Rail Tour Through the Alps

(Note: Clicking on any image in this travelogue will bring up a full screen version of the image.)

Wednesday, August 31



Tuesday was a full day. We started off bright and early with Jan (Photo #1) leading us off on a guided walking tour of the old city, covering some of the places we had discovered on our own the previous evening, plus a whole lot more. In the afternoon, we were to take a motor coach to Pilatus Mountain, whose peak we would reach via the steepest cog railway in the world.



1. Jan, our tour guide

2. "Dying Lion" memorial. Approximately 60 feet long x 20 feet high

4. Cobblestones.

5. They don't build roofs like that no more..

3. One more shot of the Chapel Bridge.

6. Jesuit Church

7. Official buildings on the south bank waterfront.

8. Restaurants on the north bank.

9. Railway Station.

Our first stop on our walking tour was actually a short bus ride to the "Dying Lion" memorial to some 600 Swiss soldiers massacred in defence of the French Royalists during the French Revolution (Photo #2). The Lion is the emblem of Switzerland. "Ho, hum", I thought. But when I cast my eyes on the sculpture, all such thoughts fled. The sculptor, a Dane named Bertel Thorvaldsen, truly gave life and pathos to this colossal work, carved directly into the sandstone cliff face. I should not be so quick to be cynical.

We rode the bus back to the center of town and followed Jan through some of the streets Jenny and I had wandered the previous evening, and others in the neighborhood. The photos of the decorated buildings shown in the previous page of this travelogue were actually taken on this walking tour. I admired the decorative cobblestone work on the streets (Photo #4). The Jesuit Church (Photo #6) and other official buildings that lined the south bank of the river (Photo #7) were handsome, as were the restaurants on the north bank (Photo #8).

The railway station (Photo #9) was less so. What had been a magnificent edifice of a railway terminus has recently been demolished, and replaced by a more capacious, but utilitarian modern structure. As a tribute to the formal building's grandeur, they left standing the grand arch that had been its entrance, alone and unconnected to the new building, and looking like an ornate wind-up key stuck onto the side of a microwave oven. The new building houses shops, and is undoubtedly more practical than its predecessor. But it reminds me of the ornate Penn Station Terminal Building in New York City, that was knocked down in the 60s to the dismay of preservationists and railroad buffs.

I was still pretty knackered from my long sleepless journey the day before. So I abandoned the tour, and went back to the hotel to to catch some shut-eye, while Jenny continued with the group.

Lucerne photos taken by Jenny

10. Boutique in private chapel

11. Boutique

12. Boutique

13. Lucerne from the ancient City Wall

14. City Wall and Lucerne from the Clock Tower

15. City Wall

16. Clock Tower

17. Clock

18. Clock

There was a boutique occupying the premises of what used to be a private home. The private chapel on the 2nd floor provided a beautiful, but somehow inappropriate setting for beautiful clothing (Photos # 10, 11, & 12). They trekked up to the restored City Wall that bordered the original Medieval town of Lucerne which incorporated several towers. One was set up as a tower clock museum, with several working clock mechanisms displayed. The one shown in Photos 17 and 18 was completely exposed, and displayed behind Plexiglas.


Mount Pilatus

After lunch, we regrouped and convened at the bus to make the short drive to Mount Pilatus. This is perhaps a good time to introduce you to Giancarlo Fortin, our bus driver. He was Italian, and served the group for the entire tour. Unflappable, immensely competent, he negotiated the big motor coach along superhighways and twisty goat trails down the sides of mountains with equal aplomb.

Giancarlo took us to the town of Alpnachstad, and the lower terminus of the cog railway (Photo #19) to the top of Mount Pilatus. These single powered cars climb the steepest railroad in the world with slopes as great as 48 degrees. That's more than one foot of rise for every horizontal foot of travel! The car is driven by two large powered gears that engage teeth on either side of a rack that is situated between the two rails (Photo #20), thus insuring that the wheels cannot skid along the rails. The car is electric powered through overhead wires. The seats are built so that the seat cushions are horizontal when the car is at its crazy angle, and it's an oddly secure sensation sitting there as the car claws its way up the mountain. Equally odd is that the steepness of the slope, so obvious as you're riding in the car, somehow is not apparent in photos taken from the car. There's nothing to give a visual reference to the image in the photo that the car is pointing halfway up to the sky. On the other hand, it becomes very obvious from photos taken from the outside. See photos , 20, 21, and 22 below.


19. Lower Terminus

20. Cog rails. This photo really can't convey the steepness of the track.

21. This photo can give some indication of the inclination from the angle of the power lines.

22. Now this photo can truly convey the angle. (Note the walking trail alongside the track)

23. Siding. Note the elaborate switch required by the cog rail.

24. Rock strata

25. Imagine building this!

26. And for those who can't afford a ticket, you can always walk up. Look at the full screen photo to see the walking trail.

27. Pedestrian

28. Oh, Bertha! I think I've found the perfect spot to build our church!

29. Blackbird

30. The Birds

Although the line is mostly a single track, it is used by many cars simultaneously. There's a relatively "level" section about midway up that is wide enough to construct a length of dual track so that cars can bypass each other on the way up and down. The presence of the cog rail in the middle makes it impossible to employ a conventional switch to shift the cars from one line to the other, because the wheel rails would have to cross and interrupt the cog rail. So they need to construct an elaborate sliding platform with two complete sets of three rails each to shift the cars to one line or the other. See photo 23.

The car offers some striking views of the rock strata, bent and twisted from the enormous forces that raised the mountains to these heights. See photo 24.

The construction of this railway must have been a Herculean feat when it was built in the 1880s. Look at photo 25 in full-screen, and see how inaccessible that particular section of track is. Note that the ledge cut into the rock is so narrow that much of the car overhangs the edge.

The Swiss are a hardy folk, and if one chooses, (and some do) he can hike to the summit, rather than ride the train. There is even a church (Photo # 28) conveniently located en route. (Perhaps for funeral services for heart attack victims.) Again I look at that remote and inaccessible location, and stand aghast at the effort of bringing construction materials to the site, let alone doing the actual construction.

As we approached the summit, we began to notice black birds swooping and gliding in the rising air currents (Photos # 29 & 30). None of us were able to identify what species of bird they were (Anyone out there know? Send me an email.) Their main source of food seemed to be the remains of tourists' lunches. They have become quite bold, approaching close enough to take scraps of bread from the hand.


We disembarked at the Upper Terminus, which afforded a spectacular view of the region, to Alpnachstad, and all the way back to Lucerne when the air was clear. It wasn't always clear, as condensation would form clouds that would drift above us, below us, and at our level as the changing temperature conditions dictated. The Terminus was not quite all the way to the top. There were two nearby peaks maybe 150 - 200 feet above us, accessible by paths and stairways. 7000 feet of altitude and 71 years of age had me puffing by the time I reached the top. And I was somewhat pissed off as I was passed most politely by one young fellow running up the stairs past me, followed a little more slowly by a young lady mounting the steps with a crutch and one foot in a cast (Photo 35). I applauded her when she reached the top.


Atop Mount Pilatus and Descent Therefrom

31. Upper Terminus from the observation platform at the 7000 foot peak.

32. Underground ski-jump?

33. The trail. I wonder when that boulder is going to let go.

34. Rescue helicopter

35. Intrepid hiker

36. Alpine flowers

37. Alpine Flowers

38. Alpine Flowers

39. Onlooker

40. From the cable car on the way down

41. That silver sinuous trail is a "bobsled" run for wheeled sleds. Yikes!

42. Almost home

We walked back down from the observation platform and wandered along a (relatively) horizontal trail along the mountain's face. Looking back at the Cog Rail Terminus, I noted a curious structure above it. (Photo 32) It was a concrete projection out from the sloping mountain face, terminating in a vertical surface in which there were two tunnels bored into the face, closed by some sort of plywood or other covering. No one was able to come up with any reasonable explanation for that, so I consulted the Berryman Speculator App on my iPhone. And it offered the possible explanation that it might be an underground ski-jump ramp used only in the winter.

We walked onwards towards a point where the trail led under an enormous boulder perched on a ledge and leaning against the face of the mountain. (Photo 33) It looked awfully precarious there, as if the slightest jar might send it skidding down the mountain. Despite the fact that this was way above the tree line, tiny flowers flourished in the moss growing in the cracks of the rock (Photos 36, 37, & 38). We made way for a party of four coming from the opposite direction carrying a stretcher with a figure lying in it. Perhaps someone injured in a fall, or overcome from exhaustion. A few minutes later, a helicopter came buzzing along to alight on a pad near the Terminus, evidently to take the injured party to a hospital. That service comes at no charge to Swiss citizens under their universal health care program, and at a cost of several thousand dollars to non-citizens. It's not often one gets to view a helicopter in flight from above (Photo 34).

We reached and passed beneath the leaning boulder, and looked up to discover a small party of mountain goats placidly lounging on a microscopic ledge above us and munching on whatever vegetation they could find. They entertained us for a while before we turned back to the Terminus to grab a bite before we headed back. We took a cable car back down the mountain rather than the cog rail car. That also afforded some spectacular views of the mountain, including a "bobsled" run for wheeled sleds used in summertime. Yikes! The cable car deposited us in the nearby town of Kriens, where Jon Carlo was waiting with the bus to take us back to Lucerne.

I still hadn't obtained any local currency, and I was having trouble with my voltage converter (The device that reduces the local 240 volt electrical power to the US standard 120 volt, and has a receptacle that accepts US standard electrical plugs.) I found a bank with an ATM that accepted my bank card, and asked around for where I could find a voltage converter. Neither the Globus department store nor the Coop in the train station carried them, so I borrowed on from the hotel desk. It wasn't quite the same device as the one I had; It merely adapted the shape of the receptacle from the European standard to US standard without changing the voltage. Fortunately my computer, and various battery chargers for my camera and phone operated universally on 240 and 120 volts.

That evening we were treated to a Welcome Dinner in the hotel dining room. Local trout was my choice, and quite tasty. I also found out something about our tour group as a whole. We were loud! Jenny has a soft voice, and I could barely hear her sitting right next to me over the cacophony in that room. That was to plague me throughout the trip.

After dinner we wandered out on the town again. I wanted to see the old City Wall that Jenny had viewed earlier in the day. So we retraced her steps (with a number of wrong turns and missteps) and found ourselves in the now deserted street at the base of the Wall. There was a narrow strip of parkland along the Wall on one side of the street, and residences on the other. It was quiet, dark, and almost deserted until we came upon the Clock Tower that Jenny had visited earlier in the day. The door at its base was open, emanating bright interior light. We peered inside to find the ancient disembodied clock face about ten feet in diameter shown in Photos 17 and 18, with its pendulum serenely swinging and the entire clockworks exposed to view. It was around a quarter to ten, and well past the closing time of the museum, and yet there it was, open and unattended, with us and a couple of local teens looking for a place to neck as the only occupants. And more intriguing, there was a stairway leading up to a completely darkened second floor.

I pulled out my phone, opened the Flashlight app, and looked at Jenny, who nodded agreement. And up we went. We explored the three floors above, all pitch dark except for the light of my flashlight. There reposed more ancient clocks ranging in size from a foot to 20 feet in diameter, all ticking away. It all felt pretty mysterious and conspiratorial. Suddenly the entire tower was flooded with light. The Keeper (Docent? Watchman? Curator? Somehow "Keeper" sounds most appropriate.) came up the stairs announcing in German that it was time to leave. He was a youngster, and looked not at all official. But we and the two teens obediently filed out, glad for the few illicit minutes we had to explore the place in the dark.