Rigi – more than meets the eye
If you are new to Zug, you may have wondered about the ominous granite lump that looms over the southern end of the lake– the first that grabs your eye as you make your way to Zug from Zurich. Rigi is not the most impressive of mountains at face value. It stands a paltry 1,798 metres above sea level at its peak, shorter than its neighbours Pilatus and Titlis for example. Despite this, Rigi has a special place in history in the Schwyz and Lucerne area as well as being a pleasant mountain to climb.
A famous visitor to the peak was Queen Victoria in 1868. After her husband Prince Albert died in 1861, she went into mourning and remained so until her death – in 1901! In an attempt to come to terms with her loss, she took a four-week holiday to central Switzerland, where she could have time to herself. One of the brief diversions she allowed herself was being taken up the slopes of Rigi. Naturally she did not have to walk like most people, but instead was taken up by sedan chair, a service that is regrettably no longer offered! Her trip prompted a number of visits from her British subjects and also from German tourists (Victoria being of German descent).
Shortly after in 1869, more history was made with the construction of the first cog railway in Europe. Although the trains have since moved from coal power to electricity (except for a few special exceptions in the summer), it is still possible to take a ride on one of the oldest rail lines in Europe and the World.
The railway up Rigi is also a fascinating example of inter-canton rivalry that has existed since the creation of Switzerland. Rigi is in the interesting position of straddling the cantons of Lucerne and Schwyz. A company from the canton of Lucerne were the first to start building a railway up the slopes of the mountain from the village of Vitznau, but they could only build up to Rigi Staffelhohe since the peak sits in the canton of Schwyz. Eventually they agreed to build the rest of the way up the mountain, but the Lucerne-based railway company had to pay an extra fee to use the last hundred metres of the railway up to the top of the mountain. Schwyz then built its own railway from Arth-Goldau, and today you can still tell which train has come from which canton because they are colour-coded: red from Vitznau, blue from Goldau. The extra charges for the trains coming from Vitznau finally stopped when the two companies merged in 1992, and now the prices are fixed.
Today there are a number of ways to make your way up to the mountain. If you simply want to enjoy a drink and an amazing view from the summit of the mountain, there are of course the above-mentioned railways (from Vitznau or Goldau station). There is also a gondola from Weggis up to Rigi Kaltbad, from where you can either take the Vitznau train or walk the last 360m on a leisurely pathway with outstanding views over Lakes Zug and Lucerne. At the peak the view is simply outstanding, stretching out for many kilometres on either side on a clear day.
There is also a cable car from Arth-Goldau to Rigi-Scheidegg from where you can take a pleasant (and relatively flat) 90-minute walk through beautiful mountain meadows along the lines of the now-closed Kaltbad-Scheidegg railway. If you are more adventurous, there are a number of challenging walking routes that go up either the Northern Schwyz slope or the southern Lucerne slope, which can be climbed in four to five hours, as well as plenty of hikes near the summit.
During winter there are a small number of very good ski slopes with superb views, while Rigi also has one of the best tobogganing runs in the area, with special open-sided trains which ferry you from the bottom of the run in Klosterli back up to Staffel. There are also several snow-shoe trails of varying degrees of difficulty.
In short this is a mountain of many facets. Not only is it fantastic to climb, ski or walk, it also occupies a unique place in the history both of the British monarchy and of railway engineering. It may only be small, but Rigi certainly stands out from the crowd…