The Lightning of Lucerne
My alarm sounded at precisely 4:01 AM which was soon accompanied by the sweet and innocent harmonies of the fresh-eyed birds welcoming the fresh day ahead. Mum knocked on the door and opened it. That was the only thing open in my bedroom as my eyes weren’t! Once my retinas slowly accustomed themselves to their bright surroundings, the excitement started to build. Half an hour later, we heard the knock on the door. The knock of my father who would generously drop us at the airport. The knock which signified one of the most crazy, funny and downright insane weeks of my life.
We reached Gatwick in good time as the deserted roads seemed to open out for us. We had approximately an hour and a half till our flight and we had just arrived at a café in the north terminal in which I experienced the finest scrambled eggs in the Crawley vicinity. What could possibly go wrong? Well let me explain! We left the café and headed towards the vast plethora of pharmacies and stationary shops that grace the North Terminal; Mum required a packet of wet wipes and I was in desperate search of a travel pillow. Mum’s search was successful as she bagged a packet of Johnsons wet wipes however, I was not so lucky. We slowly walked through the hustle and bustle of the terminal as we watched the world go by witnessing the beautiful sight of excitement within families going on a big holiday or laughing at the frantic sight of businessmen dressed exquisitely their fine attire sprinting for a flight they have not left adequate time to catch. As I went to observe the time on my phone, I was unaware that we would be the subject of that latter humour. The time was 6:36 – Our gate shut at 6:35. I picked up the bag, told mum to “Run like hell!” and legged it. Our gate was gate 102, which was on the other side of the famous Gatwick Airport Bridge, which links the main abdomen of the North Terminal to Pier 6 – Home of gates 101-113. At that moment of sheer panic, the large sack on by back suddenly didn’t weigh anything. The adrenaline had well and truly kicked in and in an odd way it was a rather exhilarating experience. Despite the risk of missing our flight, there was some aspect of rapidly meandering through the inevitable Gatwick traffic with sight of Britain’s second largest airport as a view which I strangely enjoyed. We reached gate 102 with moments to spare and I looked behind me to see an already exhausted mum slowly around the corner. My first thought was "How has she agreed to this?", I was counting my lucky stars as not many mums would spend 10 days trekking round Europe with a 20kg backpack on, and for that I have the upmost admiration. We stepped onto the plane, sat down in seats 13A and B and took a deep sigh, the fun had only just begun…
After one hour and ten minutes of respite at 32,000 ft, we arrived in France at a sodden Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg Airport on the border of France, Germany and Switzerland. This airport is special as it is a member of a very elite club as it serves 3 different cities in 3 different countries at once. One of which being Freiburg, A city on the border of the world-renowned Black Forest which is coveted in both beauty and history. The other is the French market city of Mulhouse, A city which champions itself on its alluring Alsace themed architecture and its once significance as the foundations of an industrialising France thus gifting it the charming nickname of the ‘French Manchester’. The last metropolis of this trinity is Basel, Switzerland’s third most populous city. Basel is like an egg. It has a hard-industrial shell to it which resembles the suburbs however once you break through that façade, the city centre is the scene of an oil painting with its historic buildings lining the powerful Rhine which cascades through the hustle and bustle. Unfortunately, we got no opportunity to break through the shell as the rain became heavier and heavier. Both mum and I came to a mutual agreement that the best idea was to head south – Into the beating heart of Switzerland.
We were headed for the jaw-dropping lakeside Lucerne; A city so picturesque and stunning that the vast lake it is situated on shares its name. Only 2 hours after we touched down on continental soil, we were on the first train of the trip – the 11:17 from Basel SBB to Lucerne SBB. We had about ten minutes until the train departed which gave a prime opportunity to explore the large metal tube we would travel to Lucerne in. This train was so futuristic that it even had a children’s play area on it! There is one form of train which the Europeans have got on lock – the double-decker train – and at the end of the day it makes perfect sense and offers a lot of convenience to commuters. Double the number of passengers with the same length of train. One of the main things which was highlighted from this trip, where our travel was almost entirely by train, is how diabolical the train network in the UK is compared with our continental colleagues. I live in the south of England which means when I want to travel by rail I am faced with hours upon hours upon hours of agonising and debilitating delays – all in the name of southern rail! In every country that we visited the delays were minimal – ten minutes at most. What is so difficult that we cannot get the system cracked in the UK (one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world) but everyone else in Europe can; It frankly makes no sense! Anyway, I’m rapidly steering off-piste, where was I? Ah, Lucerne, Beautiful Lucerne!
We arrived at around midday in the futuristic station which contradicted the persona of the 15th century city it served. Fresh faced and weary eyed, we left the station to view our first glimpse of Lake Lucerne. The weather was not too bad, it was a good 5*C warmer that its northern counterpart that we were in only an hour beforehand. We put the backpacks on and started to walk. We were under the watchful eye of the colossal Mt. Pilatus, A mountain massif which a stance of 2,128 metres which, according to local folklore, guards the city from any perils. The beauty of this mountain that welcomed us to Lucerne was unfathomable, it certainly made an impression on both of us and foreshadowed the beauty that we were going to see on this trip. Gently, we ambled across the River Reuss - one of the several tributaries of the Rhine – and entered the northern half of the city. We were greeted by dozens of designer shops like Rolex and Swarovski, however there was no time to stop and admire the riches as we needed to reach the hostel before the packs discarded all strength left in our shoulders. Eventually, Mum and I reached the Lion Lodge Hostel – our accommodation for the night. It took a while to find it but when we did, we were in for a treat! Once we checked in and the keys were handed over, the room welcomed us. There was a table and two rickety, antique and wooden beds and nothing else. It complimented its price tag as I believe it costed about €30 for the night. It just felt like a relief to get the packs off for a moment, taking the burden off our shoulders and setting us free to explore the cultural centre of Lucerne. What we were unaware of is that Lucerne is the swiss equivalent of Monaco – in fact Monaco is cheaper. It made Monaco seem like Malaga. On the way down to the lakeshore, we stopped at a McDonalds (glamorous I know!) to grab a quick bite to eat to slake our hunger. I ordered a 20 nugget share box and Mum got a chicken wrap which accumulated to a whopping 29 Francs, £24.24 in British money. Both of us were utterly flabbergasted at how expensive Switzerland was turning out to be – we were aware of it being expensive, but this was another level. Thank goodness we were only in Switzerland for a day! We returned to the bus station which was situated outside the train station to take stock of our surroundings. Two options were available. Firstly, we could take a bus to the other side of the city where there was the world-renowned Swiss Transport Museum, or we could take a train then a bus to a small hamlet called Kastaneinbaum which offers a truly stunning and unobstructed view of the Lake. However due to Lake Lucerne’s strange T-shaped and mountainous profile, weather can change in an instant as the dark purple clouds oozing over Pilatus would soon suggest.
Before we knew it, streaks of lightning started illuminating the almost opaque sky and thunder started to mumble in the distance. The light which lit the lakeside scene had suddenly been zapped and the city was plunged into total obscurity and chaos. It felt like a completely different town. A completely different country. A completely different world. Still stood outside the station, Mum turned to me and clarified “Transport museum it is then”. Dazzled and confused we poised in the centre of the newfound chaos. It seemed like every bus in Lucerne came into that bus station at once as the suspense of the heavens eventually opening visibly increased. The silence in the city was impalpable with the odd interruption of thunder threatening the stubborn Alps. We must have gone to at least five different platforms asking five different drivers with each answer being no. Eventually, one bus driver told us that we should be on platform T and like a guided missile, we were locked on to the target and ready to make a drastic move. Feeling like Neo and Morpheus from the matrix, we began to sprint across the busy confusion of the bus station. Then, like a switch had been flicked, the melancholy, almost mauve coloured clouds imploded unleashing biblical rain resembling millions and millions and millions of minute shards penetrating the serenity and tranquillity which the city once favoured. The twenty second dash to the bus felt like decades. Surprisingly we arrived on the bus reasonably dry and recognisable, but we needed to enjoy that as it remained as it wouldn’t last that long. The apocalypse had begun…
To just put into scale how cantankerous this storm was, the view from the front window showed nothing but rain. The road, Invisible. The buildings, Invisible. The mountains, Invisible. Occasionally the enduring sight would be interrupted by a large branch flying aimlessly or the spray from the lake attacking the right sided windows of the bus. Mum described it as “the worst rain I have ever seen”. This was someone who spent months in South-East Asia where typhoon-esc weather conditions batting down the hatches of infrastructure was a daily occurrence. This was almost hurricane conditions. The bus stopped outside the barely visible Swiss Transport Museum and everyone on the bus prepared for the thirty second bolt to the entrance. A large clap of thunder rumbled overhead, and a blazing streak of lightning ignited the mountainous abyss into a sudden sea of light. The doors opened and we began to run. After only five feet, mum came to a sudden stop. I turned around in concern to see mum taking both of her flip-flops off the feet. I think she was worthy of the ‘worst choice of footwear 2019’ award. It’s like a formula one car fitting slick tyres when the racetrack is flooded. Barefoot and like Bambi on ice - Mum bravely followed suit to the sheltered entrance. When we arrived, all we could do is laugh. In hindsight, that short dash was incredibly dangerous; perilous branches flying and compelling gales pushing and pulling us in all directions. Once we had hastily made it inside, we bought our tickets and I went to the toilet. The toilet was full of other drenched people drying their clothes using the Dyson Airblade fans suspended on the wall. Sodden and saturated, we entered the museum and breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was only two o’clock. We were running through Gatwick only 6 hours beforehand.
It would be an understatement if I said that the Transport Museum was loved by the swiss – It is adored! It was even advertised in Basel. Luckily, Lucerne was rather quiet due to the weather battering the city therefore the museum, which was opened in 1959, was basically deserted. The museum is split into 4 different areas - Trains, planes and space, boats and (my personal favourite) automobiles. It seemed like wherever you looked there was miraculous engineering gracing the large hanger which amplified the deafening scream of thunder from the heavens. A few yards from the entrance we stumbled upon two old train seats which doubled up as a bench to rest our weather-battered bodies. Dripping and completely saturated we sat on the dry antique 1960’s train seats and waited for the adrenaline rushing through our body to subside. To the right there was a beige swiss locomotive which could easily be mistaken for an artefact of an Agatha Christie novel. To the left was a hollowed-out carriage where the industrial working class swiss man or woman would travel to and fro throughout the exquisite swiss Alps. Straight ahead, a 50 metre long model representing the truly fascinating Gotthard Base Tunnel - A 57km snaking channel scything through the towering mountains of Switzerland. We gently walked through the museum whilst the city continued to weather the abhorrent storm, until we reached the simply exquisite car section of the museum. This was the epitome of cool. This museum is so unique that it contains a vending machine for classic cars. Anything from Schumacher’s world championship winning Benneton to the original Beetle, it was probably there. Three whole stories of motoring heaven. It also supplied one of the funniest moments of the entire trip. On the top floor I heard the sound of the roaring V12 engines of a mid-noughties formula one car. We entered the dimly lit room to discover the world-renowned BMW Sauber formula one car of Robert Kubica. I was well and truly in awe. I was so in awe that I decided to take a wonder around the car, unaware of the large glass pane obstructing my way. Credit where credit is due, the glass cleaning faculty at the Swiss Transport Museum are incredibly good – so good that the glass was invisible to me. Smack! I fell to the floor and immediately Mum and I descended into hysterics. My hand felt like it was going to fall off at any minute. My knee soon began to swell minorly however, despite the injuries, we continued to walk round the metropolis of transport. Through the boat and planes sections, the storm still rumbled overhead but the light of the sun slowly started to reclaim its once stolen territory. I doubt I have covered even one percent of the vast museum, but I seriously recommend it to anyone visiting Switzerland let alone Lucerne. Headed for the exit, we finished our 3 hour circumnavigation of the museum by meandering through the space exhibition passing objects like Felix Baumgartner’s Red Bull Stratos and incredibly detailed astronomical diagrams. I think what this proved was that what you think is going to be remotely boring or forgettable in life can always throw up surprises. What we did just to escape the hurricane style conditions turned out to be a very memorable experience - and that unpredictability is what makes travelling so bloody fantastic!
We left the museum to find the lake in state of total serenity and tranquillity once more. There were no significant signs of the hurricane which had just occurred apart from one rather threatening sight. Cautiously, we walked straight forward onto the ‘Lido Weise’, a small patch of lakeside greenery which has a panoramic view of the Alps towering above. Small branches seemed to be strewn across the streets and pavements however that wasn’t the full extent of the damage. What we saw next was truly unbelievable. Two usually stolid and grand oak trees lay helpless on their sides thus showcasing the true severity of the storm that had just blown through this quiet but populated corner of the Alps. Despite all the pandemonium, Lake Lucerne had restored its millpond status and the pleasure cruises were out once more in full force. I managed to cross paths with a rather elderly swiss lady who was from the local area. Unfortunately, I never managed to catch her name but what she did state was that the storms in Lucerne are always violent and also occur on a daily basis. However, she did also clarify that the afternoons storm was also the most volatile she has ever seen in her 65 year habitation in Lucerne. According to the local, the obvious geological features of the region and especially the lake point to the cause of frequent and bad-tempered storms. The mountains act somewhat as the walls of a cauldron where the stormy weather circulates causing the large extreme meteorological events that occur. Now I’m no weather expert but that sounds like quite a valid explanation! We headed back into the city centre to decide our next port of call. We came to the consensus that we would take the train to the small hamlet of Horw – approximately 5 minutes on the train from the main station in Lucerne – and then wait for the number 21 bus to Kastaneinbaum, A minute village with an unobstructed view down the alpine spine of Lake Lucerne. After a lengthy wait in Horw, the 21 bus finally arrived and we were on our way to the beauty spot.
Despite it being the early evening, the mercury was still very hot. I think I can recall it being close to 28*C at around 5 o’clock. As a result, Mum and I were slowly being cooked as we took the rickety 10 minute bus journey over the hill to Kastaneinbaum. The reasoning for choosing Kastaneinbaum was an interesting one. It was completely random and spontaneous! I wanted an unobstructed view of the lake without being surrounded by the bustling tourism of Lucerne, so I looked on a map and simply pointed to a random place. That place was Kastaneinbaum and oh my were we in for a treat!
We arrived at a very high-class and beautiful hotel, the opposite of our accommodation for that night. There are places on Earth let alone Europe which make your hairs stand up on end due to their sheer beauty – This quaint lakeside view was a member of this exclusive club. This is what travel is all about in my eyes. One word defines travel, unpredictability. The unpredictability of travel intensifies your trip. This was still the first day of the trip and the day was full of abnormal and unpredictable occurrences – the hurricane for example. For the first time on that trip, Mum and I were totally relaxed. On the wicker table in front of me I had an orange juice and a complementary basket of crisps whereas Mum equipped a large glass of wine, which caused another rather hefty bill! All we could do was savour the beauty of the mountainous surroundings whilst listening to the tranquil silence of the lilypond-like lake. Sadly, the tranquil occasion was cut short courtesy of the darkening hue of the sky above. The sumptuous Swiss sunlight was coming to an end, as was the day I would remember for the rest of my life!
After a short bus journey into the bustling centre of the city – whilst accompanied by members of the fresh-faced swiss youth going for their usual Saturday night out on the town – we arrived in a replenished and sun-kissed Lucerne. After disembarking the bus, we gently walked along the Reuss. After what seemed like an eternity of scavenging for a cheap meal and being flabbergasted by the seemingly extortionate price tag for the traditional swiss cuisine offered on the beautiful banks of the cascading watercourse – we found a quaint and quirky pasta restaurant in the backstreets of Lucerne. Once we arrived at the reasonably priced eatery we were pleasantly greeted by Matthew – A university student of swiss descent who had just returned from studying in the UK. The waiter seemed to like us and that was the same for us to him. Once we started conversing, he asked where we had come from – we said Brighton as I don’t think he would know my quaint and isolated village in the hills of West Sussex. What happened next was staggering. He revealed that he studied at Brighton University and miraculously knew our local area like the back of his swiss hand. This is the other great thing about travel – the utter serendipity of two random strangers. I have only ever once experienced a more odd and freaky experience in travel. In early 2017 I was in the stunning Mediterranean city of Barcelona for the Spanish Grand Prix when my family and I sat next to a couple of ladies in the hotel bar. We started to get talking with the English pair and quickly discovered that they live about 1 mile from my house in the same quaint, rural and secluded village. That story still astounds me to this day...
Back in Lucerne, we started to eat. I had mascarpone and tomato ravioli whereas mum had the pesto equivalent. The bill wasn’t too unreasonable – and once we had paid and said a fond farewell to Matthew, we began the gentle and tiring meander back to the Lion Lodge Hostel. After approximately 30 minutes of walking, we reached our very minimalistic room and collapsed into our respective beds with our legs throbbing with cramp! As we switched off the lights to the day, another storm was brewing in the foothills of the Swiss Alps…