Obwalden

#26Cantons52Weeks: Uri

Rutli Meadow in the snow – it’s the white patch down there. Photo: Iain Scott

Canton: Uri

Destination: Altdorf and Rütli Meadow – ‘the birthplace of Switzerland’

Interesting thing: Uri’s symbol is the bull and apparently the name derives from an old Germanic word for bull, ûr. (That’s way more fun than the other possible explanation that it comes from the Latin ora or uer –  ‘edge of the water’)

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The cantons keep surprising me. Uri is another smallish central-Switzerland canton on the shores of Lake Lucern (or the Vierwaldstättersee) like Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schwyz and Luzern itself. I guess I thought it would be a bit same-old, same-old. And yet, Uri felt quite different. Maybe it was due to the snow.

We headed to the canton capital Altdorf – a small town covering roughly 10 square kilometres with a population of about 10,000. Expansion would be tricky because the mountains are literally right behind the town, which gave it a rather dramatic feel. And with the season’s first dusting of snow, and Christmas lights coming on, it looked very pretty.

Uri canton has several claims to fame. First off, Swiss dude of legend and overtures, William Tell, was said to be from Uri and Altdorf is where he shot the arrow through the apple on his son’s head, then killed the baddie, Gessler. There’s a William Tell museum, monument and the Tellskappel (Tell chapel) nearby but the museum is closed for winter. So we made do with having our lunch next to the rather impressive William Tell fountain/monument.

Uri is also where you’ll find the Rütliwiese or Rütli meadow, the ‘birthplace of Switzerland’. This is a flat bit of land by the lakeshore where the founding oath of Switzerland was signed back in 1291 between three cantons – Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden (since split into Nidwalden and Obwalden). Every year in midsummer on Switzerland’s national day, 1 August, there are celebrations and fireworks here. It’s also now the beginning of a 35km walking track called the Path of Switzerland, which takes you on a pleasant hike around Lake Uri via representations of the various cantons – and it would be a lovely thing to do on a warm sunny day. Of course, we visited mid-winter with 15-odd centimetres of snow on the ground.

Full disclosure: we did not actually set foot on the meadow itself. You can catch a boat there from Brunnen or Flüelen. But because it’s winter, there’s only two boats per day and we didn’t really fancy being out on the water in the cold! So we drove through a 9km mountain tunnel to Seelisberg and pulled up at a random spot beside the road to see what we could see in the snow.

Even the sign pointing out local attractions was iced over, luckily a passing local informed us we were in fact on “Rütliblick” (Rütli look-out) and indicated the various sights for us – Altdorf across the water, Schwyz down at the end of the lake and, right below us: the snow-covered Rütliwiese. With an hour’s steep walk down to the meadow, we decided we were content just having seen it. A Swiss friend remarked: “You’re the first person I know who’s been at Rütli in winter!”

Uri’s other famous claim is it’s where the Gotthard tunnel begins (or ends). The world’s longest train tunnel opened a year ago and we went through it in January for our Ticino visit.

So that’s a bunch of Swiss history – both ancient and modern – ticked off my list in one small, snow-covered canton!

 

Cantons visited / to go so far. 

Aargau

Appenzell Ausserrhoden

Appenzell Innerrhoden

Basel-Landschaft

Basel-Stadt

Bern

Fribourg

Geneva

Glarus

Graubünden

Jura

Luzern

Neuchâtel

Nidwalden

Obwalden

Schaffhausen

Schwyz

Solothurn

St. Gallen

Thurgau

Ticino

Uri

Valais

Vaud

Zug

Zürich

#26Cantons52Weeks: Obwalden

Cogwheel railway

Canton: Obwalden

Destination: Mount Pilatus, Goldene Rundfahrt

Interesting thing: Canton Obwalden is the location for the geographical centre of Switzerland. The cogwheel railway up Pilatus is the steepest in the world and dates from 1889!

Special guests: my parents

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Pilatus is the ‘dragon mountain’ and its dragon symbol is rather a triumph of branding, with everything from the boat quay to the bus stop labelled with that same red swirly beast. To my mind, I can kind of see how the spine of the mountain looks a bit like a sleeping dragon and, where Rigi – “the queen of the mountains” is gently sloping and green, Pilatus seems to loom menacing and dark above Lake Lucerne. Except, as we made our way across the waters of the Vierwaldstättersee (as the lake’s called in German), I realised the mountain I’d been identifying as Pilatus actually wasn’t. So much for my theory anyway! Er… the real Pilatus looks like a dragon too, a bit! (Wikipedia tells me the dragon comes from a medieval legend about winged beasts with healing powers living on the mountain.)

Pilatus’ cogwheel railway is really something. It was constructed in 1889 and electrified in the 1930s. From lake level of 464m at Alpnachstad, the railway rises almost vertical in parts up the side of the mountain to just over 2,000 metres. The elevation gain is 1,635m in total and it has an incline of 48% at its steepest (this is the sharpest incline you can have – otherwise I think you’re actually vertical?). It’s steeper than the triangle of a Toblerone. It’s a longish journey too – about half an hour. Which is great if you’re excited about it, maybe not so great if you’re closing your eyes, blocking your ears and holding on for grim death due to a fear of heights, as my sister-in-law was the last time we went (sorry Laura!).

My parents are thankfully not much affected by vertigo and we had a lovely, clear early-autumn day for our ascent. So nice, in fact, that we even ate our lunch al fresco, with a panoramic view of the mountains from the terrace. Lovely. Afterwards dad and I climbed the “Esel” (donkey) peak to 2,118 metres for a top-of-the-top view. From here we watched a huge cloud roll up one side of the mountain, completely whiting-out the view for about 20 minutes, until it passed. Amazing how fast the weather can change at these altitudes.

To descend, we swooped down in the gondola and cable cars, then caught a bus back to Luzern to complete our “Goldene Rundfahrt” (golden round trip).

Full disclosure: the several peaks of Pilatus are actually on the border between two cantons – Nidwalden and Obwalden. However the cogwheel railway and Pilatus Kulm both fall on the Ob side (and I’ve already written up Nidwalden).

 

Cantons visited / to go so far. 

Aargau

Appenzell Ausserrhoden

Appenzell Innerrhoden

Basel-Landschaft

Basel-Stadt

Bern *

Fribourg

Geneva

Glarus

Graubünden

Jura

Luzern

Neuchâtel

Nidwalden

Obwalden

Schaffhausen

Schwyz

Solothurn

St. Gallen

Thurgau

Ticino

Uri

Valais

Vaud

Zug

Zürich

 

*I haven’t written this up yet!