But what about returning to a place that never was your home, a place that somehow adopts you, welcomes you back as if it were your home?
If there is such a place for me, it is Switzerland. The mountains there may be snow-capped like the Rockies out West, but the rolling verdant hills and forests remind me of an unspoiled Western North Carolina — minus the haze, billboards and sprawl of box stores.
Locked into its own little realm by the Alps, Switzerland has long prided itself as an independent nation, protected against outside forces and wars that wrecked havoc on the rest of Europe.
These days tourists are invading Switzerland from all sides. Huge tunnels carved through mountains bring traffic from Germany, England, France, Italy, and all over Europe. Asian tourists. American tourists. Tourists who come for skiing, fondue, chocolate, fine-crafted watches, medieval castles and those breathtaking Alpine vistas.
When my wife Nicole and I were planning our spring vacation, we thought it would be especially important to include a Swiss experience since Nicole has family there and many great childhood memories growing up there. I had been to Lucerne for a heavenly couple of days several years back and longed to return.
Lucky for us, Nicole’s good friend Lizbeth Kinney happened to land a job as a librarian at a U.S. military base school in Mannheim in southern Germany, so we had a place to stay overseas and a car to take us down into Switzerland.
We started in Lucerne, the lake town in central Switzerland that offers visitors a sampling of boat rides, nearby hikes and skiing, art museums, William Tell lore, festivals and plenty of shopping. Checking into a hotel just outside the city, we could relax in a small-town atmosphere just out of earshot from the bustle of traffic and the early rush of tourist season.
After a leisure breakfast of yogurt, croissants, fruit, cheese and bread, we drove to a cable car station for a ride up the side of Rigi, the second-tallest peak in the area.
All who wander are not lost
Taking the “wanderweg” (hiking trail) on a ridgeline overlooking the lake, we could see the snows beginning to melt, making for some slushy hiking. White and purple crocuses bloomed along our path and Crayola green slopes served as pasture for cattle and sheep. Plots of farmland and neatly terraced properties made a patchwork of the landscape fields. Not a single house perched atop the mountains to spoil the view. Down below was the Vierwaldstättersee, or Lake Lucerne. Rising from the lake and into the distant horizon were the Alps — forests of black and green giving way to snow-capped rocky giants in the horizon.
Stopping for lunch at a pristine spot overlooking the lake and mountains, we could only pay our respects with silent awe.
“It’s so pretty, even the clouds have stopped,” Lizbeth remarked.
At noonday, church bells in the different towns around the lake chimed in to celebrate Oster Montag (Easter Monday).
Back in town, a ferry ride gave the highlights of famous lakeside residences. At this house, Richard Wagner composed his operas. Over there, dignitaries such as Sophia Loren and former President Richard Nixon once vacationed. Mark Twain slept at that hotel.
Along the tree-lined quay, men played bocci in the afternoon while couples, families, and scoping singles strolled to see and be seen.
For a truly multicultural meal our first night, we went to an Irish pub, watched a German soccer match and listened to the Bee Gees cry out “Staying Alive” on a cloudy afternoon. The next night we splurged on a fondue feast in a cozy tavern tucked inside the Altstadt or “old town” of Lucerne.
From Lucerne, we made our way to one of Nicole’s favorite castles from her childhood — Schloss Lenzburg. Riding through tidy towns and rolling hills northward, we came to a medieval castle built in 1077 on a strategic hilltop overlooking the surrounding area. Its walls were built right into the side of the mountain. Since the mid-1980’s, the castle had been reconstructed and arranged as a museum with different floors acting as a kind of timeline — the lower levels being the oldest time periods and the upper levels being the newest. Gothic windows and arches gave way to Renaissance tapestries and ornate furniture from the Age of Enlightenment to modern day. One display explained how chairs were viewed as symbols of privilege and prestige. Not until the Middle Ages did chairs become widely used by the masses. Then as the middle class expanded and amassed wealth, collections of furniture came into fashion, and people could actually own furniture they wouldn’t regularly use.
Contrary to the notion of Swiss neutrality, the Swiss have endured centuries of warfare and military threats — to the point that, even today, men serving in local militias keep their own gun and uniform on hand just in case of invasion.
Like any mysterious castle, Schloss Lenzberg is full of passageways and curious nooks. Thin rectangular holes on the outer wall were once known as “murder holes” — it’s where archers would angle their bows and arrows to shoot at an approaching enemy and still remain protected.
Schloss Lenzberg also tells the story of weaponry with displays of axes, swords, spears, and armor worn centuries ago. Down in the dungeon, visitors can learn how thumbscrews were used to torture prisoners or how a pendulum would bind a prisoner then lift him off the ground with added weights to stretch his body for increments of pain. Inside the cold stone prison cell are the mad scribblings of men who would have no chance of escaping through 7-foot thick walls.
On a lighter note, the attic floor of the castle is devoted to children who are encouraged to come play make-believe games as knights battling dragons. The rooms are complete with beds, medieval outfits, pictures of dragons and a wooden mini-castle.
In the upper courtyard of the Schloss Lenzberg are gardens, some arranged as medicinal herbs and some for sheer ornamentation.
The castle theme would continue throughout our trip. It would also trigger a question about castles. Which seemed more appealing: the opulent palace castle with all of its fine china and geometrically designed gardens in perfect order or the old ruins of a castle with its rugged history and weathered appearance?
(Next week: German castles of Heidelberg and Weinheim)