After two and a half hours that seem to dissolve like salt in boiling water, we are exiting the train and emerging out onto a sun-drenched sidewalk in the churning epicenter of Lucerne, Switzerland, mid-sized locale situated in the German-speaking third of my new home country.
C and I part ways soon after checking into our hotel; he goes to meet a friend at his company for a few hours while I stay behind, awaiting the availability of our room. The afternoon glow is still crisp with the final remnants of a mild winter; the mountain peaks that wrap around the entire city, standing like the parapets of a mighty outer wall, are still overlaid with snow.
“You should go there,” he says to me; we are once again standing outside of the train station. He points upwards to the sign on a large glass building next to the station, which reads “Museum of Art Lucerne”.
“But shouldn’t I wait for you to—“
“No, I really don’t like them.” He kisses me, and ducks into a wave of oncoming tourists, finally walking out of view down a long platform reserved for local commutes.
Not seeing many other options, I take C’s advice and go to the museum. It’s a dizzying mix of modern and antique art, ranging from the 1600’s to the present day, with some even sharing the same wall. One pairing I find particularly interesting is a showcase of pre-Revolution portraits featuring the powdered wig-wearing French aristocracy in their pearls and lace, looking as disinterested as possible at their admirers from the future. In the middle of the room stands an art class scrap wooden table held aloft by two oversized plastic garden gnomes, and splattered everywhere with paint. On the table lie dozens of empty bottles of Moët et Chandon; the remnants of an opulent garden party gone very awry.
Another grouping that sticks out to me is an oversized dreamscape from my early Texan childhood: a picket fence painted on the white wall of the gallery, an orange moon hung high above it, a giant tree swing tied to the metal rafters, and a two-story wooden saguaro cactus acting as a sentry over the others. Just beyond, through a doorway into the next room, is an unaffiliated yet consciously placed installment: three tall panels painted all in black, dotted with carefully selected hues of champagne and moon dust, to create a starry sky so up-close and realistic that I can only stare for a few moments at a time, for fear of losing my balance and falling backwards.
I leave the museum’s cafe as C is returning to town. We meet at our hotel, the Grand National Lucerne.
THE GRAND NATIONAL
C had surprised me this weekend with a reservation at a gorgeous, 5-star hotel. Not the overly talkative type (that is who he is marrying), he had me totally shocked when he informed me that he had booked the “romantic weekend” package just a few weeks before the trip.
The package includes:
A welcome drink
A four course candlelight dinner
A half bottle of champagne
Rose petals. Lots of rose petals.
Aromatherapy bath products
A beautiful suite overlooking the lake and mountains.
We walk into our room as the afternoon sun is dipping low, making the golden fleur-de-lis pattern of the suite’s wallpaper pronounced and shimmering. There is a giant chandelier in the center of our room, and a small bowl of strawberries on the fine wooden coffee table underneath it. We sit on the couch and proceed to devour the strawberries, ripe and sweet with barely a hint of tartness. By the time we’ve properly sunken into our cushioned chairs, having found the honeycomb chocolate pieces hidden underneath the strawberries, it is already time for our dinner reservation at a local hipster establishment I found on the train ride over, called Mill’Feuille.
The town has already shut down at 7pm on a Friday night in spring. Shop windows are darkened, mostly uninhabited save for the few stragglers we pass who are locking up, carrying on a halfhearted conversation with a coworker looking off in the direction of the bus stop. Winding through the old cobblestone streets, similar to Lausanne except for the comparably flat terrain, we round corners and are at once accosted by centuries-old murals clambering up the forefronts of taverns and inns, perfectly preserved thanks to dedicated restoration efforts. As we enter an open square with four restaurants huddled there together including our own, we finally pass a street corner with an overhanging statue of an angel in flight, somewhere fastened deep into the three hundred-year-old brick and mortar, just nowhere I can clearly see. She watches over the people that make their way past her each day, baked with sun and tarnished by countless seasons of wind, rain, and snow.
The dinner is a fun excuse for me in showing off my amateur wine skills; I pair C’s stewed meatballs with tomatoes and peppers with a Spanish tempranillo, and my Swiss cod sticks with a fruity German rosé. By the time we finish our dessert, we’re thankful for the long walk back to the hotel and the chance to digest in motion. The dark water of the bay is still and cool like a black sea of oil; with large white swans bobbing, necks stretched backwards and heads buried beneath powerful wings, they are untethered swimming markers or child-sized jet skis.
Our suite has been visited by the beverage fairy, who has laid out new chocolates next to our pillows, branded robes with matching cushioned slippers, and a bucket of ice chilling a half bottle of Pol Roger: the opulent, mineral-forward champagne served at all British royal weddings and beloved by Winston Churchill. C and I react similarly to the sight of the fresh bottle, which has already been waiting for some time; we shrug and tuck in, anything else and it goes to waste. I put on a lengthy playlist of my hand-picked favorites of groovy 70’s dad jams, labeled under the embarrassing title of “Yacht Rock” in Apple Music. C and I have a few giggle fits amidst showdowns with the “Heads Up” app on my iPad. Eventually, we sleep; there is one empty half bottle of Pol Roger floating in very cold water on a coffee table underneath a fancy chandelier.
The next morning, C and I hit the streets of Lucerne in no predetermined direction. C is entranced by the even clearer, sunnier day, pausing at times to soak in the views of the old town almost as much as I do. The narrow waterway that runs off of the greater lake winds like a canal, gingerly splitting the old town in half, separated by a wooden footbridge (called the “Chapel Bridge”), which dates back to the year 1332. Staring at this preserved structure, and the mountain range that overlooks it, C comments admiringly at how this town has been protected from war and mayhem, whereas in France, old bridges like this one have long since been destroyed.
As the hours pass, we hear the bells of the Jesuit Church clang above the stalls of the open Saturday fresh market, all lined in rows along the edge of the water. Somehow, the setting, the smell of the burbling clean water in the open air, the conversations spoken in bouncy German at considerate volumes, and the pleasant shadows cast by the lip of the trolleys makes their offerings, be it truffled sheep’s milk cheese or wild Swiss greens, look and smell even more fantastic than previously thought possible.
We find our way to the base of a cliff side with a trolly that carries us to the top, in order to take in one of the best views of the city, as well as the luxury hotel (and restored castle) at its crest, the Chateau Gütsch. We walk the path through the woods behind the hotel, resting on a long bench in a clearing, where we meet an old man and his wife, who in English, ask if they might share our bench. I respond, and for the first time in six months I am asked by someone else if I am [also] American. The man smiles at my familiar southern accent (I play up my Texan in my own surprised excitement), and explains that he and his wife are traveling from their home state of Florida. He nods his head and I realize he’s wearing a Canadian maple leaf baseball cap, which I find poignant.
As we wind through the rest of the city, the sun zigzagging around ancient slatted rooftops, illuminating some small new aspect of overlooked architecture that was previously undetectable, C and I hold hands, instinctively knowing that each of us will walk as long as our aching feet will let us, and no farther. C leads me to a bustling terrace outside of a large beer hall, where we luckily find a late lunch table for two inside what I can only describe as a Viking lodge or a repurposed wine cellar. Sitting down, we order two of their new spring lager, and delight from the tall, thin steins delivered to us, cool and refreshing, with an inch of pale blonde foam capping the top. We order beer sausages; a thick, über-juicy pork chop; and a freshly-baked pretzel with smoky char marks from the oven and flaky, crunchy sea salt fused to the top. Served as a sandwich with thin, tangy slices of local Lucerne cheese and a smear of butter, it tastes like the stuff of dreams. C laments that we don’t have a proper German beer hall like this one in Lausanne, and I share his longing. Like the French know what makes a proper fine-dining experience, the Germans know the universal pleasure of knocking back a pitcher of beer with some warm pretzels.
A QUICK ASIDE
As a quick aside, I feel I must share something that I learned this weekend about Swiss German bedding:
C and I are talking at breakfast on Saturday morning, when I offhandedly say to him:
“What is up with the dip in the middle of the bed? I’m surprised that this mattress would be so uneven.”
“You do know that there are two beds, right?”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“In Swiss German culture, you have two single beds pushed together and connected by a thin mattress pad, but both have their own single sheets and blankets.”
“Is THAT why my sheets were twisted around my ankles this morning?!”
C nods. I don’t know why, but I find this tradition bizarre. As if in the evolution of human bedding ritual, somewhere between the step of “pushing the beds together” and sharing one large mattress, the Germans got lost and decided to set up camp right where they were. I also find it pretty funny how very German and space-conscious the whole practice is. Even without a dividing line of pillows, everyone sleeping in a double bed in Swiss Germany knows the boundaries of their own personal bed allotment.
Lastly, on Saturday evening, C and I dress up and travel downstairs to the hotel restaurant for our candlelight dinner, finding rose petals and a flower-filled vase awaiting us at our table. The amuse bouche is a taste of salmon tartar with a tiny dot of homemade wasabi paste, accompanied, of course, by a bit of Pol Roger. We talked and laughed as the courses paraded by us: a green salad, tomato soup, lemon sorbet, veal in a red pepper balsamic reduction, and for dessert, a glass of moscato and warm chocolate mug cake with homemade ice cream. Each bite of the cake has me grinning like I’ve never eaten a Swiss chocolate cake before (have I?). We thank the staff for their kind treatment of us, and make our way back to the room, where we once again find some good night chocolates, and our slippers nestled at the foot of our uniquely German, meticulously sheeted, 8-post bed.
The next morning, our last in Lucerne, I sit on the balcony wearing my sunglasses. C is inside getting ready to leave, but I’ve chosen to stay out here a little while longer, drinking my Nespresso, the saucer balanced between my sternum and my knees, hugged in close. I am scanning the skyline for gliders, the waterline for boats, and the shore for women pushing their strollers or foreign tourists out early on a Sunday walk, before they realize that sadly for them, not much will be open today.
A boat of four rowers becomes visible as they heave from the dock, in perfect unison, reaching the far side of the lake with many long, elegant strokes before all stopping together. Using methodical flickings of only one oar per rower on the starboard side, they turn their boat 90 degrees and cast off for the next bay by way of the nearest strait. A water taxi revs up his engine below, causing the ducks beside it to amble away towards another morning fishing spot. I realize it’s probably time for me to leave too, as the bells of the Jesuit Church sound once again, low and solemn, coloring the morning complexion without taking too much attention from the other sounds present at the center of this very old place. But not so old that it sheds the proclivity for modern life, and the timelessness that humans are capable of, but so rarely get to enjoy.