Year abroad: Pilatus Golden Round Trip

I thought I did so much travelling during my year abroad. I thought every minute I wasn’t in lessons I spent on trains going to every town in every corner of Switzerland and yet I’m starting to feel like I’ve told you about most trips and I’m also very much realising how dim my memory is of that year.

So, Luzern. I tried to be a good local and use the Swiss names for places rather than the English ones (I will still be that person and correct Lake Geneva to Lac Leman) but actually, here’s a fun fact. Luzern is the High German name for the city. The local Swiss German name is Lozärn.

Luzern is my second-favourite city in Switzerland. I have to be loyal to my beloved hometown and say Neuchâtel is my favourite. There’s something about Luzern, though. Possibly that thing is the Golden Round Trip which is what I did on my first day in Luzern, on the recommendation of one of my teachers at the language school.

Just across the starfish-like Vierwaldstättersee -Lake Lucerne in English – is Mount Pilatus. That’s much more interesting than a city, even a favourite city like Luzern. I queued in the tourist information centre under the station for a Golden Round Trip ticket and set off.

Selfie on the gondola on the way up Pilatus

The cable car arrives at Pilatus

First was to take bus #1 across Luzern to the gondola at Kriens, where I exchanged my receipt for an actual pink-and-blue travel ticket. I went up in the gondola, all by myself. I can’t remember what time I must have set off from Neuchâtel but it must have been before dawn, if I could have reached Luzern, two hours away by train, and got to the gondola before most of Luzern was even up. I got to the cable car, the next stretch of the trip up the mountain, also empty. Cable cars have drivers and this one chatted to the tourist going up the mountain on her own early in the morning. I tried to be the good Swiss native. I tried using Neuchâtel’s German name to explain where I was from, since I was in German-speaking Switzerland but Neuenburg just isn’t as well-recognised as Neuchâtel.

The view from P

The fog atop Pilatus

The restaurant on top of Pilatus

The Pilatus restaurant from above

Paragliders preparing to jump off Pilatus

Paragliders over Pilatus

It was pretty quiet at the top. Now, the fact that there was a layer of cloud sitting just below the peak might have had something to do with this, or the fact that it was still pretty early. It was June – the beginning of peak holiday time, when Switzerland begins to fill up with tourists and visitors, and this is definitely in the top ten most touristy things you can do in the entire country. But you know who does get up early and come up the mountain before the tourists? Paragliders. I will never get tired of watching people swoop through the sky on neon-coloured wings. I will also never get tired of wishing I was rich enough or brave enough to learn to do that by myself.

I prowled the mountaintop but… the mountain’s number one feature is its view, which was invisible. Besides, although the mountain was the main attraction of the Golden Round Trip, there was still plenty to come.

The Pilatus Cogwheel Railway

Driving the Pilatus Cogwheel Railway

The steepness of the Pilatus Cogwheel Railway

The view from the train down Pilatus

First, I had to descend the mountain by rack railway to Alpnachstad. The railway is fun because it’s the steepest cogwheel railway in the world at 48% – that’s 25.64° – and that’s not all the way, that’s just the steepest part of. The railway was completed in 1889 and although I daresay it’s been upgraded over the last nearly hundred and thirty years, it still looks kind of old-fashioned. The original trains were steam-powered and now they’re electric and I can never resist sitting right at the front, hanging over to watch the driver and imagine heroically taking over if the driver drops dead or leaps out and runs away. They don’t look too complicated to drive. Surely I could figure it out in an emergency.

The view from the steamer

The Swiss flag flying from the stern of the steamer

The workings of the steamer

A zeppelin over Lake Luzern

The lower we got, the better the weather became and by the time we landed at the valley station, it was looking like a promisingly good day. I crossed the road and got on the steamer that ties in with the train. This was the last step of my journey back to Luzern. It takes about an hour and a half, criss-crossing over the starfish-arms of the lake. I especially enjoy the huge Swiss flag that flies from the back of every passenger boat. That big red flag looks great with the blue-green water and the mountain scenery. And then, of course, you can go downstairs and look at the workings. I don’t know if “engine” is the right word, but the gleaming pistons and valves and whatnot are open for viewing (and usually surrounded by Men of A Certain Age – and me. You can also watch the huge paddle-wheels turn through little windows. I’m a great believer in never sitting still on this kind of boat, not when there’s so much to be seen. Even a zeppelin, on this trip. Or maybe an airship. I’ve never been entirely sure of the difference.

The steamer Unterwalden moored in Luzern

Band onstage at Eidgenössisches Musikfest 2006

Jazz band on stage under the station

Even when I got back to Luzern, it wasn’t over. There was some kind of huge music festival going on, which turned out to be the Eidgenössisches Musikfest, a huge national music festival which only happens in years ending in a 1 or a 6. I’d walked straight into the 2006 one, without any idea what it was or that you needed to pay for entry. All I knew was that everywhere I turned there were bands and orchestras and groups. Even in the station’s basement was a jazz group. I stood on the waterfront and listened to an orchestra play the Jurassic Park theme. This was an unexpected bonus ending to my day on a mountain and a lake.

It sounds like I really rushed round the trip but I remember it being dark when I changed trains at Olten, so I must have got back pretty late and I’ve spent the last decade recommending that trip to all and sundry.