Life on the Riverboats of Europe: The River Rhine – Switzerland

I spent the month of October working and traveling along the Rhine River. When I began my career as a Tour Director I had always envisioned leading land tours, but my first international assignments ended up being on European Riverboats. While I knew I would love the job, I wasn’t sure how I would like living on a riverboat for weeks at a time, but I have to say that I loved it! I loved working with my fellow Tour Directors on board, as well as with the crew of the boats. I also thoroughly enjoyed visiting these countries via this mode of transportation; it really gives you a unique perspective of the European landscape traveling via the rivers. It was also nice not to have to pack and unpack every other day and that allowed me to feel as though I had a home to go back to while I was away from my home in Pennsylvania. If you haven’t traveled to Europe on a Riverboat I definitely think it’s something worth looking into…

Swiss Jewel

Switzerland

Located in Central Europe, Switzerland is a cultural melting pot that retains a strong position of international neutrality (it has not been in a state of war internationally since 1815). Switzerland draws its national identity from its strong sense of a common historical background, shared values (federalism and direct democracy) and Alpine symbolism. Its close relationship with its neighbors also contributes to Switzerland’s recognition of its four distinct cultural influences. These four linguistic and cultural contributors are: German, French, Italian and Romanish. Switzerland’s flag is also a unique square shape which reflects the multiple, but equal, contribution of each of these foreign cultures towards the formation of a distinctive Swiss culture. Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, preferring instead to remain neutral in most international matters, but has joined the Schengen area which permits free movement of people and trade between other member countries. In these ways, Switzerland exists in a complex duality between being ‘European’ and being uniquely ‘Swiss’.

The country is not very densely populated, compared to other European nations, and three-fifths of Switzerland is mountainous, making it the 2nd most mountainous county in Europe behind Austria. Geographically, Switzerland is landlocked and divided between the Alps, the Swiss Plateau, and the Jura. While the Alps occupy the greatest part of the territory, the Swiss population is concentrated mostly on the Plateau, where the largest cities are to be found. Switzerland also contains many glaciers which originate the headwaters of several major rivers, such as the Rhine, Inn, Ticino and Rhone, which flow in four cardinal directions into the whole of Europe.

Mt Pilatus

I have had the opportunity to visit Switzerland in the past (I was in Geneva and went paragliding in Interlaken), but never the two cities on my company’s Rhine River tours: Basel and Lucerne.

Basel

My tours along the Rhine began and ended here in Basel. Basel is the main city of northwestern Switzerland, on the border with Germany and France, and located at the very core of central Europe. The Basel region, culturally extending into German Baden and French Alsace, reflects the heritage of its three states. Our ship is able to dock in the city center, which gives me the opportunity to easily explore the city by foot. Basel is one of Switzerland’s oldest cities and its old town centers around the Marktplatz which is dominated by the Town Hall (Rathaus). The Town Hall has occupied this sight since the 14th century and its construction coincided with Basel’s entry into the Swiss Confederation. The old town also has a charming collection of typically Swiss buildings that are so well taken care of it’s hard to believe they are as old as they are. The colors and architecture of the old town really reflect Basel’s place as a crossroads of European culture. The Marktplatz is also the place to go if you want to do some shopping while in Basel.

Basel

Basel is proud of the wide cultural range is has to offer. No other city in Europe can boast a comparable density of high-class museums. The most visited is the Museum of Fine Arts and it is definitely worth a visit. The emphasis of the collection here is on Upper Rhenish and Flemish paintings and drawings from the 1400s – 1600s, and on 19th and 20th century art.

If you want to cross the river at any point, I would recommend taking one of the ferries. Each ferry is attached by a cable to a block that rides along another cable spanning the river. To cross the river, ferrymen orient the boat to about 45° from the current so that current actually pushes the boat across the river.

While Basel has a number of beautiful sights, and is an important port city along the Rhine, I am still waiting to fall in love with the place. Perhaps I will grow to like Basel more as I spend more time here next year…I’m always up for further exploration!

Lucerne

Lucerne, on the other hand, is definitely a city I would recommend to anyone visiting Switzerland. Lucerne is the most visited city in Switzerland due to its location on the shores of Lake Lucerne, and because it is within sight of Mount Pilatus and the Rigi Mountain in the Swiss Alps. Unfortunately, it was extremely cold, windy and rainy on my first excursion to this beautiful city, so I had a hard time really appreciating its natural beauty. After our coach journey from the ship docked in Basel, our first stop was at the Lion Monument which is dedicated to the Swiss Guard. I have to say that I agree with Mark Twain when he said it was “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world”. This statue was built to commemorate the Swiss Guards who were massacred in 1792 during the French Revolution, and dedicated to the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss Guard.

Lion Monument

Next we were dropped off near the famous Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrucke). The 200-meter long Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrucke) was built in 1333, which makes it Europe’s oldest covered bridge (even though it was mostly destroyed in a 1993 fire and rebuilt). The triangular panels depict the development of the city and republic of Lucerne from a Counter-Reformation point of view, while other paintings portray the life and suffering of the town’s two patron saints, St. Leodegar and St. Mauritius. Part way across the bridge is the octagonal Water Tower, a fortification from the 13th century. Downriver from the Chapel Bridge stands another covered wooden bridge, the Mill Bridge (Spreuer Bridge), which was constructed in 1408 and features a series of medieval-style 17th century plague paintings.

Lucerne

From this point I had the afternoon free to explore the city, but unfortunately the weather kept me from walking the old town as extensively as I had planned. Instead, I headed towards the Rosengart Museum. This museum houses an impressive collection of Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and other Classic Modernism pieces. When I return next year I plan to walk along the old city walls and take a boat ride out on to Lake Lucerne…

On my second excursion to Lucerne I was part of a team that was developing a new riverboat tour along the Rhine. It was our job to do a sort of test-run of the new tour to be sure logistically it would work for our guests. To reach the summit of Mount Pilatus we took the world’s steepest cogwheel train up 7,000 ft. At the top we were given a quick tour and a chance to simply enjoy the stunning landscape stretching out before us. Lucerne is known for its natural beauty and I am glad I had the opportunity to appreciate the scenery from this perspective. Unfortunately, this excursion to Mount Pilatus meant we didn’t have time to explore Lucerne’s city center any further, but this just means I still have more to see here next year (and hopefully with better weather)!

Mt Pilatus

While we only had the chance to visit these two cities in Switzerland, I am appreciative of all I have learned about this country. I know I’ll be spending more time here as I continue to lead tours along the Rhine, so I look forward to expanding my understanding of the Swiss culture and exploring more of its natural beauty.