One of the finest day trips in Europe can be made via five forms of transport from Switzerland’s picturesque city of Lucerne to the forbidding peak of Pilatus. Named after Pontius Pilate, legend dictates that Pontius Pilate went into exile and committed suicide after the trial of Jesus Christ and had his body dumped into a mountain lake on Pilatus.
In medieval times, it was strictly forbidden to attempt to reach the Pilatus summit for fear of provoking Pilate's wrath. To strengthen the ban, a story abounded that once a year Pilate emerged from the jagged peak and appeared above the lake, dressed in ceremonial robes to unsuccessfully wash his bloodied hands, and anyone who saw him would die within a year.
Today, the spirits and legends have calmed and Pilatus is regularly visited via the Golden Roundtrip (Goldene Rundfahrt). The tour starts with a suburban bus journey (#1) to Kriens before boarding a tiny gondola which takes quarter of an hour to whisk people almost a vertical kilometre to the mountain station of Fräkmüntegg. Switzerland’s longest toboggan run starts from here along with some lovely hikes but the Pilatus peak is reached by taking a larger cable car a further five minutes and another 600 vertical metres to reach 2132 metres above sea level and a stunning panoramic view across Switzerland.
Unlike most of the numerous peaks in Switzerland, Pilatus stands isolated, a mass of grey stone grandly rising above Lucerne and offering panoramic vistas of much of Switzerland. The glistening Lake Lucerne sparkles below, its arms reaching into the verdant Swiss valleys and with the city of Lucerne sprawled along its shoreline. The southern and western views peer over the spectacular Swiss Alps, a veritable ocean of snowy peaks, creaky glaciers and craggy ridgelines including the majestic Mont Blanc and the inconic triple giants of Jungfrau, Monck and Eiger.
Various trails (from a short circle around the peak area to a long trail all the way down the mountain) lead to other panoramic views with cute marmots occasionally nervously watching from their rocky vantage points. A mountain cut-through, ominously named the Dragon’s Walk after the mystical dragons that supposedly inhabit the rocky caves, leads to various short climbs. An historic and a more modern hotel allow folks to spend an overnight stay on this stunning mountain.
Its location in central Switzerland as a stand-alone mountain peak makes it an ideal military point with clear vision to the Swiss borders and gun emplacements built into the mountain side. A small café serves (pricey) silky smooth hot chocolate and various tempting treats that bold dohle, imposing birds with a jet black sheen and yellow beak will gladly seize if your concentration wavers onto the view for even a second.
All walked out and relaxed, the journey down involves riding the world’s steepest cog railway. Praying that the brakes continue to function as they have since 1889 on this historic train and running for 4.5 kilometres at a gradient that reaches 48 degrees, the forty minute journey on the vivid red rail cars weaves its way down Pilatus to the shore of Lake Lucerne at Alpnachstad, where a 70 minute boat cruise across the beautiful Lake Lucerne (the subject of panoramic photos only two hours earlier) and back to the city.
The journey can be done in either direction and I strongly recommend that the trip is started early in the morning as the weather and clouds often reportedly roll in later in the day. While in Lucerne, make sure you check out both the moving Lion statue and the wonderful Chapel Bridge.
In the middle ages a brave monk and a handful of his intrepid followers clambered up Pilatus to confront the spirit of Pilate throwing rocks in the cursed lake. Pilatus stands tall among Swiss mountains, nout juts for its stories but for its spectacular vistas across Switzerland with wonderful alpine hikes and the adventure of being able to travel via boat, cog railway, cable car and gondola as part of the journey.
Note: Map courtesy of Pilatus Bahnen.