In his black slacks and white cap, shoes and pullover, Francesco Graber looks like a man of leisure. Yet each morning he boards a train at his home in Lugano for four trips a day between there and Flueelen, at the southern tip of Lake Lucerne.
The train is the William Tell Express, the newest Swiss rail excursion. Named after the legendary Swiss patriot, it sets its sights as squarely on the tourist as Tell's arrow found its mark in the apple atop his son's head.The route is no less direct - from Lugano through the St. Gotthard to Lake Lucerne, where a turn-of-the-century paddle steamer picks up the journey north past some of the most celebrated monuments in the nation's history.
Graber is there to take care of that tourist. Formerly a baggage attendant on the Queen Elizabeth II, he has been with the Tell Express since it was launched earlier this year. As chief of the dome car he is responsible for approximately 200 people per trip, serving refreshments, tending bar and generally looking after things. And given the increasingly international nature of his clientele, he acknowledges that the four languages he speaks come in handy.
Looking around our car, one sees everything from three generations of Swiss to a Taiwanese family whose youngest member has a mountaineer's hat perched merrily atop his head. Despite the rain, cameras click inside the dome at the rocky clefts below and the wooded peaks above our heads, the topmost shrouded in low-lying clouds.
FROM THE SOUTH one can board the Tell Express at either Lugano or Locarno (although if the latter he will need to change trains at Bellinzona). Both are near the Italian border, something reflected in the red tile roofs and the vineyards that line the slopes leading in and out of town.
As the sleek red-and-white passenger coaches speed north past the ancient stone blockhouse at Bellinzona, the scenery begins to take on a more rugged aspect. We are nearing the Gotthard, the heart of central Switzerland, where the grade is so steep that a second engine used to be coupled to trains making the ascent. Pollegio, Bodio, Giornico--each village is surmounted by an old stone belfry, standing sentinel over the town's traditions. They make a sharp contrast to the music piped into our carriage, at this point a German-language version of "The Donkey Serenade."
No fewer than 13 tunnels will take us through the mountains, nine conventional ones and four loop tunnels, over 2,625 feet of railway cut through the rock. The longest of these is the nine-mile-long Gotthard Tunnel, opened in 1882. Eight years in the building, the excavation was accomplished--for the first time in Switzerland--via mechanical drilling and blasting at a cost of 30 lives, among them that of the chief engineer, who did not live to see the final breakthrough on Feb. 29, 1880. At an elevation of 3,800 feet above sea level, it currently handles up to 270 trains a day.
Today it carries us from the mill town of Airolo, the northernmost village in the canton of Ticino, with several log houses under construction, to Goeschenen, a journey of 10 or 12 minutes. Nearby, we are told, is the Devil's Stone, whose painted image of the Prince of Darkness (complete with cow's head and pitchfork) derives from the legend that he sought to destroy the Devil's Bridge in the gorge above because, after building it in three days, he was rewarded not with the human soul he had demanded but with the soul of a billy goat.
Another complex of tunnels takes us past the small white church of Wassen, with its copper-colored roof and spires, as we head down toward Amsteg (elevation 1,800 feet)in the canton of Uri, reknowned for its cheese. Bridges rise as high as 250 feet above the narrow valley of the River Reuss, the village itself lying below to our left.
THE DESCENT COMPLETED, we find ourselves at Flueelen, where the paddle steamer Unterwalden waits to take us out on the Urnersee. Built in 1901 and saved from the scrap heap in 1982, it is one of five such vessels that ply the lake, making one round trip per day.
Tell himself is said to have made such a voyage. Refusing to bow before a hat symbolizing Austrian rule set up in the Altdorf town square, he was ordered to shoot that famous apple off his son's head with a crossbow. When he had done so he revealed that, in the event he had not succeeded, he had a second bolt ready for the Austrian governor Gessler, upon which he was bound and taken aboard a boat.
Legend has it that the trip turned stormy and that amid its fury Tell escaped his captors by leaping from the vessel onto a platform of rock, known today as Tell's Rock. He then set out for Kuessnacht, where he killed Gessler on a lonely stretch of road in the woods.
Today a chapel sits atop the rock, a lakeside shrine whose history and surroundings a century ago inspired Liszt to create the first of his "Annees de Pelerinage," the "Chapelle de Guillaume Tell." The true immortalizer of the legend was, however, the German poet Friedrich Schiller, in whose memory the Swiss in 1859 erected a monolith--the Schiller Stone--that rises from the water on the western shore opposite Brunnen. Its gold-inlaid inscription "to him who sang Tell's glory" can be read from the railing even today.
As our trip haps also turned stormy, much of our viewing is done from the glassed-in salon to the rear of the ship, where as part of the package we are also served a typical Swiss meal. Today that is Rindfleischvoegel Jaegerart (or "beef-birds, hunter's style") with Spaetzli, the traditional rough-textured buttered German noodles. Again, we are aware of the many families on board, as every one of the children has Schnitzel and pommes frites--brreaded veal and french fries--which appears to be the Swiss/Austrian equivalent of a burger 'n' fries.
Without too much difficulty an older gentleman, the grandfather of one such family, spots us as Americans and welcomes us to his country, recalling his first meeting with American soldiers as a young boy in 1946, at the end of World War II.
It's a more modern age we're in now, recalled for us by the brightly colored surf-sailers who dot the lake despite the downpour. A member of the crew admist they've had rain for several days now. "During the summer," he adds, "we're lucky to have three weeks of sun in a row." But it doesn't seem to have hurt business, and among the younger passangers there seems as much interest in the inner workings of the engine--beautifully restored and polished--as in the mountains that soar above the water.
Below one of these, between Tell's Rock and the Schiller Stone, sits the Ruetli, or Place of the Oath, a verdant meadow where, as the guidebook puts it, "Switzerland as we know it today was born." Here it was that in 1291 Unterwalden, Uri and Schwyz swore to defend themselves against foreign domination--a pledge reaffirmed in 1940 when Gen. Guissan, commander of the Swiss army, assembled his chief officers there to declare national unity amid a Europe ravaged by war.
Today its grassy slope extends to just above the lake. Like the paddle steamer we are on, this too was reportedly saved from extinction when the schoolchildren of Switzerland collected money to save the historic meadow from being sold to a land developer.
Steaming west across the Gersau basin, we stop from time to time at various ports along the shore. Gersau, Beckenried--here we discharge some passangers and take on others before heading north to Vitznau, which lies beyond two rocky promontories (the "Noses")jutting out into the water. From here, via the oldest cog-wheel railway in Europe, one can climb to the summit of the Rigi (5,800 feet). The world's steepest cog-wheel railway, however, is located at the southwest corner of the lake, leading to Pilatus (6,900 feet).
We are now in the eastern arm of the Kreuztrichter, or "Cross of Lucerne," the northern arm of which extends to Kuessnacht and the "Hollow Way" where Tell ambushed Gessler. Lucerne itself lies at the end of the western arm, past the 2,700 foot Buergenstock above Kehrsiten on the south and, to the north, the castle of New Hapsburg.
It was from the Hapsburgs that Switzerland finally won its independence in the late 14th century, after Lucerne had joined Unterwalden, Uri and Schwyz in 1332. For centuries a political and religious stronghold, it is today largely a tourist center, offering bathing beaches, rowing and sailing regattas, horse-racing and show-jumping competitions and, every summer, an international music festival.
As we approach via steamship we see on the east bank the Lido, adjacent to which sits the Swiss Transport Museum. On a grassy knoll to the west is Triebschen, the house in which Wagner composed the "Siegfried Idyll" (premiered on the staircase for his wife's birthday on Christmas Day of 1870). Since 1933 it has housed a museum in his honor.
Lucerne proper is divided into two sections by the River Reuss, crossed by five bridges within the city's boundaries. The two covered bridges, the Kapellbruecke (Chapel Bridge) and the Spreuerbruecke, date from the 14th and 15th centuries. The Water Tower adjoining the Kapellbrucke is older still, and the old town, with its picturesque byways and medieval houses, makes an impressive spectacle lit up at night, as does the ancient city wall to the north with its nine towers.
On the left bank one finds the railway station, municipal theater and the Ritter Palace, from 1577 to 1804 a Jesuit college but now the center of cantonal government. With the rain coming down, however, what we are most intent on finding once having docked is our hotel, and a taxi to take us there.
But the options are plentiful, ranging from a narrow-gauge rail connection with the winter sport center of Engleberg to an express hop of only an hour to the Zurich airport. Or, if you didn't get your fill, another trip across the lake via paddle steamer. Only this time, like William Tell, you may want to make some unexpected stops.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON TRAVEL TO Switzerland, contact the Swiss National Tourist Office, 250 Stockton St., Union Square, San Francisco, Calif. 94108, or call (415) 362-2260.
-William Goodfellow traveled through Switzerland as the guest of the Swiss National Tourist Office and Lufthansa German Airlines on assignment for the Deseret News.