Travels & Traditions: Central Switzerland - #204

These are the Swiss Alps, and people have been living in, on, and around them for over ten thousand years. The ancient Romans wrote about the tribes 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.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The scenery is magnificent... the culture is interesting... the people are friendly... and the food is good.  It’s a marvelous place for a vacation.

So please join me, Burt Wolf, for TRAVELS & TRADITIONS  in Central Switzerland.

One of the best ways to see this area is by car. You’re free of plane, train and bus schedules so you can control your time. You can also decide exactly where you want to go and how you want to get there. And you can change your mind at any time.

Of course, you can rent an automobile, but you might also consider purchasing a new car and taking European delivery. A number of companies offer this option and we’re testing it with a couple of BMWs. Since we are only borrowing these cars to see how the program works, I went for the convertible. You know, I’m not getting any younger and if I’m gonna live it up, now’s the time.  My sound engineer, Paul Waide, is driving the second car. It’s a 323 coupe. He’s an elegant and classic guy and he says this car is elegant and classical. He’s also into cars and feels that these cars are designed by drivers for drivers. You buy the car in the States and set up the delivery with your local dealer.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Then you fly to Munich, Germany, and pick up your car at the BMW delivery center. You’ll save about seven percent off the cost with this kind of delivery, and you will avoid all of the expenses of transportation during your holiday.  And let me tell you, those can add up.  When you’ve finished your vacation, you can drop off the car in any one of nineteen cities and BMW will ship it home for you.

We started in Munich and drove south through Zurich to Luzern.  We used the official road map of the Automobile Club of Switzerland, which was clear and up-to-date. It took just over five hours to reach Luzern, the largest city in central Switzerland, and the base for our touring.

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

The city’s great hotel is the Palace Luzern, built in 1906 and continually renovated and updated. It’s a five-star deluxe property and a member of the “Leading Hotels of the World.”  It sits right on the promenade that runs along the shore of the lake. The building has all the charm and elegance that you would expect from a classic structure.  And the rooms have magnificent views of the surrounding mountains.

The main restaurant has a French accent, but they also prepare the traditional dishes of the region. I asked the chef for a few of the local specialties. He opened with Grisons barley soup, made from barley, carrots, celery, leeks, stock and a little cream. The meat course was a Luzern Vol-Au Vent -- puff pastry filled with diced veal, diced pork, sausage meat dumplings, mushrooms and raisins in a light cream sauce.  Dessert included a slice of gingerbread cake with a dollop of whipped cream.   Local tradition calls for a man to offer a gingerbread cake to his sweetheart as an expression of his love, so be careful how you pass this stuff around

A meal like that calls for a good walk through the city, which is easy. The Palace Luzern is at the edge of the main part of town, and everything is in walking distance.

Luzern’s 650-foot roofed bridge is the oldest 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 Luzern 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 -- even then multi-use dwellings were fashionable.

Luzern’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 Luzern.  It opened in 1530.  The sign over the door reads, “There Is No Herb That Will Cure Lovesickness.”  Even then they knew.

And as long as you’re in the neighborhood you should stop in to the Heini bakery and taste a few of their specialties.  Cheese, milk chocolate, ice cream... anything related to the cow is important to Switzerland.

Another “udderly” delightful aspect of Luzern gastronomy is the Pretzel King shop. The classic pretzel shape is said to have originated in the church schools of Austria with the intention of reminding children of praying hands. In the shop of the Pretzel King they remind everyone of how great a really good pretzel tastes.  They have a ham-and-cheese on a pretzel... they have a salami-and-pickle on a pretzel... they have a pizza pretzel... an almond pretzel... plus a series of sweet pretzels for dessert.

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.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): 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.

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. 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 it was that Martin Luther was offering.  The robes of  Niklaus von Flue, Switzerland’s only saint, rest here. Von Flue’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.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): 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. But it’s important to remember that Swiss neutrality was based on money, not morals.

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 southwest from Luzern will put you at the foot of Mount Pilatus.

And the steepest cogwheel railway 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 the best spot for meteorological and geological observations, or to check out 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 Luzern and a courageous group of parishioners ascended Pilatus and challenged every lake and cave where the dragons were thought to dwell. The priests returned to Luzern and announced that the spell had been broken, the spirits were at peace, and for about thirty-eight bucks you could take a tour of the top. The dragons were Swiss and they knew a good business when they saw one.

The next stop on our tour of Central Switzerland is the town of Ibach... which may not mean much, until you find out that it is the home of the company that makes the original Swiss Army Knife, and the only shop in the world that carries all of their models. 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.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): 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 were 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 into outer space with the astronauts... and the absolutely essential “inline skater’s” knife.

But the only place in the world where you can see and purchase every model made in the factory is just a few blocks away from great-great-grandmother Elsner’s hat shop... where the first knives were sold over a hundred years ago.

With my knife preparing me for any eventuality, I headed off to the town of Altdorf. For centuries the valleys of Switzerland were dominated by powerful families who created city-states and spent much of their time fighting for control of the land and the peasants. But the ancient forest cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden escaped feudalism and lived on the mountains in relative freedom.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): They governed themselves through small assemblies -- actually an early form of democracy.  In the 1200s, however, Count Rudolf of Habsburg tried to take control of the forest cantons through his tax agents. Bad move.

An arrogant jerk called Gessler was one of those agents. One day he came into Altdorf, hung his hat on a pole in the square and insisted that everyone who passed must bow to it. A local farmer named William Tell passed by and told Gessler what he could do with his hat. Gessler ordered Tell to shoot an apple off his son’s head. Tell did so, mentioning to Gessler afterward that if he had missed with the first arrow the second would have gone into Gessler’s heart. They argued and eventually that’s exactly where the arrow ended up, killing Gessler.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Altdorf has a William Tell monument and a William Tell Museum, but historians are not really sure that William Tell ever existed or that the events of the legend ever took place. Nevertheless, it is the story of the death of tyranny and the triumph of freedom -- two essential elements in the culture of Switzerland. In 1804 Schiller wrote a play about the legend, and in the early 1820s Rossini wrote the “William Tell” opera.  So, true or not, it has become a central part of the legend of the founding of the Swiss Confederacy.

Which set us off to the city of Berne, the capital of the Confederacy... and through some of the country’s most beautiful scenery.

Berne is a peninsula formed by a bend in the Aare River. It was founded in 1191 by Duke Berchtold the Fifth of Zahringen, but you probably knew that already.  For six hundred years it was ruled by a group of powerful families -- a long period of stability, and for many of those years it was the largest city-state north of the Alps.

Berne is the federal capital of Switzerland but it has resisted the international atmosphere that you find in most European capitals.  Instead, it presents the traditions of Switzerland and Berne.  The medieval and baroque buildings were constructed of local gray-green sandstone, which gives the streets a sense of history and a feeling of mass.  And speaking of mass --

For a number of years, the great physicist Albert Einstein lived in Berne, and it was during those years that he did some of his most important work on the theories that led to atomic fusion. Tourists often come to look at the house in which he lived.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): And this -- is not that house.  This is a more important house.  Because it was in the kitchen of this house in 1908 when Erik Baumann and his cousin Theodor Tobler, after hours of feverish experimentation, created a perfect fusion between nougat and milk chocolate -- thereby giving us the first Toblerone.

Not only did they cross the previously unbreachable boundary between chocolate and nougat, but they had the skill and insight to produce individual servings of their bar in the shape of the Matterhorn, Switzerland’s most famous mountain.  And to use a manufacturing process so unique that it was given a patent.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): But wait, there’s more. The man at the Swiss Federal Institute for Intellectual Property – the organization that actually issued the patent for Toblerone – was none other than Albert Einstein. A random event?  Coincidence?  I think not.  I think what we have here is La Forza Del Destino, “The Forces of Destiny.”   We also have the ten-pound Toblerone bar, the largest chocolate bar in regular manufacture.  Even Albert would have gotten a Big Bang out of this.

You’ll also get a bang from touring Berne’s old town, and you can do it without regard for the weather, since most streets are covered with arcades. Over the centuries the population of the city has grown, but not the available space.  Accordingly, every square foot is put to good use.  Even the ancient cellars have been turned into shops, theatres, and restaurants.

Much of the best restaurant food in Switzerland is found in small establishments that offer local specialties, and Berne has a number of them. My favorite is Della Casa, where they make the definitive rosti.  Rosti means “crisp and golden,” and that is exactly what these potatoes are. Traditionally it was made with leftover boiled potatoes that were shredded, flattened and sautéed on both sides. It’s served with a side order of sausages, but I understand that most people think the rosti is the side dish.

It’s also mandatory to try cheese fondue in the country where it was invented. The Swiss have been producing cheese since pre-Roman times, but the production took place during the late summer. By mid-winter the cheese was very hard and the best way to eat it was to melt it. The melted cheese was also a great foil for hard bread. Traditionally the Swiss make their cheese fondue in a heavy pot. Emmental and Gruyere, the two most famous cheeses of Switzerland, are melted with a little wine. And the dry bread is dipped in. The one-pot communal meal is just the way people once ate on the mountain farms.

Along with the good food, Berne has a number of good museums... including the Museum of Fine Arts, with the world’s largest collection of the works of Paul Klee.

But the streets of Berne constitute the city’s most interesting museum. There are eleven fountains from the mid-1500s, each with its own legend. There’s also the clock tower, built in 1530, and as you would expect of any Swiss clock -- it’s still running. Elizabeth Thurlemann showed me how the clock works.

ELIZABETH THURLEMANN:  First of all, this was made in 1527 until 1531.  Kasper Bruner made the whole clock and it has to be winded [wound]  every day.  It has five weights; you take them up by winding the clock, and then it will take them twenty-nine hours to come down.  But actually, of course, they wind it up every twenty-four hours, more or less at six o’clock in the evening, every day.  This main engine makes the clock, the two clocks outside working -- the one that was made in 1531, and the top one, which we actually look at today, about 250 years ago they made the other one.  Three minutes before the hour, actually, the figure-play starts.  This is the rooster.  Then one minute later this engine turns, and this makes the bears over there turning, and with these two ropes here, it makes the jester banging the hour (he’s a jester, that’s why he’s allowed to bang the hour before the hour).  Then one minute later the rooster crows a second time.  And then when the hour is really gone, Cronus (he’s the old man sitting in the middle) turns around his hourglass.  Then it means the hour is gone.  And on the end, the rooster cries a third time.  Here it means, “Ladies and gentlemen, one hour is gone in your life.”  That’s actually how it works.

BURT WOLF:   (after the clockworks runs; checking watch):  It’s right on.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The clock of Berne reminds us that everything has a season and that time waits for no one. And we’re out of time. I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief visit to central Switzerland and that you will have time, next time, to join us on TRAVEL S& TRADITIONS. I’m Burt Wolf.