Queen Victoria in Switzerland – The Rigi

Queen Victoria in Switzerland – The Rigi

It’s less than half as high as Switzerland’s tallest mountains, yet the Rigi has held many in its grip, from writers like Mark Twain, to painters including JMW Turner, and composers such as Richard Wagner…. According to the bible of 19th century travel guides for European destinations, John Murray’s Handbook, it was noted that while the Rigi wasn’t particularly high, “it is wonderfully located with a spectacular prospect in all directions…”. (Swiss Info) The reasons for the Queen ascending the Rigi are all too clear. It was the mountain that had to be climbed because everyone else did it.

Turner’s The Blue Rigi and the splendid views of the mountain from the Queen’s room at the Pension Wallis were all the more reason to go up this mountain. Early on in the Queen’s vacation the villages and countryside around the base of the mountain had been visited, and the spectacular summit would have been in constant view.

News report on the Queen’s visit to Rigi Kulm (spelt as Culme!)

Her visit to the Rigi, or ‘The Queen of the Mountains’ as it was also known, boosted the mountains tourism by large and no sooner had she left a mountain railway was being planned. This opened just three years later.

The Rigi Bahn (the line from Vitznau was opened first) was Switzerland’s very first rack railway to be built and it set the trend for having almost every conceivable popular mountain provisioned with this new fangled form of transport. No doubt the Queen’s presence during 1868 encouraged the Alpine tourist boom and soon hordes of visitors were queuing up at numerous new base stations in order to ascend the best Swiss summits by rack railway.

The Queen ascended the Rigi on 27th August 1868. Although it is claimed she spent two days on the Rigi an examination of her journals reveals the ascent was done in the course of a very long day. The route her party took was from Weggis to the summit and then back down to Küssnacht.

The Rigi was one of the occasions where hordes of people recognised who she was and a band played God Save the Queen. Her journals do not give much detail or clue of the outward journey itself so it’s somewhat difficult to determine the exact route taken to the Rigi Kulm.

However the descent can be largely determined because there is basically the one route from Rigi Staffel down to Küssnacht via Seeboden.

Switzerland. The paddle wheel steamer ‘Schiller’ on Lake Lucerne in Central Switzerland taking course towards Weggis. Copyright by Switzerland Tourism.

Lake steamer arriving at Weggis, with Pilatus as the background. Source: Swissinfo

The Winkelried (the lake steamer afforded to the Queen for her entire stay at Lucerne) was used to get to Weggis. From here, as she writes, her party included Arthur, Louise, Baby Arthur, Janie E. & Col Ponsonby, who all took ponies or horses (except Arthur who walked.) In her journal she says:

“Directly behind the small town, the ascent began & at once dreadfully steep. We had gone but a short way, when all on foot took off their coats. We met many funny looking people coming down, mules carrying their luggage piled up on their packs, & we saw ladies being carried in chaises à porteur.”

In those days as they are now, the Swiss lakes ‘steamers’ have always been an excellent way of getting about these parts of the country. Lake Lucerne (Luzern), Lake Brienz, Lake Thun, Lake Geneva (Lac de Leman) and many others have always provided a good system of transport even well before the country’s railways were really established. And to this day the services continue to provide good transport communications across the country often linking to important railway stations or city/town centres. Thus its no surprise when Queen Victoria visited Switzerland there was already an excellent steamer service plying the waters of Lake Lucerne.

There are many paths to the summit and the journals reveal little information, especially with regards to the first part of the ascent. However I have drawn the following map (based on Google Earth) which shows the paths the Queen would have likely taken during her visit to the Rigi.

It seems to me the party took the path which leads east from Weggis onto a path that is today known in part as Rigi Strasse, a road driveable part way up the Weggis side of the mountain. The Rigi Bahn’s Arth-G and Vitznau branches are shown.

Its interesting that the Queen ascended the Rigi just three years before the aforementioned Rigi Bahn (Vitznau line) had opened. The Queen’s visit prompted earlier plans (1863) for a railway to be pushed through. In 1869 the new rack railway up the mountain was approved and it opened in 1871, being the world’s second such line to open (the first was of course the Mount Washington Cog Railway of 1868.)

Queen Victoria describes the path as being quite steep out of Weggis and then even steeper as one gets higher. As her journal reveals, the ascent was somewhat misty so the views normally seen were not obtainable, however they are lovely views looking right over the lake towards the Burgenstock, Pilatus and the Bernese Oberland….

The dramatic vista unfolds as the ascent is made. The Bernese Oberland prominent in the distance.

It is beyond this splendid section of winding roads (or paths as they would have been in the Queen’s day) that the route does get much steeper as it climbs the flank that leads to the celebrated ridge ascending to the summit and which gives the Rigi an instantly identifiable look. The existence of this ridge and the pointed summit is why Turner claimed the mountain was the most perfect peak he had ever seen.

En route up the Rigi Strasse the Bürgenstock too becomes prominent. Pilatus (summit in clouds) on right.

A view near the path en route to Rigi Kaltbad.

Rigi Kaltbad to Rigi Kulm is the popular tourist route along which now travels the Rigi Bahn’s branch from Vitznau to the summit. Kaltbad and Staffel are both places where the various paths come together for the final ascent to the summit itself. Due to the nature of the ridge it too is the one the mountain railway’s pair of routes uses, and these days its a sort of alpine motorway leading from Kaltbad through Staffel to the summit of the mountain. In the days of Victoria it would have been a simple winding path along the edge of the ridge giving the best possible views.

The Queen’s journal for 27th August 1868 with her entry for the final ascent to Rigi Kulm.

Rigi Kaltbad is where hordes of people greet the Queen and her party, while a band plays the Royal Anthem. This is what she said of the scene:

“In a few more minutes we got to the Rigi Kalt Bad, an immense Hotel, where people stay. 2 or 300 people turned out, & as we passed under the Hotel, a Band struck up “God save the queen” & people fired off some little guns at a distance. But the people were very well behaved, & merely bowed, not cheering or following us.”

Continuing from Rigi Kaltbad via Rig Staffel to the summit, this is what the Queen wrote. In the text accompanying the Queen’s journals, Kulm is spelt as Kulen I think this may be how the OCR has read the Queen’s handwriting, for an examination of the actual page shows the Queen has indeed written it as Kulm:

Halted once more & then went up in another ½ hour to the Rigi Rothstock just below & opposite the Rigi Staffel, another Hotel in light of the Rigi Kulm. Reached this at ½ p. 1, & in a shady place sat down on the grass to rest & hove our well earned luncheon. It had cleared very much & the splendid Alps of the Bernese Oberland were seen to great advantage. There are quantities of beautiful blue gentians growing on the top, & all the way up, & down. We remained here about ¾ of an hour & looked down on Rigi Klosterli. Mounted our ponies again & rode in another ½ hour to the Rigi Kulm, where there is a very large Hotel where people stay the night, in order to see the sun rise.

En route to the summit. The Rigi Bahn runs just out of sight at right.

A later Victorian view of the summit showing what is essentially a small town! The upper station and depot of the Rigi Bahn can just be seen.

When the party reached the summit (1797m) no-one alighted their ponies or horses, but stayed upon these for a few minutes admiring the view. As Victoria wrote in her journal entry:

“We did not get off, but remained at the top for about 10 minutes gazing at the splendid view. We saw, though not very clearly an immense way, all over the flat land, & the Lakes of Lucerne, Zug, &c, on the one side & on the other, all the finest, highest mountains of the Bernese Alps, with their snowy peaks. There were 3 stalls with things to buy, & a high sort of stand, people climb up & see the view.”

The stalls which the Queen saw on her visit.

The Queen mentions a sort of look out tower of some sort. This old photograph of the summit will give us some idea of what Victoria was describing when she mentions a ‘high sort of stand.’

Old postcard view showing the tower the Queen mentioned.

View from Rigi Kulm. Lucerne and Pilatus on the right.

On the return Victoria makes it clear she opts to walk down from the summit as far as Rigi Staffel. This give us a clue as to the next stage of the journey, which is that they take the quite steep but direct path towards Küssnacht.

Wide angle view en route down from Rigi kulm, with Pilatus and part of Küssnacht visible.

The path downwards from the summit is quite steep but not so as to prevent ponies using it though it must be done with care, possibly some sections the riders having to walk a short distance depending on ground conditions and the amount of scree.

View on the paths down towards Seeboden. The Zug lake (Zugersee) is at right

Then we left I got off & walked nearly as far as the Staffel, then mounted my pony again, & came down an easier way, reaching Unterseebaden, (a part at the foot of the steep part of the Rigi) at about 5. There in a meadow, we had our tea, getting some hot water from a little inn. Remained nearly ¾ of an hour & sketched a little, then went on, a steep descent, winding through lanes, overhung with endless fruit trees, getting in another ¾ of an hour to Küssnacht, where at the end of the town we found our carriages & drove home as quickly as we could by Seeberg…

Victoria mentions a location called Unterseebaden and this had me completely puzzled because nowhere is there any place by that name. She however mentions a meadow and that gave a small clue. It wasn’t much and gave me some considerable work in searching for the aforementioned name. No doubt Victoria alone heard its pronunciation and not how it is spelled.

Victoria’s entry in her journal for for 27 August 1868, with Unterseebaden highlighted.

The meadow without a doubt refers to the vicinity of Seebodenalp. Upon further research, it transpires in Victoria’s day there was a upper and lower Seeboden, the former clearly being Unter Seeboden, a place name no longer in use. Thus we have found the mysterious Unterseebaden mentioned in the Queen’s journals.

Evidence for ‘Unterseebaden’ (or Unter Seeboden) comes from page 78 of Karl Baedeker’s Switzerland: With the Neighboring Lakes of Northern Italy, Savoy, and the adjacent districts of Piedmont, Lombardy and the Tyrol, published 1863:

Upper Seeboden – or Unterseebaden.

The meadow the party rested in is without a doubt the Mülmannsegg (or sunshine terrace) a substantial mid level plateau at a height of 1037m. From here there are good views up towards the Rigi summit as well as over the lakes and Küssnacht itself.

The Mülmannsegg (or sunshine terrace) near Seeboden with the Rigi’s summit at top right.

After a brief stay at the Mülmannsegg, the Royal party continue their journey and in under an hour Küssnacht was reached. Here the party found their carriages and they quickly returned to the Pension Wallis by road.
Continues in Part Three with the Queen’s visit to Pilatus.

Queen Victoria in Switzerland posts:

Queen Victoria in Switzerland.

Queen Victoria in Switzerland – Rigi.

Queen Victoria in Switzerland – Pilatus.