IN ASSOCIATION WITH SWITZERLAND TOURISM
Explore Switzerland by rail
Cross-country training is one of the greatest treats in travel, says Simon Calder
Saturday 22 April 2006
Serenity is interpreted in many different ways by travellers. Some crave the indulgence of a sophisticated spa; others demand the loneliness of a long-distance island hideaway. But for me, there is nothing to beat the tranquillity of watching magnificent scenery unfold while cosseted in a mobile armchair. Consequently, if there is a more aesthetically pleasing and relaxing way to travel than a Swiss train, then I have yet to find it. Crossing Switzerland by rail is one of the great treats in travel.
Geneva airport is not quite the westernmost railway station in Switzerland, but it has the great advantage of fast and frequent links to many corners of Switzerland, and the plane to the train can take as little as 15 minutes.
All the itineraries from Geneva airport begin with the five-minute hop to Geneva's main station, Cornavin, where your choices unfold: west, to La Plaine at the French border; east, again into French territory towards Evian; or, as almost all travellers choose, north-east around the delicious curve of lakeside. The ride beside Lake Geneva from Geneva to Montreux is a near-perfect arc of drama: a thrilling Alpine wall on the far side of the lake, reflecting in the steely water. Inland, the terrain shelves sharply down towards you, often bearing a patchwork of vineyards basking in their southern aspect. You pass through placid villages with barely enough time to admire the neat stations, but pause at the more important junctions - notably Lausanne, the home of the Olympic movement, from where lines sprint off to the north-east. But disregard the temptations of Bern, Basel and Zurich, and stay on board to complete the arc to Montreux. Here, you change trains - and mood.
Besides sharing a platform, and near-obsessive adherence to punctuality, the inter-city trains that whizz you around Lake Geneva and forge onwards through Valais have very little in common with the next segment of your journey: aboard the GoldenPass Express.
Take the Montreux-Oberland Bernois (MOB) line over the mountains east of Lake Geneva if you want to experience impressive altitudes very quickly, in railway terms - thanks to the way the line corkscrews above, appropriately enough, more vineyards, then drills through some of the more obstinate terrain.
When you emerge, it is time for some grandstanding, as the GoldenPass Line swerves melodiously across the mountains. On the way to Château d'Oex, you will find yourself hoisted up a gradient tougher than 1 in 14. And even though the steepest stretch passes through woodland, leaves on the line never seem to be a problem. Balloons in the sky, though, may comprise a distraction: the mint-clear atmosphere here has helped to make it the hot-air ballooning hub of Switzerland.
Gstaad station is mainly quiet outside the winter season; with no snow covering, the resort's ski infrastructure looks impressive, but naked. However, it warms up in summer for festivals of tennis and music.
On the rail map, Zweisimmen looks a mightily important place; it is the meeting point of the MOB and the line between Lenk and Spiez. Lenk is well worth a detour, but I have a country to cross. This next stretch is through the Simmental, including a rumble across one of those gloriously elegant viaducts.
Then, Spiez is upon us, and after a pause at the station you win another lingering stretch of lakeside which accompanies you almost into the terminus for this particular train. Interlaken resides snugly, as the name suggests, between two lakes: Thun and Brienz. It has also acquired a reputation as the Swiss adrenalin capital; there is hardly an action sport involving the great outdoors that is not on offer here.
The next sector flips to the far side of Lake Brienz, then performs some acrobatics to negotiate the crumpled landscape between here and Lake Lucerne. At Meiringen, there's the first segment of cog railway, labouring over the mountains and eventually down to Lucerne - where the Swiss Pass is valid on the ferries.
Stay in Lucerne for as long as you need for cultural replenishment; the "capital of the mountains" (as the city should be called) does considerably more than sit there looking gorgeous. Given its population, it scores as high in the artistic stakes as it does scenically. Drag yourself away from its shimmering grace and prepare for some serious climbing.
One of the key European rail arteries runs south from here, connecting Basel with Bologna and Mannheim with Milan. That does not make the ascent to the St Gotthard Tunnel any less attractive, as the line is squeezed ever tighter into the valley. As a west-east trans-Swiss traveller, abandon the north-south train at Göschenen and clamber up to Andermatt on a short, sharp spur that will have you gasping with amazement, as well as for rarified air.
Andermatt station is one of those glorious locations that involve a willing suspension of disbelief; how could a pretty town have grown up in such thrilling but tricky terrain? The fact that it is now bypassed by trans-Alpine tunnels has not upset Andermatt one bit; it is now a place devoted to aesthetic and athletic pursuits.
The two great rivers of western Europe, the Rhone and the Rhine, begin almost within touching distance of each other, and of Andermatt. It is also one of the key stations on the route of the Glacier Express, which (less quickly than its name implies) takes you across the roof of Europe. For your final trick, join a journey through the rafters - first along the infant valley of the Rhine, then abruptly changing course to sway steeply up to the Albula Pass - assisted by an extraordinary concoction of Escher-esque viaducts and spirals.
The illusion is suspended as you enter the long Albula tunnel, and - as so often in Switzerland - emerge into a landscape, a valley, that appears only barely connected with the one you have just left.
As this final reel of this amazing movie winds, like the train, relatively gently along to St Moritz, you are left with one gentle yearning - that next time, could this express possibly go just a little slower?
There are a number of discounted Swiss rail passes available in the UK to British travellers. For information on these, visit www.MySwitzerland.com/rail
Recommended reading: 'Switzerland - Rail, Road, Lake' by Anthony Lambert (Bradt, £12.95)
Postbuses: buses that think they are trains
It was 100 years ago that the first motorised postbus took to the roads of Switzerland. Since then, the distinctive yellow postbuses have become as much of an icon in Switzerland as the Routemaster bus in London. These comfortable buses are a vital part of the Swiss Travel System, operating routes that are complementary to the railway and tram networks.
For the visitor, the principal attraction of postbus routes is the opportunity to experience some of the most dramatic roads over the high passes. The roads leading to them are often a series of tortuous hairpin bends that require a driver's full concentration. When you first experience a series of vehicles having to reverse on a hairpin bend, you're very happy to leave the driving to someone else, especially when they're as competent and as experienced as the postbus drivers.
The most scenic routes are usually served by "Route Express" buses with limited stops, and some are even double-deckers offering grandstand views. The most famous is the Palm Express between Lugano and St Moritz which passes through Italy and beside long stretches of lakes Lugano and Como.
For more information, contact 00 41 33 828 88 77; www.postbus.ch/travel
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