Route 4 ~ Basle to Lucerne, By The Unter Hauenstein, Olten, Aarburg, And Sempach


The route leaving Basel followed the same as Route 3 for the first 16km as far as Liestal, before continuing on, instead of heading South, to Sissach.

I know Sissach well. It maybe a tiny town with just 6500 inhabitants (1100 in Murray’s day) however there’s a TVR garage there where I’ve taken my car regularly for the past six years. I’ve often wandered around the pretty village, killing time, whilst the mechanics do their stuff.


Despite being a tiny village off the beaten track, it once appeared in a conversation 1300km away, at the launch of a new bar in Manchester, when the girl I had just been introduced to was explaining that she had just come back from a wedding in Switzerland that morning.

“Where?” I asked inquisitively.
“Oh, you won’t know it, it’s a tiny place that nobody has heard of” she replied.
“Try me.” I said rather arrogantly, trusting my cyclist’s knowledge of backstreet Switzerland better than I trust my memory of remembering people’s names; I’d already forgotten hers before she’d even finished telling me it – my memory really is that bad.
“It’s called Sissach” she told me.
“No way!” I said, “I take my car there for servicing.”
“No way!” she said, “Is it a TVR?”
“No way!” I said, “How the hell do you know that?”
“No way!” she said, “My friend’s husband takes his car there too.”
“No way!” 
we both agreed, “It’s a small world.”

But that wasn’t the first time I’d encountered Sissach.  Ten years earlier, I was catching a train to my local station, Bad Zurzach (50km north), when the ticket inspector got on. He asked me where I was going to.

“Zurzach” I told him, pronouncing it in English, exactly as it is spelt.
“Seuzach?”, he replied, “You’re on the wrong train. You need to be on the Winterthur train.”
“No. Zurzach.” I tried to explain, my Danish girlfriend also trying to help out by pronouncing it exactly the same.
“Sissach?” he questioned. “That’s still the wrong train.  You’ll need to go to Basel and change.”
“No. Zurzach… Zur-zach…  Zurrr-zach!”, I said, growing frustrated and pointing frantically at the timetable.
“Ahhh, Zsurzzsaar”, he replied in Swiss German, or something like that (I still can’t pronounce it to this day).
I’m still baffled, 10 years later, as to how he could have thought I wanted to travel to Sissach or Seuzach, given that the train we were on was going to neither and terminated its journey in Zurzach. Bloody Swiss with their funny made-up language!

Needless to say, John Murray mentions none of this in his book, nor much else about Sissach other than its population, so I continued on uphill to Läufelfingen, at the foot of the Unterer Haunestein Pass.

The pass of the Unter-Hauenstein (the hewn rock), which now commences is of great importance as an outlet for the merchandise of Switzerland, and as the most direct line of communication from West Germany to Italy by the St. Gotthard.


It’s crazy to think that this relatively quiet road was once so busy in the early 1800’s, with over 10,000 wagons a year passing over the steeper ancient Roman road, which still runs alongside it. Just a few years before Murray’s visit the “new” road was built with an easier average gradient of 4% – 6% to the 690 metre high summit.


The improvements completed between 1827 and 1830, at an expense of 260,289 fr., have rendered the slope on both sides so gradual, that extra horses are rarely required for carriages. A toll of 5 batz per horse is paid, but nothing is charged for Vorspann horses.

It turns out that bicycles (and all forms of motor vehicles for that matter) are now as cheap as Vorspann horses – those pulling light carriages – so I was able to enjoy the fast descent without having to find my loose batzen (½ Swiss Franc).


From the summit of the pass, after crossing the boundary line of Bale and Soleure, a fine view is obtained of the great chain of the Alps.

Maybe I was enjoying the fast descent so much, that I missed the “fine view”, however I guessed that Murray was overselling what was otherwise a nice panorama over the forests below.



It wasn’t long before I was in Olten, a beautiful old town “built on the left bank of the Aar” and whose prosperity was “greatly promoted by its position on the new road of the Unter Hauenstein.”


As I searched for Murray’s recommended inns (below), a frail old woman came over and enquired as to what I was looking for. When I explained that I was following his “Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland, 1838” she got all excited and started to walk me around the town, explaining, in perfect English, the history of each landmark as we went along.

Without wanting to be too rude, I tried to escape, frightened I would not complete my journey before nightfall and also being cautious of her initial approach, having read in my research that Olten is the capital of street prostitution in Switzerland. I made some excuse about needing to buy isotonics or Powerbars, in the hope that she would not understand the technicalities of my reasons. I think she was still mid-conversation, explaining how the Count of Frohburg had left some dowry to his wife, Gertrud, by the time I arrived at the Oltner Stadtturm, having escaped when she wasn’t looking.

The old parish church, converted into a wood warehouse since the new one was built, is of great antiquity: it is mentioned in records as early as 1240.

The new church was actually demolished in 1844, with its tower kept standing and the original clock from the city gate –  which was dismantled just weeks after Murray made his notes in 1837 – installed here instead. The city gate was taken down at the request of the Halbe Mond and Zum Thurm inns, as it was deemed a traffic obstacle, presumably for people coming into the city, rather than those staggering from the pub drunk. You can see where the old warehouse would have been in the corner of the square.





Inns: Krone

Built in 1701, the Krone is still an inn of sorts.  Kirchgasse 1 is now home to a McDonalds.


Halber Mond – Half Moon

The Halber Mond at Hauptgasse 30 is now the Frauen Bernheim clothes store.


Surprisingly, Murray never mentioned the stunning Rathskeller, or the “Chöbu” as it is affectionately called locally, a beautifully ornate inn, dating back to 1673, with modern rooms available from CHF100 per night and an incredibly atmospheric restaurant decorated with antique weapons.



Our road crosses the Aar by a wooden bridge, and proceeds along its right bank, through pleasing scenery.



Following the busy main road on the right side of the river, instead of the quieter but steeper bike path on the lefthand side, I approached Aarburg from a completely different perspective to what I had seen it before; cycling through the beautifully preserved old town underneath the castle, rather than across the bridge and looking at it from its most impressive angle (I still went across the bridge to grab a photo, of course).



Distinguished by its extensive Citadel on the heights above, constructed in 1660; the only fortress belonging to the Swiss Confederation, but of no use as a fortification, for although it has bomb-proof casemates hewn out of the rock, its works have been allowed go to decay. It serves as a military storehouse for the Swiss Confederation, and forms a picturesque object in the landscape, such as is met with in the background of old German pictures.

Murray’s information seems somewhat out-of-date as Schloss Aarburg had served its time as a “military storehouse” until  ten years before he visited, at which point it became a prison. After a brief period when it was left empty, it became a young offenders institute in 1893 and has remained such to this day.





Inns: Bär

Gasthof Bären is still an inn to this day, it is celebrated for its Piri Piri Chilihühnchen, Swiss chicken cooked Portuguese style, as well as its Bären Bruzzlers, hot plates of meat cooked on a charcoal grill.  Rooms are available from CHF70.




Hotel Krone is also still in operation.  Nice rooms are available to stay the night, whilst you can also visit the reasonably priced restaurant with local dishes before going to their bowling alley.



At Kreutzstrasse, a mile farther, the high road from Zurich to Berne (Route 13) crosses our route.

Reaching the busy crossroads at what is now called Oftringen, I briefly took a diversion up Kreuzstasse (on the left) to the “good inn” Murray recommended. “The Lion” (Alter Löwen), on Dorfstrasse, is now home to the cafe of the Ortsmuseum, displaying the history of local rustic life. Returning to the Velo Route 73, I headed on my way to Zofingen.



The road continues along a pretty valley, distinguished by its verdant pasture: its substantial-looking houses, many of them with gardens, whose walls are often covered with thin plates of wood overlapping each other like fishes’ scales. It is bordered by a varied outline of wooded heights.




Murray doesn’t say anything about Zofingen, a beautiful walled town that boasts a bar (the Ox) with hundreds of beers from around the world and every single variety of Monin syrup available.




A fragment of the castle of Reiden and a solitary tree perched on a rock beside it become conspicuous before reaching the village of Reiden where a toll of 8 batz including all the road to and from this to Lucerne is paid 

Schloss Wikon at Marienburg, on the left of the road, above the town of Wikon, is the castle Murray refers to. It has been a monastery for girls since 1859 with its lone tree now being joined by others. Fortunately, again, no taxes were required to pass through Reiden, (the old Zollhaus being demolished for the Kantonalbank), but it got me thinking about bloody expensive the same journey must have been back in the day.



I enjoyed the view “obtained of the Lake of Sempach and of a smaller lake called Mauensee from the height above” as I cycled through pretty farmland, the fish-scaled houses pre-dating Murray’s 1837 visit.




It was the first time I had visited Sursee, a beautiful “old walled town whose gate-towers still bear the double-headed eagle of Austria, carved in stone.”




The traveller may well employ a few moments in the Rathhaus, much dilapidated, but affording a good specimen of peculiarities of the German-Burgundian style. The general outline resembles the old Tolbooth of Edinburgh


After indeed “employing a few moments”, I headed to Murray’s recommended inn for a deserved drink. Well, I say “recommended”, but it hardly came with high praise…



“Inn: Hirsch; bad and dear”

I presume he meant “expensive” rather than “deer”, its English translation. Being the Trip Advisor of his day, I’m sure Murray’s words had a detrimental effect on the innkeeper’s takings. Nowadays the Hotel Hirschen gets good reviews for both its not so expensive rooms (CHF 90+) and popular restaurant.



Presumably Murray took the road out of Sursee on the right hand side of the lake through Oberkirch and Nottwil, (the cycle path actually takes the left side) as he refers to the view “seen over and among the orchards on the left of the road in going to Lucerne.” and “the lake comes into full view from our road” opposite “the little town of Sempach”.


Typically miserable, he doesn’t think much of the lake.

It has no pretensions to great beauty, but is pleasing, and highly interesting historically from the famous Battle of Sempach (1336) –  the second of those great and surprising victories by which Swiss independence was established. It was fought on the East shore of the lake, behind the little town of Sempach.

The Battle Of Sempach was actually in 1386, not 1336 as Murray states, which is important to correct, as 10 years early, Leopold of Austria, or “Austrian Leo” to his friends, was also involved in another story here, as we take a quick detour to a hill that Murray points out as being of specific interest to the English traveller.

The steep road next to Restaurant Bahnhof in Nottwil (which he doesn’t mention), leads to Buttisholz.

At Buttisholz, 3 miles from Sursee and on the South of our road, may be seen a mound, called the English barrow, because it contains the bones of 3000 of our countrymen, followers of the celebrated Condottiero leader, Ingelram de Coucy, who were defeated here, 1376 by the inhabitants of Entlebuch. This Ingelram de Coucy was son-in-law of Edward III, King of England, and Earl of Bedford. Having a feud against Leopold of Austria, he not only laid waste his territories, but made devastating inroads into the neighbouring Swiss cantons, from the Jura to the gates of Berne and Zurich, until his career was suddenly arrested here by a few hundred Swiss peasants. This action put an end to a struggle known in Swiss history as the English war.


Whilst there is nothing to mark the spot, the battle took place at an area called Guglern (there’s a street name there now), just slightly on from the village centre. I could have explored for longer, however, with me being English and all that, I thought it best to move on, in fear there were any violent Entlebuchers in town.

Heading back down the hill and rejoining the lake road once more, I was surprised that Murray made no mention of the impressive Schloss Wartensee; yet another road tax collecting castle, sat on the right of the road just before we turn left towards Sempach. He does mention the uninteresting stretch of land we now travel across though:

 In 1805, a portion of the water of the lake was let off, in order to gain land, along its banks; thus its extent is diminished, its surface lowered, and its form somewhat altered from what it was at the time of the battle.


Ignoring the town, for the time being, the route continues up a 3km long steep hill, following the brown tourist signs for “Schlacht“, which translates as “battle”, to the field where the 1,400 soldiers of the Swiss cantons of Luzern, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden decisively beat the 4,000 strong Austrian Habsburgs, on the 9th July 1386, ten years after Leopold’s feud with Ingelram.

 A small chapel, in the form of a portico, is erected to commemorate the victory, on the spot where Leopold of Austria (son of the Duke of the same name who had been defeated 71 years before at Morgarten) lost his life. The names of those who fell, both Austrians and Swiss, were inscribed on the walls, which also bear a rude fresco representation of the noble devotion of Arnold of Winkelried.   


Murray quotes a poem by Wordsworth, written about old Arnie’s death, that I couldn’t help but criticise for its out of synch rhyme…

He of battle-martyrs chief!
Who, to recall his daunted peers,
For victory shaped an open space,
By gathering, in a wide embrace,
Into his single heart, a sheaf
Of fatal Austrian spears

I suggest Wordsworth, if he truly wanted to become a greetings card writer or the lyricist for leading musical combos of the day, The Saffron Girls, Une Direction or That Take, should have made more effort and rearranged it to read…

There once was a man called Arnold
Who managed to defeat Duke Leopold
For victory shaped an open space,
By gathering, in a wide embrace,
And became the battle-martyrs chief,
By taking into his single heart, a sheaf*
Of fatal Austrian spears,
To thus recall his daunted peers

*= he could even reword this as “sheath” for naughty Winkelried-themed Valentine’s cards.

Whilst I was busy busting more Willy Wordsworth rhymes in my head, meanwhile, Murray was describing the famous tale of Arnold’s heroic kamikaze death:

He was a knight of Unterwalden, who, observing all the efforts of the Swiss to break the ranks of their enemies foiled by their long lances, exclaimed “Protect my wife and children, and I will open a path to freedom.”

I like to think there was somebody amongst his men who tried to prevent his next move with a “wait, Sire, have you checked the small print in your life insurance to see if it covers provision  for your family after an act of suicidal stupidity?”.  If there was, he obviously didn’t listen…

He then rushed forward, and gathering in his arms as many lances as he could grasp, buried them in his bosom. The confederates were enabled to take advantage of the gap thus formed in the mail-clad ranks of the foe, before the Austrian lancers had time to extricate their entangled weapons from his corse.


Murray described how the Austrians, having dismounted from their horses, and now being separated by Arnold, were too slow in their heavy armour to defeat the faster Swiss, who had arrived on foot, presumably wearing the 1386 equivalent of  Nike Free’s and lycra skinsuits.

On the very spot I stood, over 2000 Austrians were slayed, including 600 noblemen, alongside 200 Swiss, one being Arnie of Winkelried.  I was trying to take it all in, when, rather fittingly, a squadron from the Swiss air force flew overhead in formation.


There’s a really nice restaurant next to the Schlachtkapelle, which is a great place to reward yourself for the hard effort in climbing up here, however the descent back down the same road into Sempach is just as refreshing.


Murray doesn’t actually describe Sempach itself, however it is a stunning little walled town that has hardly changed since his visit in 1837 and is well worth a visit on your way back down the hill.


Indeed, Murray’s description of the last km was spot on

“The approach to Lucerne is charming: on the left rises the Rigi, in shape somewhat resembling a horse’s back; on the right the Pilatus is distinguished by his serrated ridge.”

Cycling down the main road through Neuenkirch, with its stunning 17th Century Gasthof Sonne (not mentioned by Murray), we join the No.24 or No.38 cycle routes into Luzern at Emmenbrucke, crossing the “small stream of the Emmen” by a concrete bridge rather than the “wooden” one of 1837. It’s here that “we reach the banks of the green Reus” at the busy road junction with the “new road to Berne, by the Entelbuch” (a route we will follow later).

Cycling along the river into Luzern, we pass what is left of the “battlemented wall, flanked at intervals by a number of tall watch towers descending to the margin of the river.”


Overall a very rewarding ride through some of Switzerland’s most historic sights.





 Inns: Schwan –  a new house, in the best situation, and good; in 1837 complaints were made that it was dear

Restaurant Schwanen above the Perosa store on Schwanenplatz, overlooks the lake with its Cafe de Ville offering terrace seating outside and a menu that, whilst good, in 2015 complaints could still be made that it is dear. They don’t offer hotel rooms.




Balances (Waage) – an old-established house, good, clean, and moderate charges. The four daughters of the late host take the management of the establishment, and the traveller will find in it extreme civility and most excellent attendance.

The chic 4 Star gourmet Hotel de Balances on Weinmarkt dates back to 1807 as “Wirtshaus zur Waage”, and was actually refurbished and renamed in 1837, the year Murray visited; going on to host the likes of famous Irish poet George Bernard Shaw, Princess Louise of Baden and, on numerous occasions, the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina. The restaurant boasts 14 Gault Millau points and is reasonably priced (5 courses for CHF 105, or 3 course lunch for CHF 45), although the rooms are no longer moderately charged, starting at CHF150.





Rossli (Cheval)

The Guest House Roesli, at Pfistergasse 12, is far more reasonable with rooms starting at CHF 80. Belonging to the Baslertor Hotel, you can use their summer pool too.




There is a good pension overlooking the lake close to the Kapel Brücke

Nowadays, the best fit for this is the popular English pub Hotel Pickwick, where I’m sure Murray would have gone to watch Preston North End beat Notts County to be crowned Champions of the first ever Football League, had he not arrived exactly 50 years too early and exactly 100 years before the first televised game.  Unlike the beer, rooms are reasonably priced from CHF 90.




19½ stunden = 64 English miles.

A diligence goes daily.

The road throughout is good.

Indeed, the road throughout was good, if somewhat uphill. The 8km climb of the Unterer Hauenstein Pass, averages 4% and reaches 6% in places. At 125km, this is a long cycle and with a few short climbs along the way, so you could split it up by staying at many of the towns along the route – most have enough to offer in terms of history and picture postcard photo opportunities. The entire route is possible by road bike.


0km ~ BASEL

16km ~ LIESTAL  up  90 m   down  45 m

24km ~ SISSACH   up  80 m   down  25 m

34km ~ LÄUFELFINGEN   up  190 m   down  5 m

36km ~ UNTERER HAUENSTEIN PASS   up  105 m

45km ~ OLTEN   up  35 m   down  310 m

50km ~ AARBURG  → flat


57km ~ ZOFINGEN  → flat

63km ~ REIDEN  → flat

80km ~ SURSEE   up  145 m   down  105 m

85km ~ NOTTWIL  → flat

90km ~ BUTTISHOLZ   up  80 m   down  40 m

95km ~ NOTTWIL   up  40 m   down  80 m

102km ~ SEMPACH   → flat

105km ~ SCHLACHT   up  110 m

108km ~ SEMPACH   down  110 m

113km ~ NEUENKIRCH   up  45 m  

125km ~ LUZERN   up  25 m   down  140 m



Route 3 ~ Basel – Biel/Bienne

Route 5 ~ Basel – Aarau  >

~ All routes ~  Introduction ~


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