The William Tell

The William Tell Express to Lugano

My wife Pat and I spent last weekend in Vancouver taking in a couple of musical presentations. The first was the Arts Club production of Cole Porter’s High Society. There are some musicals that stick with you even after only one viewing, and the movie version of High Society is one of them. The tunes lodge in the brain and stay there forever. Songs like I Love Paris, Just One of Those Things, It’s All Right with Me, Once Upon a Time and True Love remain as some of the all-time greatest songs of the American Songbook. Our good friend Ken Cormier, who has accompanied many shows for Pat and Timbre! in Port Alberni, suggested we come over and hear not only High Society (for which he was the musical director), but another production he was accompanying the following day - the Chor Leoni Men’s Choir directed by Diane Loomer in their annual appearance in the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival tent. Entitled Reeldiculous the concert was a hoot, full of music from the movies with plenty of humorously designed choreography for the choir members  We had a wonderful time at both events.

Returning home we had a two sailing wait at Horseshoe Bay so I got out my lap top and put together another blog covering my recent tour of Switzerland by rail. As readers of this blog know, my brother Terry organized the trip as a birthday present for me. Each day’s itinerary was presented to me as a complete surprise. 

Today we travel from Lucerne in central Switzerland to the city of Lugano situated on the south side of the Alps. Checking out of our hotel in Lucerne we grabbed a cab to the downtown lake pier and boarded the paddlewheel steamboat Uri sailing south on Lake Lucerne to Fluelen. From Fluelen we would be catching the William Tell Express train to traverse the Alps. 
Steamboats began plying Lake Lucerne as early as 1837. Originally stoked with coal, the paddle steamers were later converted to oil-firing. In 1972 a group called the Dampferfreunde association was formed as a lobby and advocacy group for the preservation of the historic steamers. Today the association contributes not only historical research data to the company that owns the tourist ships, but helps them financially with the restoration of their heritage inventory. To date five steam driven paddlewheelers have been fully restored.

The restored steam engines were immaculate. You could have eaten off the engine room floor it was so clean. If you look carefully you can see one of the engine crew making adjustments to the speed as the ship approached the pier at Fluelen.

(Photo above) Terry had reserved a table in the ship’s elegant dining room for lunch. Our mother used to tell us stories about being a passenger aboard the graceful CPR S.S. Sicamous paddlewheeler that plied Lake Okanagan during the early 1930’s. It crossed my mind that during our lunch this was exactly the style of travel my mother was referring to.  We were recreating the moment. 

(Above)Lake Lucerne is known locally as the Vierwaldstättersee or Lake of the Four Forest Cantons, and is considered to be the most beautiful lake in Switzerland and the most spectacular, with mountains on all sides and forests coming to the shoreline in many places.

(Above)Along the shoreline we passed this chapel (built in 1871) dedicated to the most famous name in Switzerland. William Tell exists only in legend. The true story is that the first Swiss Cantons (provinces) met near this point back in 1291 and formed the Swiss Confederation, which still exists to this day. 
On the chapel walls are several frescos by Ernst Stückelberger depicting scenes of the legend: 1) The bailiff Gessler forces William Tell to shoot an apple off his son's head with his crossbow. 2) William Tell escapes from the boat of the bailiff Gessler during a storm on Lake Lucerne. 3) William Tell shooting the tyrant Gessler.

However, the mountain scenery was spectacular. The railway through the Gotthard Pass is a marvel of Swiss engineering. At one point the train passed a village church just before we entered a tunnel. Emerging from the tunnel a few minutes later the same church was still there, only now it was on the opposite side of the train and we were a little higher at grade. The train had spiraled within the mountain, looping over itself. It did this several more times to gain altitude before plunging into the darkness of the nine mile long Gotthard Tunnel, emerging 10 minutes later on the south side of the Alps.

Reaching the end of the lake at Fluelen, we walked a short distance to the train station and boarded the William Tell Express to travel over the famous Gotthard Pass to southern Switzerland. Settling into our coach seats I couldn’t believe it when the car’s attendant began playing a recording of Rossini’s William Tell Overture as we pulled out of the station. It was so hokey I couldn’t stop laughing. 

The railway car in which we travelled was built especially for a visit to Switzerland by the Pope. I wondered if this may have been the chair the Pope sat in.

Currently another tunnel called The Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT) is being drilled beneath the Swiss Alps and is expected to open in 2016. With a route length of 57 km (35.4 miles), it will be the world's longest rail tunnel, surpassing the Japanese Seikan Tunnel. Its main purpose is to increase total transport capacity across the Alps, especially for freight, notably between Germany and Italy, and more particularly to shift freight volumes from road to rail to reduce environmental damage caused by ever-increasing numbers of trucks. A secondary benefit will be to cut the journey time for passenger trains from Zürich to Milan by about an hour and from Zürich to Lugano to 1 hour and 40 minutes.

Leaving the William Tell Express we changed trains at Bellinzona (having only 4-minutes in which to do so) and traveled west on a local commuter train to our day’s destination. Lugano is the most important city in Southern Switzerland and part of the Italian-speaking canton (province) of Ticino. Our hotel was only a few steps from the train station. Resting for an hour we headed out for a quick supper – genuine Italian Pizza of course. After dinner we walked a few blocks to the Palazzo dei Congressi (the local concert hall) to hear the Lugano Festival Orchestra play Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony #8 and Beethoven’s Concerto #5 for piano and orchestra played by the Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky. The applause after his performance, went on for over 15-minutes. He had to come out and play a short encore before people would stop cheering.

Also part of the music festival was the Lugano Jazz Festival featuring a potpourri of jazz artists. There were free concerts in plazas throughout the city. Here the SMuM Big Band performs in the plaza just outside our hotel.

(Photos above) The climate around Lugano is very Mediterranean. Dotting the shoreline of Lake Lugano there are many Venetian-type villages, showing off the closeness of its neighbor, Italy. We traveled by lake boat to visit the village of Gandria, according to the tourist guidebooks, one of the most picturesque.

On our third day in Lugano we took a day trip to Lake Como in Italy. Locating the bus stop where the Italian Bus Line operated from took a little detective work. With the coming of the European Union, crossing the borders these days is quite translucent. Physically there are still border crossings in place but one just drives or walks through them. The border guards are still employed at the crossings but they don’t seem to have much of anything to do. I don’t know if they still stamp passports as we didn’t stop to find out. 

Our destination in Italy was Menaggio. The cliffside highway getting there was so narrow that when we met another car or truck one of us had to back up to let the other through. However our Italian bus driver didn’t do much backing up, preferring to lean on his loud 3-chimed bus horn while racing along the roadway through tunnels and around curves like it was a freeway. It was a white-knuckle ride all the way. 

The best way to see Lake Como is to catch one of the many ferryboats plying the lake. Taking a passenger only ferry we crisscrossed the lake making a number of stops at resort locations. At the village of Varenna we disembarked for lunch and then caught another ferry to the village of Tremezzo to tour the gardens of Villa Carlotta. The villa was built from 1690-1743 by the Clerici, a wealthy Milanese family of merchants. In 1801 Gian Battista Sommariva (a famous politician, businessman and patron of arts) bought the villa.  Under Sommariva much of the estate has been transformed into fascinating gardens containing plant specimens from every corner of the world. Sommariva's heirs sold the villa in 1843 to Princess Marianne of Nassau (the wife of Albert of Prussia) who gave it to her daughter Carlotta as a wedding present on her marriage to Georg II of Saxen-Meiningen. Hence the name Villa Carlotta.

At the end of World War I, the villa risked being sold in an auction. However, the Rotary Club of Milan managed to put a stop to this and the villa was finally entrusted to the Ente Villa Carlotta, a foundation especially constituted by a royal decree on May 12, 1927. This foundation still takes care of the villa and all entrance fees are used for the maintenance and the conservation of the building, the works of art and the gardens.

At the village of Varenna we disembarked for lunch. The meal was fish caught that morning in Lake Como

Lake Como over the last decade has become very well known due to the Hollywood movie star George Clooney’s ownership of a luxurious villa on the lake. Sailing past the villa I tried to get a good photo of a party in progress on the property but was thwarted by a Norwegian Amazon who wouldn’t budge from her place at the ferryboat’s rail. George was having a party for what looked like a couple of hundred guests. I was kicking myself for forgetting my binoculars back at the hotel room. Who knows who I could have identified enjoying champagne and caviar. This photo (above) was the best I could do.

Then unexpectedly, just past Clooney’s Villa our ferry stopped dead in the water. Pushed by the wind, we stared to drift towards the shore. I started to wonder if we were going to be involved in another Italian cruise ship disaster. Sadly no one from George’s pad launched a rescue mission.  However, within a half hour a smaller ferry arrived and was lashed alongside us. Passengers were then transferred to the smaller vessel over a swaying gangplank. I don’t know if anyone was counting but well over two hundred people were crammed aboard the smaller ship that I’m certain was not licensed for that number of passengers. Finally we arrived at the ferry dock in the City of Como Lake.

It was about a 30-minute hike to the train station where we purchased a ticket to the Swiss frontier at Chiasso as our Swiss Rail Passes didn’t cover the Italian Rail System. Walking through customs the border guards stood around smoking and didn’t ask us anything. For the second time today we just walked through. 

Boarding a Swiss train that was going through to Zurich, we detrained at Lugano and took a short vehicular ride down the hill to our hotel. The jazz festival was still in full swing so after supper we listened to a couple of vocal jazz performances in the plaza next to the hotel. 


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