Mountains, dragons, and drunk men

10 June 2015

The next morning dawned foggy, which we were all a little disappointed about because we wanted to truly see the beauty of Switzerland, which, obviously, is a little difficult when everything is covered in CLOUDS.  But, we made the best of it!

We ate a decidedly small breakfast (there just wasn’t a lot to choose from) and then hopped on the bus where Florian drove us back down the winding little roads with oncoming traffic, nearly sideswiping a big truck, before getting us on the highway.  Along the way, Michela talked a little about some of the things we were looking at as we went down the mountain.  She talked about the founding of Luzerne, the City of Light.  She explained that it is said that angels came down and told the people of old with the light to build a church, which sprang into a city they named Luzerne – which means “from the light.”  If you hadn’t noticed, our hotel is Hotel Engle, or Angel Hotel, which is a sweet nod to the founding of this gorgeous city.  Michela also informed us that the Reuss River, which runs through Lake Luzerne, also runs through the town, but a little more on that later.
Random sticks?  Not at all.  They serve a very thoughtful purpose.

See these things?  I wish America were this thoughtful.  I want you to guess what these are.
Have a guess?
So what are they really?

These sticks mark where a new house is going to be.  See, new owners will use these sticks to basically lay out their unbuilt (not a word, but I don’t care) house on the land they want to eventually live on.  Then they leave them there for about 6 months, which gives their new neighbors time to A) adjust to the fact that they will have new neighbors and, B) give them time to call and complain if those neighbors have a problem with the new possibles wanting to live near them.  If there are no complaints within these 6 months, the newbies are given the green light build, by which time new neighbors better keep their mouths shut because they were warned.  Isn’t that thoughtful?!
Unfortunately, not the best picture but I was able to snag one in a moving bus.  Heck yes!

Ok, now see this thing?  It’s an announcement.  Usually one that people like to talk about here in America but don’t usually announce with such gusto.  I want you to guess what this announces.
Have a guess?
What is this really?  I bet your guess was pretty close.

This temporary toilet paper-looking tree announces the birth of a baby!  Michela said the family leaves it up there for about a year before taking it down.  I didn’t see anywhere that said the sex of the baby nor did she discuss that, but I did see that it didn’t matter how many babies you had – you decorated a tree for each of them, whether you had 1 (like in the picture above) or three (like I saw at another house on the side of the road).  Each baby gets a tree to announce their arrival into the world.  After about a year, the temporary tree is taken down.  Could you imagine all of the fake trees that would dot the American landscape if we did something similar?   Very sweet, but not entirely practical in a country as large as ours.  Don’t you just love these different customs?!  I do.

Right, so the ride to the city of Luzerne was about 45 minutes, which several took advantage of by catching a few zzz’s.  Since it was so foggy, the mountains looked a little sad, which made us all tired.  Stupid clouds….

Our first stop was a very sweet monument in Luzerne that we walked to from the bus.
The Dying Lion from a distance

The Dying Lion a little closer - you can see the Latin inscription on the top and can make out a little of the bottom one.

The Dying Lion - the protector up close

Remember in the last post when I said the Pope was still guarded by the Swiss army?  Well, he has been for a very long time because they are brave and loyal.  Other people have been guarded by the Swiss at various points in time, as well.  Like kings.  This monument stands as a reminder of Switzerland’s sacrifice many years ago.  No, it was not in a war, per se.  Okay, short anecdote.  Ready?

In 1792, the French had King Louis XVI on the throne and France was in the midst of the French Revolution.  The French people were starving and they wanted the king to realize that so they invaded Versailles and, in the end, the king and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were beheaded.  But, more on that later in my Versailles post.  So, in the throws of the French Revolution, the King was attacked by the revolutionary masses at the Tuileries Castle in August, 1792.  The Swiss troops, bound by oath to protect the king, swung into action and beat back the masses allowing for the royals to escape.  There were over 1,000 Swiss men guarding the king and 760 of them died.  The monument, of a dying lion, is a testament to their sacrifice.  The lion is an international symbol of bravery, which you can see in injured.  He is lying across a stone shield with a fleur-de-lis on it, the symbol of France, indicating that he is dying protecting France.  There is also another shield behind his head, which is that of Switzerland.  The Latin phrase over the top of the monument, HELVETIORUM FIDEI AC VIRTUTI, translates to mean “The bravery, strength, and virtue of the Swiss.”  Helvetiorum is the Latin word for the Swiss, fidei means strength/bravery/trust, and virtuti means virtue.  Pretty easy enough to understand.  Underneath the lion are carved the names of the men who gave their lives for the French king and of those who were saved.  It sits over a mirror pool which, when it’s not windy, you can see a perfect reflection of in the water.  It really was a very sweet moment and one that, as a history teacher, helps hit home for me – I love it when we can see shining examples of sacrifice from one country to another, especially at a time when war was rampant (American Revolution, French Revolution, etc.) and everyone was an enemy, except Switzerland, who has not been at war for over 500 years.  That’s so impressive!

Here's our little group getting cozy with the Dying Lion

We left the monument more educated and touched by true sacrifice to get back on the bus for another part of the city.

The second time we got off the bus started the rest of our walking tour, which was very short.  First, we stopped at the public toilets (we went for free whenever we could), then waited by a short stone wall by the lake to watch the baby swans as they became just as enamored with us as we were with them.  Their parents weren’t too thrilled… but we all made it out alive.  Swans are the devil, btw.  Meanest birds you’ll ever meet.  Don’t try to pet them – they WILL bite and lop you with their 6 foot wings. 

The second first stop on our walking tour was the Jeusitenkirche, a Jesuit church that looked rather sad on the outside, but on the inside, absolutely took our breath away.  I’ve seen a lot of churches in my travels, but this one was truly unique on the inside.  I’ve never seen a church painted like this one was.  It was white.  And PINK!  The front was carved marble and the embellishments along the ceilings and sides were so detailed they almost looked unreal.  The painting on the ceiling was beautiful, too.  I had to sit down for a few minutes just to be able to take some of it in.

A little about this magnificent place of worship:
The church sits right on the banks of the Reuss River, which runs through the city of Luzerne, and was founded by Jesuit priests as a church and a school in 1574.  This is the oldest church in the entire city as it sits in the old city, which is the original area of the city’s foundation.  If you’re into art, then you would be happy to know that this is the first baroque-style church built in northern Switzerland.  The onion domes, usually typical of Russian architecture, adorn the top of the bell towers.  The church took over 100 years to build and was finished on the outside before the inside was completed (1666).

The church was undergoing renovations on the outside, so I had to borrow another internet picture to show you what it really looks like (only the second borrowed picture!)
Jesuitenkirche, Luzerne, Switzerland - it sits on the banks of the Reuss River around where the original part of the city stands.

But here are my pictures of the inside.  Beautiful, right?
Part of the interior of the Jesuitenkirche - isn't that beautiful?  I've never seen a pink and white church before.

Here is the marble nave and high altar

This is a painting of Saint Francis Xavier, the patron saint of this church. There is a net underneath the ceiling to keep birds out, which is why it looks a little funny.

Some of the filigree that adorned the walls and coves of the inside.  Such beauty.

We left the church to continue exploring the old part of the town, where we would be spending most of our time while in the city.  Right across the little road that went right across the banks of the Reuss River was the old city bridge and the old watchtower.
Here's the watchtower, part of Chapel Bridge, and the castle hotel in the background, owned by the Russians.

Chapel Bridge - see I was silly and forgot to snap a full picture of it, so this is another borrowed one :-(
But here is it in pieces :-) - Chapel Bridge, Luzerne, Switzerland

Chapel Bridge - Luzerne, Switzerland

The picture on the top is of the old watchtower, of which there are several as they were built into the wall that surrounded the old city, which you can still see and climb on if you really want to (I forgot….).  In addition to being a watchtower, this was also the location where many people were tortured.  My thoughts immediately went to The Tower of London as that is a place FULL of historical torture and mechanisms.  Call me morbid (hello, morbid), but I love learning about that sort of thing – I think it’s mostly the psychology behind it but I think it’s also fascinating to learn about the creative ways (yes, they were creative) that humans created to cause immense pain in others.  Brutal, to be sure, and stomach twisting, but fascinating all the same.  I get grossed out learning about it!

 Anyway, the bridge attached to the tower is called Kapellbr├╝cke, or Chapel Bridge, of which much of it has had to be rebuilt.  It was originally constructed in 1333 and in each peak of the roof is a 17th century painting of old Swiss heroes.  Each painting has a description and it literally spans the entire length of the bridge.  This is the oldest covered wooden bridge in all of Europe and it was a delight to cross.  As we walked, we noted the perfect flower boxes adorning the outside length of the bridge, and looked at many of the paintings above our heads, on both sides of the trusses.  Then we noticed some of them getting darker and darker, then black, then light again.  Hm… that’s weird.  Well, there’s an explanation.  Back in 1993, some man, drunk as blazes, set the bridge on fire and destroyed many of the paintings on the bridge, as well as the bridge itself.  It was quickly put out but those paintings lost were never restored – a reminder of how stupid people can be.  You can still see the evidence of the fire if you look above your head at the peaks in the roof.  Such a sad tale for such a beautiful bridge.

One of the 17th Century paintings in the peaks of the Chapel Bridge.  Each peak had two paintings, one on each side, of heroes of Switzerland and other manly historical things, like torture and severed heads.

After our initiation into Luzerne across the oldest wooden footbridge in Europe, we received our city maps and were given free reign for a few hours.  Renee and I went souvenir shopping as we had a list of things to get, among them authentic Swiss Army knives.  Then, we decided to grab a small lunch at Heini, a pastry shop (and yes, it is pronounced hiney).  This is where I spend about 4€ on a croissant and would have spent 5€ on a piece of cake if I had really wanted it.  Forget about a drink – I had my water and I was satisfied with that!  Then we did some more shopping at the galleria just down the street.  This is the expensive galleria – as in extremely high end shops that only the super rich people go to.  We walked in just to check it out, not expecting much at all, and really we just went for the free toilets.  But we ventured upstairs to several stores, Swarovsky, Rolex, and a few others, and almost had a heart attack looking at the prices of some of the wares.  It was in the Rolex store that our pants nearly came unglued.  I couldn’t take pictures of anything but my eyes bulged when I saw the 250.000€ price tag (the period = a comma – that’s THOUSANDS).  We kept walking and the prices kept soaring.  One of them was at least 1.000.000€.  As soon as I saw that, I turned and I walked out.  If rich people want to spend that kind of money on a freaking watch, I need to get in touch with them – maybe they can afford to pay my student loans, which would be a much better use of their money.  A watch.  A watch?!  Arm candy.  Small bling.  Seriously?  I want to vomit at the amount of money some people have.  But, of course, it was Switzerland where the rich abound and Maserati’s  and Bugatti’s are like Hondas.  After the sticker shock, we looked for something more in our price range – ice cream – which we found and gladly sat to each and people watch before our next adventure of the day:

A boat ride, a cog train, and a mountain climb.

Ice Cream!  And it was delicious :-D

Time was up on the free time in the city so we all met back together to take a boat ride around Lake Luzerne to a cog rail train to go up the mountain.  But it was not just any mountain – this was Mount Pilatus, the second highest mountain in Switzerland after the Matterhorn, and it was absolutely beautiful!

So, I know you’re really not going to know what you’re looking at but below are two different pictures of the routes we took.  The first one is strictly the boat map we were given, the second one it the entire adventure to the mountain, up, and then down the mountain.  All of which I will share with you!
We started in Luzerne, which is starred on the bottom and then landed at Alpnachersee on the right side an hour and a half later.  In other words, this is a VERY LARGE LAKE and a really bad picture :-/

Our Journey from Luzerne to the top of Mount Pilatus back to civilization

Michela gave us all our tickets as we waited for the boat to dock.  On the back was the route we were going to take (the second picture) which was pretty cool because we could actually see what was in store for us.  Michela had told us the ride around to our stop would take a while, but I don’t think she told us it would take an hour and a half!  But it was a beautiful hour and a half ride.  There was some wind and I sat in the very front of the boat, but Renee and I got to see the mountains and the lake and the villages and the stops and experience the nature of Switzerland.  Even though it was foggy, it was still pretty. 
It's hard to tell...

But Lake Luzerne...

Really is very pretty.

Stupid clouds...

But we're enjoying it!  What a lovely breeze!

See?  Pretty!

After our relaxing, windy ride, we finally docked and had to hurry to our next mode of transportation – the cog rail train.  Before we got there, we saw the most Swiss thing (besides chocolate) I had known about – the alpine horns!  
The Alpine Horns - gorgeous music!!

Two gentlemen were playing them and we all stopped to listen for a few minutes, which we weren’t actually supposed to do because we nearly missed our train ride.  But the music was beautiful!  Very quickly, we were ushered to the turnstile for the cog rail train.  If you’ve never heard of it, it’s exactly what it sounds like.  This little train uses a cog on the bottom to pull itself up the mountain, lugging curious tourists, such as us, through the clouds to catch just a glimpse of the awesome Alps.  Also, just in case you were curious, this is the highest (and steepest) cog railway in the world, with a maximum angle of 48┬║ - the cars had to be specially built to handle the steepness of the terrain. 
Again, not my picture here, but the rest of them are!
It's really difficult to tell how steep that really is... but I had to sit up on my knees and prop my arms up on the seat in front of me to get this picture.  The drive was sitting about 10 feet above my head.

That's the angle straight on of another car going down.  Pretty cool, huh?

We also got free hats!  Who doesn't love free?

Renee and I couldn't wait to snap a selfie sporting our new do

Leader pictures - we were all so excited to get to the top!  And of course, you always have to have that one kid that photo bombs...  Thanks, Conner, Camryn, and the rest of the gang.

Leader picture with Michela - she's in the white jacket.

I cannot express (and pictures cannot depict) how magnificently beautiful the alpine area truly is.  It took us about 45 minutes to reach the top – which went by very quickly as we kept ooo-ing and aah-ing with just about every passing tree (thick forest… lots of trees… lots of that).  The higher we went, the more beautiful it became, despite the amount of fog around.  Stupid clouds.  We all took tons of pictures, which definitely can’t justify the beauty of this place, but can give you at least some idea.  I tried so very hard to get a picture of how steep it was, but that’s impossible unless you step out of the train.  Let me put it to you this way: if we had been put in a car (think roller coaster) and strapped in at the beginning perpendicular to the ground, most of the way up, we would have been nearly parallel to the mountain.  It almost looks like a straight line climb in some places.  But the experience was breathtaking and, once we got through the fog, the landscape (what we could see) is more beautiful than I could have possibly imagined.
Riding the cog rail trail up the mountain

It really does look like a postcard, doesn't it?

Pretty sure I would never get tired of seeing that.

On the way up - and there's the stinking fog...

On our way up - this is me looking almost straight towards the sky.  It's deceptively steep.  And everything looks so small.

Near the top!  Looking down into the valley, covered with dragon's breath fog...

Once we got to the top, we were given free time to explore around the summit, climb higher, and generally take in the magnificent mountaintops – quite different from the mountains we have here in the states.  These are majestic, grandeur demanding peaks that are all at once beautiful and dangerous.  Michela told us a story of a tour group like ours that had gone up the mountain and were given time to explore the peak, too.  A few of the boys on the trip decided they wanted to explore a trail, so down they went.  The place is covered with them, so it wasn’t that big of a deal.  Then, they decided to get off the trail and have a snowball fight (there is snow up there 365 days a year).  During their goofing off, one of the boys slipped and fell on the mountain and died so we were warned very nicely to stay within our designated trail areas.  No argument there.  This is a very dangerous place.  I respect that.  Renee and I decided to go through some of the mountain tunnels first, where we found the legend of the mountain along with it’s gorgeous grandeur.  According to legend, Mount Pilatus was home to dragons during the medieval times – stories of which apparently were confirmed by many residents in the surrounding area during that time.  I won’t go into great detail, but if you want to know about the dragon’s connection to the mountain, go here and read about it – it’s quite interesting!

After the caves, we came to stairs – LOTS of stairs.  On one side of the stairs was a mountain with little stone pockets – on the other side was a sheer drop down to death.  I’m not fond of heights in the slightest – no siree – so I held on VERY tightly to the mountain, or as well as I could considering it wasn’t smooth and I had to move out of the way of other people.  But I kept climbing.  And climbing and climbing until Renee and I were at the very top of the mountain.  And, wow!  Was that a sight to behold!  All you could see for miles were mountain tops and snow and a bright blue sky (above the fog).  But the fog was too thick to see the valley below.  Oh darn… I guess I’ll just HAVE to go back :-P  Hee hee!
That's the big gondola ride down that we got to take later

Here's me with the pretty mountains in the background, the stairs, and the sheer drop off RIGHT BEHIND ME.

Same as above, but without my face

Renee and I braving the elements: height, thin air, chill, and the possibility of death.  We so totally rocked it.

At the tippy top!  I smiled even though I could barely breathe!

Of course we took lots of pictures of the surrounding area before we had to leave.  By the time we left, I wished we had had more time on the mountain because we passed something I never thought I would see in my lifetime and then got a strong desire to experience.  But give me a minute – I have to work up to it. 
This was our view pretty much all around.  If the fog were gone, we would have been able to see the town down below.

It's so beautiful!  Can you imagine being able to wake up to that every morning?!  Those who live this high on the mountain get to... I'm so jealous.

And of course, we just had to get a group picture (totally my idea) at the top.  I can't get over how beautiful it all was!

Getting down the mountain was just as beautiful as getting up the mountain, but we didn’t take the railway to the bottom.  We took the cable gondolas.  I KNOW you’ve seen them – just a larger version of the ski lifts.  And we got to take two!  The first one was very large and held about 80 people.  It was truly breathtaking (and quiet) as we rode down.  Nothing but the conversations of other people and the chirping of birds.  Then, I saw it.  The one thing I had wanted to do for quite a while but actually forgot it was in Switzerland – the toboggan run down the side of the mountain.  We might call it a luge, but it’s not really a luge.  It’s a metal roller coaster in which you sit on a very small cart and ride the metal slide down the mountain to the bottom, get on a lift back to the top, and do it again!  Here’s a picture from their website:
Seriously?!  Who wouldn't want to do THAT?!  Even if you're not a fan of roller coasters, you can control the speed at which you slide, which is pretty awesome.  I'd totally do this.  100%.

This is the longest one in Switzerland, too!  And it looks like SO much fun.  You can do something similar in Utah, which I honestly thought I would get to before Switzerland, but now I HAVE to come back and do this.  And it’s CHEAP, too!  If you’re in that area, definitely check it out.  I do believe it would be worth it – and invest in a Go-Pro to document your experience down the mountain.  Also, if you just decide you want go venture to Switzerland, let me know.  I’ll totally buy a plane ticket or hop in your suitcase. 

After the big gondola let us off, we got on smaller gondolas for the rest of the ride down.  These only held a paltry 4 people, but it was awesome!  And, again, the view was spectacular. We passed through forest, over homes, and villages, stopped twice in the middle of nowhere and just swung in the air about 300 feet from the ground.  That was terrifying for a second.  We later found out that some of the cars were too close together so they stopped everyone to let some space get in between them.  This is what they looked like when you got on them:
It's hard to tell how small they are but they only fit 4 people - two facing forwards and two facing backwards with VERY LITTLE knee room in the middle.

These are some of the views from the little gondola itself.
On the way down the mountain via the little gondola

So pretty up here!

Getting closer to civilization...

And we must take more selfies :-)

Here's the little town we landed in (not Luzerne).

Don’t you just want to have that as your backyard?  It’s almost too pretty to be true, isn’t it?

After our 30 minute ride was over, we found ourselves back on the ground at the correct altitude while Florian waited for us to board the bus.  He took us back (another 45 minutes to an hour) to our hotel where we had another spectacular meal of salad, spaghetti, and ice cream and warm beds to rock us to sleep.  We couldn’t believe by this point that half of our trip was gone!  We had experienced so much and it was going by way too fast – partly because they were keeping us so busy, and partly because we kept sleeping on the bus rides.  But, there’s still a lot more to experience on this trip so stay tuned for more in a later post.

Btw, thanks for keeping up with me.  I hope you’re enjoying this adventure as much as I am. 

Until next time!

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