High above the bustling lake town of Lucerne, Switzerland, lies the rugged cliffs and steep mountain terrain of Mount Pilatus.
It’s here where the legendary dragons of yore resided – in particular, a winged dragon who imparted his healing powers via a dragon-stone, with an elixir that healed sick souls and revived weakened spirits. Here, too, is the reputed final resting place of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, his tormented soul supposedly surfacing every year on Good Friday to cleanse his tortured spirit.
With such a legendary tribute, not to mention the lofty peak’s drop-dead views of Central Switzerland, it was a given that I had to check Mount Pilatus off my bucket list of adventures. So, with camera in tow, it was off to the mountaintop in search of dragons and whatever else might greet me along the way.
Getting here from Lucerne is incredibly easy – and in the process, you get to utilize a variety of public transportation options.
First, I leave downtown Lucerne and catch a boat that skims along the shores of Lake Lucerne, eventually depositing me at Alpnachstad, the base station where I connect with the world’s steepest cogwheel railway. With a maximum gradient reaching an incredulous 48%, the cogwheel railway takes me on a vertical ascent through meadows and rocky crevices (left) on my way to the top of the mountain. The trip lasts about 30 minutes.
Since I’m overnighting on the mountaintop, I’ll hop on an aerial cableway the next day that will whisk me over craggy outcrops to a recreational paradise of tobogganing and ropes courses. Then I will transfer to a panoramic gondola lift to Kriens, where I catch the 15-minute bus ride back to Lucerne. This is known as the "Golden Round Trip" and is probably the most popular way to experience Mount Pilatus. Dragon symbols abound in the gondolas, cable cars, cogwheel train and elsewhere in the area. (TIP: look into the Swiss Pass at SwissTravelSystem.com for the least expensive way for overseas travelers to see Switzerland by train, bus and boat.)
After the exhilarating cogwheel ride to the peak, I'm greeted by hotel staff who promptly whisk my luggage away while I check in at the hotel reservation desk.
It’s the middle of August, but the wind is cold and biting at the hotel’s elevation of around 7,000 feet. With spectacular 360-degree views of Lucerne Bay and the surrounding Alps, however, I waste no time in donning jacket and hat so as to canvas the terrain before the sun goes down – and possibly find a dragon cave.
All around me is a kingdom of mountains and clouds, with a stupendous alpine panorama of 73 peaks and 6 lakes. I’m truly on top of the world; no wonder this place is the stuff of legends. Later, I learn that Britain’s Queen Victoria felt compelled to visit the mountain and actually rode to the top on horseback. President Teddy Roosevelt also came to admire the scenery.
There are several quick walks at the top of Mount Pilatus. These include a short stroll along the Dragon Path, with details on mysterious myths and legends – most notably those concerning dragons. Good luck trying to find one, as I understand the last sighting was around the 1400s! If you have time, take the short hike up to Esel Peak, only a 10-minute walk. Here you are surrounded on all sides by alpine ranges, including Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.
The altitude and mountain air have whetted my appetite, so I make haste for an early dinner at the Restaurant Queen Victoria, where they feature continental cuisine with fresh regional ingredients.
For convenience and maximizing time on the mountaintop, it’s hard to beat an overnight stay. I reserved a room at the recently renovated Hotel Pilatus Kulm, a stunning spread of contemporary comfort with historical ambiance mixed in. Originally built in 1890, the hotel offers 27 guest rooms along with 3 suites, so it’s best to reserve months in advance. When I turn in for the night, I can’t help but notice the views of constellations all around me. Since my room includes an alpine panorama, I’m able to take photos to my heart’s content without stepping out into the chilly night air.
I wake up early the next morning so as to enjoy the in-room coffee, all the while watching my personal sunrise over the mountaintop. As hard as I look, I still see no signs of the fire-breathing dragon that reputedly shares these mountains with me.
Finally, it’s time to head downstairs for a hearty Swiss breakfast. As I’m eating, I spot an ibex from the window. (A species of wild goat, the Alpine ibex generally lives above the timberline in the European Alps.)
After snapping photos of this iconic goat, it’s time for me to catch the aerial cableway to Fräkmüntegg, where I check out the summer toboggan run and rope park. This is Switzerland’s longest summer toboggan run and Central Switzerland’s biggest suspension rope park. Unfortunately, I only have a couple hours here as I need to catch the gondola to Kriens, where I catch the bus back to Lucerne.
Though I failed to discover the dragon’s lair on Mount Pilatus, dragon lore was everywhere. But I still needed to document my journey. So, after purchasing a vest with the dragon logo – and with a memory card full of one of the most picturesque places in Switzerland – I successfully mark off another bucket-list adventure from my list.