Great Swiss Cities
Rick Steves' Europe: Episode # 505
In this episode, we'll focus on an often-overlooked side of Switzerland — Luzern, Bern, Zurich, and Lausanne. Enjoying the country's urban charms, we'll get some exercise, from ringing a very big bell to doing a little river rafting — without the raft. We'll also enjoy a variety of eye-opening art, from Chagall and Klee to pieces created by inmates of an asylum. Then we'll ponder a few Swiss innovations, from their open-minded drug policies to their hush-hush underground arsenals. And it's all before a backdrop of Switzerland's stunning natural beauty.
- Read the script from the show.
This was founded as an abbey church for a convent in 853, when Zürich was little more than a village. The current building, which sits on the same footprint as its Carolingian predecessor, dates from 1250. With the Reformation of Huldrych Zwingli, the church was taken by the Zürich town council in 1524 and gutted to fit Zwingli's taste. Today, it's famous for its windows by Marc Chagall (1887–1985), the Russian-born French artist. Chagall gave an exhibit in Zürich in 1967. It was such a hit that the city offered the world-famous artist a commission. To their surprise, the 80-year-old Chagall accepted. Chagall designed the windows to stand in the church's spacious choir (zone behind the altar; underutilized in Protestant-style worship) — a space where he intuitively felt his unique mix of religious themes could flourish. For the next three years, Chagall threw his heart and soul into the project, making the sketches at his home on the French Riviera, then working in close collaboration with a glassmaking factory in Rheims. After the colored panes were made, Chagall personally painted the figures on with black outlines, which were then baked into the glass. Chagall spent weeks in Zürich overseeing the installation and completion.
The Fortress Museum of Fürigen (Festung Fürigen Museum zur Wehrgeschichte) shows you another face of the country — the reason why Switzerland was able to remain peaceful and neutral: its elaborate and secret system of bunkers and fortresses. Unfortunately, this fascinating exhibit is open only Saturday and Sunday, April through October.
Enter through an innocent-looking wooden barrack. The bunker is always chilly, but no worries: Visitors are loaned original Swiss Army coats. Put on your coat, grab the English brochure that explains each room, and you're on your way. The radio station was placed near the entrance to assure clear reception. The living quarters were gas-proof, complete with specially sealed doors and devices to monitor the air for poison. The museum is a petting zoo of 20th-century weaponry. Visitors can fiddle with and even aim guns, knowing all the ammo is now imaginary. Imagine the photo op — you, in a Swiss military uniform, manning a cannon.
Fortress Fürigen was meant to protect roads and rail lines that led from Luzern and Zürich along Lake Luzern into the Berner Oberland. This was one of a network of fortresses in the area. After World War II, they were retooled with a new focus: the threat of the Soviet Union and nuclear war. Fortress Fürigen is near the lakefront town of Stansstad (on Kehrsitenstrasse), below the village of Fürigen, not far from Luzern. It's an easy trip from Luzern by train or boat ( tel. 041-618-7522).
The Klee collection is in the building's middle wave. This cultural center keeps about 200 of Klee's pieces on display (out of a collection of 4,000). It's the best place in the world to experience and learn about this modernist painter of lively, almost childlike art. Kids love Klee, and they always teach the art snobs a thing or two with their interpretations.
Downstairs you'll find cafés, an art database, a movie about building the museum, a cozy hangout, and the children's workshop. Pick up a free English-language booklet when purchasing your ticket (take bus #12 from train station to Zentrum Paul Klee stop, Monument im Fruchtland 3, Bern, tel. 031-359-0101).
Celebrating the colorful history of the Olympic Games, this expensive but excellent museum is a thrill for Olympics buffs — and plenty of fun for those of us who just watch every two years. Given the informative English descriptions and many thrilling video clips to see, plan on spending two hours here. The museum celebrates Pierre de Coubertin, who in 1894 founded the International Olympic Committee. The Olympic spirit is one of peace. Coubertin acknowledged that to ask nations to love each other was naive, but to ask them to respect one another is a realistic and worthy goal.
As you enter, note the time of the next six-minute introductory video — it's worth watching. The ground floor traces the history of the Games, from ancient Greek artifacts to a century's worth of ceremonial torches. Upstairs are medals and highlights from each Olympiad and historic, well-described equipment used for various Olympic events (find Jesse Owens' spiky jumping shoe from 1936 — a design that led to the first Adidas; Carl Lewis' shoes from L.A. in 1984; the Michael Jordan–signed basketball from the 1992 Barcelona "Dream Team"; and Cathy Freeman's shoes from the 2000 Sydney games). At the top of the museum, you'll find a lakeview terrace and swanky restaurant. In the basement is a 3-D theater (called "Salle Nagano"; note the posted movie times as you buy your ticket, and plan accordingly) and an extensive film archive of suspenseful moments in the history of the Games (roughly 5 min each, 450 to choose from). Pauper athletes can enjoy much of the complex for free. Walk through the spiraling core of the complex for a sense of the action. Then enjoy the park's Olympic flame (in front of museum), athletic monuments, and lake views (from Ouchy Métro stop, turn left and walk 5 min to Quai d'Ouchy 1, then ride up the outdoor escalator; tel. 021-621-6511).