Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

Swiss Jewels Stud the Alps

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 By James Gaffney,  Mature Life Features

LUCERNE, Switzerland — We stopped in the rolling, sun-drenched foothills of the Alps on a spring afternoon and sat by a small herd of milk-chocolate-colored cowbell-clanging dairy cows. A pair of the curious creatures inched towards me – or, more precisely, my feet — and in a quiet calculated move commenced nibbling the toes of my loafers.

“Maybe your leather shoes reminds them of a distant cousin,” wisecracked a fellow hiker.

This was just an added fillip in the surprising walkabout in the UNESCO Entlebuch Biosphere, a natural reserve that makes you think of Colorado on steroids.Our stroll through this postcard landscape was less than an hour’s train and bus ride from bustling Lucerne, the hub of our visit for a few days.

View from Murten’s Old Castle wall

I’d really expected this country to be barely more than its legendary three Cs — cows, chocolate and cheese. That perception was dashed the first day I headed out to explore Lucerne, tucked like a jewel on Lake Lucerne, along the Reuss River. The city is tied together by a network of historic bridges that link the city’s clean-swept pedestrian-only districts, such as Hirschenplatz and Weinmarkt resplendant with half-timbered buildings and Renassaisance-style painted facades.

Everywhere are cozy squares filled with inviting cafes, fashion-forward boutiques and stylish hotels like the Wilden Mann Luzern on Bahnhofstrasse, our home away from home. Everywhere, it seemed, was history, even inside the 670-foot long wooden Kapellbrucke, or Chapel Bridge, one of the city’s many cherished landmarks that features 120 captioned triangular paintings from the early 1500s that depict Lucerne’s history.

Not unlike Amsterdam and Venice, Lucerne’s pulse springs from its meandering waterfront walkways that beckons the romantic of heart at night. As this country’s understandably most popular tourist destination (and essential stop on European bus tours), breathtaking Lucerne is Switzerland’s calendar-girl city — mercilessly pretty and not a hair out of place.

“People in Lucerne are a lot more conservative than people in Geneva and Zurich,” said 20-year Lucerne resident Eliane Ritschard. Which helps to explain the popularity of the city’s Swiss Transport Museum, or Verkehrshaus, the nation’s most visited museum. It’s a Smithsonian-like collection of past and present forms of rail, road, sea and air transportation.

None of which is to suggest that this cosmopolitan city of 60,000 is merely a history-filled relic of European past content to rest on its laurels. To glimpse this enclave’s edgy contemporary flair, we co-mingled with art lovers at the Kunstmuseum Luzern (Museum of Art) and Sammlung Rosengart Museum. The latter houses the impressive (and sizeable) personal collection of the late Sammlung Rosengart’s Picasso paintings, watercolors and drawings. The Museum of Art, situated on the fourth floor of the futuristic KKL Culture and Congress Center, is an architectural showcase of glass and steel. Amid this expos‚ of postmodernism we feasted our eyes on a cache of avant-garde art that included a multimedia exhibit by acclaimed Swiss-born artist Urs Lthi.

“I feel as though I’m discovering genius for the first time,” my museum-junkie traveling companion from New York noted, as she admired a self-portrait of a middle-aged, bald and overweight Luthi lying on the beach and dropping a ball.

We left German-speaking Lucerne and headed north by rail to explore the French-speaking 12th century medieval town of Fribourg and its day-trip-worthy country cousins, La Gruyere and Murten.

Fribourg, tucked alongside the Sarine River and touted as Switzerland’s most “amiable and easygoing town,” calls for good walking shoes because everywhere you need to go is uphill, or at least seems like it. Like many medieval European towns, Fribourg is best viewed from as high a vantage point as possible. So we huffed our way up the winding roadway that leads from Old Town up a steep hill past chalet-style homes sporting window boxes of seasonal flowers. Finally we reached the little wooden chapel, built in 1684 and parked ourselves on a nearby bench a few yards from grazing cows for an unsurpassed view of the city below, the sun warming our faces and the Alpine wind blowing through our hair.

Back in Old Town, we stopped in at Brasserie de L’Edge across the square from our accommodations, the Romantik Hotel Au Sauvage on Plache-Superieure for a cold glass of local Cardinal beer and to soak in the after-work wind-down rhythm of the Old City as the late-afternoon sun cast a warm yellow hue over the dormers of former burghers’ townhomes.

“If you squint your eyes,” my companion said, “this scene looks almost like a painting.”

To peer deep into the heart of this millennia-old country’s heritage requires a short bus ride from Fribourg to the 400-year-old rural township of La Gruyeres, to visit a factory that helps produce the cheese of the same name that Switzerland single-handedly put on the international map and dinner tables worldwide. Gruyeres, the cheese, if you haven’t had the pleasure, is among the best on the planet and still hands-down the favorite among those who know a thing or two about fondue.

Nearby is the photogenic hilltop town of Gruyeres Ville, population 100, home to the 13th-century Gruyeres Castle, and the H.R. Giger Museum and Bar — named for the local artist, sculptor and set designer who won an Academy Award for creating those horrific creatures seen in the 1979 movie “Alien.”

We got the chance later to twirl bread cubes at the end of long forks in a simmering pot of the delectable melted Gruyeres.

Next morning we explored the medieval, arcaded town of Murten. A stroll along the ramparts of the Old Castle wall was rewarded with panoramic views of the lovely red-tiled rooftops of this 800-year-old community. No visit here is complete without a boat trip to Sugiez in Lake Marten’s wine-producing region, The Vulley, for lunch at the well-reviewed Restaurant l’Ours, before a Swiss-style walk in the clouds through the hilly countryside and wine tasting in the nearby cobblestone-lane town of Praz.

If you plan to travel by rail here, your best bet is to buy a Swiss Pass, which must be purchased in the United States before leaving for in Switzerland. It covers not only rail excursions but also bus fares and museum fees.

For more information on travel in Switzerland, contact your local travel agent, Swiss Air at (887) 359-7937) or Switzerland Tourism (301) 260-2421.

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Written by Cecil Scaglione

July 19, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Posted in Europe, Travel

Tagged with , , ,

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