From rail to Renoir:
A scenic train trek through Switzerland

Copley News Service

The train swept through a postcard-perfect landscape of snowcapped mountains towering above emerald green hillsides threaded by dramatic cascades, all reflected in a crystalline lakeside. I was relaxing on a two-hour scenic rail journey from Zurich to Bern, the Swiss capital and a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its 12th century preserved houses, monuments and museums.

SWISS PASS - One of the most sensational train rides in the world is the Wilhelm Tell Express. It operates from Lugano to Lucerne via the Gotthard Pass, where some 270 trains pass through daily. CNS Photo courtesy of Swiss Tourism.
  With the Swiss Rail Pass in hand, I not only had access to comb a captivating countryside in style and comfort, but had entree via ground and boat transportation to some 400 museums and exhibits. During my two-week sojourn, I experienced a breadth of contemporary and ancient art and architecture stretching from Bern and Basel to Lucerne and Lugano. I only scratched the surface, since my ticket covered 3,100 miles of railway lines and 8,100 miles of bus lines with free entrance to a myriad of museums. I concentrated more on the one-of-a-kind and newest cultural venues, but without bypassing the old masters and impressionists along the way.

Bern itself is a masterpiece, with its array of 15th century stone dwellings. The Clock Tower, where I first stopped to see the movable objects chime, marked my entrance through a historic tour of arched facades, red-tiled roofs and picturesque bridges that cross the blue-green River Aare.

It was difficult going indoors, but the new Einstein exhibit at the Musee Historique de Bern on Helvetiaplatz 5 was a worthwhile detour. Here stands the largest exposition on the life and work of this genius of physics. Huge interactive installations, with projections on large screens, were creatively displayed throughout several floors, and tapes of his speeches were played next to easy-to-understand explanations of Einstein's Theory of Relativity, geared for the layperson. Intertwined throughout the exhibit was information on Einstein's Judaic background and life in reference to historical events. Most of the installation will remain as part of the museum's permanent collection.

MODERN MUSEUM - Three waves of steel roofing covers the glass-enclosed Zentrum Paul Klee Museum in Bern, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano and built against a mountain backdrop of greenery. CNS Photo by Beverly Mann.

INSIDE HIS HEAD - “Eros Bendato?is the work of local sculptor Mitoraj, found along the greeneries of Lugano’s waterfront. The sculpture is of a giant head where visitors can step inside and peer out. CNS Photo by Beverly Mann.
Just a short bus ride from the Old Town, past the bear pits and tourist center, stand three waves of steel roofing covering the glass-enclosed Zentrum Paul Klee. Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano against a mountain backdrop of greenery, Bern's newest museum (which opened in 2005) has an interior that is also quite unique. An open plan of disconnected white walls spaced from the ceiling make it possible to view paintings close up and from a distance. I could appreciate each work strategically placed in the uncluttered environs.

Klee bridged the abstract with representational, and, in the 1920s, he became master teacher at the Bauhaus in Germany. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Klee then moved back to Switzerland with his wife.

Complementing the works of Klee was the temporary exhibit of Max Beckmann, who shared Klee's love of music, theater and acrobatics, along with a common interest in both psychological and mythological themes. Beckmann's vivid colors and shapes appear to scream out of the canvas with a well of emotions and movement. The contrasts between the two artists create a thought-provoking dichotomy.
  After two days in Bern, I headed back on the train for another scenic sojourn of fertile farmlands and lakes past the charming town of Spiez, en route to the tourist haven of Interlaken and Grindelwald. I took a respite to enjoy several days here to hike through nature's painting of the Jungfrau and its neighboring iced mountaintops of the Eiger and Monch. My half-day hike to Beatenberg, a 20-minute bus ride from Interlaken, gave me an awesome view of Lake Thun and Brienz, a photographer's dreamscape.

Afterward, I journeyed through the Italian Alps toward Lugano, with enough beauty outside and within to hold any artist captive. The town has more than 30 museums and a lakeside brushed with a scattering of sculptures by local talent. The tourist office provides a helpful brochure listing the locations of all the museums in the region.

One extraordinary find was the Swiss Customs Museum, aka Smuggler's Museum, in the charming hamlet of Cantine di Gandria on the southern shore of Lake Lugano. The only way to access this free museum is via a boat ride. Formerly a housing facility for unmarried frontier guards in the 1890s, the museum portrays their living and working conditions, along with photos and objects representing the smuggling practices and forging of passports. It was fascinating to see the surreptitious way drugs were actually hidden in carry-on items and luggage, baby carriages and in the wheels of cars.
Back in town at the Museo d'Arte Moderna (Museum of Modern Art), right off the main lakefront at Riva A. Caccia 5, was an exhibition of Bulgarian-born Christo and his wife and colleague Jeanne-Claude. Both of these environmental artists are known to wrap landscapes and monuments with polypropylene fabric for the viewer to see life and art in a new perspective. Photos of their work included the Pont Neuf in Paris, Miami's Biscayne Bay and New York's Central Park. This exhibit follows past showings of Edvard Munch, Modigliani and Chagall.

OVER THE AARE - The view from the bridge of the Old Town of Bern over the Aare River. Bern itself is a masterpiece with its array of 15th century stone dwellings. CNS Photo by Beverly Mann.
  As I meandered along the waterfront, I couldn't help but notice the sculptures by locals along the greenery. Two in particular caught my eye - "The Cavallo" (horse) by Nag Arnoldi and "Eros Bendato" by Mitoraj, a giant head where I could actually step inside and peer out. Further down by the water near the Palace of Congress stands the palatial Museo Civico di Belle Arti (Lugano Museum of Fine Arts), which prides itself as the first public art collection in Ticino. There is an emphasis on local art, with works from the 15th century until present, with a more extensive collection of paintings and sculptures from the 19th century and early 20th century. Admission is free.

About a 20-minute walk from the center of town, on Viale S. Franscini 12, I discovered the Galleria Gottardo, a hidden treasure. Tucked away in the modern high-rise Banca del Gottardo, designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, creator of San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, this nonprofit museum presents four exhibitions per year in collaboration with New York's Guggenheim Museum. According to Monica Homberger, officer relationship manager for the bank, "Chairman Garzoni started this gallery in 1989 originally to support local Swiss artists. Our evening expositions are very crowded. For a small gallery, we have at least 40 visitors a day come through."

BACK IN TIME - The Swiss Customs Museum, aka Smuggler’s Museum, is in the charming hamlet of Cantine Di Gandria on the southern shore of Lake Lugano. The museum portrays the living and working conditions of unmarried frontier guards during the 1890s. CNS Photo by Beverly Mann.
The day I was there, they were presenting an unusual Etruscan archaeological find from the Tuscany Poggio Civitate Museum. There was so much art and history to absorb in Lugano, I wished I had stayed longer. However, I was off the next morning on one of the most sensational train rides, the Wilhelm Tell Express, via the Gotthard Pass, where some 270 trains pass through daily. The train ride was coupled with a blissful boat ride that took me from Fluelen to my final destination of Lucerne.
  This is the only express train that includes a boat ride. The panoramic train trip takes less than two hours, spiraling miles of steep gorges, cascading falls and babbling streams. The boat traveled through such colorful storybook villages as Weggis, Rigi, Gersau and Brunnen, lining the aquamarine lake. My camera clicked nonstop.

On the east bank of Lake Lucerne is the Lido, a popular summer vacation spot. Directly adjacent to this vista sits the Swiss Transport Museum, the only one of its kind addressing the history of transport and communication. I was amazed by the intricate detail in the old replicas and models of the 19th century locomotives. Housed within this massive complex I found the Hans Erni Museum, containing more than 300 works of this local artist. The complex is so vast that the staff drive around in scooters.

A must-see was the Rosengart family's Picasso Museum, a private collection showcasing the last 20 years of Picasso's life through 200 photographs of the artist, his friends and family taken by photographer David Douglas Duncan. The museum contains some of Picasso's late drawings, ceramics and original prints. The site is located on Furrengasse 21, off a small street near the main thoroughfare. The signs leading toward the museum are a bit confusing.

Even more impressive is the Rosengart Collection, on Pilatusstrause 10, a 15-minute walk from the Picasso Museum. On three floors, there are 19th and 20th century paintings including such artists as Matisse, Miro, Cezanne, Chagall, Pissarro and Renoir.

During my last night in Lucerne, after several hours of museum meandering on a hot June day, I relaxed at a small cafe with a cold drink near the edge of the Old Town. Directly in front of me stood the famous wooden bridge, the signature piece of Lucerne, adorned with elegant swans and a palette of fuchsia, yellow and blue flowers. To my amazement, a cacophony of color and music filled the twilight sky as fireworks exploded. There happened to be a national music festival that weekend in Lucerne. I couldn't help but think how perfect this dramatic finale was to cap such an awesome and artful Alpine journey.

Visit for general information on Switzerland.
Visit or call 888-382-7245 for information on trains, schedules and fares.

Reasonably priced hotels within walking distance from the train station:

Hotel Kreuz - Zeughausgasse 41
Phone 011-41-31-329-9595.

Holiday Inn - Lugano Centre, Via Geretta 15 Static
Phone 011-41-91-986-3838.

Hotel Rutli - Zahringershause 43
Phone 011-044-254-5800

Hotel Des Alpes - Rathauquai 5/Furrengasse 3
Phone 011-41-41-410-5825

Carlton-Europa Hotel - Hoheweg 94
Phone 011-41-33-826-01-60

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