Queen Victoria in Switzerland

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England’s favourite Queen, Victoria, spent an entire month in Switzerland a hundred and fifty years ago during August and September 1868. She was stationed in Lucerne but spent many a day travelling through the country in her favourite carriage, the Balmoral Socialble, or trekking on her favourite ponies, Flora and Sultan, around the mountains and seeing the many fantastic views the country has on offer. Places visited included the Rigi, the Schöllenen gorge, Andermatt, the Furka pass. the Rhone Glacier and Engleberg, and of course Pilatus.

Her visit to the country and the mountain itself really boosted tourism and just a few years later the Pilutus Kulm Hotel was built. One of its large dining rooms commemorates the Queen. In the city itself the Hotel Victoria was opened on the newly built Victoriaplatz. By 1870 a new steamship, the Victoria, had been built for plying the waters of Lake Lucerne.

Currently the Swiss are celebrating the the Queen’s visit to the country with an exhibition and other major events to mark the occasion. The exhibition is being held in the Lucerne Museum of History. Here is a review from swissinfo on the exhibition.

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The History Museum in Lucerne by the River Reuss. Source: Google Streets.

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Exhibition poster. Source: Lucerne Tourist Information

The Queen stayed at the Pension Wallis on the Gutsch, a substantial ledge above the Reuss Valley with excellent views of the city, its lake and surrounding mountains. The Wallis has not been a hotel for many years however accomodation is provided at the nearby Château Gütsch which does commemorate the visit of Queen Victoria to Switzerland with a plaque.

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Plaque commemorating the Queen’s stay in Lucerne. Source: Château Gütsch

There is a mystery of sorts about the Pension Wallis these days. Even though its reputation as the Queen’s accommodation is acknowledged, its somewhat difficult to find any modern references to the building, indeed there are absolutely no photographs or references – as far as I can find – on the Internet of the building as it is today.

It appears as if it has become a secret location of sorts and no-one wants it to be found. Quite strange indeed. The former pension can be seen on its hillside (just) from most of Lucerne but that is about it! Even trying to find views of it in Google Streets proves to be a rather major chore….

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The former Pension Wallis (ringed red) just visible from Männliturm. The Château Gütsch is on the left side of this.

The Pension Wallis, by way of its location, is one where the most splendid views of Lucerne, its lake and mountains, can be seen. Its just too tempting to observe behind a window and one simply must go out there to sample the area’s many splendours.

Fortunately the Queen was facilitated with a steamer for personal use during her entire stay. This was the Winkelried. It was often used to transport the Royal party to various locations around the lake, from whence they then proceeded to venture deeper into the mountains on ponies. The Queen’s favourite horse-drawn carriage, the Balmoral, had been brought over to Switzerland specially for the month’s stay, and it was also used on a regular basis.

The vacation was meant to be secret but it was extremely public knowledge. The newspapers published details of the Queen’s planned visit at least three weeks before it was due to take place. The Royals travelled under assumed names, the Queen as the Countess of Kent, but it did not prevent those occasions when tourists or locals spotted who the main person in question really was – the Queen of Great Britain herself!

Almost daily reports were dispatched to the British Isles, giving a brief run down of the Queen’s daily activities. Although no public duties of any sort were planned, there were often impromptu welcomes and on a number of occasions bands struck up ‘God save the Queen.’ Other than that the Queen and her entourage were largely left to do what they wanted, because it was meant to be a private holiday.

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Report from Switzerland, 12 August 1868.

The perhaps one downside to the entire stay was the story of an attempted assassination on the Queen. In reality it turned out to be nothing more than an Englishman wishing to venture into the Queen’s private quarters and have a chat with her. A 19th Century version of Michael Fagin if one likes. Fortunately it appears he was arrested before his objectives could be attained.

Victoria ascended Lake Lucerne’s two major summits, the Rigi on 27th August 1868 and Pilatus on 31st August 1868. Although it is claimed she spent two days on the Rigi and three on Pilatus, an examination of her journals reveal both mountain ascents were simply done in the course of a very long day. Contrary to the assertions of some reliable sources and publications, she neither stayed at the Rigi Kulm Hotel or the Bellevue Hotel at Pilatus Kulm.

Further, despite reports she ascended both mountains with the means of a sedan chair, she did not do anything of the sort. So there are a number of stories about the Queen’s holiday which have no basis in reality. They are just created to big up people’s interest.

There’s a picture of Victoria’s sedan chair, allegedly used to carry her up the Rigi. The chair and the picture are both a bit of a mystery and although she did use a sedan occasionally it was never used for those particular mountains.

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Curious picture of a sedan with the claim one was used to carry Victoria up the Rigi. Source: Twitter

This article says she was taken by sedan up Pilatus and the trip took three days – and this from a reputable magazine! Nothing of the sort ever happened. It was a simple out and back trip taking the best part of a day and no sedans were used at any stage of the journey!

In terms of what actually happened in Switzerland, its clear she wanted to follow in the footsteps of Albert, but also others such as Joseph Mallord William Turner. He too had visited Lake Lucerne and painted its noted mountains. Both the Rigi and Pilatus were the subjects of a number of Turner’s paintings, the most notable perhaps being the Blue Rigi.

No doubt the Queen was inspired to both visit the mountains depicted and then also paint them too. In some ways it was she would be painting the very same scenes Albert had cherished, and therefore being able to take home the memories he himself had brought back to England in the 1840s.

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Queen Victoria’s painting of Pilatus from Müggen (as she called it.) Source: Twitter

Of the paintings and drawings created in Switzerland, which include quite a number done by other artists for her, some of her own work depicted elements of Turner’s. One of these is Pilatus from Meggen, which is done in a sort of Turner style. The work itself was composed from the lakeside at Scholoss Meggenhorn, on the west side of the village where there is a view directly across the lake towards the mountain.

Victoria did this painting on 3rd September just a couple of days after her trip to the summit. Her entry for that day says: “Walked about a little & then steamed on, towards Küssnacht, where we meant to land & drive back, but the Alpenglücken was so splendid on the Pilatus, that we stopped to sketch & landed instead at Müggen, driving home by Seeberg.”

Clearly there was every reason not to miss an opportunity to paint the mountain from such a splendid location. As the view stands today, it is comparable even though Pilatus is much further away in reality.

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The same view – Pilatus from Meggen – today. Source: Google Streets.

The composition of the Rigi done by Victoria was rather more different. Turner’s works on the mountain are famous, the Blue Rigi being the most notable. However, having a constant view of the Rigi from her room at the Pension Wallis, she may have simply seen the mountain so much it was actually more difficult to paint it in an abstract sort of way. Pilatus was out of sight of the hotel, being blocked by the lower slopes leading up to Kriens, so it was perhaps more so that she could visualise it in an abstract way and then actually paint it as how she had imagined it rather than as she was seeing it, and her own thoughts as detailed in the journals do in some way confirm this. This is the entry from her first day, upon arrival, at Lucerne, where she confirms the Rigi is always in her sight.

“At ¼ to 6 took a drive with the 2 Ladies, the guide Hofmann, sitting on the box with the coachman & Brown behind on the rumble. We went through a fine wood of all kinds of trees, on emerging from which one suddenly came upon Pilatus 7,300 ft: high, on the highest peaks & summits of which are very pointed rocks. The whole was glowing in the setting sun, what is called here “Alpenglücken”. It was glorious & the evening pleasantly cool. We passed most picturesque châlets, with galleries, many overhung with vines. It looks so pretty to see them dotted about the hills. The Rigi, 5,910 ft:, one has constantly before one.”

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Inspiration for the Queen. The Blue Rigi by J. M. W. Turner. Source: Eclecticlight blog

A visit to Lucerne isnt complete of course without a foray up into the mountains. Its not just enough to see the splendid sights from the shoreline and lower slopes around the lake – to really appreciate it one must go to the summits themselves and see how the area’s spectacular drama unfolds to create scenes that are almost magical.

Like many others before her, those two most important mountains on the edge of the lake were too visited. The Rigi was visited first and Pilatus just three days after. I’m not sure there was any preference but it may have been that the Rigi was the get up and go mountain, the one everyone invariably headed for and so it came first on the Queen’s itinerary.

Not only that, she visited the villages around the base of the Rigi fairly early on in her holiday (Küssnacht, Arth, Schwyz) so the appetite for ascending the Rigi may have been stronger than that for Pilatus.

These two mountains no doubt had left a strong impression upon the Queen, for on a much later visit abroad she very briefly passed through Switzerland en route from Italy to France and was in Lucerne all but a very short time, in her journal, the day being 28th April 1893, it is said:

“as we approached the Lake of Lucerne. How I recognised every beautiful spot I had been so fond off, the Rigi up which I rode, the Pilatus rising up, grand as ever in its solitude, reminding me so much of past times.”

Exactly a hundred years ago to this day (27 August 2018) Queen Victoria ascended the most popular of the mountains about Lake Lucerne – the Rigi. In the next installment we look at the ascent and the routes the Queen took.
Part two: The Queen goes up the Rigi

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