FT : Lake Lucerne Is An Old World Paradise

Saturday, July 21, 2007

May be doing a lot of this itinerary this Fall –

If ever you pine for the old bourgeois pleasures, genteel, discreet, complacent pleasures (and, in my own case, nostalgic pleasures of the lost British empire, essentially a bourgeois enterprise) – if you are in this frame of mind, get you to Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, and board one of the five glorious paddle-steamers that have been sailing its waters since the early years of the last century.  Make straight for the dining-saloon and there, over a cup of coffee, you will be eased into nirvana.  Port and starboard the mountains rise above the lake, dappled even in summer, with recalcitrant patches of snow.  The woodwork creaks around you, the pistons pound below, the paddles gently swish, there is a faint smell of engine oil and presently a breathy blast of the ship’s horn tells you that you are approaching the little lakeside resort of Weggis.  Relax.  No hurry to finish your coffee.  The captain of the Schiller (319 tons, built in 1906) will be tolerantly smiling down at you from his bridge when you are the last to disembark before, with another toot of the siren, his ship swims away like a punctual swan. 

We call it Lake Lucerne, but it is really Vierwaldstätter See, the Lake of the Four Forest Cantons, and it lies in the very heart of the virtual Switzerland we are seeking: not the real Switzerland, an immensely competent and hard-headed little state, equipped with every modernity, but the Switzerland of our more languid fancies, where ships’ captains wave goodbye from the wheelhouses of centenarian steamboats, amiable porters greet you at the doors of unostentatiously comfortable hotels, and distant music sounds from bandstands on Tuesday mornings…..It is true that small boys sometimes somersault into the lake from the steamer landing, when the Schiller, the Uri (built 1901), the Unterwalden (1902), the Gallia (1913) or the Stadt Luzern (1928) are nowhere about.  True, too, that sometimes shoppers and secretaries trundle insouciantly past on roller-skates, and stalwart soldiers of the Swiss Army clump through town in their camouflage gear and big boots.  But the general mood of the place is placid, or perhaps valetudinarian – it suggests to me sometimes one of those restorative hill stations of the British Raj…..There you are, recumbent in the garden of the Beau Rivage Hotel, say, which has been attending to our needs under one name or another since the early 17th century.  All is calm, all is Swiss, ducks doze upon the jetty, and at 1pm somebody is going to bring you an omelette to eat in the multicoloured gazebo at the water’s edge.  You are half-asleep, perhaps, awaiting the gentle summons to your victuals but just before the moment arrives, you hear the chunk-chunk of paddles, and a thoughtful touch of a steamwhistle, and almost simultaneously three things occur: the church clock strikes one, the Stadt Luzern docks and a sweet, soft voice says your omelette awaits you.  In between the hours, too, the impeccable coming and going of the steamers is like some pledge of eternity…..

The ships are proud, the landscapes are proud, the history is proud, and the people bear themselves with unmistakable self-esteem.  On the southern shore of the lake is the meadow called Rütli that is the birthplace of the Swiss Republic.  There, in 1291, the representatives of three cantons swore an Oath of Eternal Alliance, and it remains a place of pilgrimage for proper Swiss patriots.  The Swiss flag, they say, was invented there, so simple and so strong, and if you take one of the old steamers to the nearby landing-stage, and walk up the track to the ridge above the meadow, you will find it flying there, brave and convinced as ever, any hour of every day of every year…..Weggis may be short on mystery and excitement but, all around the lake, a host of rack railways, funiculars and cable-ways can transport the most elderly and stertorious visitors high into the peaks.  In the 1880s Mark Twain, having reluctantly journeyed to the summit of Rigi, directly behind Weggis, took the rack railway down, and thought it at once wildly exhilarating and “like inspecting the world on the wing”.  The classic expedition for the tourist is the round trip to Pilatus, the 2120-metre mountain on the other side of the lake to which, so legend says, Pontius Pilate went to die.  Your steamer deposits you at the foot of the steepest cog railway in the world, a marvel of Swiss ingenuity that shunts its trains by moving them sideways.  Lunch at the summit, with a view just like the top of a fairly expensive chocolate box, and you return to ground level down the opposite slope, by way of a cable car that never actually stops, but spews you out of your cabin like a ski-lift.  Everybody loves the Pilatus excursion, except the queueing for the cog railway, and even that is a modest excitement if you are within sight of the sideways-shunting device, a genuine Swiss bourgeois miracle.  But even that pales beside the fascination of the vessel waiting to take you back to Weggis.   The greatheart paddle-steamers of Lake Lucerne are not only splendours in their own right, like the Royal Navy’s battleships of old, but like those gleaming dreadnoughts, they are integral to the ethos of their environment – to the ethos of precise respectability that we have come here to enjoy…..Mark Twain, that old river pilot, undoubtedly responded to their magic, even then – he thought a steamboat voyage on Lake Lucerne “almost the perfection of pleasuring”…..

Reference : http://www.ft.com/cms/s/300ef858-371f-11dc-9f6d-0000779fd2ac.html

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