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It’s not just about cheese

Visitors find vibrant Swiss city breathtaking

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A rainbow spreads over the Chapel Bridge, built in 1333, and the Water Tower in Lucerne, Switzerland.

A rainbow spreads over the Chapel Bridge, built in 1333, and the Water Tower in Lucerne, Switzerland.

Urs Flueeler, Associated Press

LUCERNE, Switzerland — This tourist mecca combines all the cliches about chocolate, cheese and cuckoo clocks, showcased in an idyllic Alpine setting of lakes and mountains, serenaded by yodelers and alphorns. In short, it is overpoweringly, unashamedly Swiss.

But bubbling below the folksy Heidi-esque surface is a vibrant, self-confident city with state-of-the-art architecture, museums and galleries, world-famous concerts, a buzzing nightlife and innovative hotels ranging from palaces to prisons.

"There's a lot going on in Lucerne and we intend to make sure it stays a 'happening' place," says tourism director Mario Lutolf.

The central Swiss city has been a must on every tourist itinerary of Switzerland since Queen Victoria visited in 1868 and was bowled over by the stunning panoramas, crystal water and clear air.

Usually, at the height of the season, thousands of tourists are disgorged from buses every day, filling the narrow medieval streets. However, the SARS crisis and travel jitters because of terrorism and the war in Iraq have devastated the numbers of Japanese and American visitors on which Lucerne depends heavily.

While this is disastrous news for local hotels, restaurants and stores, it is a positive boon for tourists who do plan a visit this year. Lucerne's breathtakingly stunning setting is much, much more enjoyable without the hordes. All around the lake is a glorious vista of some of Switzerland's best-loved mountains such as the Pilatus and Rigi.

Lucerne lays claim to the world's largest fleet of paddle steamers, offering an endless variety of breakfast, lunch, cocktail and dinner cruises. One of the most popular combinations is a "Golden Round Trip" excursion by boat to the village of Alpachstad, followed by a climb up the Pilatus mountain on the steepest cogwheel railway in the world, and a descent by aerial tramway and panoramic gondola.

Lucerne's most photographed attraction, pictured on virtually every postcard, is the Chapel Bridge, built in 1333, and its Water Tower, which used to serve as both watch tower and prison cum torture chamber.

In August 1993, Chapel Bridge was almost completely destroyed by a fire, apparently started by a cigarette thrown from a passing boat. After eight months of frantic restoration, the city's landmark was reopened in 1994. But the flames devoured many of the 110 gable paintings on the bridge which gave graphic details of the martyrdom of Lucerne's two patron saints, St. Leodegar and St. Mauritius, and the city's history. Experts were able to salvage only 30 of the works and city fathers decided against filling the gaps with replicas.

Worth a visit — but don't expect to be alone — is the Lion monument, a huge sculpture hewn into the cliff in honor of Swiss mercenaries killed while defending the Tuileries in the 1792 French Revolution. Set in a lovely, shady spot near the Glacier Garden, the carving depicts the lion protecting the French fleur-de-lis even as it dies.