For one week of the year, every February, Lucerne goes mad.
This quaint Swiss city, known for stunning lakeside vistas, medieval old town with its wooden footbridge and carved stone lion monument, is also home to one of the world’s most bizarre, most chaotic, most spectacular carnivals.
The lunacy begins on ‘Fat Thursday’ when, to a man, the city rises at 4am and gathers around a medieval fountain in the town centre. At any other time of the year, one might pass this landmark without notice, save for a casual glance to note how well kept and ornately decorated it is.
Its upkeep is understandable when one considers what it stands for. It marks the grave of one Fritschi, a man whose origins are little known – legend has it he aided the defence of the city from an Austrian siege, but then aren’t all legends based on lore and embellishment? – but who is, nevertheless, the figurehead of carnival.
He has since been resurrected in his current guise since 1948 when, every year, Fritschi’s modern representative is elected from the city’s luminaries. It’s a huge honour to be Fritschi, a CHF100k honour, to be precise (which he pays for the privilege) as well as the thrill of clearing one’s diary for the year to take on a rigorous schedule of altruistic visits to hospitals, charities and care homes. Ironically, all this is undertaken with a degree of anonymity because, for all the trappings of fame and opportunity, Fritschi’s grandest appearance is behind a contorted papier-mâché mask.
His dawn arrival opens proceedings when a canon blast rents the air, to a roar from the gathered throng and, under a shower of sparking fireworks, Fristchi docks at the lake’s pier. He is then processed through the crowd to a thundering of Guggenmusik – a medieval equivalent of drum ‘n’ bass – delivered by marching bands, each member themselves bedecked with an over-sized papier-mâché head, moulded in detailed grotesque.
The procession makes its way to a temporary stage erected around the fountain where they greet the ecstatic gathering to a chorus of cheers and clouds of confetti and, like nothing out of the ordinary, begin dishing out oranges to the crowd.
And so begins five days of mayhem; of parades, parties, pantomime and paraphernalia. Luzerners of iron-clad constitution see this through to its end; it marks, like many Lent-oriented festivals, the final indulgence before the fast, and the culmination of a year’s graft.
What began some 600 years ago as a pagan festival to see off winter, Fritschi’s adoption made it a celebratory event, the militaristic element over time giving way to its modern incarnation of being championed by the city’s trade guilds, led by the oldest, the Saffron Guild, adding a level of order and tradition to the proceedings and entrenching the circus in propriety.
Fritschi toasted, oranges consumed, it’s time to get oneself into costume – not to would garner looks of curiosity and consternation – and so, made up like a harlequin, I take to the streets of the old town, fortified by a charred bratwurst and a noxious herbal Appenzeller, and immerse myself in the spirit of Carnival.
It is quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and needs to be witnessed to be appreciated. Guggenmusik bands tour the narrow cobbled streets, carpeted with confetti and party detritus, wheeling portable ‘chuchi’ drum kits and heavy brass, occasionally setting up camp in one of the small squares, and often in direct competition to another; their collective cacophony rising and fading to the ear as one passes through.
People flaunt their masks and costumes, their self-consciousness safe in the anonymity they offer. Indeed, there is a tradition of playing tricks on friends, feigning voices and revealing secrets, in a liberating contrast to the typically guarded nature of the Swiss.
Make no mistake, though, this is a big deal. Lucerne takes its carnival very seriously; there are laws dictating do’s and don’ts, figureheads of business hold important organisational positions, craftsmen and artists make a career of creating floats and headpieces; and there’s little in the way of sponsorship, it’s completely inclusive, and yet the beauty of all this is that it feels like the city’s secret; they do it for themselves.
The endless party aside, that seriousness is embodied in the schedule of parades, commencing proper that afternoon. For about five hours, the city’s guilds and societies, having spent the year working on floats, routines and, of course, making their masks, tour them through the city. Some fifty floats, made with incredible design and detail, and often flaunting a political message (Trump was big on the agenda this year), are also ‘ambushed’ by unofficial interlopers keen to participate, such is the prestige.
The best vantage point to see this parade is from a balcony at the Schweizerhof. The five-generation family-run hotel is among the city’s finest, and has traditionally been one of the rally points for the festivities, being so close to the start of the carnival ciruit. From my second floor window, I had the ideal view, the length the of lakeside road, looking topside on all the action, with a backdrop of the lake and mountains – though shrouded in mist on today’s parade day.
The advantage, too, is with the ability to retreat to warmth every so often, for an edifying cup of tea, or a hot bath. It is conveniently set back from the old town so as the parade fades away, and the party continues, sleep is undisturbed, save the occasional overzealous tuba player exiting the building.
Its history of carnival collaboration notwithstanding, being five generations’ run, its seen many a revered figure pass through its doors. In fact, the list is so extensive, from Keanu Reeves to Kaiser Wilhem, Roger Moore to Richard Wagner, the Schweizerhof has played host to that many names and faces that each of its 192 rooms has been dedicated to a former guest, with reverential touches in each, and it’s even created a book that catalogues them. My own suite companion, and one who provided a certain musical resonance in the spirit of carnival itself, was legendary blues musician BB King. Naturally, there’s a room dedicated to carnival, too.
I may be showing my age but as I retreated to bed at far too sober an hour on, ahem, day one, with BB reminding me how crazy he was about Lucille above my headboard, I began to wonder if I could go the distance.
I needn’t have feared. While there’s a great risk of FOMO when it comes to Lucerne’s biggest event, much is repeated over the week – well, they have to get their mileage out of those masks – and just one hour away lies another of the city’s secrets: Engelberg.
Escaping the mayhem, I headed for the mountains. It’s February in Switzerland, after all. Roughly the size of Gstaad, but far less commercial or conspicuous, Engelberg is one of the country’s lesser-known ski towns – I hasten not to use the word ‘resort’ – but it offers pistes, peaks and vistas in abundance.
Capped by the mighty 3000m Titlis, far above the cloud line, a terrific selection of reds, manageable blacks and long, winding pine forest trail blues, including one of the longest descents in the Alps, give beginner and competent skiers alike a measured respite from the festivities. Quiet, peaceful – even sedate – Engelberg’s relaxed, calming atmosphere is embodied perhaps by its Benedictine monastery that graces the mountain backdrop.
A mere 24 hours of stripped pine cabin-like cosiness in Hotel Spannort, the silence of the mountains and an energising afternoon’s skiing, fuelled by the finest macaroni cheese I think I’ve ever had, I felt refreshed, energised and edified and ready to recommence battle back in the city.
When it comes to carnival, Lucerne may not be the first destination one thinks of but it’s to their credit; they do it in a way that, well, only the Swiss can.
Lucerne Carnival 2019 takes place next February. If you’re anything like Luzerners, start planning now. For more information about Lucerne, including the carnival and the many other wonderful things that can be done in the city, visit www.luzern.com. For more information about Hotel Schweizerhof, including festivals and events, visit www.schweizerhof-luzern.ch.
For more information about Engelberg-Titlis, including summer and winter activities, visit www.engelberg.ch.
For more information on Switzerland visit www.MySwitzerland.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; for packages, trains and air tickets email@example.com. SWISS offers more than 180 weekly flights from London City, Heathrow, Gatwick (seasonal), Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Dublin to Zurich, Geneva or Sion (seasonal).
Finally, if you want a tip for the best macaroni cheese you’ll ever have, take a 30 min hike up the mountain to Engelberg’s Fluhmatt restaurant. It’s worth the trip alone.