heart and from which its history and culture originate. And so it is in Lucerne. I took a stroll around the Weinmrkt Square, all the while noting its well-preserved guildhalls, rich with old storied paintings and cryptic writings, with tidy walls and balanced lines and roofs. But behind their elaborately painted façades hide a flurry of activity — from packed dance studios with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and smooth jazz clubs to busy offices. On observation, I came to realise that this would be the common thread throughout my 5-day journey in Lucerne.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate this would be to visit the city’s hotels, as they offer a unique vantage point as to how a city can evolve without seemingly changing anything.

Just a stone’s throw from The Kapellbrücke, in the centre of the city, lies Hotel Schweizerhof Luzern. Famous and distinguished guests stayed here, including Richard Wagner, who completed his book “Tristan and Isolde” during his stay; Winston Churchill, who had countless meetings in the hotel’s facilities; and Mark Twain, who was a frequent guest during his Swiss travels. The hotel has themed and named each room after a famous figure who once stayed there, with various artfully (dis)arranged exhibits, giving the illusion of settings frozen in time.

Most hotels I’ve visited around the world pretend to have soul, have a vague interest in culture, or are thinly veiled in a veneer of glamour. Hotel Schweizerhof Luzern doesn’t offer any of that. Instead, displayed across the walls in all the rooms are inspirational, albeit tacky, quotes. “That’s a quote from Georg II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen,” was the response from the hotel manager to my query. Like a bearer of a questionable tattoo, Hotel Schweizerhof Luzern is unapologetic of its decision to associate itself with the quotes and artefacts of famous figures, with whom they share a personal connection.

Lucerne Tourism BoardPark Hotel Vitznau
Park Hotel Vitznau

A short ferry ride away from Lucerne is Vitznau, where Park Hotel is located. Opened in 1903, it is an impressive complex with white-washed buildings and a stone courtyard — very much like a holiday home for a czar. What I didn’t know as I walked in was that the hotel had undergone a major facelift eight years ago. The hotel I was standing in now features sleek and contemporary interiors, designed around the themes of wine and dine, art and culture, and health and wealth. Today, 47 residences and suites are integrated with state-of-the-art technology such as remote controlled showers and proximity-based room access, which means never having to fumble around for a key card — a perfect example of how one maintains the past, whilst embracing the future (with technology).

Lucerne Tourism BoardWall paintings on the facade of the Müllersche Apotheke.
Wall paintings on the facade of the Müllersche Apotheke.

Perhaps an even more impressive example of how old and new can be reconciled is Bürgenstock Hotels & Resort which sits 500 metres above Lake Lucerne and offers views of Mount Rigi and Mount Pilatus. A step back into history reveals that the first hotel that opened on this site in 1873 was very much sought after — the region’s beauty and tranquility were the main draws — and two more hotels opened in succession. In the 1950s and 1960s, these hotels were highly coveted by celebrity guests such as Sophia Loren, Indira Gandhi, Jimmy Carter, to name a few. Audrey Hepburn was sufficiently enamoured with the setting to marry Mel Ferrer in the hotel’s chapel in 1954.

The current hotel complex opened in August this year, a result of almost a decade of planning and construction, and hefty investment. The entire mega-development consists of four hotels (Bürgenstock Hotel, Waldhotel, Palace Hotel, and Taverne 1879), 67 residences, a 10,000-square-metre Alpine spa and 12 restaurants and bars. It’s a remodelling of the much-loved retreat that dates back to the 19th century. It’s designed to cater to an ever-evolving customer base by offering French, Middle Eastern and Asia cuisines, as well as an advanced medical centre.

Lucerne Tourism BoardIndoor tennis court in the Bürgenstock Resort's Tennis Club.
Indoor tennis court in the Bürgenstock Resort's Tennis Club.

However, it was the unexpected hidden gems within Bürgenstock Hotels & Resort that captivated me. A short walk away from the property’s Waldhotel revealed a hidden tennis court that could only be accessed by an utterly unassuming staircase that even resort regulars might miss. Or how the backdoor of the Bürgenstock Hotel opens onto a dirt path that leads to the general manager’s private micro-vineyard.

During the hotel inspection, I peeled away from the group for a few minutes to explore the property on my own and I came across a tiny tavern along the path. It was a quiet and tiny wooden tavern overlooking a meadow. Upon entering it, I was greeted by “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC, which was left on by the bar manager, who did not expect guests that early. He hastily switched to a slow lounge track before breaking out into a little laugh. It’s a trivial anecdote, really, but one that, I find, goes on to capture an even larger sentiment that Lucerne’s true beauty lies within.

In the end, the charm of any city doesn’t lie in its monuments, architecture, history and ability to preserve it, but rather in its ability to enrich it. That is basically what Lucerne is to me — an old, quiet town on the surface, but an unexpectedly exciting and rich city once you spend more time to get to know it a little more intimately.