The Swiss trip 2019 – around Lake Lucerne
As a tour manager for Great Rail Journeys Steve regularly visited Switzerland and Ted stowed away on several of the tours. However, none of the tours were based around Luzern (Lucerne) and its lake the Vierwaldstättersee (Lake Lucerne in English, which we’ll use for the sake of simplicity). Despite a few brief visits to the area we felt that there was still much of the region to explore. So Ted and I set off in June 2019. In just over a week we travelled on the world’s only double-deck open-top cable car, first rotating cable car, steepest rack railway and steepest funicular plus the highest exterior lift and oldest paddle steamer in Europe.
Lake Lucerne and Brunnen from above.
The lake lies at the core of the original Swiss Confederation and features heavily in Swiss history and legend. The city of Luzern, a major tourist centre in its own right, is at the west end of the lake. We decided not to base ourselves in the city but to experience small town Switzerland. For four nights we were based in Brunnen at the northeast corner of the lake followed by four nights in Stansstad on the south west side. Train and boat times and weather meant that our daily journeys criss-crossed one another and, rather than describe our trip day by day, this account is written roughly from east to west, concluding with the city and the lake itself. I’ve tried not to overdo the railway and transport buffery, though there is plenty in the area for the nerd. As usual the page ends with some practical information for those who wish to visit the region.
Brunnen is a small town in Canton Schwyz on Lake Lucerne, situated on a corner where the main body of the lake meets its southern arm, known as the Urnersee. This provides great views along the lake in two directions. Technically, Brunnen is part of the municipality of Ingenbohl, but the station and landing stage are both named Brunnen – Brunnen is what the locals call it and so do we. It is a resort, a working town and I expect also a home for commuters to Luzern and Zurich.
Arriving by lake steamer is particularly attractive (the sharp-eyed will notice that the photograph is taken leaving Brunnen). The town is laid out around the lakeshore with the mountains behind – the twin peaks of Grosser and Kleiner Mythen and the Fronalpstock massif. The railway station is at the other end of the main street from the pier, about ten minutes walk away. Arrival by train is not as impressive – there are large derelict cement works on the outskirts of town which are being demolished to make way for new developments. However, once you exit the station you find yourself in an pleasant small town. It has a good selection of café-bars, pubs and restaurants along the lakefront and in the main street. We were soon recognised in a couple of bars and chatting to people. In Amadeus the landlord gave Steve a free Jura whisky (so that he could open the bottle and enjoy his own favourite tipple), we watched a TV programme about the history of gay life in Switzerland and understood everything despite the sound being muted and had several interesting conversations. Many of the hotels are located along the lakefront and, like many visitors, we spent a fair bit of time sitting on our balcony watching the steamers come and go and the weather change along the arms of the lake.
A selection of views from the balcony of our room in the Hotel Alfa
It is a good location for trips out by public transport (though that applies to most places in Switzerland). There are regular boats to all the piers on Lake Lucerne. The railway station is on the Gotthard route from Zurich and Luzern to Ticino (Italian-speaking Switzerland) and Milano and trains are frequent – while the express trains pass through the local trains connect with them. Finally there are frequent buses along the northern lake shore and to the nearby town and cantonal capital, Schwyz.
My first trip abroad was a school trip in 1968 to Switzerland by train (I remember a steam train for the first part of the journey from Calais) and we stayed in Einsiedeln. Though the large Benedictine monastery attracts pilgrims and visitors it is away from the major tourist routes and I hadn’t been back since then. Einsiedeln is not far from Brunnen so we took the opportunity of a brief visit.
Three short train journeys took us to Einsiedeln in just over an hour. The first change of train was at Arth-Goldau, a station which we visited regularly over the next few days. It is a major railway junction and must attract train spotters due to the variety of passenger and freight trains passing through (and waiting for paths on the Gotthard line). I remember the carriage with our school party sitting in a siding at Arth-Goldau in 1968 waiting for it to be shunted on to an Südostbahn (South Eastern Railway – SOB) train on our way back from Luzern (it must have been before regular through trains). Today the SOB runs hourly fast trains from Luzern to St Gallen known as the Voralpen-Express plus local services, one of which we caught to Biberbrugg, where a further change of train took us to Einsiedeln. We passed through Sattel-Aegeri, the site of my first ever journey in a cable car – gondola cars climb from the village up the Hochstuckli mountain.
I remember very little from my first visit apart from the station (where we hired bikes to cycle around the nearby lake), the main street up the hill to the monastery and our hotel, the Rot Hut, next to the Town Hall. This was all still easily recognisable, though it is clear that the town has greatly expanded – it’s a pleasant area and within commuting distance of Zurich. The Rot Hut looks like a newer building – it appears some of the hotels have closed as most tourists are day-trippers rather than pilgrims. The current eighteenth century Baroque monastery building dominates the town. The large public square in front is being renovated at present and it will be impressive when its finished in 2020. On our visit it was so noisy with construction machinery we didn’t stay long – in the places to eat and drink overlooking the square it would be impossible to hear oneself think. However, I can say I’ve been back.
I had never heard of Stoos until recently when I read that the steepest funicular railway in the world had opened there. It’s a few kilometres outside and above Schwyz, in turn only a couple of kilometres from Brunnen. So off we went on the bus to Schwyz and changed there for the bus to the valley station of the Stoosbahn funicular. Schwyz, the cantonal capital which gave its name to Switzerland, looked like an attractive place with old houses round the main square. We meant to return for a wander round and a few drinks but didn’t find the time.
South of Schwyz the Moutatal (valley of the river Mouta) passes through a narrow gorge between the Mythen and Fronalpstock mountains. It is there that the funicular leads up to the village of Stoos, which sits on an alpine plateau beneath the Fronalpstock. The old funicular needed replacing and, such is Swiss democracy, after 11 votes and 14 years since first mooted, the new funicular opened in December 2017, leading a new upper station in the centre of the village. The vehicles are striking, consisting of four linked barrel-shaped passenger cabins and a goods platform. They rotate automatically to stay level despite changes in the incline. It is an odd experience watching the cabin in front rise and fall according to the gradient. It holds the world record as the gradient reaches a maximum of 110% (it rises 1.1 metre for every metre) and climbs 744m in its length of 1740m. Useless fact – the scenic railway in Katoomba, Australia has a 122% gradient, but it is an inclined lift rather than a funicular. So it
doesn’t count. So there.
Stoos is a small car-free resort, with a population of just over 100 – there is a residents car park at the funicular valley station – at an altitude of 1300 metres. It is a ski resort, busiest in the winter, though the fame of the new funicular is attracting tourists all year round. Ted was welcomed by the village mascot, then we wandered through the village and had the inevitable beer or two. We returned to Brunnen via the cable car at the other end of the village. This took us down to Morschach from which a bus zigzags down the mountain to Brunnen. The village website states the current cableway was constructed in 1981, but it feels older as the cars are much smaller than most, carrying a maximum of 15 people. Like most cable cars there is a nominal frequency which increases according to demand – when we arrived it was running continuously to bring school students home up the mountain.
Treib, Seelisberg and Rütli
A few minutes by boat across the lake from Brunnen, in the canton of Uri, is Treib. Apart from the landing stage all that is there is the lower station of the funicular to the village of Seelisberg and the inn. The Wirstshaus zur Treib inn is a lovely seventeenth century wooden building. We called for a relaxing beer on the terrace, the staff were friendly and the food looked good. We watched the taxi boat practice berthing at the small private landing stage beneath the inn – maybe it was a new driver. The taxi boat is used by evening diners at the inn to reach Brunnen. The lake steamers and the funicular are used by locals as well as tourists. The boat across to Brunnen is the quickest way for residents of Seelisberg to reach civilisation and we saw people use it to drop over to the Co-op at Brunnen for shopping.
The funicular – unimaginatively named the Treib- Seelisberg Bahn – dates from 1916, though the cars and control system have been modernised since. There are views across Lake Lucerne as it ascends – the first photograph in the introduction was taken from it. At the top is the quiet village of Seelisberg. We called in at the Bahnhöf Restaurant across from the station (pictured) and had a short walk through the village before returning downhill on the funicular – Ted had a go at driving. Useless fact – Seelisberg was the location of the world headquarters of the Transcendental Meditation movement of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi from 1968-1992.
A path leads from Seelisberg down to the Rütli meadow which has a special place in Swiss history as the place where Switzerland began. According to legend it is the site of the original oath founding the old Swiss Confederacy in 1291, between the three original cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden (since divided into Obwalden and Nidwalden). It is a national monument, bought for the nation in 1859, when it was under threat of development for a hotel, partly funded through a collection by Swiss schoolchildren, Every schoolchild is taught about Rütli and school parties visit daily – from the hotel balcony in Brunnen we watched them being herded down the street from the station to the steamers for Treib – they could often be heard across the water for most of the journey. It seemed rare for a boat between Brunnen and Treib not to have a large party of school students on board.
The paddle steamer Schiller arrives at Treib
Rütli also has its own landing stage and many people make the round trip Brunnen-Treib-Seelisberg-Rutli-Brunnen. It is also the starting point for the Weg der Schweiz, the 35km Swiss Path, which leads round the Urnersee via Flüelen to Brunnen. We were lazy and returned by paddle steamer.
The Rigi is a mountain massif between Lake Lucerne to the south and Lake Zug to the north. We have been there before – however there are two mountain railways that reach the summit at Rigi Kulm and we had only been on one of them. That was sufficient reason to head for Rigi again.
The Arth – Rigi railway leaves from a platform above Arth-Goldau main line station
The railways have several claims to fame for railway nerds. The line from the steamer landing stage at Vitznau to Rigi Kulm opened in 1871, as the first mountain railway in Europe. The line from Arth on Lake Zug via the main line station at Arth-Goldau to Rigi Kulm opened in 1875. The Arth-Goldau – Rigi line was electrified in 1907, making it the first electrified standard gauge rack railway in the world. The summit station is 1752m above sea level and the lines are the highest standard gauge railways in Europe. Exciting stuff…eh?
The railway Arth-Goldau to Rigi Kulm, new to us, sets off from a platform on a bridge across the main line station. The Rigibahn platform is ideal trainspotting territory – we saw freight trains queue up on the lines below for paths. It is not as well known by tourists as the Vitznau line and the train was quiet. There are people who live on the mountain and use the trains. There is a park and ride station on the outskirts of Goldau and there are small settlements and resorts on the mountain. There are couple of private platforms for local houses and for loading milk churns to the goods wagons attached to some trains.
The Arth-Rigi train at Arth-Goldau (left) and Rigi Kulm (right)
As we had been at the summit before we chose the least clear day for our visit and the summit was in the clouds most of the time we were there. The view on a clear day over the lake to the Alps in the distance is magnificent – the sunsets can be also – but we had seen them before. However, even on a misty day the summit was busy with tour groups and the Vitznau trains full and standing. Despite the weather, we spent an agreeable hour at the top tucking into the beer and bratwurst combination ideal for visits to alpine summits.
The view from the summit in 2019, and on a clear day in 2014.
Back in 1996, before Ted was born, Colin and I agreed to spend a night at the summit hotel to watch the sunset. It was a late May weekend, a holiday weekend in most of Europe and we expected it to be busy so had booked well in advance. This is when we discovered that back then the Swiss season didn’t get going until June. The train from Vitznau was busy but people got off at stations en route until we were the only two on the train when it reached Rigi Kulm. We checked in, were asked whether we wanted dinner- we didn’t as we had more than enough left from our picnic lunch. The receptionist said ‘good, in that case we’re off down the mountain on the last train, there are vending machines for sandwiches and beer if you need them and here’s the code for the outside door if you go out on the mountain’. So we were left alone in a large hotel – we didn’t dare use the lifts, creepily lights went on and off as you moved along the corridors, and there were strange creaking noises. We realised when we went outside that we were not totally alone – there is a radio mast and station on the summit, possibly military, and there was someone working the night shift. We were sure we heard him in the hotel at one point, presumably to use the vending machines. Fortunately, we had written the code on our hands so we weren’t trapped outside. The staff arrived back on the milk train in the morning and we had a good breakfast alone in the huge dining room, before catching a train down to Vitznau.
This time, back in Vitznau passing the time until the next boat to Brunnen, we sat in a beergarden and watched the railway staff shunt carriages and locos into the depot. The turntable fills the square between the station, the depot and the pier and carriages were being taken off after the daily surge of tour groups had left for Luzern.
Stansstad and the Zentralbahn
The view from the hotel room balcony, Stansstad
Stansstad was our base for the second half of the trip. The small town in the canton of Nidwalden is eleven kilometres south of Luzern, where the main body of Lake Lucerne meets the southwest arm of the lake, known as the Alpnacherssee. It is built on an area of flat land which separates the Bürgenstock and Stanserhorn mountains. From the station the town looks suburban – the population has been increasing since the 1970s.
However, by the lake it is prettier. There is not much in the way of old buildings – an old watchtower on the shore, the Schnitzturm, guards the town, there are a few old wooden houses and by the landing stage and marina is the original steamer waiting room and old station. Though a few metres away, the lake could still be seen from our hotel room and Mount Pilatus towered over the buildings opposite. There are a couple of hotels and cafe-bars, the old steamer waiting room sells coffee, cakes, beer and snacks until sunset, and there’s a small supermarket, so we had everything we required. The hotel and its restaurant were fine – though the full meals were expensive many people just dropped in for a drink including several local old soaks and it was open throughout the day from 0800 with a regular clientele for breakfast coffees.
The former steamer ticket office, now a cafe, and old railway station (left)
Stansstad was the terminus of a metre-gauge railway line to Stans and Engelberg from 1898 until 1964 and the original station building is still there by the landing stage. Across the lake a shoulder of Mount Pilatus rises steeply from the shore and blocked the route to Luzern, so passengers transferred to steamers at Stansstad. The railway bridge across the narrowest point of the lake and the Lopper II tunnel under the mountain were opened in 1964, providing a new railway link from Stansttad to Hergiswil, where it joined the route into Luzern from Interlaken. The Stansstad – Engelberg railway company became the Luzern – Stans – Engelberg railway company in 1964, then the Zentralbahn in 2005 when it merged with the Luzern – Interlaken railway. Heavy suburban traffic out of Luzern has led to a new double track tunnel being built out of the city and work is underway to extend this further towards Hergiswil.
Zentralbahn train at Stans
Stans and Stanserhorn
We had thought about basing ourselves in the nearby historic town of Stans, the capital of Nidwalden. When we tried to book there was a shortage of reasonably priced accommodation, so we chose Stansstad. We had a look round Stans and were impressed by the central square, the Dorfplatz. It was reconstructed after a major fire in 1713 to provide plenty of open space as firebreak. There were several places to eat and drink and it would make a good base for a few days, though we preferred the lakeside location of Stansstad.
Stans is at the foot of the Stanserhorn mountain (1893m), the summit of which is reached by a funicular followed by a cable car. The funicular, opened in 1893, originally reached the peak. However, the upper section and the summit hotel were destroyed by lightning in 1970 and replaced a few years later by the cable car and a new summit complex.
Today, the Stanserhornbahn funicular section is known as the Oldtimer – it is claimed that the cars are the original wagons but the pristine state of the wood suggests that they have been heavily reconstructed. Nevertheless, it is a pleasant pootle up the hill in the open wagons, sniffing the country smell of muck being spread on the neighbouring fields and passing a couple of geranium-clad chalets on the way to the upper station at Kälti.
Since rebuilding in 2012 the cable car from Kälti (711m) to Stanserhorn (1850m) is unique. It is known as the CabriO and is the world’s first double-deck open-top cable car. Instead of hanging from the cable the cars are attached via two side-mounted support cables and the top deck is above the level of the cable. It makes for an interesting experience in the fresh mountain air – fortunately the top deck has sturdy railings all round. At the summit there are views down to Stans, Lake Lucerne and Pilatus and in the other direction to the Alps. People were sunbathing on the terrace and inching out along the viewing platforms. We settled for a short walk and a beer, which I drank while Ted made friends with a marmot.
The best view I could get from the top-deck as the car approaches one of the stanchions en route to the summit
Views from the summit of the Stanserhorn, taken while Ted made friends with a marmot
The Zentralbahn carries on up the valley of the Engelberger Aa from Stans and terminates in Engelberg. Until 2010 the final stretch, from Grafenart to Engelberg was a rack section with a 25% gradient, but this has now been replaced by a tunnel at a lesser gradient, allowing heavier trains to reach the town. Engelberg is an old town which grew up around a Benedictine monastery. Today it has become a major ski resort and there is a choice of mountains to climb (by cable car). We chose Titlis because of the revolving cable cars (of which more below) and also because it is the highest. It is a little walk from the station and as we approached the car and coach parks we could tell that we weren’t the only ones to make the same choice. Among the people milling around, unlike the other well- known Swiss mountains, the Japanese tourists were outnumbered by Indian tourists.
The first (above) and second (below) stages of the gondola ride to Stand
The first two sections of the journey are by the Titlis Xpress gondola to Stand. As we passed through the intermediate station of Trübsee, the attendants were pointing to something and having a loud conversation. The second section of the journey was the slowest ever – it’s not unusual for gondolas or to stop in mid-air if one is being loaded in the station with goods for the summit restaurants or to allow disabled boarding but this was a long slow climb. My guess is that it had slowed to a crawl while the attendants at Trübsee were looking for whatever cog needed bashing back into shape, though it was slightly unnerving sitting on our own wondering what was happening. We eventually sped up to normal pace and we could focus on the great views of the Trübsee lake which was still partially frozen
The Rotair cable car from Stand to the summit of Klein Titlis is unique. It is the world’s first rotating cable car and turns slowly through 360 degrees during the ascent. If you can bag a place by the window you have an all-round view as the cars climb the cliff to the top station. On the original cars it was only the floor that rotated but they have now been replaced by new second generation models where the whole cabin revolves through a rotation mechanism on the cabin roof.
The view of the Alps from the summit
Klein Titlis station is at 3018m above sea level (about 10000ft) and there was thick snow and strong winds. This limited the time we could spend outside. The cliff walk, which features the highest suspension bridge in Europe, 500 metres above a cleft in the mountain, was closed due to high winds, so we didn’t have to try it, which was a relief. Apart from the view, the main attraction for many people was a cutout featuring the stars of the 1995 Bollywood smash hit ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ which was partly filmed here. Other movies like ‘Kabhi Khusi Khabi Gham’ and ‘Mujhsse Dosti Karoge’ were also filmed locally and the area attracts half a million Indian tourists each year. It turns out that Titlis regularly stands in for the Himalayas, particularly when tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir are high. And the summit restaurant had a reasonable Asian vegetarian buffet.
Bürgenstock and the Hammetschwand Lift
Approaching the Bürgenstock from Luzern – the lift climbs to the summit and the resort buildings are on the ridge to the right – the two are linked by the Felsenweg path
Burgenstock is a strange place which deliberately sets out to be exclusive. The MV Bürgenstock, the newest boat in the lake fleet, crosses the lake hourly from Luzern to Kehrsiten-Bürgenstock landing stage where a funicular (expensive without a pass) climbs the hill to the resort. The first hotels were built in the late nineteenth century and a few of the older buildings have been modernised and remain. Following a period of rebuilding, the new Bürgenstock Resort, financed by Qatari investment, opened in 2017, with several new hotels and ancillary buildings. The hotels are the most expensive in the region and the buildings are the ugliest, deliberately designed not to fit in with the surroundings. Some can just be seen from Luzern – they are the blocks on top of the mountain that look like a cross between a prison and an Amazon fulfillment centre. However, if one avoids the shopping mall and crosses the bare concrete plaza, you find the start of the Felsenweg, the reason we were here.
The Felsenweg is a path that runs along the cliff side of the Bürgenstock mountain almost 600 metres above the lake, which is a sheer drop below. The path is lined with wildflowers and has great views of almost the whole lake. After a steady climb it reaches the entrance to the Hammetschwand lift. The ascent begins inside the cliff-face but it very quickly enters the open air, surrounded by an open lattice tower and climbs to a platform which juts out from the summit. The lift was opened in 1905 and last renovated in 1992. It is the highest exterior lift in Europe at 153m (165m to the top of the upper station tower). We were the only two passengers, and the bear hid from view in the backpack until we reached the top, leaving me on my own to face the one-minute journey.
A few views from the Felsenweg and a couple of pics at the summit
At the summit there is a typical Swiss mountain restaurant selling beer and food at reasonable prices, way below those in Bürgenstock. There are also spectacular views from the nearby viewpoint, not only over the lake but also to the Stanserhorn, Titlis and the Alps. The mountainside facing away from the lake is an alpine pasture and provided a typical Swiss scene of cows with their bells ringing. After a beer to work up courage to take lift back down, Ted hid in the rucksack once more and we retraced our steps back to Bürgenstock and Luzern.
Why we needed a beer before heading back down.
Pilatus is the mountain massif that towers above Luzern and the west end of the lake. The classic circular tour is steamer from Luzern to Alpnachstad, rack railway to the summit, down the other side by cable car and gondola to Kriens and into Luzern by trolleybus. I had made the trip in 2007 when I had a few free hours to escape from a tour group in Luzern. We decided it was worth doing again since it was free on the pass and we spent the afternoon after returning from the Bürgenstock doing the journey in the opposite direction. After a clear morning it was building up to thundery showers and the rain started as we boarded the gondola from Kriens. As to be expected the views are tremendous when we could see them. Despite the weather the summit restaurant was busy but we managed to grab a beer and enjoyed the view during a clear spell.
Pilatus gondola, cable car and rack railway
The rack railway down to Alpnachstad, the Pilatusbahn, is quite a feat. Built in 1889 and steam operated until 1937 the 800mm gauge line is the steepest rack railway in the world. The designer Edward Lucher developed a special double-rack system to cope with the gradient…as you plummet down the mountain you hope that the cogs, rack and brakes are all in working order.The maximum gradient is 48% and the average 35%. To cope with the crowds each departure comprises three or four single railcars, separated by a few hundred metres from one another. It appears to be driven on sight and one hopes that the drivers have been to Specsavers.
The intercity railway from Luzern to the capital of Switzerland, Bern, takes an hour through the less interesting parts of Switzerland. However, there is a secondary line which takes thirty minutes longer but passes through a series of small towns and villages. It turned out my pass was valid for most of the route as far as Langnau in Emmental so off we went. En route our train into Luzern hit the buffers when we arrived (at very low speed), which didn’t seem to cause anyone any concern.The regional train from Luzern is run by the BLS (Bern Lötschberg Simplon) company and stops at most towns en route. It was an interesting trip off the main tourist trail – it is ideal walking country with many paths linking the villages.
When we arrived the small market town of Langnau it turned out that one of the stages of the Tour de Suisse cycle race was taking place. There were TV crews, plastic cyclists and tour support coaches with washing machines to clean sweaty lycra. We hardly saw any of the professional cyclists – after a walk round we went for a beer – but the town was full of camp followers – middle aged men following the route, dressed in full lycra with arses as saggy as their multiple chins. Fortunately there are no photographs.
Luzern is an exceptionally pretty small city (there are 81000 people in town and 250000 in the metropolitan area) and capital of Canton Luzern. It is a well-known tourist destination and most of the year it is packed full of tourists from all over the planet. It has had its setbacks – the main railway station burnt down in 1971 (my school trip visited the old one in 1968) and replaced by a temporary affair until the current station opened in 1991. There are a series of bridges across the river Reuss – the oldest, the 14th century wooden covered Kapellebrücke (chapel bridge) was heavily damaged by fire in 1993, started by a dropped lighted cigarette, but was quickly rebuilt to the original design.
The bridge is one of the main tourist sights. Along the bridge are a series of seventeenth century paintings illustrating the history of the city, most of which were restored following the fire. Towards one end of the bridge is the Wasserturm (tower in the water), previously used as a prison, torture chamber and municipal archive. Another useless fact: the bridge is the oldest surviving truss bridge in the world and the oldest covered wooden bridge in Europe. On the north bank of the river is a fine Aldstadt (old town) with many fine old half-timbered buildings. By the river, underneath the arches of the seventeenth century town hall is the Rathaus Brauerei (town hall brewery) – needless to say we paid a visit and tried their unfiltered beer. Large sections of the town walls remain including eight watch towers. There are plenty of imposing nineteenth century hotels and commercial buildings along the waterfront, developed when Luzern became a major tourist destination. Beside the railway station is the modern KKC Culture and Congress Centre concert hall and art gallery. Just out of the city centre is the Swiss Transport Museum, the Verkehrshaus, which is a must for any transport nerd. Though, we were glad we had decided to say outside the city and away from the hordes Luzern is certainly worth a visit for anyone who hasn’t been.
The lake and lake steamers
The Urnersee, looking south towards the Alps
Lake Lucerne – the Vierwaldstättersee (the lake of the four forest cantons) in German – covers 114 square km of central Switzerland. It lies at an altitude of 435m and is surrounded by hills and mountains – the irregular shape of the lake makes for many interesting views. The River Reuss rises in the Alps near the Gotthard Pass, flows into the lake at Flüelen and out the other end at Luzern to reach the Aare and then the Rhine. In German the Luzernersee (Lake Lucerne) refers only to the bay in which the city sits and while Vierwaldstättersee refers to the entire lake, different parts are given other names. For example the Urnersee is the stretch from Flüelen to Brunnen and the Alpnachersee stretches from the bridge at Stanssstad to Aplnchstad.
The pier and village of Bauen
There is significant traffic on the lake – there are several marinas where people sit on their boats at weekends and occasionally venture out. There is a car ferry across the central section from Beckenreid to Gersau. Cargo barges and gravel dredgers bring sand and gravel from several points round the lake to Luzern. Of most interest are the paddle steamers and motor vessels of the company which operates the passenger services on the lake – Schifffahrtsgesellschaft des Vierwaldstättersees or SGV. Most days on our trip involved their boats – a trip across to Treib from Brunnen, from Vitznau, to Burgenstock and from Stansstad to Alpnachstad and Luzern and the classic journey by paddle steamer the length of the lake from Flüelen to Luzern.
Paddle steamers Gallia (top left), Unterwalden (bottom left) and Uri (right)
SGV dates back to the early days of tourism on the lake in 1839 and by 1870 had a virtual monopoly of steamships on the lake – today it is the largest inland shipping company in Switzerland (phew). The company operates five paddle steamers – the Uri (built in 1901), Unterwalden (1902), Schiller (1906), Gallia (1913) and Stadt Luzern (1928). Two of them have retractable funnels so that they can pass under the rail and road bridges at Stansstad to reach the Alpnachersee. The company operates many motor vessels, the oldest dating from 1926 and the newest the Burgenstock (2018) which operates the Luzern – Kehrsiten-Burgenstock shuttle.
Motor vessels Europa (left) and Bürgenstock (right)
In summer three paddle steamers each make a round trip from Luzern to Flüelen and back, 2¾ hours each way. Early in the trip we had sailed on one of the motor vessels from Flüelen to Treib. Before the road (opened 1865) and railway (1870) were built along the east side all traffic coming over the Gotthard Pass from Italy, Southern Switzerland and Canton Uri had to be transhipped across the lake. Flüelen was therefore an important small town. Today the area by the landing stage boasts artworks of a car and a foghorn a stone car and large foghorn. At Flüelen a woman fell into the water between the pier and the boat as she focused on waving goodbye to someone. She was rescued quickly and looked after some civil protection people who were there to accompany after a group of very elderly and disabled people and she was only slightly shocked. The motor vessel called at the quieter landing stages on the Urnersee such as Isleten, Bauen and Rütli – this is the most rural and least built up area around the lake due to the steep mountains on either side and is followed by the Swiss Path from Rütli to Brunnen.
We decided later to do the whole journey from Flüelen to Luzern by paddle steamer and returned to Flüelen by train. We sat having a quiet beer in the pier café to wait for the boat, on what we assumed would be a quiet Monday afternoon. When the Uri pulled in (I’m not sure that’s the technical term) it was crowded and a party was in full swing at twelve noon – it turned out to be the captain’s last journey before retirement. He was the senior captain of the SGV fleet and had worked all his life for the company. There was a small band on board, the beer was flowing and at each landing there was much hooting of horns and when we passed other steamers everyone waved. Boats were out on the lake to salute him. Staff at the piers were there with presents and cameras and at Vitznau the railway staff unveiled a banner wishing him a happy retirement. The paddle steamers have their own friends group and they are popular locally. Tourists from all over Switzerland and abroad return frequently for a journey. Many of the regular visitors had turned out for the trip and the captain was obviously well known around the lake.
The Uri arrives at Flüelen on the captain’s final voyage and a few scenes from the trip
After the run up the Urnersee to Brunnen and Treib the ship calls at resort towns such as Gersau, Beckenreid, Vitznau and Weggis, where the landing stage is the focal point of the town. Many boats call at the Verkehrshaus (transport museum) on the way into Luzern. The final stretch provides good views of the city promenade, bridges and walls before mooring at the Bahnhofquai next to the station. During the journey, there are views of the Mythen mountains behind Schwyz, the Rigi on the north side and on the south the Bürgenstock, Stanserhorn, Pilatus and the Alps beyond. We musn’t forget to mention that on board they sell bottles of Ur Bräu beer, made specially for the company, which is not bad and not outrageously priced. When you tire of watching the scenery you can look down into the engine room and through internal windows to the paddles.
The railways of Switzerland have an excellent reputation for comfort and timekeeping. As a nerd I possess a Swiss Railways watch based on the station clocks and it also keeps excellent time. The whole transport system connects with one another – trains, buses, steamers, cable cars – and frequencies are regular throughout the day. Swiss people travel more by rail than any other nation, 2.5 times the figure for the UK and rail has a higher modal share of transport than anywhere else except Japan, over twice the share in Britain. Public transport usage is high despite it being the third richest country in the world.
The former entrance to Luzern Hauptbahnhof with the new station behind.
Our experience on this trips confirmed the reputation. It is not unusual for trains to be one or two minutes late but rarely any more, despite many busy lines being single track with passing places. The Gotthard line through Brunnen, a main passenger and international freight line, was undergoing engineering work when we were there. The route was reduced to single track in places and had a temporary timetable which affected a few connections and required a bus replacement to one small station which was being rebuilt. This had been well planned and our only significant delay was about seven minutes due to a per-down freight train which led to further single-track working. Unlike the UK, where as many seats as possible are crammed in, the inside of trains is spacious and, even on local trains, all the seats line up with windows so you can appreciate the view. Not only on trains but also at stations there are always spotlessly clean toilets. Many small town stations had ticket offices open for long hours with multi-lingual staff, though a few the smallest stations were unstaffed – we noticed a tendency for the old ticket office to have become a hairdressers.
An official photograph of the Stoos funicular – from an angle I couldn’t reach
While many of the railways are operated by ‘private’ companies rather than Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) there is a nationwide timetable to which they adhere. Nationwide rules apply to fares, except where lines are purely for tourists. Most of the smaller companies are in fact largely publicly owned. On this trip we used trains operated by the Zentralbahn (66% owned by SBB, 16% by the federal government, 17% by cantons and 1% by Engelberg town council), Sudostbahn (Swiss government 36%, cantons and local government 49% and private shareholders 15%) and BLS (Swiss Federation 22% and 56% by Canton Bern).
On the downside undiscounted fares can be high. Single fares are not unreasonable but return fares are double the single. However there is a myriad of local, regional and national passes, a half fare card (which currently costs CHF185 per year) and an annual ticket for CHF3860 (which covers all trains, boats, buses and city transport with the exception of tourist railways and cable cars) which some employers provide as a perk. This means that a years travel throughout the country is cheaper than an annual season between Edinburgh and Glasgow. A minor irritation is that station and train screens and monitors may not list all the stops that a train stops at. But that’s about it.
Getting to and around Lake Lucerne and region
Lake Lucerne from the Vitznau – Rigi railway
This area of Switzerland is within easy reach of Zurich, Bern and Basel airports. Geneva is a greater distance away. By train there are TGV services from Paris to Bern and Zurich which makes travel from London via Eurostar possible in a day. However, allowing sufficient time to cross Paris (at least 2 hours) makes this difficult from anywhere further afield in the UK.
A combination of prices and flight times meant that we flew outwards Newcastle – Dusseldorf – Stuttgart, stayed overnight there and travelled onward by train the next day to Zurich and Brunnen. We returned by air Zurich – London Heathrow – Newcastle. The Eurowings outward flight was much better value than the British Airways return flight.
A cheap advance German Railways (DB) ticket purchased via loco2 (www.loco2.com) from Stuttgart to Brunnen turned out to be cheaper than the SBB (Swiss Railways) single from Luzern to Zurich Flughafen. It was a good journey too – interesting people sitting beside us, views of rolling hills through southern Germany and a close-up of the Rhine falls at Schaffhausen.
To get around the we used a Tell-Pass, available at stations, tourist offices, or the website http://www.tellpass.ch . This covers all of the transport in the area (trains, buses, steamers, cable cars, the Hammetschwand lift). Some cable cars and funiculars have ticket gates – show the pass at the ticket office and you are given a free ticket to operate the gates. A 10 day pass cost CHF300. There are versions for 2-5 consecutive days. It gets cheaper per day (2 days CHF180, 5 days CHF240, 10 days CHF300). Though they can be bought online in advance (together with train tickets to the area from elsewhere in Switzerland) we bought ours at Brunnen station from a clerk who ended every sentence with ‘tip-top’ (the favourite word of one of the hotel staff was ‘sooper’ – it is strange which words are adopted). The pass is cheaper in winter (for example CHF220 for 10 days). However, some of the most dramatic journeys such as the Pilatusbahn, Stanserhornbahn and the Hammetschwand lift do not operate in winter. The paddle steamers do not operate and other services on the lake are more restricted. Cable cars and mountain railways are expensive so the pass rapidly saves money. For example: The Engelberg – Titlis return dare is CHF92, Alpnachstad – Pilatus – Kriens CHF72, Rigibahn day ticket CHF72. Anyone wishing to combine some of this area with elsewhere in Switzerland can buy a Swiss Travel Pass. However, it does not cover all the cable cars and gives discounts on mountain railways rather than free travel (half-price for the examples above). Details and prices in sterling are available from Swiss Travel Company, a subsidiary of Swiss Railways (www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk) .
The hotels we used in Brunnen and Stansstad were booked through www.booking.com . Rates were reasonable and a big plus in both cases was the balcony with lake view. In Brunnen we stayed in the Schmid + Alfa (above), Axenstrasse 5/7 (www.schmidalfa.ch ) – two neighbouring hotels under the same management – the Schmid in an older building and the Alfa in a newer block. The hotel is only a minute from the landing stage and near all the village bars and restaurants – we ate in Bocco, a fine Italian restaurant nearby and in the Schmidstubli beneath the hotel and picked up supplies in the local Co-op.
In Stansstad we stayed in the Hotel Rössli, Dorfplatz 9 (www.roessli-stansstad.ch ), less than 100m from the lake, landing stage and marina. The hotel has its own restaurant, the nearby Hotel Winkelreid has an Italian restaurant by the lake, Schiffländi by the landing stage sells coffee, cakes, bee and snacks, and there is a small supermarket next door to the hotel.
A brief word about beer,
There is less about beer in this gowithted article than in most others. Outside the main cities www.ratebeer.com has very little information. www.bov.ch lists all of the registered Swiss brewers small and large, but not where to find them. My guess is that many of them are available only in bottles – I didn’t find them on draught. The standard helles is always available and it is easy to get wheat beers. Oddly some bottled beer comes in pint rather than 500ml bottles – a pint must be an old Swiss liquid measurement. More importantly, unlike many other things (in particular food), beer is relatively inexpensive in Switzerland, though prices tend to increase the further up a mountain you travel. Switzerland also makes good wines which are rarely exported but they are expensive.
Switzerland – a few practicalities
(i) weather – the weather is variable and in the alpine areas there are microclimates – one valley can have brilliant sunshine while it rains in the next. In all our visits to Switzerland we’ve never had a whole trip ruined by poor weather – bad weather lasts for a day or two. When it is cloudy at low levels it is sometimes possible to climb above the cloud level by cable car and there are webcams on most routes which show summit weather. It is often the case that a hot, sunny day will end up in a brief downpour or thunderstorm after the pressure has built up. We experienced a couple of these, including a stormy night on the lake in Brunnen. The Swiss met office app MeteoSwiss is as good as they come.
(ii) sockets. Switzerland uses three-pin electric sockets. They will take European plugs and some (but not all) UK/European adaptors – the only solution if this happens is to attach a European/Swiss adaptor to a UK/European adaptor. The European/Swiss adaptors are available in major shops in Switzerland. I have never come across a UK/Swiss adaptor.
(iii) shopping hours. Shopping hours in Switzerland used to be very restricted in the evenings and Sundays but this seems to have been liberalised in recent years and the co-op or other small supermarkets (in tourist areas at least) are open on evenings and Sundays
More about Switzerland on gowithted.com.
Follow this link: TOURS – EUROPE for the gowithted article on the remainder of Switzerland, written after many years travelling as a tour manager with Great Rail Journey tours to the country. Gowithted also describes some walks in Switzerland via the following link: WALKS Switzerland
The transport nerd bit
We were in Switzerland for nine days and the trip involved the following journeys by transport (I counted them on the flight home):
38 journeys by rail – 17 by standard gauge trains, 1 of which was a double decker, 17 by narrow gauge trains, 3 by mountain rack railways and 1 airport inter-terminal shuttle.
7 journeys by funicular
9 journeys by cable car – 2 by standard cable car, 2 by double deck open air cable car, 2 by revolving cable car and 3 by gondola
4 journeys by bus
1 journey by trolleybus
8 journeys by boat, of which 2 were by paddle steamer
2 journeys by exterior lift
Total = 69
And two we didn’t use – the tour by old postbus looked like fun, but why the other bus is sitting in a car park at Engelberg I’ve no idea.
The main sources used in writing this article were Wikipedia in English en.wikipedia.org , Wikipedia in German de.wikipedia.org . In addition to sites mentioned in the text the following were useful: the Switzerland Tourism site www.myswitzerland.com , for Stoos www.stoos-muotatal.ch , for Stanserhorn www.stanserhorn.ch , www.mpora.com for the Bollywood films made in Switzerland, railway company ownership details are from www.company.sbb.ch , www.sob.ch and www.bls.ch . and www.sbb.ch provided ticket details and prices.
For trip planning the Swiss Public Transport timetable at www.fahrplanfelder.ch was invaluable as was the Swiss railways app SBB Mobile. The Swiss Ordnance Survey (Bundesamt für Landestopographie) 1:50000 scale map no. 5008 Vierwaldstättersee covers the area in detail and is available from shops and tourist offices in Switzerland or in the UK from www.stanfords.co.uk (search for Swisstopo 5008). The most recent edition is 2010. There is plenty of printed tourist information available locally. We also used the Rough Guide to Switzerland, Matthew Teller, 4th edition, 2010, Rough Guides (a 5th edition, 2017 is available) and Switzerland Rail Road Lake, Anthony Lambert, 3rd Edition, 2005, Bradt, a guide organised round the use of the Swiss public transport system, since updated as Switzerland Without A Car, 2017). Two articles in Todays Railways Europe No. 267, 2018, ‘Rails around the Vierwaldstättersee’ by Toma Bačić and ‘The new Stoosbahn: the steepest railway in the world’ by Andrew Thompson and Marin Bairstow, rekindled my interest in the area by pointing out what we’d missed. The Eisenbahnatlas Schweiz, 1st edn 2012, Schweers + Wall is essential for rail nerds.
Articles and information in German were accessed via Google Translate plus my own interpretation of the sometimes idiosyncratic translation.
All of the photos are by Steve Gillon except for the following, sourced via Google Images: The view of Lake Lucerne and Brunnen from above, in the introduction is from http://www.bergwelten.com ; the diagrammatic map of Mount Pilatus is from http://www.passagefortwo.com ; in the trains section the SBB train is from http://www.swissinfo.ch and the Luzern station and Stoos funicular photographs are from Swiss Railways http://www.sbb.ch .
Ted learning to drive the Seelisberg funicular
Copyright:Text and all phoographs except those listed above are copyright © Steve Gillon, 2019