Mark Twain – A Tramp Abroad

“I believe this place [Weggis] is the loveliest in the world, and the most satisfactory. The scenery is beyond comparison beautiful. Sunday in heaven is noisy compared to this quietness.”

Switzerland, especially its German-speaking cantons comprised one of Samuel L. Clemens’s favourite lands. He first came here on the 1st of August 1878, traversing the country from Schaffhausen in the north to the central canton of Luzern, thence to Zermatt in the south, and to Lausanne and Geneva in the south-west on a month-long excursion with the Reverend Joseph Twichell and, during the tour’s final weeks, with Olivia Clemens and their three daughters. Together with his sojourn in Germany in 1878-79, this Swiss odyssey was immortalised in “A Tramp Abroad” (1880), one of Mark Twain’s best travel books and still his most popular work in that genre in Europe.

The Route

A century after his death, Mark Twain is still leaving tracks in Switzerland. Nature trails, hikes  and a city tour are dedicated to the American author in Weggis, Lucerne and Zermatt.

Nature trail

The year 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of Twain’s death. With that milestone in mind, Weggis was keen to commemorate its famous guest. This year, the community inaugurated the first part of its new Mark Twain theme trail. It starts by the lake under the oak tree where the author liked to sit, relax and reflect.

Just a few paces from the oak tree and the Twain memorial plaque erected in 1931, a sleek new sign made of metal and local chestnut wood provides details in both German and English. The sign also displays a map of the route and quotes from Twain, including: “This is the charmingest place we have ever lived in for repose and restfulness.”

A real hike

The route is all uphill from the lake – literally. Twain had eschewed the new-fangled cogwheel train in favour of his own two feet. He reportedly needed three days to scale the 1,800-metre (6,000-foot) Mount Rigi.
The sinuous trail leads over farmland and through forests, passing waterfalls, cottages and chapels along the way. At regular intervals, hikers are rewarded with stunning views of Lake Lucerne and the surrounding mountains.
“We passed through a prodigious natural gateway called the Felsentor, formed by two enormous upright rocks, with a third lying across the top. There was a very attractive little hotel close by, but our energies were not conquered yet, so we went on,” wrote Twain.

The hotel is still there. Outfitted with solar panels and a Zen garden, it now serves as a conference and meditation centre.
Twain and his friend eventually worked their way to the top of Mount Rigi, where they saw a magnificent sunrise: “We could not speak. We could hardly breathe. We could only gaze in drunken ecstasy and drink it in.”

City tour

Lucerne Tourism also promotes a new Twain-themed tour. It takes in many of the same sights that Twain visited during his travels, including the Lion Monument, the covered wooden Chapel Bridge and the Schweizerhof Hotel. Twain visited Lucerne during exciting times in terms of tourism; there were grand new hotels, pleasure steamboats and Mount Rigi’s cogwheel railway – which Twain did try on his way down the mountain.
The fact that Twain put his experiences into writing sets him apart from other famous guests. His extended journeys and varied life experiences in different jobs and social circles sharpened his powers of observation: he made a lot of clever comparisons, expressed his opinions over Swiss quirks, and poked fun at many things – including himself.

17 mountain guides, 154 umbrellas and me – On the trail of Mark Twain in Zermatt

“Climbing the Riffelberg” is satire at its finest. The story, taken from the travel report “A tramp abroad” from 1881, was written by none other than Mark Twain (1835 – 1910): helmsman on the Mississippi, gold-digger, gossip reporter, travel writer and author of the classics “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

Twain visited Zermatt on his second European journey through Germany, Switzerland and Italy. He arrived there on the 27th August 1878, at three o’clock in the afternoon, accompanied by his friend, the Reverend Harris Twichell, and initially stayed in the village, probably in the Hotel Monte Rosa, which is mentioned in the story. He must have stayed longer at the Riffelalp or on the Riffelberg, however – which was also scene of the events recorded.

The Riffelberg was not yet accessible by train at the time, and was certainly not an easy stroll. The appeal of the Riffelberg episode, which can be easily read within an hour, arises from the heroic and completely exaggerated presentation of an expedition, with 205 participants, including mules, cows, ironing ladies and pastry chefs – crazily equipped with 22 barrels of whiskey, 154 umbrellas, 27 bottles of opium tincture … It was Twain’s intensive reading of the reports of mountaineers on the first evening of his arrival that led him to take literary action in his typically satirical manner. In this respect, “Climbing the Riffelberg” is also a unique homage to the genus of mountaineering reports, and a piece of world literature.

Additional Reading

Mark Twain – A Tramp Abroad, part 4 (project Gutenberg)

Mark Twain – A Tramp Abroad, part 5 (project Gutenberg)

Mark Twain – A Tramp Abroad, part 6 (project Gutenberg)

Mark Twain – A Tramp Abroad, part 7 (project Gutenberg)