Lucerne visiting the City
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Evidence of Luzern’s medieval prosperity is manifest in the frescoed facades of its Old Town and the two surviving covered wooden bridges spanning the River Reuss, both formerly part of the city’s fortifications (and so with higher defensive side walls facing away from the town) and both boasting unique triangular paintings fixed to their roof-beams.

Any tour of Luzern must begin with the fourteenth-century covered Kapellbrücke, the oldest road bridge in Europe, angled around the octagonal mid-river Wasserturm. In deference to the fact that the city development arose largely from defence of this bridge, its highly distinctive Wasserturm (formerly a lighthouse, a prison, a treasury and today serving as a meeting house) has come to stand as the symbol of Luzern. In the early hours of August 18, 1993, a small boat moored alongside the bridge caught fire and, in one of the most dramatic spectacles in the city’s recent history, the flames rapidly spread to engulf the whole structure. By dawn, virtually the entire bridge had been destroyed, with only the bridgeheads on both banks surviving. The authorities rapidly set about reconstruction, and an identical replacement was completed nine months later – though today it’s still easy to see where the old wood meets the new.

The principal historical interest of the bridge lay in its collection of double-sided triangular roof panels, painted in the seventeenth century with scenes from the city’s past and present – of the 111 panels, 65 were entirely ruined and had to be replaced with facsimiles, 30 were restored, and the remainder still remain charred and impossible to make out. Each is numbered, and captioned with rhyming couplets, the idiosyncratic local dialect written out in obscure medieval gothic script. The most distinctive image is panel no. 31, which shows William Tell shooting the apple from his son’s head, but it’s fun to work your way slowly along. Panel no. 1 shows a giant, the first Luzerner; no. 3 Luzern in the earliest times, with the Hofkirche separated from the town by a bridged inlet; no. 4 the foundation of Luzern’s monastery; no. 6 the town around 1600; no. 15 St Beatus ; no. 16 Einsiedeln; no. 17 Luzern’s Franciscan church; no. 26 local hero Winkelried slaying a dragon; no. 32 the Rütli oath; no. 38 the great fire of Luzern in 1340; and no. 58 the 1476 Battle of Grandson.

Just downstream, the Spreuerbrücke is also worth a look for its macabre “Dance of Death” roof panels. These begin at the northern bankside with a little verse:

All living things that fly or leap

Or crawl or swim or run or creep

Fear Death, yet can they find no spot

In all the world where Death is not.

The succession of images shows a grinning skeleton leading kings, gallant princes, lawmen, nuns, merchants, prostitutes, peasants and maidens alike to their inevitable fate. The final panel, predictably enough, shows a majestic Christ vanquishing bony Death.

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