The William Tell Express: A great Swiss lake adventure

The William Tell Express combines a boat and a train to take you to the heart of Italian-speaking Switzerland, says Anthony Lambert

The perfect way to travel between Central Switzerland and the Italian-speaking Ticino is by an imaginative combination of boat and train called the William Tell Express. Of course there's nothing express-like about the gentle cruise aboard one of the elegant paddlesteamers or the more modern motor vessels that ply the deep waters of starfish-shaped Vierwaldstättersee (or Lake Lucerne).

Leaving Lucerne shortly after breakfast, the boat sails along the bay through which Lucerne's river, the Reuss, leaves the lake, and passes the house at Tribschen which Richard Wagner made his home for six years. Writing to King Ludwig II, the composer said, "I know of no more beautiful place on earth..."

Once out into the main part of the lake, forested slopes lead the eye upwards to the open summit of Mount Rigi, the Queen of Mountains, which Queen Victoria loved to climb by pony while she stayed in Lucerne. The cablecar from Weggis to the Rigi can be seen scything its way through the trees, while further along you may glimpse the oldest rack railway in Europe scrabbling up the slopes to the summit from a station beside the pier at Vitznau.

In the opposite direction is Mount Pilatus, for centuries the feared home of a dragon which has been adopted as the mountain's emblem. Such fairy tales can seem more credible on days when cloud and mist wreath the mountains, occasionally parting to give a glimpse of a distant peak, overwhelming in its sheer immensity. For it is the scale of the landscapes and the vertiginous walls of rock that rise out of the water that never cease to impress passengers, however many times they have made the journey.

Almost opposite the resort of Brunnen, the boat calls at the tiny landing stage of Treib with its adjacent chevron-shuttered chalet and dark wood station for the funicular that disappears into the trees on its way to Seelisberg. Turning south through the narrows around the headland on which Treib is situated, the boat enters the Urnersee or Lake of Uri. While having an early lunch, you can try to glimpse along the eastern shore a train on the Gotthard railway between Zürich and Ticino, though much of the stretch beside the lake is in tunnel or trees.

Above a rock on the west shore stands an obelisk in memory of the writer Friedrich Schiller, whose play about William Tell did so much to develop 19th-century tourism in the area. One of the most historic places in Switzerland is close to the landing stage at Rütli: the meadow is regarded as the cradle of Swiss democracy for it was here on 7 November 1307 that representatives of the three founder cantons met to take an oath confirming the Everlasting League of 1291. It belongs to the children of Switzerland, for it was their forebears who collected enough money to save the field from developers c.1860.

Disembarking at Flüelen, passengers have only yards to walk to the station for the train south to Lugano or Locarno. As though to provide a contrast to the morning's sedate pace, the train tears along the straight stretch through the valley of the upper Reuss, beneath forbidding cliffs and a succession of peaks on both sides of the line. The racing comes to an end beyond Erstfeld where the climb to the Gotthard Tunnel begins. Over the next 28km the line climbs 634 metres and it achieves this by a spiral inside a mountain and a series of horseshoe curves at Wassen; one moment you are gazing up at the spire of the village church and the next you are looking down on it.

The tunnel itself is the result of heroic endeavour by 2,500 mostly Italian engineers who built it over a 10-year period from 1872, though tragically its chief engineer, Louis Favre, died of a heart attack in the tunnel before completion. A photograph of him was handed through the small hole when the two halves met in 1880, as it was always the intention that Favre, known as "Di Capo" should be the first person through.

The 10-minute passage of the tunnel marks the transition from German- to Italian-speaking Switzerland, the train emerging at Airolo station where a monument pays tribute to the 177 men who died building the tunnel. The south ramp of the Gotthard calls for the same spirals and sinuous curves as the north to lower the railway. The scale of the mountains is undiminished, but church towers and the older vernacular buildings are unmistakeably Italian in character. Vines can be seen as the train passes the long slender waterfall at Biasca, and the sight of crenellations heralds the approach to Bellinzona with its three medieval castles. Beyond here, the lines divides, the westerly branch making for Locarno on the shore of Lake Maggiore and the main line pursuing a southerly course to the principal town of Ticino, Lugano, beside the lake of the same name.

The tales of William Tell, Schiller and Rossini

William Tell stands alongside legendary characters such as Robin Hood, El Cid and Ivanhoe as a symbol of freedom from political oppression. It hardly matters whether Tell existed or not. Most Swiss believe he did, despite the absence of evidence, though the legend is very precise: that it was on 18 November 1307 in Altdorf, above Lake Uri, that Tell refused to bow to a symbol of Austrian authority and had to shoot an apple off his son's head in order to save them both. Even the place where he is supposed to have leapt to freedom from the boat in which he was being taken to prison, is commemorated by a chapel close to the pier near Sisikon.

It was Goethe who visited the Tellskapelle near Küssnacht, marking the site where Tell is supposed to have ambushed and shot Gessler, and suggested the story to Schiller, who wrote the play which was first performed in Weimar in 1804. The popularity of the play gave such a fillip to tourism that an obelisk beside Lake Uri was erected in 1859 to mark the centenary of Schiller's birth. A further stimulus was given by Rossini who used the play as a libretto for his opera of 1829.

Today, images of Tell appear on stamps, coins, chocolate, beer bottles and even in a Swiss advert for jeans. The village where he is supposed to have been born, Bürglen near Lake Uri, has a large statue of the man (pictured) and the only museum devoted to him.

For more information on William Tell, visit

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