From Wagner's garden to the lake of Lucerne

It’s the season of the music festival in Switzerland. Nicola Christie tunes in

August 26, 2010
The KKL pictured at the start of the festival.  Nouvel’s design brought the lake into the building

The KKL pictured at the start of the festival. Nouvel’s design brought the lake into the building

Tolstoy loved it, Queen Victoria did too, Wagner got through a chunk of an opera here and Mark Twain was on a positive high wandering the streets. Where is this? Lucerne: a postcard-perfect Swiss lakeside town, tucked into the Alps within easy reach of Italy, Austria, France and Germany.

Right now, it is home to the greatest music-makers in the world - Vladimir Ashkenazy, Riccardo Chailly, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Simon Rattle, Gustavo Dudamel, Mariss Jansons and Claudio Abbado.

The Lucerne Festival - ending this year on September 5 - began in 1938, when the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini decided to break free from the Salzburg Festival.

He also wanted to create a platform for musicians, many of them Jewish, who weren't getting gigs. The irony is that his first concert took place in the garden of Richard Wagner's villa, a small boat ride from Lucerne, following weeks of checking that overhead planes, boats, storms and giggly children would not affect the acoustics.

No such problem for concert-goers today; Lucerne is now home to one of the finest and most inspiring concert halls in the world. Even if you don't like music it's worth the trip to see that.

The waterway system is like something out of Eliot’s Mill on the Floss

Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, who also renovated Lyon's Opera House, the Culture and Convention Centre - KKL - also houses the Lucerne Art Museum, three restaurants, a second theatre and endless large courtyards and terraces specifically 'cut out' to frame the views.

The KKL even contains part of Lake Lucerne. Having failed to have his original plan approved, which sought to put the concert hall on the lake, Nouvel had to bring the lake into the building.

When the hall opened eight years ago, several spectators fell in to the little pools of water on the ground floor. Benches have been placed around them now.

The hall itself is breathtaking, in terms of acoustics and presentation. La Salle Blanche gets its name from the chalky white tiles tiered on top of each other like a wedding cake, supported by a naval colour scheme of navy and plum.

The hot tickets at this year's festival are Mariss Jansons with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Simon Rattle with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Gustavo Dudamel leading the Vienna Philharmonic and Riccardo Chailly with his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Tickets go quickly. These are the Oscars of the classical world, so it might be wiser to look at the Festival's two other concert series', the Piano Festival (November 22-28) and the Easter Festival (April 9-17).

A UK Friends of the Lucerne Festival has just been set up. Bolshoi presenter Lilian Hochhauser is on the board and the chairman is M&C Saatchi's chief executive, David Kershaw.

Apart from the lake, the location and the architecture, people come for a fix of Maestro Claudio Abbado, the greatest living conductor we have.

Watch him play absolutely anything with his personally-assembled Lucerne Festival Orchestra, hand-picked from Vienna to the Berlin and, even if you are not fond of the particular piece of music, you will be staggered by the sound that comes out. Here is an orchestra that plays as though it were a chamber ensemble - every single player listening to each other with a rare level of attention and engagement.

This year, Abbado and his players delivered unforgettable interpretations of Beethoven's Fidelio and Mahler's 9th.

If the music gets a bit much, head for the hills. Remember that this is where Queen Victoria came to recover from the death of Albert.

Of particular note are Mount Rigi, the gorgeous lakeside village of Viznau, Mount Pilatus, a four-hour walk from Kriens or a trip in the world's oldest cogwheel railway, and the Rutli Meadow. There's also the boat trip up to Wagner's country manor in Tribschen, which is now a Wagner museum.

Where to rest your head? Tolstoy and Mark Twain opted for the 19th century neo-classical Hotel Schweizerhof and I did too. With its views over the lake, its palatial lobby and grand mirrored staircase, it is a pleasing step back in time. but a number of more intimate boutique-style places have now cropped up, including the Hotel des Balances, with its Holbein-style frescoes, situated in the heart of the old town, and The Hotel, designed by none other than KKL architect Jean Nouvel himself, well worth checking out. Finding fabulous food is less easy - there's lots of fondues, ostrich and veal - but I recommend the old mediaeval inn where Kafka used to stay, the Rebstock, for a cool glass of Reisling by candlelight, followed by the local white fish cooked in almond butter.

Note the bowl of apples in the entrance, placed there daily following Kafka's complaint that there was no fruit in the inn.

Must-sees of the old town include the two famous wooden bridges, Chapel Bridge, built in 1333 but recently restored, after a discarded cigarette burnt most of it down, and the Mill Bridge, with its "Dance Of Death" paintings, located at one of the most charming spots of the city, the water crossroads that joins Mill Square with the bridge.

Lucerne is still working off a primitive wooden waterway system that is like something out of George Eliot's The Mill On The Floss.

Worth a visit is the Rosengart Collection, a gallery of unseen Picassos, Klees, Chagalls and Miros (to name but a few) that have been collected by the father and daughter art dealers Siegfried and Angela Rosengart. The paintings fill the rooms of the old Lucerne branch of Switzerland's National Bank, Angela having decided, eight years ago, to part with her huge collection.

Now 78, she is happy to show visitors around her gallery to explain how she and her father, a German Jew who arrived in the 1930s, built up their astonishing collection.

The number of paintings that carry the inscription "To my friend, Angela" is unbelievable and there is an entire wall in one of the galleries that contains six portraits Picasso drew of her.

So music-making, architecture, a new collection of paintings that you had no idea existed, and the splendours of nature. What more could you want from a holiday?

Getting there

Swiss ( flights from all major UK airports to Zurich. Direct hourly trains from Zurich Airport to to Lucerne. Hotel Schweizerhof Lucerne ( offers doubles from 465CF (£289) per night with breakfast. Full information on the Lucerne Festival 2010 and next year's

Lucerne UK Friends membership information at: Lucerne City Tour: cgallo@gmx.xh; 0041 79 506 8851

Last updated: 11:12am, August 27 2010