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John Waelti: Travels continue - Legends, lore and Lake Lucerne
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After visiting the Abbey at Einsiedeln on our first day in Switzerland we arrived at our hotel in Lucerne, Switzerland's third largest city. We had been a bit hung over with jet lag, but now, our second day, we were awake, more or less, anyway.

It was a cloudy morning in Lucerne as we visited the famous "Loewendenkmal," the Dying Lion of Lucerne. This is a statue designed by Danish sculpturist Bertel Thorvaldsen and hewn in 1820-21 by Lukas Ahorn. The lion, impaled by a spear, dying in agony, was praised by American writer Mark Twain as "the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world."

From the early 17th Century, a regiment of Swiss mercenaries had served in the Royal Household of France. During the French Revolution, nearly 900 Swiss guards defended the palace and King Louis the 16th and his family.

In 1792, the 10th of August insurrection, revolutionaries stormed the palace. The Swiss guards were overwhelmed by superior numbers. More than 600 Swiss guards were killed in the fighting. Another 100-plus died in prison of their wounds. Only about 100 escaped.

The dying lion lies on a shield bearing the fleur-de-lis of the French monarchy; beside him is another shield bearing the coat of arms of Switzerland. A Latin inscription on the monument, Helvetiorum Fidei ac Virtuti, translates as "To the loyalty and courage of the Swiss."

In his book, "A Tramp Abroad," Mark Twain further observes of the statue, "Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion - and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places ... The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is."

Our next destination if Mt. Pilatus. From Kreins, near Lucerne, we take a newly-opened aerial cable car to the top, with spectacular views of the wooded hills, grazing lands, and chalets dotting the landscape far below. At the summit, in the Hotel Pilatus-Kuhn, we enjoy lunch, including a traditional Swiss dish, alpler macaroni.

Mt. Pilatus has a dramatic lore of its own. We owe this largely to students who journeyed through that region in ancient times, perpetuating the myth of the restless ghost of Pontius Pilate.

Soon after the death of Roman Governor Pilate, the myth spreads that he had met a disreputable end. This belief was reinforced by lack of a specific gravesite and conflicting reports of his death.

The mythical chain goes something like this: Tiberius Caesar had Pilate thrown in chains for condemning Jesus Christ to death. Pilate committed suicide and his body was thrown into the Tiber. The river rebelled with great floods. The body was pulled out and dumped into the Rhone River. The body of the damned again caused great trouble. The body was then placed in a small lake, Oberalp, in the vicinity of Mt. Pilatus, its final resting place. Terrible storms in the area were blamed on Lake Oberalp, the final resting place of the body of the damned.

In 1585 Lucerne's priest, accompanied by townspeople, climbed Mt. Pilatus to challenge the ghost. They threw stones in the lake and churned up the water. As the ghost did not react, it seemed the spell was broken. To make sure the ghost was tamed, the lake was drained in 1594. It wasn't until 1980 that the gap used to drain the lake was repaired. All observers seem to agree that the ghost of Pilate now rests in peace.

After lunch, we hike around the trails carved in the side of Mt. Pilatus. There are sheer rock walls on one side, and drop-offs of thousands of feet on the other side of the rail along the trail. The view is diminished by clouds most of the time. But during the occasional breaks in the clouds, the views of the countryside far below are spectacular.

We didn't see any ghosts, but we did see some alphorn players entertaining the many tourists in the hotel and viewing areas. Asian and Middle Eastern tourists seemed particularly impressed with those alphorn players. Sure, they were competent enough, but our own Green County alphorn players could show those boys a thing or two about alphorn artistry. Not to sound blasé, but alphorn music is "routine stuff" to those on our tour group who hear that music frequently during our many celebrations and festivals in Monroe and New Glarus.

Our trip down from the Mount was by the Pilatusbahn PB, the Pilatus railway, the steepest rack-and-pinion railway in the world. It has a maximum gradient of 48 percent and an average gradient of 35 percent. An initial proposal was planned for a longer route with an average gradient of 25 percent but it was considered economically infeasible.

A Swiss engineer, Eduard Locher, proposed an alternative with the maximum 48-percent grade, cutting the length of the route in half. He invented a system that overcame the technical problems of such a steep gradient. The line was opened in 1889, powered by steam, and electrified in 1937. The Pilatus railway was named a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 2001.

We reach Alpnachstad on the shores of Lake Lucerne and board a paddle boat to ride to the city. My brother, Louie, had accompanied me on this tour. His kids, Brian and Doug, had arrived independently to visit friends in Zurich. So nephews Brian and Doug join us on the boat. The four of us don't get together all that often. But here we are, with the tour group, enjoying a beer on a boat on Lake Lucerne, the cool lake breezes diminishing the vestiges of jet lag.

Life can be weird sometimes.

Next week: Brunnen, Altdorf, and the heart of Switzerland.

- John Waelti of Monroe can be reached at His column appears Fridays in The Monroe Times.