Lucerne (or “Luzern” in German) is the largest city in Central Switzerland and lies on the western shore of Lake Lucerne. Although it started as a small fishing village, it grew into an important staging and commercial point when the St. Gotthard Pass was opened in 1220 and became a vital trade route between Northern and Southern Europe. At the same time, due to its location on the shores of the lake and its outflow, the River Reuss, within sight of the Swiss Alps, Lucerne has long been a tourist destination. Since the 19th century, tourism has underpinned Luzern’s economy.
Old Town (Altstadt)
The mediaeval Old Town (Altstadt) lies on the north bank of the River Reuss. In the Middle Ages, the town was defended by ramparts on its northern side and by bridges on its eastern side. The Old Town’s layout survives to this day, and the facades of its wonderful historic houses, especially around Hirschenplatz and Weinmarkt, are painted with frescoes and sgraffito decoration. The historic centre is also a lively urban area with plenty of shops, restaurants, and cafes. But the main attraction of the Old Town and the symbol of the city are its two wooden bridges, especially the Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrucke).
Chapel Bridge (Kappelbrucke)
The Chapel Bridge is the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe. It is named after the nearby St. Peter’s Chapel. The bridge was initially constructed around 1365 as a component of the town’s defences. It protected the town from attack from the lake by connecting the old part on the Reuss’s right bank to the new part of the town on its left bank. The bridge was originally longer than 270 metres, but due to numerous shortenings throughout time and river bank replenishments, it is currently just 204 metres long. It is the oldest remaining truss bridge in existence and has moderately sized triangulated and strutted trusses.
The 34.5-metre-tall, octagonal Water Tower is a part of the bridge (Wasserturm). The tower was incorporated into the bridge even though it was built roughly 30 years earlier. It has a rich history and has served as a jail, a torture chamber, a municipal archive, and a local treasury. The tower is now closed to the general public. On August 18, 1993, the bridge and the tower came dangerously close to burning down. However, soon after, it was rebuilt and reopened to the public on April 14, 1994.
Another interesting element of the bridge is its floral decoration. At first, only the two bridgeheads had floral decorations. But in 1978, in order to decorate the bridge on the side facing the lake for the city’s 800-year anniversary celebrations, the Master Gardeners’ Association donated flower boxes to the city. Even though it was only intended to be a one-time event, the bridge’s one side was adorned every summer after that. The entire bridge wasn’t covered in flowers until 2006. It was then that Thomas Schmid, the previous director of the city of Lucerne’s Parks and Gardens Department, took the initiative to decorate both sides.
Chaff Bridge (Spreuerbrucke)
A few hundred metres further down the river is where the city’s second wooden bridge is located. It was built in the 13th century to link the mills in the middle of the river with Mill Square (Muhlenplatz) on the river’s right bank. Around 1408, the bridge was extended into the bakers’ quarter on the left bank. Today, it has a total length of 81 metres. Its name comes from the fact that this was the only bridge in Lucerne where it was legal to throw chaff (“Spreu” in German) into the river from the nearby mills. In 1566, a flood destroyed the bridge, which was later reconstructed, and a granary was added as the bridgehead.
The Chaff Bridge, which isolated the city from the northwest, was also a part of the town’s defences. The tiny Chapel of Mary on the Reuss (Maria auf der Reuss), which is situated in the middle of the bridge, is equally stunning. The Reuss Weir (Reusswehr), which controls the level of the River Reuss and Lake Lucerne, is located immediately upstream from the bridge.
The Reuss Weir is one of the last remaining needle dams in the world. A needle dam controls the river’s flow and water level using a succession of thin logs, sometimes known as “needles.” By varying the number of these needles, you can control the river’s flow. The hydroelectric power plant was constructed in 1859 by the French architect, Chuaree. In 1998, it underwent a thorough rebuilding and the installation of the most recent technologies. It generates 4.3 million kWh annually, enough to power roughly 1,500 homes in Lucerne (source: luzern.com).
Court Bridge (Hofbrucke)
In addition to these two magnificent bridges, there was a third one, which sadly no longer exists. Its existence is sometimes forgotten, although it was the longest and most stunning. The Court Bridge was the first bridge to be constructed, most likely in the 13th century. It connected the Court Church (Hofkirche) to what is now known as Chapel Square (Kapellplatz). It led over the harbour of Lucerne rather than the River Reuss. The embankment and what is now the Schweizerhofquai made the bridge unnecessary, therefore it was subsequently dismantled in pieces between 1835 and 1852.
The painting on the bridges
However, the three bridges have another distinguishing feature: painted triangle frames. Specifically, the paintings on Chapel Bridge depict events from the history of the city, dating from the life and death of Lucerne’s patron saint, St. Leger, to the legends of the city’s other patron saint, St. Maurice. They date to the 17th century and were created by a local Catholic artist named Hans Heinrich Wagmann. The city council members who sponsored the paintings were given permission to include their own coats of arms on each panel. Below each scene was a description of each painting. 147 of the original 158 artworks were still in existence in 1993 and only 30 of the 47 paintings that were destroyed in the fire have been restored.
On the other hand, the paintings on Chaff Bridge form a Danse Macabre (“Totentanz” in German). It is a group of paintings depicting an allegory on the universality of death, which was very common in the Late Middle Ages. They were created from 1616 to 1637 under the direction of the painter Kaspar Meglinger. 45 of the 67 original paintings still exist today. In the lower left corner of the majority of the paintings, there is the donor’s coat of arms, and to the right, that of the donor’s wife. The names of the contributors are written in verse and are shown on the black oak frames. Portraits of the benefactors and other members of Lucerne society can also be found in the paintings.
Finally, the paintings on Court Bridge date from the 16th century and depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments. This cycle of paintings is well preserved because during the demolition of the bridge, the paintings were removed and stored in the City Archive. Of the original 239 paintings, 226 have survived to this date.
A walk on the unique bridges of Lucerne can be perfectly combined with an excellent delicacy from the Confiserie Bachmann. Among the excellent sweets, it is worth trying the local pear pastry (Luzerner Birewegge). It is made from yeast dough with crunchy walnuts or from shortcrust pastry with juicy sun-ripened sultanas. The origin of the pastry has its own interesting story. The numerous fruit trees in the Lucerne hinterlands provided the farmers with a rich fruit crop. But not all of this fruit could be sold. So, in order to avoid having to sustain losses, the farmers dried the fruit and created a fruit mixture. Afterwards, they roll it in dough and bake it in the oven. This has now become a regional speciality and is made all year round.
Lucerne is a beautiful city at the foot of the Alps that is worth visiting. With an impressively preserved historic centre, a unique walk around the banks of the river and on the shore of the lake, and above all its unique bridges, it is one of the most beautiful cities in Switzerland.