Ferry-Hopping on Lake Lucerne

By | June 5, 2014

During our visit to Switzerland two themes kept coming up as topics of conversation. First, the view. A visitor in Switzerland will be witness to a near constant parade of forested hills and their aprons of farm-speckled meadows. Then, as if it were a dessert whose last ingredient was the powdered sugar sprinkled on top, the landscape looks like some cosmic pastry chef dusted it with pleasantly dilapidated medieval towers and castles. The country is a snow globe come to life.

We also kept yakking about the public transportation system. It’s extensive – every nook and cranny of the country is connected by train, bus, ferry, and gondola – and operates with a set-your-watch-by-it punctuality. We purchased a family Swiss Pass, a magical 8-day all-access public transportation ticket available only to foreign visitors. It was good for any public transport. The ticket remarkably allowed us to ride both a street tram in Basel and a rural bus in the mountains 300 miles to the east. As an American, it took me a while to feel comfortable with that level of organization; even the trains just in Chicago don’t all use the same ticketing system.

As our trip unfolded, I began to see the result of this alchemy between scenery and public transportation: there is something to see everywhere you go, and it’s easy to go everywhere. Even the laziest of tourists would be happy in Switzerland.

The Village People

Our train arrived in Luzern, the gateway to the Vierwaldstättersee (a direct translation would be The Four Forest-States Lake, but the English version somehow got reduced to Lake Lucerne). The lake lies in the single bull of a Swiss dartboard. It’s got a Rorschach kind of shape (it brought to my mind a diagram of the large intestine) and 413 of them would fit into Lake Michigan.

We chose the lake as a destination because of the villages scattered around the shoreline (the word “village” being irresistible to an urban dweller on a foreign vacation). I had also calculated that the lake would act as a moat, keeping out the undiscerning tourists, while those of us in the know, flashing our Swiss Passes like groupies with their backstage passes, would have exclusive access to the Swiss Heartland.

We left the rail station, walked across the street, and boarded a ferry. The ferry was full when it left Luzern, but emptied out when we arrived at Vitznau, the third stop. We were headed for the village, and former republic, of Gersau, two stops further in.

Gersau was obviously a tourist town, it just wasn’t as big of a tourist town as the previous four stops. Imagine the towns a couple more stops down the line, I thought to myself, they’re probably so remote as to have only two or three overpriced restaurants. Since our arrival in Switzerland, my wife and I had been amusing ourselves looking at the prices in the restaurant windows. Switzerland is an expensive place. The Euro’s recent troubles and its uncertain future has driven lots of investor money into Switzerland, pushing up the value of the Swiss Franc and making everything much more expensive for people arriving from any country whose currency isn’t the Swiss Franc (i.e., everywhere on the planet, except Liechtenstein).

Gersau was quiet, a benefit, perhaps, to going in April, and made up for a chilly ferry ride. I walked into a grocery store to buy ingredients for the Helvetic menu I had planned for the evening: potatoes, ham, and, wait, where is the sauerkraut? After some poking around, I realized it carries enough clout in the local diet to only be sold fresh in the refrigerated section. This was a moderately exciting development. Up until that point, I had found the elements of a day-to-day existence in Switzerland to be basically the same as in the US, just cleaner and more efficient. Here, finally, was a cultural tidbit that was different than what I was accustomed to.

Our AirBnB guesthouse was a mile up the hill from the dock. Promisingly, halfway up the hotels and restaurants gave way to cows and chickens. I don’t want to say that we were now in the “real” Switzerland, because that would have meant we were sitting in the waiting room of a boutique investment banking firm in Zurich, but grazing livestock made for a more pleasant backdrop than hotel vacancy signs.

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Cameras Clicking

The next morning we returned to the dock and boarded an almost empty ferry headed back towards Luzern. We got off at Vitznau, walked one block to the Rigibahn terminus, and boarded the train which would take us to the top of Mount Rigi, 5000 horizontal and 1100 vertical meters away. With fifteen minutes until the scheduled departure, our family made up half of the ten people on a train with space for 120. I was congratulating myself on finding this untouristed gem when the ferry coming from Luzern arrived and disgorged the other 110 passengers who would be joining us. In a flash of insight that should have come a day earlier, I realized where all the passengers who had gotten off the ferry yesterday at Vitznau were going. Now squashed in our seat, the train left, exactly on time, of course.

The train did not get a chance to loosen up – right out of the station the tracks climb steeply up the side of the mountain. Off to the left were the traditionally beautiful landscape views of the lake, but I preferred watching the alpine farms go by on the right (plus, I was sitting on the right, sour grapes?).

After a good deal of climbing the train entered a long cluster of trees which cut off the view for a minute or two. Then we rounded a bend and I heard the gasps before I saw it: the trees were gone and had left us with a wide-open view of most of Switzerland. There was a scrum for the windows on the left side of the train. The passengers were taking pictures wildly, most of which were going to include a foreground of other passengers taking pictures.

Valderi, Valdera

We arrived at the top. It was 20 degrees colder. And windy. We walked the last 400 meters to the peak to eat lunch, which turned out to be a better idea in theory than in practice. Yes, the view was magnificent, but we were all cold, and with our three children making those feelings known to everyone else on the summit, we decided to head down.

There was a gravel path that followed the rail route, so rather than sit some more in the cold, waiting for the hourly train, we started walking down. I realized that if one were serious about avoiding other tourists, this path was the way to go, although it wasn’t entirely empty either. We jumped back on a passing train two stops down the mountain at Staffelhöhe, then got off one stop later at Rigi Kaltbad. Our on-again off-again, Swiss Pass a-flashin’ train-hopping gave me an temporary inflated sense of self. I was playing the part of a bored strap-hanger, ironically commuting down the side of a mountain. But my hipster insouciance had no audience to appreciate it; all the seats in the train were full, so we had to remain standing in the foyer by the doors. The one time I wanted other tourists, I couldn’t have them.

At Rigi Kaltbad we transferred to a gondola headed back down the mountain. The gondola was crowded; there were thirty people stuffed in, with me right in the middle. Judging by the number of times I heard the imitation shutter sound that all digital cameras are programmed to make, the scenery must have been beautiful. But stuck where I was, I couldn’t see anything; I might as well have been on a subway.

Our gondola landed in Weggis. We boarded a full ferry headed back to Gersau, which again emptied out at Vitznau, perhaps deflating the sense of solitude of another family waiting on the Rigibahn. We amused ourselves with the idea of doing the Rigibahn-gondola-ferry loop over and over again, adding infinite value to our Swiss Pass. We’d be making money on it!

Gersau Über Alles

That evening on the patio of our B&B we drank a bottle of wine commemorating the 200-year anniversary of Gersau’s brief reign as the world’s smallest independent republic. The collapse of Napoleon’s Swiss puppet government in 1814 left a power vacuum which the Gersauers capitalized on with a declaration of independence. This lasted until 1817, when the rest of Switzerland swallowed it up again with a couple bylines in the record of a zoning board meeting. But the commemorative wine was excellent and put me in the frame of mind to ponder our surroundings. We ate our fresh sauerkraut and enjoyed the commanding view of the lake. The town church bell chimed while we watched the cows graze on the hillside. We did not have a Saint Bernard with us, but that was the only Swiss stereotype we were missing. The quaintness was staggering.

The bucolic alpine scenes we had been enjoying are able to exist thanks to a generous state agricultural subsidy, one provision of which includes keeping the farm neat. My guess is that the dairy farmer next to our bed and breakfast is a good example of how these subsidies are supposed to work. He had twelve cows which produced a high-fat cream that he exported to Germany – a high-margin luxury item certainly. But twelve cows? There is no way that could be remotely profitable. Nonetheless, his farm and pastures were tidy and pretty to look at. If that is part of what the subsidy is buying, then it might not be the financial sinkhole it appears at first blush: to anyone who asks, I will recommend Gersau and our bed & breakfast, not least because of that farm and those twelve cows. Writ large, that arrangement has the potential to send a lot more tourist dollars to Switzerland. I have no idea if those economics work over the long term, but it has made Switzerland a very attractive place.

The next morning we took our last ferry ride. We chugged past the empty Rigibahn station in Vitznau, past the empty gondola station in Weggis, and disembarked at Luzern’s terminal. We walked by the throngs of people waiting to board the ferry, ultimately bound for the Rigibahn. Entering the train station, our enchanted Swiss Passes in hand, we continued on to our next picturesque and easily accessible destination.

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