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Summer is around the corner and that means it is a perfect time to start planning for that big trip you’ve been dreaming of. For me this trip includes a return to Switzerland and a chance to revisit some of the most beautiful and historic sites in Europe. Here are a couple of the destinations on my list.
At the top is a return to the mesmerizing, medieval capital of Bern, which was founded in 1191 as a wooden fortress along the Aare River. Comprised of long encircling walls with ramparts and towers, Bern was at the time the most powerful city-state north of the Alps.
But in 1405, fire struck, burning most of the fortress to the ground, which led to a massive reconstruction, using golden sandstone. So sturdy is the sandstone that the buildings are still incredibly intact, leaving Bern as one of Europe’s best preserved examples of 13th-century civic architecture. This preservation also led to Bern being placed on the UNESCO list of world cultural centers – a list shared by the likes of Rome, the Egyptian pyramids and the Taj Mahal.
The 13th century buildings and cobblestone stone streets in the German-speaking capital are so intact that the town looks like movie set. But it is very real, right down to the giant clock and prison towers, 16th century Renaissance fountains, and the former apartment of Albert Einstein.
A short walk outside Old Town, along the Aare River is the famous Bear Pits. Legend has it that the city’s founder, Berchtold V von ZA!Xhringen, killed a bear on the Aare peninsula, which led to the name Bern (German for bear). This explains why the city’s coat of arms features a bear.
And then there is Lucerne, a beautiful waterfront city, where 18th century buildings and sidewalk cafes lead to medieval squares, fresco-styled homes, ancient churches and chapels, and wooden bridges.
Set on Lake Lucerne and dissected by the River Reuss, Lucerne is a gateway to Central Switzerland. From the city’s river banks visitors enjoy incredible views of the Swiss Alps, and mountains such as Rigi, Stanserhorn, and Pilatus.
Lucerne highlights include the 14th century Chapel Bridge, Europe’s oldest covered wooden bridge; the Museggmauer, an incredibly preserved 13th century fortified wall, with all but one of nine towers intact; and the Swiss Museum of Transport – one of the most diverse museums in Europe for transport and communication.
Another attraction is a paddle or steamboat cruise on Lake Lucerne, where visitors can cruise to RA!Xtli, a grassy meadow where the roots of Switzerland were planted in the 13th century and the legend of Swiss hero William Tell was made famous.
The highlight of my visit to Lucerne was a journey up mysterious Mount Pilatus. To get to the base of the mountain I took a bus to the town of Alpnachstad, where I boarded the spectacular steam powered Pilatus Railway. Beginning service in 1889, the locomotive climbs the mountain like a goat, reaching a head-tilting gradient of 48 percent and is the world’s steepest cogwheel.
The roller coaster-like ride begins with the bright red car chugging slowly upwards. After a few minutes the trian winds precariously around the rims of rocky cliffs. It then cuts through tunnels bored through solid rock and spans flowing streams and fields of wild flowers. Higher up, forests give way to snow covered pastures, teeming with herds of grazing cattle, playing a Swiss symphony of chiming cowbells. At the top of Pilatus are numerous lakes and awesome views of at least 73 snowy peaks comprising the Alps.
The summit of Pilatus features an aerial tram station and two historic hotels, one being Hotel Pilatus Klum, built in 1890.