The Complete Guide to Swiss Journeys
Switzerland has some of the finest scenery in Europe and a public transport system to match. Anthony Lambert goes exploring
Saturday 20 March 2004
THE TRAVELLER'S HEAVEN
THE TRAVELLER'S HEAVEN
No European country can rival Switzerland's variety of awe-inspiring mountain scenery in such a compact area. And no country in the world has better public transport, able to whisk you from one end of the country to the other in five and a half hours. Outside the cities it's hard to find an uninspiring journey, and the country has more than its fair share of the world's truly great train trips: the high-altitude Glacier Express; over the Gotthard Pass between Lucerne and Lugano; along Lake Geneva between Geneva and Aigle; along the Centovalli between Locarno and Domodóssola.
Much of the finest scenery cannot be reached by car, and the Alpine roads that do exist are so sinuous that they give drivers little chance to appreciate the peaks. Nine mountain resorts are car-free, including places as large as Zermatt, Wengen and Mürren, so take advantage of one of the various passes for visitors and explore the country by rail.
For first-time visitors, the Swiss Travel System (Switzerland's transport network) is a revelation: all its components integrate around the core of the national railway, the SBB (Schweizerische Bundesbahnen; 00 41 900 300 300, www.rail.ch). Trains, buses, lake steamers, funiculars and cable cars are all timed to offer good connections, and thanks to the legendary efficiency of this mountain nation, these transfers are almost invariably met. The public transport system is also easy to use; timetables, travel information and signing are very clear.
Every station has a yellow board showing departure times and the platforms from which trains leave (the same for every day of the year), and a blue board showing where to stand on the platform for a particular coach or class of travel. Luggage can be sent in advance from staffed stations, and bicycles can be carried on almost every train.
You needn't worry that your travel plans will be affected by limited timetables. Inter-city lines have a half-hourly service at the same minutes past each hour between 6am and 10pm, and nearly all other lines have an hourly service. Suburban trains (S-bahn) in the Zurich, Basel and Geneva regions run every 15 minutes or so. The Swiss Travel System is so comprehensive that 97.5 per cent of the Swiss population can catch one of its components within one kilometre of home.
WHERE DO I START?
The Swiss have wisely avoided privatisation: SBB remains state owned, but many of the branch lines and all but one of the narrow-gauge services are notionally private, though the cantons (districts) usually own the majority of shares.
Probably the most useful feature for visitors is the range of passes. The Swiss Pass offers unlimited travel on nearly all trains and buses, as well as public transport in 37 Swiss cities for four, eight, 15 or 22 days. For those wishing to travel only on certain days of a holiday, the Swiss Flexi Pass offers the same unlimited travel on three, four, five, six or eight days within a period of up to one month.
Prices vary with the exchange rate, but an eight-day Swiss Pass costs £156 (2nd class) or £233 (1st class), while an eight-day Flexi Pass within a month costs £192 (2nd class) or £288 (1st class). The cheaper Swiss Card is ideal for people exploring a limited area: it covers a direct journey from border or airport to destination and back, and a 50 per cent discount on almost any fare in the interim. Swiss Pass discounts are available for under-26s and for two adults travelling together; discounted Flexi Passes are available for two adults travelling together.
Children under 16 travel free when they are with a parent holding a free Swiss Travel System Family Card. Non-family children between the ages of six and 16 receive a 50 per cent discount, and all children under five travel free. The only exclusions from the passes are a few mountain railways (such as Wengen to Jungfraujoch) and some cable cars, but holders are entitled to substantial discounts.
To buy passes and for further information contact the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30; www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk).
ANY ORGANISED TOURS?
Escorted railway and lake journeys are offered by Great Rail Journeys (0190 452 1900; www.greatrail.com), Ffestiniog Travel (01766 512400; www.festtravel.co.uk) and Swiss Travel Service (0870 191 7170; www.swisstravel.co.uk). For instance, Great Rail Journeys combines Switzerland with Austria in its 16-day Alpine Tour (from £1,690 per person including first class rail travel on Eurostar and Swiss trains, 15 nights full-board hotel accommodation, selected excursions and the services of a tour manager). Ffestiniog Travel offers three Swiss itineraries - Alpine (15 days from £1,265), Alpine for Walkers (15 days from £1,265) and Alpine Pullman (nine days from £1,440). Swiss Travel Service's Highlights of Switzerland is a 10-day tour that starts at £988.
I'VE ONLY A WEEK, WHAT ARE THE BEST RAIL JOURNEYS?
The Glacier Express (00 41 27 921 4111, www.glacierexpress.ch) is deservedly the best-known of Switzerland's trains, though it no longer passes the Rhône glacier after which it was named in 1930. This section entailed a fearsome climb to the Furka Tunnel, so it was replaced by a new 15km base tunnel in 1982 (though the old line has been partially reopened as a steam heritage railway). At an average speed of 36km/h, it's an express in name only. The Glacier Express is a journey for any season, though November is a dreary month and many hotels are closed.
You might think that even stupendous mountain scenery might pall after seven and a half hours, but such is the variety of landscape that the view through the train's panoramic windows is a continual delight. And the head waiter in the restaurant car often times his party trick of pouring grappa at arm's length to coincide with a tunnel.
Linking Zermatt and St Moritz, the Glacier Express passes the source of the Rhine, and to the east of Ilanz the soaring white cliffs of the Flims gorge look too pristine to be real. On the final climb to the 5.8km Albula Tunnel from which the line drops down to St Moritz, the train negotiates such bewilderingly tortuous spirals and loops that you lose all sense of direction.
St Moritz is the start of another dizzying journey: the Bernina Express to Tirano in Italy which takes you from glaciers to palm trees in two and half hours. Open-topped coaches in summer give panoramic views of the mountains flanking the highest rail crossing of the Alps, at 2,253m, and the pale-green waters of Lago Bianco, while at Bernina Diavolezza you can break the journey to take the cable car to Diavolezza for a "view of surpassing grandeur", as Baedeker put it, before the hair-raising descent through the forest to Poschiavo.
Try to find time to take the narrow gauge network that connects Interlaken with Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe at 3,454m. The section from Wengen to the beginning of the 7.1km tunnel beyond Eigergletscher station offers magnificent views of the adjacent peaks of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau (0041 33 828 72 33; www.jungfraubahn.ch).
Special carriages allowing a view along the track ahead, with the driver in an elevated cab, are a feature of part of the Golden Pass Line between Lucerne, Interlaken and Montreux, which connects with services from Zurich and Geneva (00 41 33 828 32 32; www.goldenpass.ch/www.mob.ch).
It skirts five lakes, crosses three passes and offers stupendous views over the French Alps and Mont Blanc as the train descends a series of horseshoe curves to Lake Geneva at Montreux.
Apart from the Lucerne-Interlaken line these are all private railways, but the national rail system has plenty to offer, too. On SBB, Geneva to Brig takes you beside Lake Geneva and past Switzerland's most famous castle at Chillon, which was immortalised by Byron, while trains between Zürich and Lugano negotiate the extraordinary spirals and loops necessary to reach the Gotthard Tunnel. It even puts Brunel in the shade.
I WANT TO GET OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
With so much to offer, Switzerland inevitably has neglected areas that would take top billing in countries less well-endowed. Because of the popularity of the Glacier and Bernina Expresses in Graubünden, far fewer venture up the glorious Engadine valley to the spa of Scuol-Tarasp, almost on the Austrian border. Whether viewed by train from St Moritz, or from the saddle on the off-road cycle path that follows the River Inn and continues to Innsbruck and eventually Budapest, the deep valley and its nucleated villages of elaborately-decorated houses is one of the loveliest in the whole country.
In the north-east lies the Appenzell, served by a narrow-gauge network from St Gallen and Gossau on SBB. From Wasserauen, a cable car to Ebenalp is the start of a spectacular four-hour trek, for experienced walkers, along the ridge to the region's highest mountain, Säntis, at 2,503m. The summit can also be reached from Schwägalp by cable car.
Bordering France, the Jura is popular with cross-country skiers and its relatively flat terrain also attracts horse-riders and cyclists in summer. The region is served by a narrow-gauge network linking the watch-making centre of La Chaux-de-Fonds with Glovelier and Tavannes, which reveals a neglected area of pine woods and open country quite different from any other part of Switzerland.
The Centovalli line between Locarno and Domodóssola in Italy crosses numerous spectacular bridges, and the small hamlets with Italianate bell-towered churches along the valley are linked by footpaths.
CAN I STILL HAVE A PROPER MEAL ON THE TRAIN?
Even though most inter-city journeys take less than two hours, the Swiss were up in arms when restaurants were replaced by bistro cars. SBB had the courage to admit its mistake and reinstated the restaurants, so it is again possible to enjoy the experience of eating a proper meal while watching the panorama roll by the window. The new double-deck coaches have a non-smoking restaurant on the upper level with 26 leather seats, which can be booked up to 24 hours ahead (00 41 512 22 92 22, www.elvetino.ch). Regular dining cars on narrow-gauge lines can be found only on the Glacier Express.
CAN I EASILY COMBINE TRAIN AND CYCLING?
Bikes can be taken on almost any train and are rented out from over 100 stations (00800 100 200 28; www.rentabike.ch). The freedom to put them on the train or return them to a different station enables you to take advantage of a free-wheel downhill if the gradient gets too much. One of the best descents is from Airolo at the south end of the Gotthard Tunnel to Biasca, taking the old road down the valley which is almost traffic-free. En route you can pause at picturesque Ticinese villages and admire the 14th-century frescos in the church at Chironico.
Details of the nine long-distance cycle routes can be obtained from the outstanding website for cyclists ( www.cycling-in-switzerland.ch). They range from gentle river- or lake-side traffic-free paths to unsurfaced vertiginous ascents using old roads over the passes.
CAN I CROSS THE FAMOUS PASSES BY BUS?
The standard road transport through the mountains is provided by the postbus, a vehicle whose primary purpose is to deliver the mail to outlying villages, but which also runs a scheduled passenger service. Services over the most picturesque routes are generally denoted by the suffix "Route Express". It is advisable, sometimes obligatory, to book seats on them (00 41 33 828 88 38; www.post.ch). The buses are more like coaches and are as enviably clean as the trains.
A passport is required for the best known route, the Palm Express, which crosses the border with Italy to run beside Lake Como on its way from Lugano to St Moritz. It climbs over the Maloja Pass and runs beside the Silsersee which has Europe's highest lake boat service. From St Moritz the Julier Route Express crosses the eponymous pass on its way to Chur. The Ticino Route Express between Oberwald and Airolo crosses both the Nufenen and the famous Gotthard Pass, the summit buildings at the latter incorporating a fascinating museum about its geographical significance and the tough life of those whose job it was to convey people or goods across it.
Other notable journeys include the Napoléon Route Express over the Simplon Pass between Domodóssola, Brig and Saas Fee; the Historic Route Express over the Klausen Pass linking the southern end of Lake Lucerne at Flüelen with Linthal; and the journey over the Grimsel Pass between Oberwald and Meiringen, which is so popular that the bus is a double-decker.
ANY GOOD JOURNEYS BY BOAT?
It would be hard to find a more romantic journey than an evening excursion on Lake Lucerne (00 41 41 367 67 67, www.lakelucerne.ch). Imagine jazz on a summer's night, a good dinner while the sun slowly turns the snow on mountain tops from salmon pink to plum, leaning on the handrail, champagne glass in hand, while watching the paddle-wheels churn the water into milky luminescence. On the return to Lucerne the floodlit city walls and towers rise up behind the city.
Shaped like an asymmetrical star, Lake Lucerne is plied by five paddle-steamers and 15 motor vessels, and is regarded as the most beautiful of the Swiss lakes. Ships on Lake Geneva offer views of the Jura foothills and French Alps, and are a good alternative to the train for reaching the historic towns along the Swiss shore (00 41 848 822 848; www.cgn.ch).
The contiguous lakes of Thun and Brienz are in the heart of the Bernese Oberland and are the quickest way to travel to the opposite shore: visiting the idyllic castle at Oberhofen on Lake Thun from Spiez is also more enjoyable by boat (00 41 33 334 52 11; www.bls.ch/schiff).
WHAT ARE THE BEST WALKING ROUTES?
The combination of the scenery, the Swiss Travel System and over 62,000km of well-signed and mapped footpaths make Switzerland a pleasure for walkers. The extensive network of cable cars and mountain railways makes it easy to avoid long climbs, though steep descents can be worse than ascents for knees and thighs. "Höhenweg" paths such as the Gommer and Gsponer routes in the Valais are high-level paths that follow valley contours.
Some long-distance journeys are themed and have brown signposts rather than the usual yellow (easy) or yellow with red flash (mountain routes requiring proper preparation). Roman roads, the pilgrimage routes of St James and the Great Walser Route (following the paths of the nomadic Walser tribe) incorporate some of the best walking in the country.
There are hundreds of mountain hotels and hostels of varying degrees of comfort, though the trip to some should be attempted only by experienced mountain walkers. Some also serve lunch: near car-free Mürren is Rotstockhütte, which can be incorporated in a circular day walk from the resort.
WHAT ABOUT REACHING THE SNOWLINE?
Apart from in winter, only serious mountain walkers reach the snowline without using some form of mechanical transport. The most common is the cable car, which is gradually replacing the much more exciting chair lift. The base station of nearly all lifts can be reached by train or bus, and they are all dramatic so it seems invidious to single out but a few.
The longest cable car run in Europe is the four-stage ascent from Stechelberg, near Lauterbrunnen, to the Schilthorn, which rises more than 2km over its 6,967m journey. The summit at 2,970m is famous as the starting point of the "craziest ski race in the world" - the Inferno - a 15.8km dash down to Mürren. It was also the mountain on which Diana Rigg and George Lazenby were filmed being pursued by Blofeld's henchmen in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (00 41 33 826 0007, www.schilthorn.ch).
From Engelberg near Lucerne, a three-stage lift to Titlis concludes with the world's first revolving cable car, allowing all passengers to appreciate the views and gaze down into the deep crevasses of the Titlis glacier (00 41 416 39 50 50, www.titlis.ch).
To sample the joys of gliding in silence above tinkling cowbells, try the Kandersteg-Oechinen chair lift in the Bernese Oberland, which takes you to Ochinensee in a bowl of the mountains.
For those wishing to enjoy the silence of the mountains after the last tourists have descended, or watch the dawn rise over surrounding peaks, over a dozen mountains have overnight accommodation at or near the summit of the cable car, funicular or rack railway. Some were once huge establishments, but few now have more than 20 rooms.
ANY ALTERNATIVE ASCENTS?
Cable-ways followed the earlier rack railways, in which a cog is used to haul the train up steep slopes. Although the first rack railway was built in the US, it was the Swiss who developed the technology and still build most rack systems around the world.
The most spectacular is probably the journey to Mount Pilatus from beside the waters of Alpnachersee, at Alpnachstad near Lucerne. It is the world's steepest rack railway with a gradient of one in two, and the final mile along a narrow shelf blasted out of a vertical rock-face is dramatic stuff. It is worth taking the footpaths along the ridge from the summit station to appreciate the best views.
The last Swiss rack railway to use steam on a daily basis ascends Mount Rothorn from Brienz near Interlaken. Steam locomotives dating from 1891 to 1996 lift carriages 1,678m over a journey of 7.6km, the greatest vertical distance of any rack railway in the country. Many Alpine communities rely on funiculars for the transport of goods as well as people: Mürren could not survive without the funicular from Lauterbrunnen, followed by the connecting electric railway along the plateau with arguably the best views over the highest Bernese peaks.
Connoisseurs will appreciate the qualities of the funicular that rises from a chalet-style station at Stans, near Lucerne, to Kälti on the first of two stages to the summit of the Stanserhorn. It has hardly changed since it opened in 1893, and the wooden-bodied vehicles creak gently as they ascend through orchards and under graceful masonry arches built to link the farmers' meadows.
ARE ANY JOURNEYS GOOD FOR CHILDREN?
The system is impressively family-friendly. Double-deck inter-city trains incorporate a playroom for children aged two to 12 in second class, and there are several family compartments on the train.
Chocaholics and children will relish the Swiss Chocolate Train from Montreux to Broc via Gruyères, riding either in a 1915 Pullman car or a modern panoramic saloon (00 41 21 989 81 90; www.mob.ch). The eight-hour excursion includes a visit to the 12th-century Gruyères Castle and a cheese factory as well as the Nestlé chocolate plant.
BAGS OF HELP
Even getting to Switzerland is made easy by Fly Rail Baggage. You can check in your luggage at any airport in the world that operates services to Zürich, Geneva or Basel and airport staff will forward it by train to your final destination. You have to write and sign a declaration about the contents for customs.
Similarly, on the return journey, at principal stations you can check in not only luggage but also yourself, so that you have a boarding card and can travel to the airport with only carry-on bags. See the Check-in & Fly Rail Baggage brochure ( www.rail.ch/check-in)
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
Switzerland Travel Centre, 10 Wardour Street, London W1D 6QF ( www.myswitzerland.com).
Anthony Lambert is author of 'Switzerland: Rail, Road and Lake' (Bradt, £12.95)
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