In love with Lucerne

It is still bright and sunny when I head out for an early dinner at seven in the evening. My handy phone map shows the restaurant is just around the corner from where I am staying in Lucerne. So I stroll out of the doors of my charming ‘Romantik’ hotel – as many of the country’s old, boutique properties are known – with just enough time to get there. Big mistake.

The sight of Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) bathed in the warm glow of the Lucerne evening is spellbinding, stopping me in my tracks. It is certainly not the first time I am seeing this picturesque covered wooden bridge – Europe’s oldest, built in 1365 – across the River Reuss. With the octagonal Wasserturm (Water Tower) seeming to prop it up towards one end, the Kapellbrücke is indeed one of Lucerne’s landmarks, quietly connecting the new and old parts of town.

But as I said, this time is special: the mellow spring sunshine makes the wild flowers everywhere seem cheerier, the swans gliding by on the river more content, the clang of church bells from somewhere far away full of hope, and above all, the tourists (like me) fall in love with Lucerne just a bit more.

There can be no doubt that in a country filled with blockbuster vistas and experiences, Lucerne is a quiet charmer.

With all those photo stops, I arrive a few minutes late for dinner, but despite being sticklers for punctuality themselves, the Swiss are a friendly and forgiving lot. Sitting by the water at the Des Balances restaurant, housed in a 13th century building in the AltStadt (Old Town), I watch dusk fall slowly upon Lucerne, sweeping its ancient buildings in a stunning palette of oranges and purples.

Even as the town hovers between day and night, it continues to buzz with an incredible energy that is impossible to resist. The liveliest places at this time of the day are the plazas in the Altstadt, each of them throbbing with al fresco cafés and bars located between the older buildings with their brightly painted façades, and the numerous water fountains that once acted as social hubs for the local women.

Not surprisingly, Lucerne (also Luzern) is still referred to as the ‘city of light,’ a rough translation of its old name of Luciaria (dating back to the mid 9th century). Thanks to its location in central Switzerland, right on Lake Lucerne and River Reuss, and its proximity to tourist attractions like Mount Pilatus and Mount Titlis, Lucerne remains a perennial favourite among visitors.

The next morning, I set out for an excursion to the “dragon mountain” of Pilatus, so known for its many local legends of fire-breathing dragons that once roamed these craggy peaks. Being in proud possession of a first-class Swiss Travel Pass, I decide to go for the complete experience, which begins with a cruise from Lucerne to the tiny village of Alpnachstad.

For an hour, we float pass postcard pretty villages and low hills covered in mist, finally pulling up at the place where the jaunt on the world’s steepest cogwheel train begins. The journey here on this train ride up to Mount Pilatus is truly as much fun as the destination, as the gentle, green slopes fall behind, and rugged cliffs with dark tunnels take their place.

The top of Mount Pilatus – on the northernmost branch of the Alps – is shrouded in a thick layer of cloud when I reach, the sun playing hide and seek for the next couple of hours. In those rare moments when it does manage to make a bid for freedom, I can barely make out the fuzzy outlines of a couple of neighbouring mountains (over 70 alpine peaks are visible on a clear day), and down the valley on one side, with Lake Lucerne glimmering at a distance.

The sound of an alphorn suddenly breaks into the peaceful silence. This music is as primeval and profound as the mountains themselves, and the old man playing it is as much of a tourist attraction as the viewpoints on top.

The return to Lucerne is by a different route and mode; first the aerial cableway to Fräkmüntegg and then the panorama gondola down to the village of Kriens, from where I take the bus for the last leg of the journey back into town. In the winter months, when the cogwheel railway is not functional, this is the only access to Pilatus.

Back in the Lucerne twilight, I pick up a gelato and settle down for a spot of people-watching by the lake. A sudden flash of light in the horizon catches my eye; is it a bolt of lightning, or are the dragons up and about for the evening? In Lucerne, it is impossible to tell.

TRAVEL

Fly SWISS from Mumbai into Zurich, from where Lucerne is an hour away by train. Buy the Swiss Travel Pass that allows unlimited access on trains and buses, as well as free entry to museums.

STAY

The Wilden Mann is a charming and friendly midtown hotel, located in a 500 year old building.

Friday photo: Lucerne

In a country that is dotted with blockbuster landscapes and picturesque cities, I found myself falling in love with Lucerne very easily and rapidly. Its location at the banks of Lake Lucerne and River Reuss, surrounded by the majestic mountains; the Kapellbrucke covered wooden bridge across the river; and then the medieval buildings with their prettily painted facades…

Today’s postcard is one such building from Lucerne’s Aldstadt (Old Town), a restaurant painted with cheery images of Fritschi, believed to be the founding father of the annual carnival that takes place just before Lent.

Postcard pretty Appenzell

In a country that is littered with jaw-droppingly, breathtakingly beautiful natural scenery – just think Interlaken, Jungfraujoch and Zermatt – Appenzell stopped me short. No towering mountains here, all that snow sprawled on top like it belongs there. No icy blue waters or Bollywood heavyweights (although Yash Chopra is mentioned ever so often in hushed, revered tones ever so often).

No sir. This village, in the picturesque north-east of Switzerland, remains far away from the tourist trail. In some ways, it feels nice to have those narrow lanes and stone benches to yourself. Yet, it’s a pity more people don’t know about it.

Appenzell

Appenzell marches to its own drummer, this region even speaking its own version of Swiss German (unfamiliar to “normal” Swiss German speakers). It is what the Swiss proudly call the repository of living traditions. And even to my cynical eye, it never felt that Appenzell was putting on a performance for the benefit of tourists.

In early autumn, for instance, the alpine herdsmen make their way down from the mountain pastures in a ceremonial descent, wearing colourful attire, which includes tight yellow pants, richly embroidered red waistcoats and hats decorated with flowers. Think our own Bollywood’s Govinda clothes but on extremely fit and handsome Swiss men.

Herdsmen(pic courtesy: myswitzerland.com)

Come festivals and weddings, women take out their traditional costumes, and locals would rather carry the secret of their special Appenzeller cheese to the grave than share it with outsiders. There are advertisements about it and local nudge-nudge-wink-wink jokes that I can never hope to understand. But never mind, the cheese is the important thing, not its recipe.

BetrufAnd much to my amazement, they love their music: the yodelling, which seems to be made for the mountains. And the very special Betruf, which is an evening prayer. Sang through a wooden funnel, it is haunting and moving, a call to the gods to protect and bless their loved Alps and cattle. As I listened to it, I realised that it can be a lonely life out there in the high mountains, when the cold sets in and darkness falls in the middle of the day.

It was in August last year that I visited Switzerland for the first time. I skipped the usual suspects and made my way to Appenzell, changing a couple of trains – which, unsurprisingly, ran like clockwork.

The only annoyance in an otherwise perfect three days was that it rained almost continuously in my time there – and this was in the end of August. I had gone there expecting a nice, summery time and instead found myself shivering in the wet, miserable cold – and those burnt out, dull sky in the photographs, every one of them. Ah, well.

HeidiBeing in Appenzell is a bit like being inside a fairytale. Narrow lanes perfect for aimless strolls, 16th century houses with brilliantly painted facades, shop windows with absolutely twee yet alluring souvenirs. Cows are an integral part of their lives and the cow motif is everywhere – from shiny cowbells to smiling moo faces on soap boxes. And I am not joking when I say that in the Appenzell canton, there are more cows than people. They take their bovine friends very seriously indeed.

The Heidi story is also immensely popular around this region and finds its way into most of the souvenirs displayed in the shops – at prices that made me want to weep and laugh at the same time.

There isn’t much to do in Appenzell village – there is a museum that showcases the crafts and culture of this canton. The best thing is to walk up and down the main shopping street, admiring the buildings, choosing your favourite and looking up at the painted windows.

Then, there are the ‘tafeen’ – from the word tavern – unique metal signboards hanging over commercial establishments, that clearly indicate the nature of the business.

Tafeen1

Tafeen2

A tiny church bang in the middle of the village – the Heiligkreuzkapelle with its stunning stained glass. This was my absolute favourite among all the things I saw in Switzerland on this trip. Unassuming and unique, unlike any stained glass work I have ever seen.

Stained Glass

And towards the end of the main road, the Church of St Maurice with its gilded and imposing interiors, more stained glass windows – opening out at the back to a churchyard lovingly tended by locals and surrounded by mountains.

Church

Postcard

I stayed at the cozy Hotel Santis (don’t miss the ‘Romantik’ in front of the name), with its fiery red exteriors with wooden floors and beams inside.

Village

Santis

You can see why I didn’t want to leave, can’t you?

***

Read my other stories from this trip:

~ The Swiss sound of music – published in The Hindu as Notes on a mountain
~ High up in Heidiland – published in Mumbai Mirror as Rooting for Heidi

The Swiss Sound of Music

MathiasMatthias Ammann puts his hands into his pockets, smiles at us, and yodels effortlessly. Of course he would. He has been yodeling since the age other children learn to gurgle and crawl. He then looks at our stricken faces and sings one note at a time, making us repeat it.

It is all very pleasant, in a ‘Maria deconstructs Do-Re-Mi for the clueless Von Trapp kids’ manner. The trouble begins when he again sings the whole string together and expects us to sing after him. Nobody seems willing to move. Oh, well. I close my eyes, channel my inner Kishore Kumar and let go. Easy peasy.

Yodelers
(Image courtesy Switzerland Tourism)

TalerschwingenHe follows this up with a session on the traditional Talerschwingen, rolling a coin around the inner rim of an earthenware bowl. I hold one of the heavy bowls on my palm, rotating it slowly. Matthias takes his cue from this resonant rhythm and yodels along with it. I may be an ace multi-tasker otherwise, but right now, all my energies are focused on keeping the bowl from falling off.

At the Klangwelt Sound Forge in Toggenburg, just a couple of hours by train from Zurich, yodeling lessons are just one of the attractions. On the upper floor, there is always some exhibition on; that month, it is of cowbells from around the region. In the next room, there are sound experiments for curious children and adults. Then there is a Sound Wellness room where my aching back cries out for a relaxing massage based on musical vibrations (before I am dragged away by the rest of the unsympathetic group).

In what must be another unwritten Murphy’s Law, it is sunny throughout the time we are indoors. Cut to early morning. We wake up to rain, which follows us during our hike through the picturesque Klangweg at the base of the Churfirsten mountain. This popular hike among the über-fit Swiss has 26 sound installations along the way. Each of them has been created by local artists, based on the music of the region.

The Klangweg (Sound Trail) started with the idea of making the hike more interesting for children. Now, says my guide, parents find it difficult to drag them away from each of the sound stations. Maximum fun with maximum noise. What is not to love?

Hansheiri Haas – “my teacher used to call me Ha Ha Ha” – is the perfect guide, long trained in music and passionate about the subject. It is a beautiful trail, with views of mountain peaks, lulling sounds of cowbells and crisp Swiss air. Using the annoying, insistent rain as an excuse, we walk only a small section of the trail. Here, we stop to blow into steel pipes; there, Hansheiri hits with his flat palms on a rock with large holes. There are suspended bells, quirky string instruments, large cups of water, all designed to make music.

Sound pipes

Music from rocks

My favourite is the Klangmühle, or the Soundmill, perhaps the only indoor installation in the entire trail. An instrument based on the Buddhist prayer wheel in a remote Swiss village. I am trying to wrap my head around the idea hours later at lunch when Hansheiri casually mentions that they recently found at an international music festival that the music tones of pygmies from Central Africa and people of Central Switzerland were identical. The music of world is indeed contained in a handful of notes.

Prayer wheel

With this in mind, a couple of days later, I venture forth to further the cause of Indo-Swiss musical ties by trying my hand at the alphorn. And Werner Erb, of the Crazy Alphorngruppe Arcas, is the perfect teacher. He keeps a straight face and urges us to purse our lips and blow, blow harder into the mouth pipe. All kinds of sounds emerge, most of which are like mating calls of wild animals. But Erb is kind and even manages to identify one of my notes as a C Flat.

Erb often works with alcoholics and drug addicts, so he plays the alphorn to unwind. But if you ask me, blowing into a thirteen feet long pipe is not relaxing; it is hard work. Not for him though. “I close my eyes and play, it feels like meditation,” he says. If I am finding it close to impossible to get a single clear note out of the alphorn, Erb travels the world playing jazz and world music on what someone remarked is the original Swiss mobile phone. Indeed, the alphorn was once used to signal danger, including imminent war (doubling up as, I suppose a weapon of mass destruction, given its size).

Crazy Alphorners

Werner Erb

I went to Switzerland and returned without seeing a single snow-covered peak. I did not pose for photographs at Interlaken. I did not undertake a “Yash Chopra shot here” pilgrimage. Instead, I carved my own Swiss Sound of Music tour. Again, what is not to love?

***
This was published in The Hindu Sunday magazine on November 24, 2013 as Notes on a mountain

High up in Heidiland

As I peel off a jacket and then a sweater on my hike up from Maienfeld village towards Heididorf, I am reminded of an initial scene from the book. Heidi is clambering up the Alps behind her aunt Dete, and as it gets warmer and warmer, off comes one layer of clothing after another. I must have read the book nearly three decades ago, yet I remember that scene vividly. And I remember rooting for the impish, rebellious little orphan that moment on.

Me, I am not rebelling; I am just not clad for the warm weather. The last few days had been unseasonably wet and cold for August, and I had fully expected more of the same.

Hike up to Heidiland

The signs for Heididorf – Heidi’s village where her home has been recreated for her fans – start as soon as you get off at Maienfeld’s railway station. And why not? It is one of the region’s star attractions, drawing visitors from as far as Japan. But more on that later.

Heididorf is an easy hour’s walk from the station, through the pretty village of Maienfeld and up hilly roads lined with vineyards. A dozen photo stops, a bit of huffing and a lot of puffing later, I pull up at tiny Heididorf.

Maienfeld

So, here’s the thing. In Heidiland, it is easy to forget that Heidi is a fictional character. There is a museum dedicated to her life; to author Johanna Spyri really, and the innumerable Heidi adaptations. It comes with a souvenir shop that sells, yes, Heidi-themed things from chocolates to fridge magnets, school bags and water bottles. Close to it is a model of Heidi’s home, the one she would have shared with her grumpy grandpa.

Heidi's home

Heidi and Peter

I am ambivalent about this experience, when I overhear someone say in a breathless voice, “This is a dream come true for me.” When I mention this later to Tabhitha Forrer from Heidiland Tourism, she says this is a common sentiment expressed by Heididorf visitors.

What makes Heidi, written in 1880 by an unknown Swiss, so popular even today? It remains one of the largest selling books in the world, translated into over 50 languages. There are five known movie versions, including a blockbuster with Shirley Temple, of golden locks and puppy eyes fame. Spyri, in her book, of course, describes Heidi as having short, black curly hair, but that’s Hollywood for you.

And it has been televised in several languages, from Arabic to Japanese. And friends tell me that Heidi is still as fascinating as Doraemon (or is it Pokemon – forgive my ignorance) is to young viewers of animated television. According to Tabitha, Swiss children who had stopped reading – as did children of successive video game and iPad generations all over the world – rediscovered Heidi with these translated animation series.

Japanese men and women (especially the latter, I suspect) of a certain age, who grew up watching the 1974 anime Heidi, Girl of the Alps make up a large proportion of visitors of Heididorf. Every year, half a dozen Japanese couples make their way to the village to get married. Surely enough, there is a Japanese wedding planning website called Heidiwedding.com and this is what I can make out from Google’s quirky translation: Take your wedding vows in the Heidi Alps, in a world you have dreamed of as a child.

Heidiwedding

I have to admit, even without the Heidi motif, it is a beautiful spot to get hitched in. The lulling sound of cowbells. The crisp mountain air. The uninterrupted views of distant mountain peaks.

Later at lunch, I meet Hitsch Möhr, ex-Mayor of Maienfeld. His claim to fame in my eyes is that he featured in a local production of the movie in 1953. It is initially difficult to imagine this charming, bald man as a ten-year-old on the sets. Then he grins as he talks about going for auditions just to get a day off from school, and the years fall away. Hobnobbing with a film star (almost) over some melt-in-the-mouth nusstorte, the region’s special nut pastry, is the ideal end to my Heidi morning.

nusstorte

That afternoon, I am let into a Swiss secret, and it has nothing to do with bank accounts. In the neighbouring village of Malans, I meet fifth generation wine-maker Martin Donatsch, who has trained in Australia, South Africa, France and Spain. Martin – whose mother’s name is Heidi – has been winning awards for his Pinot Noir. But what wins me over during the tasting session, is the intense Completer, a grape unique to Switzerland.

Swiss vineyards

Martin Donatsch

And then I wonder what other secrets the Swiss hold close to their hearts.

Things to do

Maienfeld in the Graubünden Canton in Eastern Switzerland is a two-hour train ride from Zurich. While in Graubünden, hike and ski in Flumserberg and Pizol, or indulge in a thermal spa treatment at Bad Ragaz. Also go sightseeing at Chur, Switzerland’s oldest town, which also calls itself The Alpine City.

More information on Heididorf

***
This story, based on a recent Switzerland trip, was published in Mumbai Mirror on November 10, 2013 as Rooting for Heidi

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