We discover the old-world courtesy and values that lie beneath the postcard prettiness of Lucerne

It would hardly be an overstatement to say that Lucerne, even on a gull-grey day, looks like an imaginary land from a children’s book. With its spread-like-a-satin-sheet lake, candy-coloured half-timber homes with painted fronts, fountains that look like elaborate confectionery, medieval bridges, and waterfront promenades, Lucerne wears beauty that is both man-made and natural.

Cities that have water and mountains as carpet and drapes, I have often found, breed an unusual contentment. Bestowed with this natural abundance, there appears little need to get above yourself or put on airs, and people living here are a content, polite and respectful-of-other-people’s-time lot.

The juxtaposition of mountain and water also appears to breed an acceptance of relativity and a tolerance for the different. Sammlung Rosengart’s Picasso collection is tucked amid a cluster of stores selling cowbells and cuckoo-clock souvenir kitsch. The church of Saint Leodegar watches over the city, as it gets its otherwise constrained knickers in a twist at the Fasnacht celebration — a boisterous street carnival that takes place from ‘Dirty Thursday’ in the second week of February. Over the next few days, knots of musicians and revellers dressed as warlocks and witches, beaky birds and goblins take to the streets and get musically loud. Signalling the fact that Lucerne’s a place that can hold its contradictions.

Proud history

The steadfastness, skill and courage of Swiss mercenary soldiers who served faithfully in armies for centuries are values still on display around town. On doors of homes, for instance, I come across lion door knockers of all shapes and sizes. Little reminders of the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss, that is as much a part of its constructed personality, as are the knives and watches that the people have come to be identified with.

While children may congregate around he Bertel Thorvaldsen sculpture of a dying lion, it is really parents who are moved by the carving that commemorates the hundreds of steadfast Swiss guards who were massacred in 1792 during the French Revolution. Wandering around the very walkable old town, there’s nothing quite like an exploration of a medieval bridge.

The 14th century Chapel Bridge trains you in observation. If you look up as you walk along, you’ll be treated to Heinrich Wagmann’s 17th century triangular roof panels, depicting landmark events from Swiss history and mythology. But you’ll also see that the bridge is a pan-national place. Not unlike the coffee shop, it is a sanctuary, a haven against the elements. I shelter here from the rain. A photographer is taking pictures. A Russian girl is catching 40 winks.

Train on time

Public courtesy is a local treasure. I watch as a series of concerned onlookers enquire to discern if the girl sleeping on the bridge is unwell and in need of anything. Touched by this little tableau, I stroll on to the next bridge, darker, smaller, but as intriguing, with plague paintings by Kaspar Meglinger from 1635.

At first, I linger in the little coffee shops past the bridge, by the cathedral, watching locals keep Swiss time, striding purposefully to appointments. And slowly the land seeps into me like the universe’s own morphing room. And I do as the Swiss do — look at my watch, mark out a train’s precise timetable, and head punctually to the station to catch the train to Mount Pilatus for a ride on the world’s steepest cogwheel railway. Pilatus, like Rigi, for those who came in late, is a mountain that hovers over the area and one of the most highly recommended trips from Lucerne.

Perhaps as thought-provoking as the ride are the obedient dogs alongside their masters waiting in line for the train to arrive. They too are products of a well-mannered land and they linger in the queue with the discreteness of wallflowers, smiling appreciatively up at anyone choosing to drool over them.

Safe as home

Ascending Pilatus is accompanied by a soundtrack of peeling cowbells from the cows grazing the meadows alongside. The sound reminds me that the endemic food here is milk and its every by-product from cream to cheese. There is little doubt that when I get to the top, before I treat myself to walks or get jiggy on tree-climbs graded according to difficulty levels, or lose my heart to shy ibex, I will linger over a bowl of fondue for some much-awaited fortification.

On the cable-car ride down to the station, to catch the train back to Lucerne, in the face of luminous views of mountains with summit chapels, their faces turned heavenwards, I contemplate my weekend. And I conclude that under its fairytale-like outward beauty, there is a pervasive system of values at work, which is as attractive. For although the colour of the sky may change from cobalt to salmon grey in a jiffy, it is always safe for a young attractive girl to curl up on a bridge and fall asleep, as if she were in the confines of her bedroom with the door locked. And that for me is a happily-ever-after ending.

QUICK GUIDE

MUST DO

Explore the beautifully preserved Old Town on foot or hire a bicycle at the central railway station.

Visit the Swiss Transport Museum with its collection of planes, trains and automobiles, real and working models.

Drool over The Rosengart Collection, with its Picassos, Cézannes, Chagalls and more.

Take a boat ride to Alpnachstad

Loiter on the Chapel Bridge, reportedly Europe’s oldest wooden bridge.

MUST BUY

Swiss watch or timepiece, duh!

Fine-crafted jewellery

Chocolate, of course

Kirsch and Swiss apple cider

MUST EAT

Cheese fondue

Movenpick ice cream

Rosti, made mainly of grated potato

Alpen Pasta, best with apple sauce