The lion has lain there, dying, for more than 175 years now, a cold stone stake in its heart drawing away its lifeblood. Its paws curl protectively around a lily-bedecked shield, the coat of arms of the Bourbon kings.
Beneath its feet, the inscription reads "To the fidelity and bravery of the Swiss." Author Samuel Clemens called this monument the "saddest and most poignant piece of rock on Earth."The Dying Lion of Lucerne was built to honor the Swiss Guards of Louis XVI who where killed in the French Revolution. But it has come to represent Swiss heroism everywhere. The lion has come to symbolize the heart of the city of Lucerne, representing both the medieval heritage it holds dear and the modern spirit of adventure it serves up so well.
Nestled on the western edge of the lake that bears the same name and framed by the majestic peaks of the Alps, Lucerne could hardly ask for a better location. But it is not only one of the most beautiful of all Swiss cities, it is also one of the oldest. And that history adds to its charm.
The place was first mentioned in historical records in 840 A.D., a tiny outpost built by St. Leodegard and his Benedictine monks. In the early days, it was somewhat derisively called the "little wooden stork's nest" because of the huge bird nests that were often built on the roofs of the wooden houses.
But with the 1220 A.D. opening of the Gotthard Pass, a route over the Alps connecting the Upper Rhine valley with the Lombardy region, Lucerne came to be a center of trade and commerce.
In 1332, Lucerne became a member of the confederacy of Swiss cantons, joining Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalder to create the beginnings of modern Switzerland. For a brief time from 1798 to 1799 it was even the capital of the country but seemed to prefer its role as heart to go with Bern as the head and Zurich as the hand of the nation. And today, many still consider it just that - the heart and soul of Switzerland - and so it has slipped into that role.
Part of its appeal is the medieval flavor Lucerne has retained. Old Town boasts of some of the country's oldest buildings and structures, most notable the Kapellbrucke, or Chapel Bridge, that provides a walkway across the Reuss River just before the river enters the lake.
Built in 1333, it is Europe's oldest covered bridge and features 112 wooden pictures, added in the 17th century in the apex of the roof, that detail Swiss history. A disastrous fire in 1993 destroyed part of the bridge, but, fortunately, copies of the pictures had been made, and it was possible to restore the bridge completely to its former glory. The center section of the bridge, now a contrasting color that highlights the new wood, will fade in time.
A walk across the bridge provides not only a vantage point for excellent views of the city but also a look at the famous octagonal Wasserturm, or Water Tower, that served as a 13th century fortification and a one-time town treasury.
The Kapellbruke leads into the heart of Old Town, with its narrow, winding streets, colorful fountains and painted buildings. Frescoes on the outside walls of buildings were extremely popular in their day and still grace a number of the older structures.
Also in Old Town is the Zyt tower with the oldest clock in town. In a country famous for its clockwork, this one is especially prized. It is still wound manually and set one minute fast so it has the distinction of being the first in all the city to chime.
Medieval flavor is not all the history that Lucerne offers, however. The city's ancient history is showcased in the unusual Glacier Garden, with its petrified potholes that serve as a vivid reminder that 300 million years ago this area was totally covered by ice. Also featured at the garden is a relief map of the Alps, a homeland museum tracing the history of the city and an unusual hall of mirrors that illustrates how things may not always be just what they seem.
Glacier Garden is one of several museums in the city that showcase not only natural history but fine arts as well - museums dedicated to such diverse elements as Picasso, Richard Wagner and the Franco-German War.
One of the most spectacular is the Museum of Transport, the largest of its kind in Europe. Located just apart from the center of town - a lovely 20-minute walk along the lake or a quick bus ride - the museum highlights everything from penny-farthing bicycles to space travel and features a planetarium and IMAX theater, as well.
One complete wing is devoted to the railroads, which are such an integral part of Swiss history. Included is a multimedia ride that takes visitors through the building of the famed Gotthard Tunnel, still considered one of the world's greatest engineering feats.
As much as the city of Lucerne itself has to offer, one of its greatest attractions is the central location that makes it an ideal starting point for excursions by steamer and train.
Day trips can easily take visitors to the top of nearby Mt. Pilatus, which at 7,000 feet above sea level offers spectacular views of the area. An aerial cable car operates year-round for the journey up.
Mount Rigi, known as the "queen of mountains" and a popular destination for more than a century, is also a short train ride from Lucerne. There the journey to the top is by cogwheel railway, which runs from mid-May to mid-October.
From Rigi, visitors can return to either Arth-Goldau and by train to Lucerne, or they can take another train to the resort town of Vitznau, where it's possible to catch a steamer back to the city.
Lucerne's paddle steamers - the world's largest steamer fleet on an inland lake - are another delightful way to spend a day. They make regularly scheduled stops at towns and cities all around the lake.
For those who want to set off from Lucerne on a longer adventure, the famed William Tell Express leaves from here. Named in honor of the Swiss adventurer who is the stuff of both history and legend and who lived in the area, the excursion features a steamer ride to Fluelen, at the other end of Lake Lucerne, and then a train ride through the Gotthard Tunnel and on to either Lugano or Lucarno in Switzerland's Ticino region.
Equally impressive is the Golden Pass, which connects Lucerne with Gstaad and Montreux, a route that travels through the heart of the Alps and past some of the country's most beautiful scenery.
The great cities of the world are those that have culture, beauty and zest. They have a sense of place and a respect for the past. They know who they are and what they want to be.
Lucerne, Switzerland, with its lion's heart and its intrepid spirit, has earned a premier spot on the list.
Contact Switzerland Tourism at 310-640-8900, or visit the Web at (www.switzerlandtourism.com).