A storybook comes to life

Such is the Disneyesque look and feel of the Swiss lakeside city of Lucerne that one almost expects to encounter Beauty and the Beast’s Belle sauntering through its medieval streets with her nose stuck in a book, studiously avoiding the overbearing advances of the otherwise curiously attractive Gaston.

The presence of two Hogwartsian sheltered wooden bridges and three surviving towers from the town’s old fortification wall, not to mention stone houses with fresco facades, a hillside restaurant, the Chateau Gutsch, which lights up in blue in the evening, and the stunning backdrop of the towering Alps (from Mount Rigi to Mount Pilates) only adds to the storybook nature of the area.

Lucerne is an ideal city break location. It’s picturesque and easy to get to, and is navigable by foot (though there are also buses to get you around).

It also has plenty of good options for accommodation, food, culture, and shopping, plus at this time of year it’s perfectly feasible to pack in some time on the slopes as the ski resort of Engelberg is just a short distance away (30km, about an hour by train).

The only thing about Lucerne — in fact most of Switzerland — is that it’s pretty dear. Eating out, in particular, is the biggest expense.

Dining in restaurants is reserved only for special occasions in Lucerne, so individual businesses have to make a living with higher prices.

But the upside is that most restaurants don’t overbook so you could arrive at 6pm and keep your table all night.

Cost aside, the statistics point to the area’s perennial popularity as a holiday destination. The population of Lucerne is circa 76,000.

Every summer, there are around one million overnight stays in the city.

There are a range of music and arts festivals held here throughout the year that remain big draws, while the climate is fresh and mild in spring, and reaches an average of 33 degrees in the summer. Winters are quite long: the first snow usually falls in October and lasts until March.

We stayed in the charming 16th century Hotel Wilden Mann in the heart of Lucerne’s Old Town, an area that is a popular base for most city-breakers.

That first evening my group strolled over to the imposing Montana Hotel for dinner. Recently restored and expanded to mark its 100th anniversary, this hotel’s rooftop terrace offers the best views of Lake Lucerne and the Swiss Alps, plus has the added novelty of being accessed by the world’s shortest funicular railway, which carries you right up from the street to the hotel.

Inside, the hotel is decorated in art deco style, and houses a number of bars that are famous for two things: jazz and whiskey. Indeed, the last bottle of Black Bowmore in the world is housed here, but one measure of the whiskey will set you back around €440.

The next morning, we went on a walking tour of the city, where our Lucerne Tourism guide Ursula took us through the city’s fascinating history. Dating from 840AD, Lucerne became a vital trade hub in medieval Europe, and has been gutted several times by fires (it was an-all timber town before residents decided to rebuild with the less-flammable stone).

That’s also a good way to see and walk Lucerne’s two covered bridges, the Chapel Bridge and the Mill Bridge, which are decorated with 17th century triangle-shaped paintings depicting the so-called Dance of Death; a reminder to live a good life to get into heaven.

Afterwards, we took a leisurely boat cruise to the island of Weggis to visit the five-star Park Hotel, where our gruelling schedule included a morning in the hotel’s “wellness cottages” incorporating hot tubs, saunas, water beds, and sun beds. With a Michelin-star restaurant on site, and hotel suites with panoramic views of the Alps, it’s not surprising that there’s a two-year waiting list for wedding bookings.

The next day we made the short journey to Engelberg, located at the foot of the 10,000ft Mount Titlis, for some skiing. Alas, the weather conditions didn’t suit that day, but the village has a lively après-ski culture and some decent options for alternative outdoor activities like hiking, as well as an indoor leisure centre.

Back in Lucerne, we ended the holiday on a classy note with a visit to the town’s landmark Culture and Congress Centre (KKL Luzern) for a performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No 5 in B-flat Major, before a late supper of pigeon, and one-too many glasses of Swiss wine.

In fact, we discovered that wine was considered part of basic nourishment in medieval Lucerne as the water wasn’t always drinkable.

Ever since, the city always makes sure to have plenty of vino for its citizens. Yep; definitely my kind of place.

Flight Information

Swiss International Airlines flies from Dublin to Zurich, and from Dublin to Geneva. Lucerne is around one hour away by train from Zurich, and three hours from Geneva (using Swiss Pass – see below).

www.swiss.com For more information on Switzerland visit www.MySwitzerland.com or call Switzerland Travel Centre on the international freephone number 00800 100 200 30.

Getting around

The Swiss Pass entitles you to unlimited travel on consecutive days on the Swiss rail, bus, and boat travel system. It also covers scenic routes, local trams and buses in 38 towns and cities, as well as offering a 50% reduction on most mountaintop trains and cable cars, and free entrance to 450 museums and exhibitions. Prices vary: for adults, a second- class pass ranges from €230 for four days, while the price for children (6-15) is €116 for the same period. Full price listings: see www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk.

Activities

Lucerne Carnival is held every year just before Lent. From 5am on ‘Dirty Thursday’ (the last Thursday before Lent) until Carnival Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday), some 12,000 party in the streets with a carnival of colour, costumes, music and dance.

The Lucerne Easter Festival (March 24 – April 1, 2012) features a full classical symphony programme at KKL Luzern Concert Hall.

The slopes of Engelberg should suit mixed ability skiers, and there’s a range of activities like hiking and train rides on Mount Pilatus.

The food

Be sure to try traditional mainstays like pigeon, cheese fondue, homemade meatloaf, and Röschti. Swiss wines are sweet and dangerously easy to drink. I particularly liked Taube restaurant (www.taube-luzern.ch/) in Lucerne, and Restaurant Schweizerhaus (www.schweizerhaus.ch) in Engleberg – both classy joints.

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