Aug. 21, 2003, 12:05PM
By CLARE NULLIS
LUCERNE, Switzerland -- This tourist mecca combines all the clichés about chocolate, cheese and cuckoo clocks, showcased in an idyllic Alpine setting of lakes and mountains, serenaded by yodelers and alphorns.
A rainbow spreads over the Chapel Bridge, built in 1333, and its Water Tower, in Lucerne, Switzerland.
In short, it is overpoweringly, unashamedly Swiss.
But, bubbling below the folksy Heidi-esque surface is a vibrant, self-confident city with state-of-the-art architecture, museums and galleries, world-famous concerts, a buzzing nightlife and innovative hotels ranging from palaces to prisons.
The central Swiss city has been a must on every tourist itinerary of Switzerland since Queen Victoria visited in 1868 and was bowled over by the stunning panoramas, crystal water and clear air.
Usually, at the height of the season, thousands of tourists are disgorged from buses every day, filling the narrow medieval streets. However, the SARS crisis and travel jitters because of terrorism and the war in Iraq have had a huge impact. Lucerne, which hosts an average 1 million overnight stays a year, experienced a 36 percent decrease in Japanese visitors in the first six months of this year and a 16 percent decline in American visitation.
Zermatt and other favorite Swiss destinations also are feeling the pinch. "Usually a lot of Americans come to Zermatt at this time of year," said marketing director Daniel Luggen. "But this year we have a decrease of one-third."
Two men jump into the river Reuss near the Chapel bridge in Lucerne, Switzerland, in this June 30, 2002 photo. Lucerne is set in an idyllic Alpine setting of lakes and mountains and attracts many tourists every year. AP Photo/Keystone, Sigi Tischler
Swiss Tourism director Juerg Schmid predicts that 1,000 of the current 5,700 hotels will close over the next 10 years -- about the same number as have disappeared over the past 10 years. Nearly two-thirds of Switzerland's hotels are family-run and have fewer than 20 rooms.
While this is disastrous news for hotels, restaurants and stores, it is a positive boon for tourists who do plan a visit this year. And in Lucerne, the breathtakingly stunning setting is much more enjoyable without the hordes.
The waters of Lake Lucerne are reputedly so clear that you can drink them and tantalizingly tempt summer visitors to take a cool dip. All around the lake is a glorious vista of some of Switzerland's best-loved mountains, such as the Pilatus and Rigi.
Lucerne lays claim to the world's largest fleet of paddle steamers, offering an endless variety of breakfast, lunch, cocktail and dinner cruises. One of the most popular combinations is a "Golden Round Trip" excursion by boat to the village of Alpachstad, followed by a climb up thePilatus mountain on the steepest cogwheel railway in the world, and a descent by aerial tramway and panoramic gondola.
The city itself is the stuff of storybooks. Intricately painted buildings line the narrow streets, which are home to such jewels as the Jesuitenkirche, one of the finest Baroque churches in Switzerland, and the magnificent Renaissance-era town hall and Ritter Palace.
Lucerne's most photographed attraction, pictured on virtually every postcard, is the Chapel Bridge, built in 1333, and its Water Tower, which used to serve as both watch tower and prison cum torture chamber.
In August 1993, Chapel Bridge was almost completely destroyed by a fire, apparently started by a cigarette thrown from a passing boat. After eight months of frantic restoration, the city's landmark was reopened in 1994. But the flames devoured many of the 110 gable paintings on the bridge that gave graphic details of the martyrdom of Lucerne's two patron saints, St. Leodegar and St. Mauritius, and the city's history. Experts were able to salvage only 30 of the works, and city fathers decided against filling the gaps with replicas.
Worth a visit -- but don't expect to be alone -- is the Lion monument, a huge sculpture hewn into the cliff in honor of Swiss mercenaries killed while defending the Tuileries in the 1792 French Revolution. Set in a lovely, shady spot near the Glacier Garden, the carving depicts the lion protecting the French fleur-de-lis even as it dies.
Firmly on the agenda of all Swiss schoolchildren is the Swiss transport museum, which traces the development of all forms of Swiss trains, tunnels, planes and boats and also features a giant, three-dimensional map of the country that visitors can walk over.
Another recent cultural addition is the Rosengart collection of paintings by father-and-daughter team Siegfried and Angela Rosengart. Housed near the railway station, the previously private collection includes works of Picasso, Chagall, Klee, Matisse, Miro, Cézanne and Monet.
Lucerne's hotels are pricey even by Swiss standards, although package tourists benefit from a pre-negotiated rate. But squeezed by the pressure of empty rooms, even top-notch hotels such as the Palace are offering cut-rate, last-minute deals.
A ship carrying tourists passes the houses set along side the river Reuss in Lucerne, Switzerland, in this Aug. 13, 2001 photo. Lucerne is set in an idyllic Alpine setting of lakes and mountains and attracts many tourists every year. AP Photo/Keystone, Sigi Tischler
Adventurous bargain hunters would be advised to try the Jailhotel Loewengraben. The city jail, built in 1862, housed inmates until five years ago. Thanks to a healthy imagination and a hefty dollop of public funds, it has been converted into a hotel that's a big hit with younger travelers.
The "Most Wanted" rooms offer basic but clean accommodations up to four to a cell -- yes, there are still bars on the windows. Those with claustrophobia might go for the more expensive option of the "library suite," the "Barabas suite" (where prisoners used to play cards) or the top-of-the-range Falling Waters Suite, which used to house visitors.
The jail kitchen has been transformed into an Indian restaurant, and the cellar is now aptly named the Knast Bar (prison bar).
"The Loewengraben is the first prison in Switzerland you'll never want to leave," boasts the hotel.
The Zurich airport is about an hour from Lucerne, and there is frequent train service. A Swiss Pass allows unlimited travel on trains, buses and many boats, with prices starting at $175 for four consecutive days. A Flexi Pass is better for people who want to spread their travel -- prices start at $168 for three days in a calendar month.
Lucerne is small and easily visited on foot -- there are morning guided tours starting at the tourist information office at 9:45 a.m. Lake cruises offer brunches, lunches or dinners. Swiss rail passes allow free travel on most boats.
For information about attractions, lodging, dining and events, access Lucerne Tourism's Internet site at www.luzern.org or call 011-41-41-227-1717. Switzerland Tourism's Web site is at www.mySwitzerland.com, with a toll-free international line at 011-800-100-200-30 (fax: 011-800-100-200-31). Swiss Federal Railways is online at www.rail.ch, or call 011-41-900-300-300.