It is autumn in one of Europe’s prettiest settings. The Old Town in Lucerne, Switzerland, is a postcard. All of it. Almost any direction you look, rooftops seemed gabled just to catch the camera’s eye. Church domes silhouette themselves against the sky. Buildings in soft hues reflect in the River Ruess as you take afternoon tea at an outdoor cafe. When I visited Lucerne last week, I expected a picture-perfect autumn show from a town whose main industry is tourism. What surprised me was the story of the city told on the faces of so many of Lucerne’s buildings.

Kramgasse’s millers and brewers

Kramgasse is just around the corner from Mühlenplatz, formerly site of busy mills with wheels turning in the Reuss. The Fischer-Stube façade is painted with a picture of the mills in action. Next door, artist Simone Erni’s homage to her father, the eminent designer, painter and sculptor Hans Erni. Gambrinus is top and center, accompanied by monks and the elements below; four panels beneath the windows show Egyptians, Assyrians, Germans and Greeks making and enjoying a brew.

Wall paintings around Weinmarkt

Weinmarkt, Lucerne’s main market, has been a venue for the Tuesday food market for centuries, and is still the main food market. Nowadays it operates on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. At Christmastime, the handicrafts market will set up shop.

The pretty square in the heart of the Old Town is framed by ancient houses, covered with paintings and decorations. These were once the seats of the various guilds. The fountain includes the figure of St. Maurice and six medieval warriors scattered around the base.

Off to one side, the facade of today’s Hotel des Balances identifies the building as a former guild hall. It also shows hunters and Justitia, the personification of the justice dispensed in the square in earlier times under a linden tree.

Before we left the square, my guide asked me to imagine I’d had a bit of champagne, then tilt my head and “read the shutters”, left to right. Then, she told me about the hotel two buildings to the left: it was established as a “temperance hotel” by the wives of businessmen who traveled to Lucerne for work. Cruel irony!

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Many thanks to Gaby Bürkli  for a superb historical tour of Lucerne, and to the Lucerne Tourist Board for hosting my visit.

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