Rooms With A Story: A Grand Swiss Hotel Brings History To Life

The Plaza has its Eloise and the Stanley of The Shining fame its haunted room 418, but at the Hotel Schweizerhof Luzern, every key has a story. Crowned heads, rock stars, political heavyweights, literary geniuses, and classical composers are among the greats who have populated its 101 rooms over its 175-year history. The signatures of the famous guests are inscribed on the bathroom wall of "their" room.

We were booked in the Schweizerhof's Queen Elizabeth suite and I was looking forward to being queen for a day or so while my royal consort and I immersed ourselves in the charms of historical Lucerne.

As soon as we emerged from the train station, we could see the imposing structure of the grand Hotel Schweizerhof across the lake. The queen probably would have arrived in some kind of royal carriage or at least a limo but we simply walked across the bridge rolling our carry-ons.

Nevertheless, we were graciously received at the hotel and relieved of our luggage. The guest elevator is small, no need to crowd it with luggage. Winston Churchill, who stayed at the hotel in 1893 when he was a young man, enthusiastically praised the modern conveniences of the hotel in a letter to his father, writing, "The Schweizerhof is a magnificent hotel — lifts, electric lighting, fireworks every Saturday."

These days every hotel has a "lift" but apparently it was easier to maintain the configuration of this charming old-fashioned elevator with a seat when the hotel was completely renovated in 2014. All the guest rooms were refurbished with beautiful up to date bathrooms, furnishings, lighting, wi-fi, etc. But the smartest addition was bringing its colorful history to life.

I was soon engrossed in the coffee table book placed on my writing desk that detailed the hotel's history. The pages are cleverly addressed to the famous personages who have filled its guest roster. Could I possibly describe the sweeping view of Lake Lucerne as eloquently as Tolstoy who was "dazzled and overwhelmed by the beauty of the sheet of water, of the mountains, and of the sky" when on his visit in 1857, he threw open the window of his room 025.

Out my window to the left, far in the distance was the Rigi which so entranced the great landscape painter JMW Turner (not a Schweitzerhof guest) that he painted it more than 30 times. His Blue Rigi is prominently displayed in the Tate in London and was said to have been responsible for a surge in English tourism in the mid-19th century. Straight ahead, paddle wheel steamers were plying the lake just as they had since the 1800s and Mount Pilatus beckoned in the distance. "A trip on that lake is almost the perfection of pleasure," remarked another famous Schweizerhof guest, Mark Twain (Room 125, 1878), who seems to have slept in more places than George Washington. To the right lay the old town and its famous 14th century covered Chapel Bridge, the oldest wooden bridge in Europe (though much of it was destroyed by a fire in 1993, it has been carefully restored).

I ventured out, eager to see the Saturday farmers market spread out along the banks of the Reuss River. Sweet, succulent strawberries were the seasonal star that warm June day. White asparagus was also vying for attention and the profusion of sunflowers would have held Van Gogh's attention. Local cheeses and smoked meats gave the market its sense of place.

Later in the day, the market is replaced by a profusion of outdoor dining options serving rather unremarkable local specialties at remarkable prices that make New York look like a bargain. Nevertheless, their waterside location is charming as is the entire old town with its cobblestone streets and historical architecture.

Not to be missed is the baroque Jesuit Church with its dramatic gilded interior. We stumbled upon a noon time organ concert there that enlivened its splendor. Another must see is the Sammlung Rosengart Museum which houses an astonishing private collection of 100 Picassos as well as numerous works by Matisse and Klee.

Just steps from the hotel is the shop of the acclaimed artisanal chocolatier MAX. How could I resist? My son's name is Max.

On the other side of the hotel, away from the old town, lies the famous Lion Monument. The easiest way to find it is to simply follow the large groups of Chinese tourists making their way there. Twain described this monument to the fallen Swiss guards who died defending Louis XVI against the French revolutionaries at the Tuileries in 1792 as the "saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world." Indeed it is. And yet, no one seems to mention that these mercenaries were on the wrong side, were they not? Just saying.... In any event, it seems somewhat disrespectful that so many tourists are more absorbed in taking selfies rather than in thoughtful reflection.

Back at the hotel, I went out on my little balcony and practiced a Royal wave but no one seemed to notice I was the Queen. Had a tiara been supplied along with the robe and slippers it would have been more obvious. I had hoped to attract the attention of someone exciting. What if Roger Moore, aka James Bond, were to drive up in his Lotus Esprit Turbo as he did in 2005 when he stayed in room 27. (Why, you are no doubt wondering, did he not stay in room 007? Because Wagner, who finished Tristan and Isolde during his stay, had already laid claim to room 007.)

Sunday, we were told, is a good day to go the mountain. In preparation, we started the day with the hotel's hearty breakfast buffet, which was one of the most amazing spreads I've ever seen — definitely fit for a queen. Some 60 items are presented daily including all the usual suspects–pastries, yogurts, eggs and bacon, hams and cheeses, pancakes, and seasonal fruits. Plus there was a veritable catalog of Swiss specialties — the ubiquitous braided Zopf bread, a pear stuffed bread called birewegge, a cherry stuffed sausage called Schwyzer Chriesiwurscht, other smoked meats, and muesli studded with stewed cherries.

And so we were fueled up for the Golden Round Trip to Pilatus starting our journey on a romantic paddle steamer, then transferring to the world's steepest cog wheel rail way to the 7,000-foot summit where it was pretty cold and windy although the views were magnificent. Then we returned by cable car getting off at a stop about half way down for a respectable three-hour hike to the bottom where you can catch a bus back to town.

Back at the hotel, a Tango Night was in progress in the bar. Would have been a perfect time for a James Bond type to show up but no such luck. But tables in the bar inscribed with facsimiles of guest book entries attest to the famous festival performers who have passed through: Kool & the Gang, Christopher Lee, Iggy Pop, Harry Belafonte, Deep Purple, and Zucchero.

General Manager Clemens Hunziker, who with his staff and suppliers, spent thousands of hours researching in order to write the book detailing who stayed where and when and collecting artifacts to display in each room, thanks Dutch musician Candy Dulfer for donating one of her saxophones, British pop star Kim Wilde for sending a golden record and Swiss marathoner Viktor Röthlin for contributing a running shoe. So far the most popular rooms are those that were occupied by Richard Wagner and the European rock band Sunrise Avenue.

In a time when the hospitality industry has learned that nothing sells like a story whether it's about the farmer who grew the carrot or the limestone that imparted minerality to the wine, the Schweizerhof is unequaled in, as Twain would say, "good stories, well told."