December 18, 2016. After a whirlwind day in Zürich, we caught an early morning train to Luzern (Lucerne, if you’re more comfy with the French version of the name). Not only were we looking for more Christmas markets and holiday spirit, but we also planned to use the town as our home base for a brief excursion into the Alps. And we had high hopes that the place would prove to be a bit more cooperative in the meteorological department by blessing us with at least a dusting of the white stuff.
The 50-minute train trip took us through dense fog that lifted only occasionally, allowing snow-covered Alpine peaks to play peek-a-boo with us along the way. Here and there, we got glimpses of small towns, enough for me to pick out a pattern: Swiss civilization clustered around glacial lakes like herds of buffalo to a watering hole. Housing stock — a mixture of adorable ancient chalets interspersed with stacks of super chic, modern apartment complexes that stair-step up the surrounding slopes — made the most of the hilly spots.
But a few kilometers away from the shoreline, most of the flatland seemed to be reserved for farming. Herds of cows and flocks of sheep munched placidly on green grass (no snow on the lowlands yet.) And in several spots, odd little shanty towns made up of one-roomed shacks lined up in neat regiments along pasture borders. Gypsy camps, we wondered? No, it turns out that these are the mountain cabins, each with its own garden plot, that all citified Swiss escape to in summertime.
But, I digress. I can’t help it — I’ve always been fascinated with how values and environment influence the way people live and define “home.” Which brings me to another experiment. I frequently buy food on the train when traveling in a new country, because it’s interesting to see what folks enjoy eating “on the run” and how food is served. In this case, a spiffily uniformed steward brought a posh cart full of snacks to our seat. Our water came with a cute little bottle of real lemon juice (not constituted, a point the label made clear), and from the lineup of treats, I selected a more low-brow option of Paprika chips since they sounded particularly Swiss. (They’re now my new favorite processed food — deeelish!) Travel is just so broadening, in more ways than one, as my thighs are telling me after this crunchy addition to my steady diet of Swiss cheese and glühwein.
Anyway, upon our arrival in Luzern, we wandered out into the fog and caught our first glimpse of the city. Grey mist cloaked the mountains and solidified as frost on the trees. Here and there, pointy church steeples poked up through the woolly blanket. And all along the shore of Lake Luzern, enormously grand Victorian-era hotels, casinos, and banks testified to the town’s heyday as the “Monte Carlo of Switzerland.” (The place was once a must-see stop for all well-heeled 19th-century travelers taking their Grand Tour of Europe.)
After admiring the view, we started our stroll towards our hotel, only to be visually waylaid by Kapellbrücke (“Chapel Bridge”), the first of Luzern’s two incredible Medieval bridges. Built in 1333, it’s the oldest covered bridge in Europe — although its center section had to be entirely reconstructed after a 1993 fire. Walking along the thing is like taking a trip through a time tunnel, as the bridge’s triangular trusses hold 17th-century paintings illustrating the town’s history. Rather appropriate, since Kapellbrücke connects the Altstadt (“Old Town”) to the Neustadt (“New Town”).
Not just the oldest, Chapel Bridge was also once the longest covered bridge in Europe, measuring 669 feet (204 m) in length. But because the roads and embankments running along the Ruess River had to be widened, the bridge was shortened to 560 feet (170 m) in length. By the way, it’s also the oldest truss bridge in the world.
I took this shot the morning we left Luzern — the only day we were able to admire gorgeous Chapel Bridge in all its sunlit Medieval glory. If you look closely, you’ll see that the center of the bridge (the reconstruction) is much lighter than the ends (the remaining original portions). The bridge burned when a speedboat moored beneath it caught fire, although some say the fire was caused by a smouldering cigarette. Needless to say, boats are no longer allowed to tie up to the bridge.
The stone tower, which was built in 1300, remained undamaged by the blaze. It’s known as the Wasserturm (“water tower”), not because it’s a pumping station, but simply because it’s standing in water. Notice that it sits on the side of the bridge that fronts the lake. That’s because enemy attacks usually came from Lake Luzern, which empties into the Reuss River at this point. As part of the Medieval defense system, the tower also acted as a prison and torture chamber.
Originally, there were 158 paintings where the trusses meet along the apex of the bridge’s roof (two paintings per truss). By the time of the fire, only 147 remained. Fortunately, 25 of the originals had been in storage and were therefore able to be reinstalled after the bridge’s restoration. The first painting on the bridge (seen here) depicts the “Giant of Luzern.” Back in the Middle Ages, the bones of a woolly mammoth discovered nearby were thought to be the remains of a giant. This mythical monster of a man now makes an appearance all over town in various graphics.
While I loved the first bridge, the second — Spreuerbrücke (“Chaff Bridge”) — really got my imagination going. Maybe it was its ancient creaky timbers and the creepy little shrine that sits midway along its length. Or maybe it was all the 17th-century Black Plague-era paintings, tucked up in between the trusses, each featuring a dancing, skeletal Death. But all I could think of was Edgar Allen Poe’s Never Bet the Devil Your Head. The bridge is the perfect spot to shoot a film adaptation of the tale.
Never heard of it? In brief, it’s the story of Toby Dammit, a young man who’s fond of the blasphemous expression, “I’ll bet the Devil my head.” One day, he uses the phrase when claiming that he can jump over the turnstile of a gloomy covered bridge. An old man (the Devil in disguise) suddenly appears and asks him to prove it. Toby’s body makes the jump successfully … but his head stays behind, having been lopped off in mid leap by the bridge’s iron tie-rod, invisible in the dim overhang of the roof. The devil snatches the rolling noggin and scuttles off with his prize tucked in a sack. Cue eerie music.
From our hotel room, we had a perfect view of the Reuss River and the Spreuerbrücke. It’s commonly called the Mill Bridge because three grain mills once operated here. The name “Chaff Bridge” comes from the fact that folks were allowed to toss the wheat chaff into the water from this point, since it was the furthest bridge downstream, away from the lake and city. Today, a hydroelectric plant beneath the bridge generates power for 1,000 Luzern households.
Alongside and beyond the Spreuerbrücke, you can see part of the Ruess River’s weir system. The city of Luzern has the big job of controlling the outflow of water from Lake Luzern down through the Reuss River. The goal is to keep the water at a level where boats can still operate safely on the lake.
Painted from 1616 to 1637, only 45 of the bridge’s original 67 panels remain intact. They’re the largest known depiction of a Totentanz cycle, or Danse Macabre in French (both mean the “Dance of Death.”) Each panel shows townsfolk living life and making merry while Death parties unseen alongside them. It was intended as a reminder to make peace with your creator, since death awaits us all — an apt message in an era filled with plagues and war. Each of the panels had a sponsor, whose family crest appears on the left. The crest of his wife’s family appears on the right, and a verse describing the painting’s theme and naming the donors runs beneath the image.
The original 13th-century bridge was destroyed by flood in 1566 and rebuilt shortly thereafter. This little chapel in the middle of the bridge was included in the rebuild to guard against future floods. The names of the caretakers over the years appear on the black panels, and on the door in the form of family crests.
Part of the caretaker’s job is to decorate the interior of the shrine for each season.
How’s that for a cheery holiday tale? Think of it as your spooky story for the season, a bit like Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” (which he subtitled “… a Ghost Story of Christmas,” by the way). And that brings us to signs of the season around Luzern. Honestly, it was kinda difficult to sort out the Yuletide decorations from the usual everyday décor. Ornately timbered homes with a Bavarian flair gave the place a gingerbread-village feel. Stately buildings bedecked with festive frescoes lined most every plaza. And gilded signs with festoons of greenery ornamented shops and restaurants alike. It looked as if the city might always be wearing its finest attire in a perpetual state of party. Click through the gallery of local beauties below, and you’ll see what I mean.
I wanna lick the icing off this giant gingerbread confection, it’s so yummy looking!
Standing in front of these adorable Swiss-chalet-style buildings, I have the urge to yell, Yodelayheehoo!
In the background, you can see the Fischer-Stube façade, which portrays the grain mills of Luzern that once stood along the Ruess River, next to the Spreuerbrücke (Chaff Bridge).
Check out the spectacularly bejeweled roof and façade of the Hotel des Balances in the background. It was a former guildhall and is adorned with hunters and the mythical figure of Justitia, who dispenses her namesake Justice beneath a Linden tree in the square. “Stand under a Linden, cannot tell a lie.”
While this might look like a depiction of the Last Supper, it’s actually the Wedding Feast of Cana, painted by Swiss artist Eduard Renggli in 1928. The scene shows Jesus turning water into wine, an appropriate image considering that the painting overlooks the old Weinmarkt (“wine market”). Nowadays the plaza hosts a farmers’ market on Tuesdays and a Christmas market during the holiday season.
The Restaurant Fritschi features a masked Mr. and Mrs. Fritschi enjoying Luzern’s annual Mardi Gras celebration (called “Fasnacht” in Swiss German). The partying couple throw oranges, a symbol of spring, to the waiting crowd. Below, the cock crows at 5:00 a.m., calling people to awake and help scare winter away.
What was once a pharmacy bears a mural of Eve and the Tree of Life, as well as the message “Amor medicabilis nullis herbis” (“No medicine can cure a broken heart.”)
Hirschenplatz (“Deer Plaza,” named after a restaurant that serves deer) hosts two gorgeous buildings. The images on Dornach House (left) celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Swiss over the Germans at the Battle of Dornach in 1499. The building on the right is adorned with a series of huge diamond rings advertising the original owner’s profession (he was a jeweler.)
Strolling around town, we admired the holiday windows full of gorgeous glass ornaments and silver-plated presents. All with price tags that explain why so many folks keep the bulk of their money in Swiss bank accounts — you need a fortune to shop here. (Oslo looks affordable by comparison.)
Luckily, most of the recommended sightseeing spots came free or at a reasonable rate. We took in the weeping Lion of Luzern, the ancient rampart walls, a requisite meal of Swiss fondue, and an incredible view out over the city from the rooftop deck of a department store. All dutifully documented for posterity’s sake below:
Built in 1386, the Musegg Wall is part of the city ramparts and is still almost entirely intact. You can visit four of its nine towers (Schirmer, Zyt, Wacht and Männli), one of which (Zyt) contains the oldest city clock. Built by Hans Luter in 1535, it’s given the honor of being allowed to chime the hours one minute before all the other city clocks.
The weeping Lion of Luzern honors the Swiss mercenaries that died defending King Louis XVI during the French Revolution. Although Switzerland is known for its staunch neutrality in every European conflict, the highly trained and ferocious Swiss soldiers have been for centuries the favored hired guards of many European nobles (including the Pope).
I’m diving right in to my first pot of authentic Swiss fondue. It’s funny, because I’ve been serving the recipe from Rick Steves’ “European Christmas” book for years now as part of my own family’s Christmas Eve tradition.
Check out these incredibly delicate glass tree toppers. They remind me of the Seattle Space Needle.
On the right side is the Jesuit Church, the first Baroque church in Switzerland (built 1666 – 1677). And in front of the church, you’ll see lots of swans, supposedly a gift from Louis XIV in return for the protection given him by his Swiss Guards.
We captured one of our favorite moments on the rooftop of Manora, a department store in Old Town. We grabbed our lunch at the store’s cafeteria and carried it up to the deck for a spectacular view out over the city. Notice in the background that you can see Mt. Pilatus peeking through the clouds.
The Church of St. Leodegar, commonly called the Hofkirche, is Luzern’s most important church (built 1633 – 1639). It sits atop the remains of an 8th-century Roman basilica, which burned down in 1633. The Chapel Bridge once extended all the way to this church.
While the town is gorgeous during the day, at night with all the holiday lights, it’s everyone’s dream of Christmas. But it’s tasteful, not tacky, like some of the displays back home in Chicago. White strands and simple greenery are the norm, just like in Oslo, although the décor is more lavishly applied than what you’ll find on the homes of minimalist Norwegians. And every last garland and twinkle highlights the spectacular architecture. Take a look for yourself….
This place turned itself into an Advent calendar. Wonder what’s behind door number 24?
Lighted crowns like the one above marched down the street. Notice the beautiful frescoes, one of which is done in black-and-white “sgraffito” — a technique where the image is scratched into the plaster to reveal darker color underneath, kinda like a cameo.
Simple lighted wreaths and garland let the frescoes stand out.
The tall tower of the Rathaus (“Town Hall’) seems to be standing guard over the simple wooden nativity scene erected in the plaza below. Originally the lower floors of the building served as the Kornmarkt (“Grain Market”), while the city offices occupied the floors above.
During our various wanderings, we came upon several Christmas markets. One focused on handmade jewelry, knitwear, and pottery and offered some truly unique pieces at totally doable prices. Another had an international flair, with booths serving up Mexican tacos, Indian samosas, and fried Chinese rice while a Scottish bagpipe band performed on a nearby stage. However, we experienced our oddest musical mashup at the market on Franziskanerplatz, when the strains of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World were followed by Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and the theme song from Sesame Street. Not the usual Christmas soundtrack, but hey, I’m open to new ideas.
Like Zürich, Luzern’s markets are pretty quiet during the day, but it’s a good time to get your shopping done without having to worry about someone spilling their glühwein all over you.
Nearby, you can always take a breather at the lovely outdoor patio in front of Opus, a great restaurant and wine bar.
At night, the Franziskanerplatz market feels like an enchanted forest.
The nearby local church even got in on the action, raising money by offering prayer candles.
The Culture and Conference Center along the shoreline of Lake Luzern hosted the biggest shindig. In addition to a skating rink and mobile glühwein vendors, folks could take a ride on a fireman’s hoist and have a moment in the spotlight with music, television, and radio personalities — many of whom were living inside a glass box for a week to raise money for charity. (I have no idea how the bathroom situation worked on this one.) As part of their annual “Every Cent Counts” campaign, National Swiss Radio and TV donated this year’s proceeds to “Children Alone on the Run,” which provides assistance to both foreign refugees and homeless local kids. Pretty admirable stuff.
Nothing like skating to German and Swiss pop music. I think I heard “99 Luft balloons” four times.
This is what I need to get me out on the ice. A skating penguin as a prop.
Here’s a brilliant idea to keep warm AND make some cash — carry a keg of hot glühwein on your back.
Various musical groups stopped in to visit the DJs and TV hosts from SRF3, SRF2, and the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. Folks made donations and waited in line to get their photo taken with stars and appear on the live broadcast. This year, the campaign raised more than six million francs for the Children Alone on the Run campaign. (BTW, the Swiss Franc and U.S. dollar are roughly equivalent in value.)
On the way to one of the markets, we heard the faint sound of Christmas carols wafting down an alley. We followed the tune and came upon a choir, robed in black cassocks and carrying lanterns in a solemn processional. At the head of the line, a choirmaster held an advent wreath aloft. And trailing closely behind was an angel bearing a huge glowing star. The Holy Family followed, with Joseph looking thunderously protective as he escorted a nervous Mary and baby Jesus through the crowded streets.
Next in line came the shepherds herding a flock of five live sheep, their bells clinking tinnily from around their necks. The youngest herdsman was clearly loving his job, although he appeared to be water skiing behind his headstrong ram, which refused to be led on the leash. Then came the Magi, each with his own grand entourage. I tried not to wince as Gaspar, represented by a white guy in blackface, and Melchoir, portrayed with a Fu-manchu mustache and exaggeratedly Asian eyes, challenged my American notions of politically correct.
Despite the huge crowd, the procession continued in near silence, except for the bleating of the sheep and the choir’s soft singing. We followed the group for a half hour until we came to the courtyard next to the Franciscan Church. The Holy Family climbed the platform, followed by the angel and her two tiny helpers, one of whom began yawning and swinging her legs as soon as she sat down on the edge of the stage.
The choir continued serenading the group as first the shepherds, then each wiseman, took their turn bowing before the Holy Family and presenting them with gifts. Soon the carol changed to Silent Night, sung in German, and the entire crowd joined in. Matthew and I sang along in English, but I don’t think anyone cared. It felt amazingly like we were one big human family, joined by a simple familiar ritual, despite the different languages. What more could you ask for at Christmas?