Trains In Switzerland
Nobody else does trains like the Swiss. Japan’s trains make a fetish of cleanliness and punctuality – and the Swiss are no laggards in this department – but the ace in the Swiss deck is scenery. Snow-capped peaks, melting glaciers that gush into turquoise lakes, green valleys cleaved from the mountains and furnished with luscious meadows, dappled cows and Hansel-and-Gretel houses – about 99 per cent of Switzerland you could hang on your wall. And in the scenic wonderland they call home, the Swiss have built railways that strum the heart strings. Among its cat’s cradle of train lines, Switzerland has a modest handful of headliners. These are not trains that hurry you from A to B. They’re dawdlers, trains you take for the sheer pleasure of the journey, inching up mountainsides, lingering among snow and glaciers at high passes, loitering in the valleys. Here are four that require nothing more than looking out the window and sighing.
Montreux to Lucerne is barely 180 kilometres yet this train makes it into a multi-course scenic feast, served up in a 5½ hour journey. From Montreux the train climbs the hillsides, rising above manicured vineyards with sensational views over Lake Leman to the mountains on the French side of the lake. Beyond the tunnel at Les Avants the train glides through a valley of impossible greenery with buttercups and pine forests and farmhouses, rising to peaks haloed with cloud. Many passengers will leave the train at Spiez, near Interlaken, and spend the next couple of days around Lauterbrunnen admiring the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, the triumvirate of peaks that tower majestically over the valley. Those who continue to Lucerne can look forward to a city of real charm with a lively cafe culture, several fine museums and a robust taste for the great outdoors.
This is possibly the most lyrical train ride ever, and it starts from Lucerne not at the railway station but at the city’s lakeside wharf – with a three-hour journey aboard a panting paddle-wheeler to the far side of this mountain-ringed lake. Plenty of time for a leisurely lunch past a fairytale assembly of lakeside towns with castles on the hillsides. The train ride itself takes about 2½ hours, the train tying itself in knots as it corkscrews uphill, gaining height to pass through the 15km Gotthard Railway Tunnel, bored through these mountains 135 years ago in a feat that put Swiss railway engineering on the map. When the train emerges on the southern side of the mountains you’re in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, with the happy prospect of gelato, sunshine, Latin brio and a stroll past the palm trees that ring the city’s lake.
A bus takes you from Lugano around Lake Como and through the vineyards of the Valtellina region before the train ride begins at Tirano, where Switzerland sticks a blunt thumb into the top of Italy. This is a honey of a journey, following the course of an old Roman road through valleys and across the glacier-capped peaks of the Swiss Alps at 2250 metres, down to the luscious Engadin Valley and finally to either Chur or Davos. You can do it in a long day but there are good reasons to stop off for a night at Poschiavo, and two nights if possible at Pontresina to experience the change of food, language and cultures, Italian of the south giving way to Swiss-German. Take a hike among the peaks of the Engadin, with cable cars and chair lifts doing the heavy lifting.
This article was first published in Sunday Life, a Fairfax publication that appears every Sunday