Looking way down from Mount Pilatus, across Lucerne’s sparkling star-shaped lake, it seems incredible that when she was nearly fifty, Queen Victoria ascended this peak.
Impressively describing the view in her diary, she wrote that all aspects “shared the very same panorama, an immense way, all over the flat land, and the lakes of Lucerne, Zug, etc, on the one side and on the other, all the finest, highest mountains of the Bernese Alps, with their snowy peaks.”
Let’s begin with a disclaimer. Neither Queen Victoria nor I made it to the very peak of the 7,000 feet mountain. The final ascent of a few dozen yards would have been too strenuous for Victoria. My visit coincided with the snow and ice that closes the craggy route to the summit during the winter.
Pilatus, also known as Broken Mountain, is not part of a range and stands alone, giving superlative views. Unusually, the route to the peak begins in the suburbs of Lucerne. A red cable car, a miracle of Swiss engineering, takes 30 minutes to ascend to the middle sensation. As the air cools you first hear cowbells ringing, then you reach the snow belt. There’s a touch of a James Bond action location to the scene.
With narrow runs between the dark pine forests you sense that this is territory that is too treacherous for downhill skiing but popular for cross-country skiing. At the middle station many people get off to take a sledge or airboard back down. This is Lucerne’s playground and there are hiking trails crisscrossing the slopes. Last year there were over 3m journeys on Pilatus’ steep slopes.
Staying on the cable car there is a final five minute Dragon Ride climb to the two hotels built just below the summit. When the first hotel was built in 1860, before the world’s steepest cog and chain railway was commissioned, all of the materials had to be hauled up by a combination of horse and man power.
Shaded by her parasol, Queen Victoria, rode side-saddle as she slowly ascended the mountain with her kilted man servant John Brown (remember Billy Connelly in the film?) and a small party. After the death of Prince Albert seven years previously – and the prospect that the witty Disraeli would be replaced by the more staid Gladstone as Prime Minister – the Queen said that she needed “four weeks or a month’s complete change of scene and as much mental rest as possible.”
From around the 15th Century the mountain had become associated with the legend of of a Dragon that had lost its healing stones on the mountain. Maybe Victoria found them. For, after her visit to Pilatus, the Queen began sketching again in the final days of her stay at the grandiose Pension Wallis in Lucerne.
Today the cafe, viewing galleries and shop, just below the summit, tend to be busy. Even over 150 years ago Queen Victoria found that souvenir stalls had been set-up and that, “The people all came out and stood round us, but took no notice of me – some such funny people, of all nationalities.”
Come late afternoon, the day visitors take the cable cars back down, looking for the tracks of the secretive caribou who live on the steeper slopes. Those staying at Pilatus’ two small hotels have the mountain to themselves. Guests reach for their cameras to frame a flock of black choughs silhouetted against the last of the orange sunlight.
The Pilatus-Kulm Hotel celebrates its heritage with a spectacular wooden-panelled dining hall that commemorates Victoria’s visit. Duet of duck, glazed breast and crispy duck, is one of the menu’s classics as is trout from Lake Lucerne with Almond Butter. Surprisingly Bread and Butter pudding is a Swiss favourite too.
The food in the hotel’s restaurant is of astonishing quality given that even the drinking water has to ascend nearly 7000 feet from Lucerne. Staff sleep in nearby quarters. If you rise early to snap the sunset you see them arriving, snow-frosted like Captain Scott, as they take the short walk to prepare your breakfast: one of the world’s shortest but most spectacular commutes.
Learn more about the Hotel Pilatus-KulmLast modified: June 10, 2021