Beverley Watts travels from Lucerne to Lugano by train for a floral journey through Switzerland’s Spring flowers.
The Swiss make melt-on-the-tongue chocolate and some very fancy watches but it’s the country’s dramatic landscape that lifts my heart. Forget the sugar rush and eye-wateringly expensive timepieces, the glorious Alps from Lucerne to Lugano by train have had their current shape for millions of years. Thanks to glaciers scooping out over 100 huge lakes and erosion carving through the jagged mountains, the views in Switzerland are simply phenomenal.
American writer Mark Twain climbed to the top of Mount Rigi in 1878 to watch the sunrise and declared: ‘We could not speak. We could hardly breathe. We could only gaze in drunken ecstasy and drink it in.’ J.M.W. Turner visited six times to paint the scenery and the place that dazzled the artist the most was Lucerne.
At the end of the last ice age 20,000 years ago, central Switzerland still lay under a massive ice sheet and Lucerne’s geological past was revealed in 1873. Excavations for a wine cellar just outside the old city uncovered deep ‘glacial potholes’, formed as the Reiss glacier thawed – and evidence of a Jurassic ocean. Seashells and plant fronds show Lucerne was once a seashore lined with palm trees. You can travel back in time at the Glacier Garden and peer into the past.
In the same spot, carved out of a sandstone rock face in 1820, is the Lion of Lucerne, a sculpted monument to commemorate the heroism of Swiss soldiers during the French Revolution. Twain described the fatally wounded big cat as ‘the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world’.
Lucerne became an important trade centre between the Upper Rhine and Lombardy in the early 13th century when the Gotthard Pass was opened up. The settlement grew in power and prominence and the Musegg city wall was built to protect the citizen merchants. Today four of the ancient towers are accessible to the public in the warmer months and offer an elevated glimpse of the municipality with its craggy backdrop.
Goosanders nest in the wall’s crevices and, after hatching, the ducklings jump from the ramparts to waddle to the river, past Highland Cattle grazing on grassy slopes.
Part of the fortifications – linking the old town to the new town – is the oldest covered wooden bridge in Europe, the Kapellbrucke. It’s astonishing that this wonderful landmark has survived but it was nearly destroyed by a fire in 1993. Now restored, the Chapel Bridge is decorated with spring and summer flower displays every year, making a colourful stripe across the river Reuss. Preparing the many thousands of organically grown blooms keeps a team of gardeners very busy all year round. Compost is made from sheep’s wool and insects are controlled in the greenhouses with predatory mites.
Travel on the Gotthard Panorama Express, a five-hour journey by boat and train, for an unforgettable highlight to your trip. I sailed on Lake Lucerne from Lucerne to Fluelen (lunch served onboard) past William Tell’s chapel. It marks the spot where, according to legend, the Swiss folk hero leapt to safety from a boat in a storm, escaping his captors.
When travelling from Lucerne to Lugano by train, the train connection carries on south to Lugano in the Italian-speaking region of Ticino and the Gotthard route passes waterfalls, Roman bridges, Merlot vineyards and a man with Swiss flag who waves to the train every day. Railways pioneer Alfred Escher is celebrated with a seated wooden statue that accompanies passengers en route.
On the banks of Lake Maggiore, Locarno was once a Roman city and is renowned for its sunny climate. If you make your base in this pretty town, it’s simple to use local transport to get around if walking is too far. Just half an hour away on foot is Ascona where you can take a boat to San Pancrazio, one of the Brissago Islands.
Above Ascona is Monte Verità (Mountain of Truth), a hillside that started to attract a group of unconventional bohemians at the end of the 19th century. They wanted to sow the seeds of a new utopia in the region, with its balmy atmosphere and rich earth. Dressed in loose flowing clothes, they built spartan wooden cabins and grew their own food in search of a pure life.
On San Pancrazio, in 1885 a Russian baroness transformed a deserted island, with ruins of an old convent, into a fertile paradise with its own microclimate by transporting tons of earth. Dedicated to botany and culture, Antoinette de Saint Léger invited painters, sculptors, musicians and writers (including James Joyce) to visit.
Now San Pancrazio has a fabulous botanical garden that’s open from April to November with 1,500 plant species including azaleas, rhododendrons, bamboo, agaves, yucca and California poppies.
The baroness also planted camellias and if you love the glossy evergreens, make sure to see the Parco delle Camelie (Camellia Park) in Locarno. There are 900 different varieties of camellia including many rare species and 10 perfumed hybrids which thrive beside the lake.
Lugano is 20 minutes from Locarno by bus and Parco Ciani is right on the waterfront of Lake Lugano, with Monte San Salvatore looming on the opposite shore. Pop along to the village of Morcote for Parco Scherrer, planted on terraces and dotted with follies, then head up from Lugano to Parco San Grato for the best panoramic outlook of all over the bay.
As Mark Twain described Switzerland in a letter to a friend: ‘Beauty undergoes a perpetual processional change from one miracle to another, yet never runs short of fresh surprises.’
Where to eat
The Gutsch is a hill, to the west of Lucerne, where a watch fire once burned to warn the city in times of danger. in 1879 the Chateau Gutsch replaced the ruins of a tower and is now a Lucerne landmark. Enjoy a special dinner of glazed Dover sole with samphire creme fraiche and asparagus or just a cocktail. The Gutsch Fizz is a mix of gin, lime, cranberry, vanilla syrup, egg white and soda.
At the half-timbered historic Hotel Rebstock a guesthouse since 1408, try local lunch dish ‘Luzerner Chugelipastetli’ – a puff pastry pie filled with veal in a creamy sauce made with mushrooms, apple and marinated grapes in Cognac
Where to stay in Lucerne
In Lucerne, the quirky Hotel Wilden Mann definitely has charm and is perfectly situated in the old town. Pieced together from a former 16th century tavern and mix of town houses, it has creaking floorboards and winding passageways, each room with its own unique décor.
The 4-star-superior Hotel Belvedere Locarno offers half-board stays and the menu at the comfortable Restaurant La Fontana is excellent. Director Michele Rinaldini takes good care of all his guests, who have included Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe. The Locarno International Film Festival means the Hotel Belvedere is booked out in August.
Images (C) Beverley Watts, Michael Sidofsky, david&kathrin Photogtraphy and Film GmbH,
Tell me more about travelling from Lucerne to Lugano by train seeing Switzerland’s Spring flowers
There are four different languages spoken in Switzerland: German, French, Italian and Romansh, depending on the region and nearest neighbouring country.
In Lucerne, The Visitor Card tourists free travel on buses and trains and discounts on cableways, mountain railways, museums and excursions. Ask for it when you check in to your accommodation.
The Ticino Ticket also available from your regional hotel, is valid for free public transport in the area during your trip and has discounts on attractions.
The Swiss Sanctuary at Chelsea Flower Show 2022, by garden designer Lilly Gomm, was inspired by Switzerland’s diverse climate.