Lucerne: a true original
July 27, 2011 | By:

It’s stylish, surprising and unique. Welcome to Lucerne, William Cook’s favourite Swiss city

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High art and hedonism: Lucerne has both in spades

In a humdrum street called Moosstrasse, a short walk from the station, there is a lovely little shop that encapsulates the subtle charm of my favourite Swiss city, Lucerne. In one window, a group of women sit around a table, stitching hats, in silence. In the adjacent window, you can see the results of their deft needlework. Step inside and you realise no two hats are quite alike. Whether off the peg or made to measure, each is a one-off.

This elegant boutique, called Hutte & Mutzen, is the creation of a milliner called Caroline Felber. Tall and slim with silver hair, she has the reserved and graceful air of a retired ballerina. She designed the shop, and virtually everything in it. It’s not remotely flamboyant. If you were in a hurry you might well miss it. But like Lucerne it is very stylish, and utterly unique.

Lucerne’s marketing mantra is ‘Die Stadt, Der See, Die Berge’ (The City, The Lake, The Mountains) and for once this catchy slogan isn’t just a slick piece of PR bumph. The city sits at the mouth of the Vierwaldstattersee (Lake Lucerne to you and me) and is hemmed in on all sides by mountains. It’s like an enormous natural amphitheatre, and in summer it becomes a stage.

A Wagner-inspired festival

Every year since 1938, the Lucerne Festival has brought together the biggest names in classical music, performing in all sorts of venues around town. Its inspiration was Richard Wagner, who lived and worked in a splendid villa on the edge of town, right beside the lake.

Wagner’s villa, now a museum, sums up the rich mix of high art and hedonism which makes Lucerne such a chic retreat. For some visitors, the trek along the lakeside to the villa is a sort of pilgrimage; for others, a quaint historic curio. But for most travellers it’s simply a good excuse to stop off en route for a paddle in the lake.

To discover Lucerne you usually have to nose around, behind closed doors in silent backstreets. The Rosengart Collection is on a busy thoroughfare, but it doesn’t shout about its wares. I must have walked past this museum several times before I peered inside and came face to face with a huge Picasso.

Where urban meets rural

This gorgeous gallery, which features virtually every modern master you can think of (and quite a few you can’t) is the brainchild of Angela Rosengart, an art dealer and collector, now in her 80th year. She befriended Picasso and sat for him half a dozen times (his portraits are on show inside). She also met Braque, Chagall, Matisse and Miro, and collected numerous examples of their work.

But to see the city itself, you really have to leave it, on a pretty paddle steamer from the Bahnhofquai, beside the busy central station, or on a bright red cable car to the top of Mount Pilatus, the craggy (and slightly sinister) peak which towers over this miniature metropolis. From the top, 2,132 metres high, Lucerne looks tiny. And so it is: barely 100,000 lucky souls live here. But although it is just a speck on this vast lake, dwarfed by the gigantic mountains that surround it, it is by far the best blend of urban and rural life that I’ve ever encountered.

Living in Lucerne, you really can enjoy the best of both worlds, even if – like me, and a host of other envious travellers – you have only ever lived here for a few days at a time.