In two days I ascended two mountains in the heart of Switzerland and never broke a sweat -- thanks to late 19th century visionaries who had discovered the dramatic views to be had from the peaks of Mount Rigi and Mount Burgenstock -- and stopped at nothing to make it possible for Lucerne’s earliest tourists to also witness the splendor of “The Rigi” (aka Queen of the Mountains) and “The Burgenstock” -- 5,900 feet and 3,700 feet above sea level respectively and where nothing is ordinary.
Their genius delivered.
By way of rail, funicular and cable car, I “climbed” to the summits of these vastly different mountains scaled by settlers, pilgrims, writers, and royalty, the earliest of whom made the trek on foot or, for the wealthy, atop sedan chairs carried by local villagers.
For the next 48 hours, I connected with these legends, staying a night on each peak.
My journey started on board a vintage paddlewheel steamer in Lucerne, the capital of canton Lucerne where I joined others for the 45-minute crossing over sparkling Lake Lucerne delivering us to Weggis at the base of the Rigi.
Three ways would get us up the mountain -- by foot, aerial cable car, or cogwheel train that was Europe’s first mountain railway. Opting for the cable car, the steep 10-minute climb seemed longer rewarding us with thrilling views of the fjord-like lake until we arrived at Rigi Kaltbad, home of the Mineral Baths and Spa, the village square, and a hotel designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta. It’s also the starting point for a fantastic network of easy hikes, including the Mark Twain path that follows the routes that the great American writer and humorist climbed in 1878 and 1897.
Steps from the hotel, we caught the steam train that delivered us to Rigi Kulm. Feeling on top of the world here was an understatement. Amazed visitors from different parts of the globe offered their own versions of “Wow!” at stunning 360-degree views over 13 lakes and the “sea of peaks” so fittingly described on interpretive boards full of facts and lore. Hardly noticed on a hill above the railroad tracks was a lone stone chapel named “Regina Montium,” Latin for Queen of the Mountains.
And it was through a refreshing hike and delightful meals on the Rigi that I embraced the bliss – cows grazing nearby as we savored a traditional lunch of dried meats, fresh cheeses, and wine at an alpine farm; and a mid-air three-course dinner by candle light inside the ever-so-slow-moving cable car that by night transforms into a dining experience that was nothing short of magical.
My next “port of call” was Mount Burgenstock on the other side of the lake where the only way up to the cliff-top plateau from the water is by the funicular (built in 1888) or the 46-story high Hammetschwand Lift (the highest outdoor elevator in Europe, built in 1905).
It was during the extravagant Belle Epoque that the secluded meadow on the plateau inspired Franz Josef Bucher to build the Grand Hotel in 1873 – the first business to open on the Burgenstock.
With future growth came the Park Hotel (1888), the Palace Hotel (1904), and a golf course (1928), transforming the Burgenstock plateau into a meeting place and getaway for kings and queens, heads of state, and the rich and famous. Like Indira Gandhi, Charlie Chaplin, Jimmy Carter, Sophia Loren (she and Carlo Ponti lived in a chalet there), and Audrey Hepburn who married Mel Ferrer at the tiny Burgenstock Chapel built in 1897.
The chapel also marks the beginning of the spectacular Cliff Walk -- constructed at the turn of the 20th century by dynamiting a walking path around the plateau. No small feat, the legendary trail leads to the Hammetschwand Lift and the Hammetschwand, the highest point in Lucerne.
If only Mr. Bucher and the first A-list of visitors to “Burgenstock” could see the resort it has become. The funicular, the Hammetschwand Lift, and the Cliff Walk have been attractions for centuries. But in 2011, the funicular ceased operation while “Burgenstock” went through a massive rebirth lasting years until its re-opening in 2017 befitting a new generation of travelers.
Elegant as ever, yet delightfully approachable, the thoroughly modern car-free Burgenstock has evolved into a community -- 30 structures housing a dozen restaurants, bars and lounges; five hotels (including a medical hotel), shops, apartments, a cinema, a skating rink, and a tennis dome.
But not all is new. What made the plateau legendary remain as lasting memories of an earlier Burgenstock -- the Grand Hotel (reincarnated into residential units), the Palace Hotel, and Taverne 1879 (a traditional Swiss inn and restaurant). And the chapel. Even the original swimming pool, a registered historical monument, beckons guests to take a swim.
On my day of departure, my Swiss travel companion and I embarked on a pre-breakfast stroll on the Cliff Walk. There wasn’t enough time to reach the Hammetschwand Lift, but on that tranquil morning we embraced the rolling fog over the lake below, a light drizzle, and the soothing sounds of an alpenhorn in the distance -- reminders of the mystique on the Burgenstock.
WHEN YOU GO:
My accommodations on Mount Rigi: Hotel Rigi Kaltbad;
My accommodation on Mount Burgenstock: Palace Hotel
Gallery 1 (7 images)
Gallery 2 (8 images)