On the Swiss Lakes

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The town of Montreux is small enough to be insignificant, except it has a marvelous location on a peaceful lake. Or tourists can visit the elegant city of Lucerne, which has all the allure of a Swiss village.

Photography by the authors

The town of Montreux is small enough to be insignificant, except it has a marvelous location on a peaceful lake in one of the most beautiful countries in the world—Switzerland. The trouble is, the Swiss know it and can be insufferably pleased with themselves about what Mother Nature hath given them.

Montreux, a town of a mere 25,000 population, lies on Lake Geneva. At 133 square miles, it is one of the largest lakes in Europe. Montreux is so far west in Switzerland that it is almost in France, and the lake, whose east end it seems to guard, is shared by both France and Switzerland.

Switzerland has long been a haven for wealthy foreigners—not just those dodging their county’s banking rules, but also for international citizens who conform to their national ethics but want to dodge their countries’ weather.

Poets and celebrities

So Montreux was home to Russian composers Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov, Scottish physician-novelist A.J. Cronin, and to famous personalities like English playwright Noel Coward and the tragic celeb Zelda Fitzgerald. They all came because, said one, “The town on the lake was just so damn pretty.”

It’s an easy 40-minute walk south along the flat esplanade from our Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic in Montreux to Chillon Castle.

The castle would seem bleak even if Lord Byron had not written his soul-shattering narrative about the prisoner in this forbidding, impregnable medieval fortress that stands prominently on the east shores of Lake Geneva.

Lord Byron (1788-1824) was a successful, but eccentric, English poet who led a life of debauchery in between composing what are regarded as narrative poem masterpieces.

Byron visited Chillon Castle in 1816 famously spending a night in the dungeon with his friend and fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Byron published his poem The Prisoner of Chillon in 1817. It was an immediate success.

Those who never had the time or interest to read Byron’s poem (about a political prisoner, Francois Bonivard, a 16th Century monk born 1493, who was chained for 4 years standing up beside his brothers in the dungeon of Chillon) may wonder at tourists’ interest in the castle. Yet a docent tells us that visitors come in clutching their guide books, hurry past the exhibits on the ground floors and head straight to the basement. They know the story.

The legendary author and travel writer, Richard Halliburton, was so moved by the story that he threw off his clothes and swam past the fortress to climb and peer through the barred slits in the wall in the hope of capturing the mystique.

Halliburton, who was even more eccentric than Byron, later swam the length of the Panama Canal, his toll of 36 cents being the lowest charge ever made for canal transit.

The birthplace of Switzerland

Lake Lucerne is surrounded by 4 separate cantons that became unified only when flaming resentment rose up against the overbearing House of Habsburg and the powerful Austria-Hungary Empire on its doorstep.

Such resentment lent fuel to the angst the regions felt. Their nationality suppressed. It took a hero, William Tell, to allow them to express how they felt. A fictitious hero, because no evidence exists that he really lived, shot an arrow through an apple on his son’s head and defied the Austrians.

The Swiss countryside. “We have the most contented cows,” a local tells us as we sail along silently on our Rail Europe pass.

It’s not just the cows that are contented; the countryside looks at peace with itself today. The past was different. Our destination today is Lucerne: “the birthplace of Switzerland.”

Those thoughts are not paramount in our minds as we travel from Montreux to Lucerne on the special Golden Pass Panoramic train. It is raining heavily when we reach Lucerne and, although our Golden Pass destination hotel, the Hotel Schweizerhof, lies just across the River Reuss, we are like the proverbial drowned rats after we’ve arrived in the hotel’s 1845 lobby. The hotel has been owned by the same family since 1861.

Top, our Hotel Schweizerhof. The Chapel Bridge and the murals inside its covered roof.

We look around and are dismayed our coats are dripping so much on the elegant floors. However, the desk clerk is not bothered by how wet we are.

The next day, we take in Lucerne’s Historical Museum in the 1567 old arsenal with a guide who speaks excellent English, but she believes we know more about Swiss history than we really do.

“This is the original Gothic Weinmarkt Fountain,” she says, “And this is the coat of mail worn by Duke Leopold at the Slaughter of Sempach.”

We’re typical travelers in that we often know more once we’ve gone online than we know before we make any visit. Turns out the tale of the battle by a cobbler called Zehudi was translated into English by Sir Walter Scott as a song by a minstrel:

“Returning from that bloody spot

Where God had judged the day.”

The battle was apparently in 1386 and thanks to Google Books we have details here.

Lake Lucerne has an area of 44 square miles and is 700 feet at its deepest. About one-third of the size of Lake Geneva, Lake Lucerne is the fourth largest lake in Switzerland.

The Picasso Museum is easier to understand than Swiss history—as if Pablo Picasso is ever understandable, but, at least, his life is more recent. He was a close friend of collectors Siegfried and Angela Rosengart and 32 of his paintings and numerous drawings and photographs are on display in the Rosengart collection.

The town’s 16th-century architecture. The medieval Pharmacy.

Early the next morning the rain stops and the sun comes out to reveal the charm of most European cities—their architecture. Lucerne is a mixture of churches, bridges, towers, squares, narrow streets, and, of course, Lucerne’s trademark, the Chapel Bridge on its unique position on the western end of Lake Lucerne.

The town, which was founded around 1180 on an older foundation, is worth a visit for its many historical monuments.

The elegance of Lucerne, the allure of a Swiss village. Symbols suggesting a fictitious hero really lived.

But there’s history to be had outside Lucerne. First, on a boat on Lake Lucerne, where you can combine the boat ride with a trip on any of the mountain railways around the lake or you can go farther and catch the train to Brunnen. From there an excursion boat will take you around Lake Uri to the historical sites of the legendary William Tell including Schiller’s Rock, Rutli Meadow, and the Tell Museum itself.

If the trip sounds complicated you can get more details here.

And as William Wordsworth, yet another English poet, describes the pastoral scene of Lake Uri:

Yet here and there, if mid the savage scene

Appears a scanty plot of smiling green,

Up from the lake a zigzag path will creep,

To reach a small wood-hut hung boldly on the steep.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.