For centuries the Swiss kept Rütli Meadow to themselves, and this breathtakingly beautiful greensward, ringed by towering mountains, is still not easy to get to. In 1291, men from three cantons laid the foundations of the Swiss federation there by taking an oath to resist foreign oppressors. Despite this historical significance, there are no roads anywhere near Rütli. But 700 years later, the Swiss, at long last, opened a hiking trail. Known as the Swiss Path, it meanders for more than 30 km around Lake Uri and through the forests and alpine meadows that lie at the heart of the Swiss soul.
Aside from being the cradle of the federation, this is also William Tell country: near Rütli is the town of Altdorf, where the legendary peasant farmer is reputed to have shot an apple from his son's head and then despatched the Austrian bailiff who forced him to do it. All around is the mountain scenery that inspired Rossini's operatic homage to the Tell legend. It is breathtakingly beautiful, yet remains largely unknown outside Switzerland.
Sections of the path can be accessed by vintage steamers that ply Lake Uri and adjoining Lake Lucerne. The most scenic stretch is the 8 km between Rütli and the hamlet of Bauen, erstwhile home of a monk who composed the music for the Swiss national anthem. The path winds upwards past fields filled with wildflowers and butterflies, sloping steeply to the placid waters of the lake. Then it emerges from the woodland, and a panorama unfolds of lofty peaks around the Gotthard Pass. The only sounds are of wind, running water and birdsong.
On the crest of the hill above Rütli there is an extravagant oddity: an ornate Victorian pile that was a grand hotel and is now headquarters of the World Government of the Age of Enlightenment, founded in 1976 by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Beyond it lies a meadow framed by a mountain that looks like a location from The Sound of Music, suggesting that the Maharishi picked a good place from which to usher in his new epoch of "natural law" and "world consciousness."
With its charming cafés and restaurants, Altdorf makes a natural pit stop. Be sure to visit the statue of Tell and his son, which marks the spot where the apple-shooting incident supposedly took place. "We can't say for sure that Tell ever existed but we don't care," says Ralph Aschwanden, a local journalist and historian. "Man or myth, he is important to us as a symbol of our national identity."
Swiss Path brochures are available from the Lucerne Tourist Office, tel: (41-41) 227 1717, luzern.com.