In October 2018, Brett and I had our first chance to try a short getaway, to Switzerland during our stay in Strasbourg. Located close to the German border (you can actually take the local tram across the border into Germany), Strasbourg is also only a short distance from western Switzerland, so we made arrangements to rent a car and visit Lucerne for two days.
The car rental was easy and affordable, but for something different we decided that instead of renting our own Airbnb apartment we would instead rent a room in someone’s home. After some research we picked a farmhouse located just outside of Lucerne with a short train ride to downtown. In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions we made, and we enjoyed one of the best stays of our entire travels.
The drive down to Switzerland, through Basel, took about an hour and a half from Strasbourg, through French farmland and then into the green rolling hills of Switzerland. When we arrived at the farmhouse where we’d be staying we couldn’t believe it – it practically screamed “you’re in Switzerland now!” Three stories high, it boasted traditional carvings, was bedecked with flower boxes filled with geraniums, and surrounded by gardens, orchards and fields. Our host, Madlen, came out to greet us, and before taking us to our room served us coffee and homemade apple cake. Madlen (and her husband Anton) did not speak English, but their two children still at home did, and we learned from them the farmhouse was over 350 years old, and had been in their family for more than 100 years. It contained many of its original elements, such as a tiled warming bench in the living room, and a wood-fired range in the kitchen that Madlen still used daily to prepare meals. Madlen and Anton had raised nine children there (with the youngest two still at home while attending university). Our comfortable room and full bath were located in what had once been the attic, and offered beautiful views out onto green fields, some of them full of fat cows. We learned Anton didn’t farm but instead drove a truck delivering feed and other materials and goods to farmers in the area (and rented out their fields). They owned two draft horses that were rented out for wagon rides and farm chores but while we were there the horses were out on a job, and they apologized that we were unable to enjoy a wagon ride through the area. Our first evening Brett and I ate a light dinner in our room of some things we had brought with us.
Included in our stay was an amazing farm breakfast every morning. We figured we might get some eggs, bread and jam, and such, but instead came downstairs to a table loaded with locally made sausages, cheeses, yogurt, fruits from our hosts’ garden and orchard, jams and fresh bread made by Madlen, as well as eggs and fried potatoes . . . all for us. It was incredible!
We had made plans to visit the old town and nearby sights on our first full day in Lucerne. Madlen drove us to the station after breakfast and we arranged a time with her to be back in the afternoon. The ride from Sempach Station to Lucerne Station was around 20 or so minutes, and the old town was only a short walk across a bridge crossing Lake Lucerne from the station. We started out with a walk across the wooden Chapel Bridge. Originally built in 1333, the bridge crosses over the lake and offers views of the city, the Alps, and of the Wassertum water tower, which used to function as a prison, dungeon, and torture chamber (almost hard to imagine in peaceful Switzerland). The bridge caught fire and was destroyed in August, 1993, but was rebuilt in less than a year, complete with all the colorful triangular paintings that adorned the interior. The bridge exit dropped us off in a location that allowed us to wander through the streets of the old town, where we searched for buildings covered with murals and paintings, and checked out old churches and other architectural features. We stopped at the famous Fritschi restaurant for a simple cheese fondue accompanied by a glass of wine before setting out to visit other parts of the city.
The wonderfully painted Restaurant Fritschi, traditional fondue for lunch, and the Wounded Lion Memorial.
Our next stop was the Wounded Lion Monument, created in 1820 to memorialize the massacre of Swiss guards during the French Revolution. Carved into a rock wall, Mark Twain called it “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.” It was an extremely somber and moving work of art and we stayed there for quite a while to take it in. From the park where the sculpture is located, we then walked over to climb the old medieval city walls, built in the 13th century, with a stop to check out the Victorinox shop, home of the Swiss Army knife, along the way (we purchased a $5 julienne peeler, one of my all-time favorite souvenirs).
The hike along the walls took us up and down and provided spectacular views of Lake Lucerne and the Alps in the distance. We were able to climb up inside three of the towers, but we mostly stuck to the top of the wall, enjoying the city landscape on one side, and more rural views on the other. Leaving the wall we walked through the countryside for a bit before returning to the city and stopping for a cup of coffee at a lakeside cafe. We walked back to cross the Chapel Bridge one more time, then stopped to share a bag of roasted chestnuts (one of Brett’s favorite treats) from a little stand near the lake before heading back to the station for our return to the farmhouse.
Madlen met us at the station but instead of returning immediately to the farmhouse she drove us up into the hills surrounding the village to visit a church that has been in continual operation since the 13th century. It was a lovely place to visit that we would have otherwise not known about, and we were entranced with the beauty of the simple stone church, the surrounding grounds, and the views out to the Alps from the location. Upon returning to the farmhouse, we were again served coffee and some freshly baked cake. Madlen gave us a note that had been written by one of her children asking us to come down to the kitchen at 5:00, to make bread with her for next morning’s breakfast! There was a lot of laughter as we worked (especially when Brett attempted braiding) even though we were unable to otherwise communicate with each other. We again ate a light dinner in our room with supplies we had picked up in Lucerne.
The next morning, after enjoying yet another huge breakfast, we were invited to eat dinner with our host family that evening and enjoy a traditional Swiss meal! We again set out again for Lucerne, this time to visit the Swiss Transportation Museum and the Lindt “World of Chocolate” attraction. We enjoyed a calm, beautiful ferry ride across the lake to the museum and spent several hours there – the museum covered every aspect of Swiss transportation from trains to cars to planes to bicycles and even baby carriages! We ate a light lunch at the museum cafe, then headed over to World of Chocolate. The main attraction was a very informative and fun Disney-like ride through an exhibit on how chocolate is made from start to finish. At one point we were asked to put out our hands to receive a truffle, but instead of getting one or two of them, about 15 truffles poured out of the spout! It took both of our hands to catch them all – they just kept coming! Just like Disney, the ride ended at a gift shop where we were given samples of some new chocolate flavors Lindt was developing. The gift shop contained an array of truffle flavors we had never seen before (like champagne or mango) and we filled a bag before departing.
On our ride back to the farmhouse that day Madlen drove us through the village of Sempach, and we also stopped at two locations offering even more spectacular views of the Alps. More cake and coffee waiting for us when we returned to the house, and that evening we enjoyed a traditional Swiss raclette dinner of cheese and potatoes with the entire family, including some who were no longer living at home. Everyone stayed after dinner for conversation, with the kids translating. They all had lots of questions about America (especially guns :-() and answered our many questions about life in Switzerland (the most expensive country in Europe). The big surprise of the evening was learning Anton was a top-notch yodeler and performed all over the area.
After one last giant breakfast the next morning we loaded up the car and then were given a tour of the garden and orchard, and also got to see the huge (and scary) rabbits Madlen raised – they live under the house and, according to her kids, are spoiled rotten. We would have loved to have been able to stay for a couple more days, and were very sad to leave. Our short stay in Lucerne had been so much more than we expected, and turned out to be one of the most meaningful experience of our travels, far beyond anything we had hoped for.