Travels & Traditions: Lucerne, Switzerland - #1305

In July of 2011, along with my wife and youngest son, I moved from New York City to Lucerne, Switzerland.  It was precisely 100 years earlier that my grandmother had moved from Europe to the United States. And since she had come by ship, I thought I should return by ship. The accommodations were somewhat different but after all, it’s the thought that counts.

More and more of my work was based in Europe, and we thought it would be easier to live in the center of Europe for a few years than the center of Manhattan.  We were producing the Travels & Traditions series, which deals with history, culture and gastronomy. And most of the cities we covered were in Europe.  I was hosting a group of river cruises to help raise funds for the PBS stations. All the ships sailed on the great rivers of Europe. In addition, we were beginning to develop a series called ARTCOPS, designed to help recover missing works of art. And once again, much of the work was in Europe.

We knew that it would make sense to live in Europe for a few years, but we didn’t know where.  We looked at almost every country in Europe, and every major city in each country. Lucerne, in Switzerland appeared to have a lot to offer.

In terms of location and ease of travel, Lucerne has an extremely efficient transportation system. The trip from the Zurich Airport is only 60 minutes. Almost every hour, there is a train to each of the major cities of Switzerland and two to per hour to the international airport in Zurich. Every day the trains leave and arrive at the same time and on the same track. Because of Lucerne’s location, I travel to almost all the cities in central Europe by train.

It’s also up to date with its digital systems. About 90% of the homes have a high-speed Internet connection and in many of the public areas, there’s a free Wi-Fi connection.

Switzerland is divided into states called cantons. The city of Lucerne and the surrounding canton is attractive as a center for business because of its location, the availability of almost two million, mostly multilingual staff within 60 minutes commuting time and business-friendly government programs to support development.

The Canton of Lucerne is primarily a service economy with internationally known brands in automotive, construction, machinery, pharmaceuticals, and food. The political and financial stability of Lucerne and Switzerland make it an ideal place to do business.

My first and perhaps biggest surprise was discovering the relationship between the people of Lucerne and their government. In many of the countries I have lived in, I often felt that dealing with the government was an adversarial relationship. In Lucerne, the government personnel I encountered were polite, helpful and efficient. I was so impressed that I arranged an interview with the governor to find out what was going on. And what I found out was that the people who work for the government are trained to understand that their salary is paid by the people who come to them for assistance and it is their primary obligation to help them in every way they can and with the greatest courtesy. Since most of my work for public television was going to take place in Europe, I wanted to set up a television production company, and putting it in Lucerne made the most sense.

It’s a small company, ten people when we are at full strength. But instead of being treated like an insignificant operation, everyone in the Lucerne business community pitched in.

They helped us get the necessary government permits. Which, turned out to be considerably easier than renewing my driver’s license in New York. They helped us find a places to live and space for our office.

One good option was the D4 Business Center, which has its own train stop that connects to the Zurich airport. It has ready-made modern offices, two restaurants, and a kindergarten. More than 2,200 employees are working on this Business Campus, which was designed for small and medium-sized Swiss or International companies. There is also the TECHNOPARK Lucerne, a business incubator of technology oriented startup companies.

South of the city, and a 2-minute train ride to the main station in Lucerne, is a new development with over 280 apartments.

Switzerland has an interesting work ethic. By law, everybody gets four weeks of paid vacation a year. A while back though, there was a referendum suggesting that they have six weeks of vacation. Well, it was defeated. The people felt that four weeks was quite enough and that the additional two weeks might damage the companies they worked for or have a negative effect on the nation’s competitiveness.

The local government in Lucerne is always trying to improve their relationships with the companies that have set-up their European headquarters in Lucerne. Every few months the directors of the Lucerne Business Development invite people from business, cultural and educational organizations to come to an informal cocktail party to talk about what’s working properly and what the government could improve. They also set up lunches for three or four people to talk about their experiences and what they need the government to do to make life easier for expats. I made three suggestions that were immediately implemented. The government of Lucerne is actually listening. Far Out.

In many ways, Lucerne is one of the most business friendly Cantons.  There’s a combination of market access, modern infrastructure, an efficient talent pool, and lower operating costs. There’s also a competitive real estate market. 

In keeping with the international aspects of modern business, The City of Lucerne maintains a Sister Relationship with the City of Chicago, which is of considerable importance to me because my mother-in-law lives in Chicago. The Canton of Lucerne maintains a partnership relation with the Jiangsu Province in China, which is one of China’s strongest economic regions. And once again, I have a personal connection to Jiangsu. Jiangsu is a coastal state with a long history of great fish dishes. One of my favorites is Snapper in Sweet and Sour Sauce Jiangsu Style. 

Lucerne is the business, tourist and cultural epicenter of central Switzerland. Its attraction is the result of the beauty of the old town, the natural splendor that surrounds it, and what it offers for any business that moves here.

Lucerne was built at the northwest corner of Lake Lucerne at the point where the Reuss River flows out of the lake. The entire city is encircled by the Alps. People have been living in, on, and around the Alps for over ten thousand years. The ancient Romans wrote about the people who lived in these mountains. The most important were the Helvetians.  During the 400s, as Rome fell, German tribes took control of the northern part of Switzerland. The Burgundians from France conquered western Switzerland. But the Helvetians, high up in their central mountain villages, remained free and unaffected by much of Europe’s history. This is an extraordinarily beautiful part of the world, and relatively unspoiled. 

During the Middle Ages, Lucerne was a simple fishing village, but when the St. Gotthard pass, connecting northern Europe and Italy, opened in the 1200s, Lucerne became a major staging area. During the early 1800s, English poets showed up in Lucerne and began describing the beauty of the nearby lakes and mountains. The British upper class, always ready for a holiday abroad, made Lucerne a major tourist attraction.

Lucerne’s 650-foot roofed bridge is probably the oldest roofed bridge in Europe. Called the Chapel Bridge, it was originally built in the 1300s as part of the city’s fortification. The triangular roof supports were used by 17th century painters to present the history of Lucerne and the patron saints of the city. There are over a hundred images. The water tower alongside the bridge was also built in the 1300s. Originally it was a lighthouse on the top, a dungeon at the bottom and a torture chamber in the middle.  Reminds me of my first apartment. 

Lucerne’s old town is filled with ancient decorated buildings. The paintings present the history of a guild, or a family, or a special event.  This building is the site of the first pharmacy in Lucerne.  It opened in 1530.  The sign over the door reads, “There Is No Herb That Will Cure Lovesickness.”  And if there was one, it wouldn’t be covered by your insurance.

A few streets away is the Lion Monument, which commemorates the eight hundred Swiss soldiers who died defending King Louis the Sixteenth and Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution. The royal family had been attacked by the mob, but as soon as the King was able to make a deal with their leaders and felt that his person was safe, he told the Swiss guards to put down their weapons at which point they were all murdered by the revolutionaries. A classic sellout.  Mark Twain visited this monument and called it “the saddest piece of stone in the whole world.”

Just down the river from the monument is the baroque Jesuit Church, built in the mid-1600s.  Baroque architecture was a Roman Catholic response to the simple architecture of the Protestant Reformation. The Pope wanted to send a message that Catholic heaven was a big, magnificent and ornate place and much more fun than whatever was being offered by Martin Luther.  The robes of Niklaus von Flüe, Switzerland’s only patron saint, rests here. Von Flüe’s major act was to propose an agreement that regulated the division of spoils among Switzerland’s mercenary troops which is a story in itself. 

The economy of the Alpine village was based on small herds of cows and sheep and light farming.  But with no natural resources, the economy was marginal.  Since the farm work could be done by women and children, the men were able to go off and find other work.

 And the work that they found was soldiering for pay. For hundreds of years the Swiss fought other people’s battles for a fixed salary and a share of the loot. It was an important source of foreign income.  But in order to be able to offer their soldiers to one country without being attacked by another country, they instituted a policy of neutrality and offered their troops on an impartial basis, if you had the money, they had the men. It was an early form of migrant labor and very important to the history of the nation.

Switzerland no longer earns income from sending out troops; what it does do is bring in tourists. Modern package tourism got started right here in 1893, when Thomas Cook organized a group trip from England.

That first tour, and much of the tourism since then, has been based on the beauty of the Swiss mountains and our desire to see what’s happening on the top.  A twenty-minute drive south of Lucerne will put you at the foot of Mount Pilatus.  You can get there from the city of Lucerne on steamboat, which is my favorite method of transportation.

One of the steepest cogwheel railways in the world will take you to the top, which is seven thousand feet above sea level.  People have always been fascinated with mountain peaks. The ancient Greeks believed that their gods lived on a mountain. Many societies that live near mountains put their temples on top of them. They are also a good spot for meteorological and geological observations, or to check on your neighbors.

But Mount Pilatus was not always available to visitors. For centuries local residents believed that the mountain was inhabited by dragons, and if you disturbed them they would send down storms and great floods. In 1585 a parish priest from Lucerne and a courageous group of parishioners ascended Mount Pilatus and challenged every lake and cave where the dragons were thought to dwell. The priest returned to Lucerne and announced that the spell had been broken, the spirits were at peace, and guided tours would soon be available at a modest price.

Along with its trains, boats and buses, Lucerne is a bike friendly city, with lanes running along the major streets. And in keeping with the cities interest in technology they showed me one of the world’s most advanced bicycles. They are sold by a company called Boo Bicycles. The company is centered in the United States, but the building of the bikes takes place in Vietnam. And they have reps in Europe, the U.S. and Japan. They harvest their bamboo from a unique forest in Vietnam. Then for six months the poles are cured and tempered. Then there’s a stress test and finally the assembly, which includes wrapping the joints with carbon threads.  The tests indicate that their special grade of bamboo makes their bikes stronger than steel, as light as titanium and more durable than carbon fiber. Vibration is reduced and all of your energy is transferred to the rear wheels. See Mother Nature knows best.

(Christian Beuing) Real, Real smooth ride because of the special properties of bamboo. Bamboo absorbs the vibration way better than carbon or aluminum or steel.

(BURT) They appear to be the only bamboo bikes used by professional racers and a traveling television journalist who think they can recapture the feelings of their youth by going around town on a Boo Bike.

Lucerne is also home to a number of outstanding cultural institutions. One of the most significant is the Rosengart Museum. The works in the museum were originally the private collection of the Rosengart family. Siegfried Rosengart and his daughter Angela were art dealers. From time to time they would come across a work that they liked so much that they would buy it for their home. There was never a plan to develop a collection, they just bought what they liked.  At one point, Angela took all the works and put them into a non-profit foundation. In essence, she gave away most of her assets. She wanted to keep all the works together and that was the best way to do it.

A while later, she heard that the Swiss National Bank was planning to give up its building in Lucerne. It’s an amazing structure and Angela was able to arrange for it to become a museum for her paintings. A team of outstanding architects worked on the project and all of the important architectural elements of the original building were preserved. Today, it is considered one of the most important buildings in Switzerland.

After the structure was transformed into the museum, Angela took the works from her home and helped place them in the galleries. She was a dear friend of Picasso and she tried to hang the works the way Picasso would have liked. In one space she tried to recreate the feeling of Picasso’s studio. Visitors can now see over 300 works by classical modern artists including Picasso, Klee, Cezanne and Matisse. Picasso and the Rosengarts were close friends. There are 32 Picasso paintings and 100 drawings in the museum.

 One of the most interesting parts of the museum is an area filled with the photographs by David Douglas Duncan. Duncan was an American photojournalist and one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. He was a close friend of Picasso and appears to be the only person allowed to be with Picasso when he was working in his studio. Duncan was also the only one to photograph many of Picasso’s private works. 

One of my favorite photographs is the one of Picasso eating a fish. I used it in a program I made called “What Are They Eating In The Photograph”. We took a look at some of the great photographs that dealt with food, explained why they were important photographs and then had a top chef recreate the dish that was in the picture.

Lucerne is also the perfect spot to get a Swiss Army Knife.  Charles Elsner was a master knife maker, who originally sold his knives in his mother’s hat shop. When he was thirty he organized the Association of Swiss Master Cutlers. The objective of the association was to produce a pocket knife for the Swiss military. Now, the army was already buying knives, but they were buying them in Germany. In 1891, the first Swiss-made Swiss army knife was delivered to the army, and this is one of them.  It had a long blade, a screwdriver, a can opener, and a reamer for punching holes. And that was it.  The Elsner family is still delivering pocket knives to the Swiss army, but this is what a Swiss Army Knife really looks like. It’s made of a lightweight aluminum alloy; it has a blade, it has a small screw driver with a can opener, it has a big screw driver with a cap lifter and a wire stripper, and a reamer for punching holes.  What everyone who is not in the Swiss Army calls a Swiss Army Knife is this shiny red version with a Swiss Cross embedded in the handle. This is actually the Swiss Army “Officers” Knife.  Elsner developed the early version of this knife in 1897 but the Swiss Army never accepted it. Maybe the corkscrew and the nail cleaner were just too much.  But the troops loved it, both the officers and the enlisted men, and they purchased them with their own money. And they still do.

From the beginning, the company, which is now called Victorinox, developed pocket knives for different groups. During the 1890s they introduced the “schoolboy” model, a “farmer’s” knife and a “cadet” knife, and specialty knives are still being added. Today they produce approximately four hundred different versions of the Swiss Army “Officers” Knife.  They also produce the knife that goes to outer space with the astronauts.

Lucerne is also one of the most important centers for music. It has a year-round program of music including classical concerts, brass bands and a blues festival.

The Swiss Museum of Transportation is considered a historic and cultural institution.

It is an interactive museum that traces the history of transportation. There are areas devoted to railroads, highways, cable, aviation, and space. The staff at the museum came to the realization that the traditional forms of transportation not only carried things and people, they also carried ideas and so they set up an area devoted to radio and television. There are over 3000 objects in the museum. In addition, there is a planetarium, a theater and a small museum dedicated to the works of Hans Ernie. Ernie was born in Lucerne and became famous as an illustrator of postage stamps and lithographs for the Swiss Red Cross. When I visited the museum he was 103 years old and still very busy with his work.

My favorite winter sports include drinking mulled wine and hot chocolate. And when the weather is right I can actually do that at an altitude over 2,000 feet.  However, if you are into winter sports of a less stressful nature, Lucerne is an ideal spot. Some of the best skiing in Switzerland is nearby. And just to keep things hopping, every February, Lucerne presents one of the most unusual and colorful carnivals in Switzerland.  There’s a Summer Nights Festival with an outstanding display of fireworks. And in November a Blues Festival.

OK. So what are the drawbacks?

Not everyone speaks English. But that’s true for New York. You can get around rather well without speaking Swiss-German. At the time this program was filmed, I was unable to find a decent bagel. The natural beauty of the environment can interfere with your ability to concentrate on work unless you are a ski instructor. The Swiss are the world’s largest per-capita consumers of chocolate. Prepare to become part of the statistic.

Well, that’s the Swiss city and canton of Lucerne.  One of the nation’s best-kept secrets. But now that I’ve told you all about it, it’s not very much of a secret.

For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.