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The man behind the picture postcards of Lucerne

Kurt Illi took Lucerne to the world during his tenure.

(Eddy Risch)

Lucerne's wooden "Chapel Bridge" and "Water Tower" are arguably Switzerland's most photographed landmarks. Dale Bechtel met the man who stopped at nothing to put them and the city on the tourist map.

Sipping a large café au lait on the Rathausquai, I take a last chance to go over a few of the countless articles about Kurt Illi, who many Swiss consider to be as much a city monument as Lucerne's Chapel Bridge or Water Tower.

Mist hangs over the city on the morning we meet. Illi has just stepped down as head of Lucerne's tourist board after more than 20 years.

He was the man who brought Lucerne to the Japanese, and tried to sell rain to the Arabs. Such was his willingness to try anything to attract tourists that locals joke made the rounds that he lit the fire which destroyed the Chapel Bridge in order to gain free publicity.

It's appropriate then that we meet in front of the tower and the rebuilt Chapel Bridge stretching across the River Reuss. The mist seems to miraculously lift as Illi tells me the story of the 1993 fire.

He says he saw in the disaster a golden opportunity to put Lucerne in the spotlight, and invited 100 journalists from around the world to report on its reopening six months later.

He stops his story and politely interrupts a Japanese man taking a photograph of the covered bridge. Illi tells him he's impressed by his professional-looking camera mounted on a tripod, before telling him about the fire as well.

He shows the photographer and myself where the old wood meets the new. He finally lets the man return to his camera, but not without a final word of advice on where to take a better picture of the bridge and tower.

Illi has a special affection for the Japanese. For it was his success in marketing Lucerne in Japan about 20 years ago that rejuvenated tourism in the city. As Illi recalls, Lucerne became an overnight success in the Far East thanks to one of his first marketing gimmicks as head of the tourist office.

Armed with photographs, he went to Tokyo to convince the Japanese that Lucerne was a fairytale setting for weddings. The idea struck a chord with the Japanese, and a Japanese camera crew followed him back to Switzerland to find out if it was really true. They were soon convinced and the first such wedding was broadcast live via satellite back to Japan.

A few thousand foreign couples still come to Lucerne every year to take their wedding vows. "We employ 15 people in what we call the honeymoon department," Illi says proudly.

It's market day in Lucerne and both sides of the Reuss are lined with stalls and stands, selling fresh farm produce, cut flowers and the catch of the day from the lake. Small fishing boats ply the waters of the lake alongside Switzerland's largest fleet of paddle steamers.

A little further on, an elderly American tourist looks puzzled at a long row of planks, resembling cricket bats, sticking vertically out of the river. Illi feels obliged to solve the mystery, even though the American is only one of about five million curious tourists who pass through the city each year.

"This is an old system from the Middle Ages still used to control the water level. The sticks have to be pulled out one by one to increase the flow," he explains.

"I would call it a sluice system," the American replies before besieging Illi with more questions: "How much maintenance does it require? Does the level of the lake vary that much from rainfall or melting snow?"

It's over lunch at the Wirtshaus Galliker (Wirt: innkeeper) that Illi retells the story of selling rain to the Arabs.

"I knew from the newspapers that water would become much more expensive than oil. Oil in the Emirates is more or less free, but water is very, very expensive. So I had an idea - to sell water," he explains.

"When Arabs travel they travel in large groups and they stay for a long time in the same hotel. So I guaranteed three days of rain to any guests from these countries who stayed at least three weeks in Lucerne. And, of course, everyone was given a free umbrella. The story went round the world that a crazy Swiss was selling rain!"

We're joined by owner Peter Galliker after a wonderful lunch of marinated venison served with a cooked pear in cranberry sauce and homemade spätzli (traditional Swiss noodles). If the walls of the restaurant Galliker could talk, they would also have plenty of stories to tell.

Sitting under portraits of Galliker's father and grandfather, Peter, who bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather, says he's the fourth generation of the family to run the establishment.

The Wirtshaus Galliker has been a restaurant since 1800, and was a rest stop on the old north-south road connecting Germany and Italy. It was here coaches changed horses and travellers supped. The stable is now a garage but the metal rings where the horses were tied are still there.

With a motorway now on its doorstep, the setting is no longer attractive. However, Illi, like many other prominent people in Lucerne, takes guests to the Galliker to impress them with its splendid food, service and cosy atmosphere.

Peter Galliker reels off a list of personalities who've dined at the restaurant, including John Travolta, Sophia Loren, leading Swiss politicians and the top brass of the Nato military alliance.

Back on the street, I ask Illi to tell me about his private Lucerne - the Lucerne he withdraws into to relax. It's the third time I've asked him the question, but he can't, or won't, answer.

It's obvious that he lives and breathes marketing and tourism. "I've always said I'm my own advertising agency with one client, and that client is the city of Lucerne."

The next and last stop is a shop selling jewellery and hand-made Swiss watches. Illi smiles as the manager of Gübelin shows me a "Parmigiani" watch which retails for SFr30,000.

The shop is able to sell up to a dozen of these timepieces a week, mainly to wealthy tourists from the East.

And that's thanks in no small part to the efforts of the former tourist director, Kurt Illi.

by Dale Bechtel


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