A century after his death, Mark Twain is still leaving tracks in Switzerland. Both a nature trail and a city tour are dedicated to the American author.
Twain visited Lucerne twice. The first time was in 1878, while gathering material for his satirical European travelogue, A Tramp Abroad. As part of his research, he and a colleague lingered in the city of Lucerne and scaled nearby Mount Rigi.
In July 1897, Twain returned to Switzerland with his family. In financial difficulties and mourning the death of a daughter, they were looking for a quiet place to regroup.
They settled in the lakeside village of Weggis and stayed there for about ten weeks. It was far quieter and cheaper than London, where they had landed after Twain’s world lecture tour.
“I believe that this place [Weggis] is the loveliest in the world, and the most satisfactory. The scenery is beyond comparison beautiful… Sunday in heaven is noisy compared to this quietness,” wrote Twain in a letter that summer.
The family lived in a simple guest house optimistically named Schlössli (“little castle”); meanwhile, Twain also rented a small room in Villa Tannen to use as a study. The writer, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was working on his book Following the Equator.
While in Weggis, Twain and his wife Olivia marked the sad anniversary of their daughter Susan’s death. Just 24, she had succumbed to spinal meningitis in the family’s Connecticut home, leaving behind her parents and two sisters.
The Twain family traded tranquil Weggis for lively Vienna in late September.
“If it hadn’t been for the tragic circumstances of his family and his finances, I think he would have stayed in Weggis longer,” Corinna Braun, an event manager for the Weggis/Vitznau/Rigi branch of Lucerne Tourism told swissinfo.ch.
The buildings he occupied have been torn down – eliminating the chance of a Mark Twain museum or historical B&B in the popular central Swiss resort. Yet the old footpaths leading up Mount Rigi remain much as they were back in Twain’s time.
The year 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of Twain’s death. With that milestone in mind, Weggis was keen to commemorate its famous guest.
Earlier this month, the community inaugurated the first part of its new Mark Twain theme trail. It starts by the lake under the oak tree where the author liked to sit, relax and reflect.
Just a few paces from the oak tree and the Twain memorial plaque erected in 1931, a sleek new sign made of metal and local chestnut wood provides details in both German and English.
“We offer our guests information in two languages because we have as many foreign visitors as Swiss people coming here,” Braun said. An enthusiastic hiker herself, Braun had been dreaming about a Twain trail for some time.
The sign also displays a map of the route and quotes from Twain, including: “This is the charmingest place we have ever lived in for repose and restfulness.”
Like Braun, hotel manager Beni Nanzer is a Twain fan. For years, Nanzer has been campaigning for Gotthardstrasse to be named after the writer.
He and his wife run the Seehotel Gotthard. Although its address is Gotthardstrasse 11, its unofficial letterhead and some address labels read “Mark Twain Boulevard 11”.
“A few years ago I told the town council that Mark Twain should have a better place in our resort. So I was very pleased that we finally got this trail leading up to Mount Rigi,” Nanzer told swissinfo.ch.
A real hike
The route is all uphill from the lake – literally. Twain had eschewed the new-fangled cogwheel train in favour of his own two feet. He reportedly needed three days to scale the 1,800-metre (6,000-foot) Mount Rigi.
The sinuous trail leads over farmland and through forests, passing waterfalls, cottages and chapels along the way. At regular intervals, hikers are rewarded with stunning views of Lake Lucerne and the surrounding mountains.
"We passed through a prodigious natural gateway called the Felsentor, formed by two enormous upright rocks, with a third lying across the top. There was a very attractive little hotel close by, but our energies were not conquered yet, so we went on," wrote Twain.
The hotel is still there. Outfitted with solar panels and a Zen garden, it now serves as a conference and meditation centre.
Twain and his friend eventually worked their way to the top of Mount Rigi, where they saw a magnificent sunrise: "We could not speak. We could hardly breathe. We could only gaze in drunken ecstasy and drink it in.”
The trail’s remaining seven information signs will be ready in spring 2011; the trail will officially open then and Braun envisages a lively celebration with an actor playing the role of Twain.
Lucerne Tourism also promotes a new Twain-themed tour. It takes in many of the same sights that Twain visited during his travels, including the Lion Monument, the covered wooden Chapel Bridge and the Schweizerhof Hotel.
“Twain deserves a city tour because he was a brilliant travel writer and he described his stay in Lucerne in such an interesting and amusing manner,” said Martina Kuoni, who leads literary theme tours through her business, Literaturspur.
Twain visited Lucerne during exciting times in terms of tourism; there were grand new hotels, pleasure steamboats and Mount Rigi’s cogwheel railway – which Twain did try on his way down the mountain.
The fact that Twain put his experiences into writing sets him apart from other famous guests, as Kuoni told swissinfo.ch.
“His extended journeys and varied life experiences in different jobs and social circles sharpened his powers of observation: he made a lot of clever comparisons, expressed his opinions over Swiss quirks, and poked fun at many things – including himself.”
Fast facts: Mark Twain
Samuel Langhorne Clemens
aka Mark Twain
Born in Missouri, USA November 30, 1835
Died in Connecticut, USA
April 21, 1910
1869: The Innocents Abroad
1880: A Tramp Abroad
1897: Following the Equator
1876: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
1882: The Prince and the Pauper
1884: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Known as the Queen of the Mountains, Mount Rigi inaugurated Europe’s first mountain railway in 1871.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the tourists visiting Mount Rigi were mainly Swiss and European; today, groups and individuals visit from all over the world.
The cogwheel trains from Goldau and Vitznau and the cable car from Weggis operate 365 days per year.