Once upon a time, whenever darkness veiled the evening sky, a little girl would leaf through a beautifully illustrated book of legends and fairytales. Swashbuckling heroes, beautiful princesses and mischievous fairies danced across its pages. Each time she'd read the fable of the debonair William Tell, her heart would be aflutter. What if his crossbow, whose arrow neatly sliced the rosy, scrubbed apple resting on his son's head into two, had missed its target?
Many years later, standing at the edge of the limpid waters of Lake Lucerne, I once again feel that heady palpitation. I am ready to set off on a voyage down Tell's trail on the Wilhelm Tell Express, a steamer and a rail trip through one of the most scenic routes in Switzerland. Puffing down the lake, cosseted by fluffy trees, blue gray hills and stately homes, is a quaint paddle steamer that goes by the pert nickname, Uri. I clamber on to its pristine white deck, as white as the swans that bob on the gentle waves. With a few tootles of the horn, the handsome steamer, one of the oldest on the waters, sweeps through the heart of Switzerland.
Mist curls up from the smoky blue lake and fluffy clouds drift through the crisp morning sky. Standing on the deck, I join Oliver, the guide, who's chronicling the saga of the Swiss hero. It had taken place around this very region. Sprightly schoolchildren and equally cheerful geriatrics surround Oliver, with a bowlful of what else, but crunchy red apples. Uri, a handsome centenarian, is the perfect setting for the tale: think decorative port holes; bright oranges benches; a magnificent bell; gargantuan churning pistons; and even trellised wreaths tacked on its nose. Completely overhauled, the paddle steamer, with a few more years tacked to its marine life, heaves slowly, leaving puffs of steam in its wake.
"It all began with a hat," Oliver says. Wilhelm Tell refused to bow to a fedora set up by the Hapsburg invaders, inviting the wrath of the villainous Austrian governor Gessler. Plucky Tell, commanded to shoot an apple off his son's head, not only lopped off the apple neatly, but also trained his crossbow on to the devilish Gessler.
It's an oft told tale. Yet, under the sylvan Swiss sun streaming through the clouds, the fable comes alive. An audible sigh breaks through the motley audience. Children wring their hands and an anxious grandmother dabs her forehead. Incarcerated on a ship, Tell flees the clutches of his deplorable enemy by skedaddling on to a precarious rock face, aptly named Tell's Rock, returning to slay Gessler. Everyone cheers raucously and we settle down to watch these historical landmarks float past us, each symbolic of Swiss liberty.
As the sun rises higher in the sky, I move in to the quaint dining room embellished with floral designs, spooning a delicious meal of pasta, sprinkled generously with Swiss cheese. Outside the window, I see a crisscross of gondolas busily going about their business in the sky. On ground too, wheels chuff away: yonder lies Rigi, Europe's oldest cogwheel railway, and soaring like a pencil tip is Pilatus, home to the world's steepest cogwheel railway.
Vignettes of Tell's landscape make staggered appearances too. Tell's Rock, a vertiginous outreach, emerges, a breathtaking edifice: smooth, slippery and treacherous. That's not the only stone of significance I espy. Oliver points out Schiller's Stone, jutting out of the waters, dedicated to the playwright Frederich Schiller 'who sang Tell's glory' in words.
We sail ahead, passing fairytale towns, with towering spires and imposing facades. At Barglen lies the famed Tell Museum, a wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosity, that contains all things related to Tell in its cavernous hold. The historical Ratli is a speck in the distance, where, during the Second World War, the commander of the Swiss army, General Guisan, declared Switzerland's national unity.
But in this varied landscape, Tell's presence holds sway over the hills and valleys. His chapel, memorial and memories define the heart of Swiss country. For over two hours, we halt at picturesque towns, picking up and dropping passengers, before we gently draw to a halt in Flaelen, at the edge of the Lake. A gaggle of geese and swans paddle up, greeting us, squawking excitedly as we disembark.
Our journey doesn't end at Flaelen. Rather, we trudge to a sliver of a platform, embarking on a journey that slices through the towering Swiss Alps, nips into bottomless valleys and skirts breathtaking cliffs on the world famous Gotthard line. Before I know it we are hurtling upwards, thrust to over 1,100m above sea level, passing a palpably green landscape: rippling water bodies, clumps of trees, and the Alps, yearning towards the cloudy sky.
The journey on the Wilhelm Tell Express route continues into the bowels of the 15 km-long Gotthard tunnel. The train, swallowed by countless spiral and horse shoe tunnels, swerves and sways for a breathtaking ten minutes. Finally, it rushes out into blazing sunshine, in the sunny Swiss canton of Ticino that grazes the border with Italy. A region that warmly embraces the Mediterranean way of life.
Getting off the train in Ticino's capital city Bellinzona, I bid goodbye to Oliver and a few more travelling companions. My connecting train to Lugano trundles in fashionably late, a cheeky reminder that I'm heading to a laidback land that reeks of Italian charm. As I enter into a world replete with mulberry bushes, olive trees and vineyards, the legend and landscape of Wilhelm Tell seems a complete magical universe away.
At a glance
Fly to Zurich and take the train to Lucerne, well connected to major Swiss cities on the rail network (Swiss Pass at www.swisstravelsystem.ch). From here you will board the cruise.
When to go
Springtime and autumn are lovely; too hot in July-August.
Hotel Splendide Royal, Lugano: Stunning view of the Lake, Mount San Salvatore, and Mount Bre. Cost: CH 350 approx for Executive Superior doubles with breakfast. www.splendide.ch
At a grotto, or a cave tavern. Drive down to Del Parco Grotto in nearby Marcote to enjoy a decadent repast. Grotto del Parco 6922 Morcote; tel. +41(0)91 996 22 07
Via Nassa, one of Lugano's historical streets, has a wide array of boutiques spanning the lakeshore.
You can indulge in hiking, biking, and even gambling (visit casinocampione.it) in Lugano.