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The secret fortress of Vitznau

Pius Zimmermann opens the heavy door to the fortress


Most visitors use Vitznau only as the jumping off point for trips up Mount Rigi where they can enjoy panoramic views of the Alps. But Vitznau has another attraction, which was until recently one of Switzerland's best-kept secrets.

Pius Zimmermann sits on a bench in the public park at Vitznau on the shore of Lake Lucerne. He's looking out unto the calm waters, where he once operated a lake-taxi years before. Switzerland was founded in this area in 1291.

"This is the narrowest part of the lake. We're in canton Lucerne here, but over there on the other side is canton Uri".

The now-retired local son of Vitznau then turns around and points to a spot on the sheer cliffs behind him, to the north: "Do you see that little slit there, next to that dark spot on the rock"?

It takes a moment to focus on what's he's trying to point out. Then you can see it.

"That's where the observer used to be stationed. He'd report the accuracy of the shots to the gunners."

What Pius Zimmerman is talking about is the Mühleflüh Artillery Fortress, built deep inside the mountain in 1941 to defend this historic heartland of Switzerland against a possible German invasion - an invasion that never came. But the Swiss defences stayed ready, throughout the Cold War.

The existence of the fortress was a closely-guarded secret until its decommissioning in 1998, when it reverted to the village of Vitznau, which has turned it into a tourist attraction.

Pius Zimmerman is the part-time custodian of the Mühleflüh Fortress. He also conducts tours in several languages - including English - through its 554 metres of corridors and hidden chambers. He knows every centimetre of it, and its history.

The fortress is fully operational, and was left exactly as it had been. "Only the two big guns have been blocked to prevent them being fired. But that could easily be undone if need be," Pius Zimmermann confides with a wry grin.

But there's an added attraction. Along with a tour of the fortress, it's also possible to sample real Swiss army food in the fortress kitchen. And to fully recapture the feel and history of the place, you can even spend the night, albeit in more comfort than was provided for ordinary soldiers who served there!

by Bob Zanotti


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