I didn’t exactly plan to go to Pilatus. I wanted something to do and was running out of ideas when I came across Luzern by accident in the guidebook. But I didn’t really want to go there – I’ve already been. Then I spotted the two mountains either side of the city, Rigi and Pilatus. I don’t remember how I chose Pilatus but possibly it was because there are two different routes up it, whereas the two routes up Rigi are both rack railways.
Next thing to decide was which route to take. Do I go to Alpnachstad and take the steepest cogwheel railway in the world or do I go to Kriens and take the gondola and cable car up? Obviously, the best way would be to go up one way and down the other. Would I have to buy two one way tickets or was there some way I could get a round trip ticket? Yes, there was. It’s called the Golden Round Trip.
After searching the labyrinth that is Luzern Bahnhof, I decided I would have to buy one from the tourist office, so I queued for half an hour and finally discovered why it’s so slow. I asked the woman for a ticket for the Golden Round Trip and she started getting out maps and showing me exactly what it involved and what fun things you could do on the way and how to get there and all the stuff I already knew from the guidebook. All I wanted was the ticket!
The first stage was Bus 1 from Perron 1 at Luzern Bahnhof towards Kriens, getting off at Linde-Pilatus. It was a trolley bus and I sat in the little cart attached to the back and it was hot. It was really really hot. The stops were announced, all in German until we got to “Nächster halt, Linde-Pilatus. Next stop, Mount Pilatus.” I had been sitting next to a German woman with two young boys on the train between Olten and Luzern and I’d heard one of the boys talking about that. I’d heard him say those very words but I’d assumed for some reason that was an announcement on the cable car or railway when you were just about to get to the top. It had baffled me because I was pretty sure that “Linde” was not German for mountain. Now it all made sense although why the boy said it, I have no idea.
I had to walk up through the village of Kriens to the gondola station. It was packed, everyone queueing at the front to buy tickets. Well, I already had my ticket. I made my way through the crowds towards the gate. Here I found a problem. My ticket was a pink and blue square of paper, which doesn’t fit in the gondola gate ticket slots. I handed it to the man hanging around there and he went into his little box and swapped it for a proper gondola card. I got in my red gondola and started my journey upwards.
The gondola stage was two parts, but you didn’t have to change. I went up above the city, up above the trees and I could see right across Luzern on the edge of the lake. Up over a huge green meadow, through the middle station and on again. I had to get out at Fräkmüntegg. This was a tempting place to stay. Right outside the station was a high-wires park, like Go Ape. Except here the lanyards weren’t slings like at Go Ape, they were rope and the people on the wires wore helmets and gloves. I watched someone go down the zip line and they were holding onto the wire as they slid down it. That was when I noticed the gloves and noticed that everyone was wearing them. It looked fun. And then, 100m down the hill, there was Switzlerland’s longest rodelbahn and that was tempting as well. But the last train I could get down with a boat connection was 3.55 so I didn’t have time to hang around on wires or rodels.
I got the cable car up. It’s about halfway, walking distance, but whereas the gondolas take half an hour, the cable car only takes five minutes and is a lot steeper and goes over some scary stuff. This was a new experience for me – I had the cable car completely to myself, except the driver. I was the only passenger. My own personal cable car. The driver opened the door and said something in German. I didn’t have a clue what, so he said “You speak?” and I said I speak English – and French. So he talked to me in French all the way up. Where am I from, what am I doing in Switzerland, what am I studying, where am I studying? Where in England am I from? London? No. Near the sea? Just a little bit, and then we were at the top.
At the top – Pilatus Kulm – is a hotel, a conference room, a round restaurant, a sun terrace and several pointy peaks.
There are five walking routes, mostly pretty short. I did most of them. The first one was the blue route, mostly because it went through the rocks, into what they call a rock gallery. Through the rock and around the rock and that bit is the same as the green route. Then the green route goes through a kind of artificial cave which the hotel uses as storage and you reemerge just above the hotel. I went through there, discovered it led me straight back down again and went back to my route. Up the stairs – a lot of them, around the mountain and then up some more stairs through the rock and I emerged at Chriesiloch, which seems to be a ledge below a weather station. I walked back down the other end of the path along the front of the mountain towards the hotel and discovered that that route was supposed to take half an hour. Even with all the photos I took of the mist coming through the gallery windows, it didn’t take that long, I’m sure.
Next I took the red route, because it came off the side of the blue one. That went up a few steps, a couple of little bends and emerged at Oberhaupt, which was a little viewing platform at the top. Then I went down and took the pink route which was at the other side of the hotel and went up to another pyramid of rock with great views. Before I did that though, I watched the people jumping off the mountain and soaring around right over our heads.
Then I climbed up to Esel.
It was a steep path up to a peak and if it wasn’t so misty, I could have seen for miles. The mist came and went. There were clear patches which moved around. I could see over the entire starfish-shape lake, I could see exactly where I’d come up and if it was clear, I could have seen all the way to the Oberland.
Then I came down and wandered around the terrace and eventually got the train down.
It was the way down, but it was nowhere near the last bit of the day. I was near the front of the queue to get through the gate because I was there fairly early, then I got near the chain at the top where everyone gathered next. Then when it was opened, I discovered that the best way to get to the front was just to skip down the stairs and overtake everyone that way because everyone else was just plodding down the stairs. So I was first onto the train and got to choose the best seat. There are in fact, about nine small trains which run as a sort of pack. My one was the first. Each one has four levels and there are eight seats in each level, four facing in each direction. I sat facing forwards, then realised as soon as people sat in front of me, my view was going to disappear, so I sat facing backwards, where I could turn around and look out the front. I could also watch the driver.
We started going downwards and within two minutes, the driver was talking to me. At first I thought maybe he was objecting to me hanging over the back of my seat but I could hear the word “Steinbock” so I looked where he was pointing and realised. He was showing me that there were wild Alpensteinbock on the slopes beside us, three of them, a more brownish colour than I’ve seen them before.
It’s the steepest cogwheel railway in the world, as they tell you in the office, on all the leaflets, in the guidebook and on the side of the train. At one point, just below the first set of tunnels, it gets to 48%. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I know that it’s pretty steep and I read in the leaflet that the way it works is “the brilliantly innovative construction of two horizontally revolving cogwheels”. The railway has been going since 1889 and was steam-powered until 1937.
We went down through fields and rock faces and tunnels and then came to a kind of middle station at Amsigen where there was a little bridge over the railway and cows walking across it into a barn. That was great. But then we stopped and the driver got out and when I looked out the front, I discovered that we’d run out of track:
We sat there for five or ten minutes and while we were waiting, three more little trains came trundling up. That was why we’d run out of track, it was waiting for them. The driver got back in and the entire section slid across to we could go on. The woman sitting next to me made a sort of “Oooohh” noise and the driver laughed. We made the rest of the way down and arrived in Alpnachstad after about forty minutes.
Next, I had to go under a pretty big road and get to the paddle steamer, the last part of my journey.
Inside it, the engine was open with railings around it so men could stand and look at it and it was hot. A big red and silver steam engine.
And on either side of it were windows so you could watch the paddles going round and round.
It was a ninety minute trip across three arms of the lake. I never got my ticket checked because I never stayed still long enough. Everyone else seemed to find somewhere to sit and stayed put. I don’t believe in that. I wandered around, the front, the back, the inside. I couldn’t get upstairs though, because it was first class only. There was one particular place on the boat where you could get misted from the paddles but a man in a yellow t-shirt stood there most of the time. At the back was a huge Swiss flag, really huge and at the front on the side, there was a lot of gold decoration. I took my shoes off and wandered around barefoot. We made five stops on the way and every time we picked up more passengers, the men would spend the first ten minutes standing looking at the engine.
As we got closer to Luzern, I could hear a lot of noise and music, although it was hard to tell over the noise of the boat.
As we arrived at the quay, there seemed to be a lot of bands on boats and I remembered that I’d been quite impressed to see a band on an escalator in the station earlier. On the quay, there was a huge stage over pools of water and a set of seats opposite and a lot of people in uniforms. It appeared I’d wandered into some huge battle of the bands. They all had their own uniform, various coloured and patterned waistcoats, white shirts, black trousers, some with coloured shirts or trousers, some with stripes down their legs, some with jackets, some with ties, some with hats, some with a combination of things. A big band on the stage was doing sound checks, which seemed to involve starting to play something and then trailing off twenty seconds later. Finally it dawned on me to read what was written on the back of the stage in huge black and white letters in four languages. What I’d walked into the was Swiss Federal Festival of Music, which takes place over two weekends.
I sat down on the wooden walkway next to the stage, as I didn’t dare go up to the seats and listened to Stadtmusik Zürich, which seemed to be some kind of non-military military band. Then it started to rain, so I wandered around the back of the seats to the other side which was under the cover of the KKL, the Culture and Congress Centre of Luzern. I wandered a lot. I went back out into the rain, since it wasn’t raining that much, and then back under cover again because it was. I went inside the KKL where there were various music stands, Yamaha, something beginning with B, the Tuba Centre of Switzerland and instrument repair. They all had shiny instruments out and I had a look at them. Clarinets with extra keys and gold keys and flutes in various sizes with different numbers of holes in the bottom section. There was even a bass flute. The people beginning with B had a weird saxophone with a matt finish which made it look kind of antique, as well as a shiny silver soprano sax. I got a couple of pens and pencils from Yamaha and then went back outside. Stadtmusik Zürich had finished and Basorchester SBB were coming on. I watched them for a while too, but then it started to get thundery and there was lightning too. I decided being out in the rain, under a huge stage made of scaffolding and standing in the lake probably wasn’t the best place to be in a thunderstorm and I’d just discovered a sign up next to the stage. It appeared there was music going on in about eight places throughout the city and one of them was the station. At eight, “Houmpa Something” was playing in there, which was in about three minutes. I deserted the stage and went to the station, which was right next door. I went out from under the cover of the KKL and walked about ten seconds in the rain to the escalator down to the lower levels of the station.
There were lines of tables set up underneath the station and lots and lots of people sitting at them in front of a smaller stage. I went upstairs to find out when and where my train was and watched the band from the railings up above. From there I could see them, I could see the bands in their purple and green waistcoats and yellow and white and blue shirts, the women dancing on the tables and the woman who knocked her drink over.
It was a little brass band of six people and they were great. Everyone was clapping along with them and the people who actually knew what they were playing were singing and it was a lot of fun.
But then I had to leave and get my train.
It was a train from Luzern to Olten and it was packed, then I had ten minutes to change at Olten for the SBB from St Gallen heading for Lausanne. In the last four weeks, I’ve taken that train three times, in both directions. It was 10.34 before I got back to Neuchatel and my camera batteries were so dead, I would have to charge them overnight before I get at my photos.