A view from the Bernina Express
Switzerland is the European country Ted and Steve have visited most often, apart from Spain. It was the destination of Steve’s first ever trip abroad – a school trip in 1968. A couple of visits during his hitchhiking and Interrailing days followed, then Steve, Colin and Ted took holidays in Switzerland in 1996 and 2008. Most visits were tours by Great Rail Journeys, where Steve worked as a freelance Tour Manager between 2007 and 2017. Steve visited Switzerland 23 times in that capacity, 15 of which were purely Swiss tours and Ted stowed away on many of these.
Lac Léman (Lake Geneva)
So this is not the usual account of a single journey. Instead it is a summary of our Swiss travels as an introduction to Switzerland, including plenty of photographs to provide a flavor of the country and to tempt you to visit. Many of the tours are too long ago to provide firm up to date information about prices and places to eat and drink. There are plenty of stories about the tours and the participants which we can’t print here – to hear them you have to find Steve and Ted in the pub and buy them a few pints.
A traditional house in Wengen, Bernese Oberland
We’ve divided Switzerland into four regions – Southeast Switzerland (the canton of Graubunden), the Glacier Express and Zermatt, the Bernese Oberland and the Lake Geneva region. This covers Alpine Switzerland and the regions most visited by tourists. The exception is the area around Lake Lucerne, which Ted and Steve visited in 2019 and has already been written up as a separate page. (see Around Lake Lucerne. There are other regions of the country which we haven’t visited except to change trains, pass through or catch planes – in particular, the major cities of Zurich, Basel and Geneva and the Jura Mountains in the west of the country. Virtually all travel, including the Great Rail tours, has been by public transport, usually by train – Switzerland has an enviable system reaching every village in the country. The regional sections are followed by some basic practical information which would assist in planning similar trips to Switzerland, independently or part of an organised tour.
The view from the driver’s cab on the Zermatt – Gornergrat rack railway
1 Southeast Switzerland – the Canton of Graubünden
The canton of Graubünden is located in Southeast Switzerland near the Austrian and Italian borders. The cantonal capital is the small city of Chur and it includes well-known resorts such as Davos, Klosters and St Moritz. Most visitors reach the area by mainline train from Zurich, a scenic journey alongside the lakes of Zurichsee and Walensee. The canton is predominantly Swiss-German speaking, though it is also the area in which Switzerland’s fourth language Romansch / Rumantsch is spoken.
Romansch language in Chur – on first sight it reminded us of Catalan
Chur is a small and historic city on the upper reaches of the Rhine. The old town beneath the cathedral (pictured) is a pleasant area to wander around. Chur is a useful base for exploring the region. It is a major railway junction between Swiss Federal Railways and the metre-gauge network of Rhaetian Railways (Rhätische Bahn or RhB), which operates throughout Graubünden.
The Bernina Express
Chur is the starting point for the classic railway journey, the Bernina Express to Tirano, just over the border in Italy. The line crosses the Alps in a series of loops and spirals. It is a conventional railway line, climbing the gradients without the help of cogwheel or rack systems. The spectacular railway engineering has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The first stage, from the Rhine valley to the Engadine (the Inn Valley) is known as the Albula Line. After climbing from Chur via Thusis, across the high viaduct over the River Solis and past the pretty town of and Tiefencastel it reaches the famous Landwasser Viaduct (pictured) where the line crosses the viaduct on a sharp bend over the viaduct and disappears into a tunnel. There are good views of the viaduct from the train itself (sit on the right hand side departing Chur) and also by walking from Filisur station (beyond the viaduct) to a viewing platform. The line then climbs towards the Albula Tunnel. Before the tunnel is a dramatic stretch of the railway as it turns and twists to gain height. It is possible to walk (or, in winter, toboggan) downhill between the stations of Preda and Bergun with many views of the railway– the distance by rail is twice as long as by the path. After the tunnel the line descends into the valley of the Inn to the small resorts of Samedan and Pontresina, near St Moritz.
The Albula line between Bergun and Preda, and a train heads downhill near Bergun
The second section of the journey is from the Engadine over the Bernina Pass to Italian-speaking Switzerland and across the Italian border to Tirano. This is a major watershed – the Inn is a tributary of the Danube, which reaches the Black Sea, and the rivers in Italian Switzerland join the River Po and ultimately the Adriatic Sea. The train climbs with views of the Muratsch glacier to reach the summit station Ospizio Bernina (2253m above sea level).
Ospizio Bernina in summer and the line nearby in winter
The train then calls at Alp Grüm with views of the Palü Glacier – the Bernina Express waits for fifteen minutes for a photo stop. The train then descends a series of zigzags to the picturesque Swiss town of Poschiavo, before continuing via the Brusio spiral viaduct across the border to reach Tirano (429m) four hours after leaving Chur.
A train climbs toward Alp Grum from the south, and the view from the station
The Bernina Express runs daily all year – while the road passes are closed in winter the railway line stays open. At times in winter the train runs between banks of snow several feet high. The Express is composed of first and second class panoramic carriages and should be reserved in advance for a small fee. However, hourly service trains cover the whole route – sometimes they include panoramic coaches or open carriages but this isn’t guaranteed. On the older service trains (they are being replaced by modern electric multiple units) the windows can be pulled down for better photography (but please remember that it is dangerous to lean out of the window). The service trains run Chur – Samedan – St Moritz and St Moritz – Pontresina – Tirano, with a connecting shuttle service between Samedan and Pontresina. The express avoids St Moritz though it is worth a brief visit – it is in a picturesque location with the town above a lake (frozen in winter) though the centre largely consists of mega-expensive shops.
Another view of the Landwasser viaduct on the RhB Albula line
Rhaetian Railways (RhB) operate a network of lines in Graubünden, all of which are worth a journey:
A train from Arosa to Chur arrives at Langweis station
(i) Chur to Arosa – the railway runs along the street in Chur, causing occasional traffic chaos, then climbs for an hour through mountain scenery to Langweis, across a high viaduct and on to Arosa. Arosa is a busy summer and winter resort laid out by a lake. An excellent walk parallels the railway line between Langweis and Arosa. From Arosa a cable car reaches the summit of the Weisshorn, from which Chur can be seen on a clear day.
The Arosa train leaves Chur by running along the road, Arosa sits round a lake, the Weisshorn cable car and the view back to Chur from the summit.
The view from the Arosa line in winter
The following three lines, together with the Albula line, provide a series of options for circular journeys from Chur:
(ii) from Chur to Scuol-Tarasp via Landquart (connections from Zurich) and Klosters. The line passes through the long Vereina Tunnel to the Inn Valley and the small and quaint Romansch speaking town of Scuol.
(iii) from Klosters to Filisur. From Klosters a line runs via the resort of Davos through the mountains to join the main Albula line at Filisur.
(iv) from Scuol-Tarasp to St Moritz. A line leads up the Inn valley through a series of small villages to Samedan and St Moritz
The train to Walzenhausen leaves from the platform at Rheineck
Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) also provides opportunities for trips from Chur around Northeast Switzerland using the hourly train between Chur and St Gallen. A day trip to the country of Liechtenstein is easy to plan – the small capital Vaduz is reached by frequent buses from Sargans and Buchs stations. It is not that spectacular but you can say you’ve been to Liechtenstein. The St Gallen train follows the southern shore of Lake Constance (Bodensee) which spans Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. Steamer trips are available on the lake and interesting local railways run from Rheineck to Walzenhausen and Rorschach to Heiden. St Gallen is a small city with a historic centre. From there a further train ride leads to the small and pretty cantonal capital of Appenzell.
2 The Glacier Express and Zermatt
Ted, Colin and Steve at Gornergrat, above Zermatt, in September 2008
The Glacier Express
The Glacier Express is the most well-known railway journey in Switzerland. It runs from St Moritz via the Albula Line to Chur (this part is covered in Section 1 above) then on to Andermatt, Brig and Zermatt. From Chur the railway line leaves the Albula line at Reichenau – Tamins, where it crosses the River Rhine and follows the upper Rhine valley through a narrow gorge until the town of Disentis (German) / Mustér (Romansch) is reached. Disentis / Mustér is a predominantly Romansch speaking town and the location of a huge Benedictine monastery which dates from the eighth century (though the current buildings are from around 1700). The Glacier Express is operated jointly by two railway companies, RhB and the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB), and it is here that the locomotives are changed between the two different companies. This takes a little time and passengers wander onto the platform – we remember one group lying flat on the platform to see how the locomotives and the rack mechanism worked (parts of the MGB line have racks which help the trains deal with steep gradients).
An RhB locomotive takes over an eastbound Glacier Express and prepares to depart from Disentis towards Chur
Just west of Disentis is a rack section which helps the train climb through the village of Sedrun to reach Oberalppass. The road over the pass is closed in winter and the railway line is the only all year route through the mountains – car carrying trains run regularly between Sedrun and Andermatt. The summit station of Oberalppass (2033m) and nearby Nätschen (request halt) give access to skiing areas before the railway line zig zags down the mountain to the town of Andermatt, which grew up as a cross roads between east – west (Oberalp and Furka passes) and north – south (St Gotthard pass) routes through the Alps.
The Oberalppass in winter
From Andermatt a local line runs downhill to Göschenen where it connects with the old St Gotthard line which linked Zurich and Luzern with the canton of Ticino (Italian speaking Switzerland) and Milan. This was also a major freight route between Germany and Italy opened in 1882 and includes the 15km long Gotthard Tunnel south of Göschenen. This was superceded in 2016 by the Gotthard Base Tunnel, a 57km tunnel at a lower altitude which now carries most long distance and freight traffic. However, the old route is still used by regular regional trains and is more scenic as it climbs to and descends from the tunnel.
Leaving Andermatt the Glacier Express heads for Realp where it enters the long Furka Base Tunnel to Oberwald. Before the tunnel opened in 1982 the railway line was closed each winter because of the severe winter weather. The road over the pass still closes and cars are conveyed through the tunnel on frequent car-carrying trains. From June to September steam trains operate the old Furka pass line – for some reason we’ve never managed to join one despite taking the Glacier Express route many times. Above the pass is the Rhonegletscher the glacier source of the river Rhone (known here in the upper valley as the Rotten). The train then enters the canton of Wallis (the German speaking bit) / Valais (the French speaking bit) for the remainder of the journey. This district is known as the Goms and was very remote until the railway arrived. The train travels down the valley through villages of old wooden chalets and barns (like the one pictured in Fiesch). In winter you pass cross-country skiers skiing between the villages. There are several rack sections as the valley has a series of steps between different levels, formed by glaciation. The train reaches the main town of the area, Brig, where the main line from Italy via the Simplon Tunnel is met. At Brig the MGB station is outside the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) station – watch out for trains when crossing the road to the SBB station.
The MGB station at Brig
From Brig we parallel the SBB main line to Geneva and Bern to reach the town of Visp, where the MGB line and the Glacier Express turn to the south and head up the valley towards Zermatt. There are several more rack sections to climb the inclines between the valley levels. Near Randa is the site of a major avalanche in 1991, still clearly visible. It cut off access to Zermatt (except by helicopter) for several months until the road and railway were rebuilt. The road up the valley ends at Täsch where there are car parks and a shuttle service of trains to Zermatt, a car-free resort and the terminus of the Glacier Express.
The Glacier Express panoramic coaches – outside and inside
The branded Glacier Express trains have to be reserved and a supplement (currently between CHF23 and CHF43 depending on distance and time of year) is payable as the trains have special panoramic cars. In first class lunch can be served on board. It is a long journey end to end (almost eight hours) and if you want to concentrate on the scenery it may be better to do it in stages. Most Great Rail Journeys tours used hotels in Chur and Brig and travelled by the Glacier Express between them, leaving the stretches from St Moritz to Chur and Brig to Zermatt for separate day trips. As with the Bernina Express route, the line is also served by hourly service trains connecting at Chur, Disentis, Andermatt and Brig – often consisting of older coaches with opening windows which let in the sounds of the countryside.
Brig and around
The Stockalper Fortress and the town centre, Brig. An alpenhorn concert in the main square and the strange House of Bones ossuary in nearby Naters.
Brig is a small town in the Rhone Valley at the foot of the Simplon Pass which makes a good base for travel around the region. The town grew up around the Stockalper Fortress which guarded the pass and the local nobility prospered in medieval times from the tolls they extracted from passing trade. It became an important railway junction where the lines from central Switzerland (Basel, Zurich and Bern) and Geneva converged en route to Italy.
Walking from Riederalp to Bettmeralp in winter
Local excursions from include taking the eastbound MGB line a short journey up the valley. The stations of Mörel and Betten adjoin cable cars which link the valley stations (and car parks) to the car-free resort villages of Riederalp and Bettmeralp on the alp above. It is an easy walk between them and both can be visited on the same short trip. Further up the valley is Fiesch where a cable car climbs the Eggishorn with fine views of the Aletsch glacier.
Eggishorn: A bear on a pole at the summit, the Aletsch Glacier and the cable car
To the south of Brig, the main line to Milan soon enters the Simplon Tunnel and enters Italy. The first town is Domodossola where the Centovalli (one hundred valleys) railway, operated by a company quaintly called FART, takes a scenic route back into Switzerland to reach Locarno by the side of Lake Maggiore. Swiss passes are valid on the Italian section. A funicular, cable car and chairlift take visitors from the town to the summit of the Cimetta mountain. The return to Brig can be by the same route or the long way round via Göschenen and Andermatt.
Cimetta, above Locarno and Lake Maggiore
To the west of Brig, the main line through the Valais to Montreux, Lausanne and Geneva is covered in section 4. To the north the railways lead through the mountains via the two Lötschberg Tunnels to reach the Bernese Oberland (section 3). Fast trains use the new base tunnel but the more interesting route is the hourly service along the old line which climbs much higher before entering the old tunnel. From Brig the line can be clearly seen ascending the mountainside. From the train there are great views over the Rhone Valley before entering the tunnel and again on the other side as the train descends by a zigzag curve to Kandersteg. There is no road parallel to the tunnels and, to avoid a roundabout route, cars are carried through the original Lötschberg Tunnel by train between Goppenstein and Kandersteg.
Zermatt, Gornergrat and the Matterhorn
The busy main street in Zermatt (the snowy picture was taken in May) and a couple of quieter corners
Zermatt is a major tourist resort, busy both summer and winter, and its location explains why. The key attraction is the Matterhorn, which everyone immediately recognises. After a couple of visits by Steve on tours Steve, Colin and Ted spent a week in a chalet there in early September 2008. From our balcony we had a view of the Matterhorn and spent much of the time just sitting watching the weather change over the mountain. Away from the crowded main street (which has a couple of decent bars – we spent much of our time in the Brown Cow bar by the Post Hotel and Ted and Steve have returned when there has been some free time on tours) the old town by the river is charming, with many original wooden houses remaining. There are also plenty of quiet corners away from the centre. Zermatt is a car free resort, with transport provided by electric taxis and buses – even the police car looks like a milk float with a blue flashing light. You still have to take care, particularly when you first arrive as they can silently creep up on you.
The mountain railway and cable car network at Zermatt
The Matterhorn from Gornergrat in summer and in winter
Zermatt is at the centre of a network of mountain railways and cable cars reaching high into the surrounding mountains, providing access to walking paths in the summer and skiing areas in the winter. The must-visit route is the mountain railway to Gornergrat (3089m – over 10,000ft above sea level) for terrific views of the Matterhorn and the surrounding mountains. Just above Zermatt a family of marmots used to live beside the tracks. There are several intermediate stations which can be walked between, with breaks for a beer at the restaurants along the way. The summit station is a must for the views of the mountains (and some beer and sausages). You can pose for photographs with a Saint Bernard and buy tacky souvenirs and prints of the Matterhorn – it turned out that the man who paints and sells them came from Huddersfield.
Two views of Glaciers from Gornergrat – the second shows how glaciers have receded
At the south end of Zermatt a gondola lift (small cable cars for up to 4 people) leads to Furi, which has several cafes and provides access to mountain walks and a cable car upward to Klein Matterhorn. The summit station at 3883m (12740ft) is on the border with Italy, and when we visited in August people were skiing. Another option from Zermatt is the funicular to Sunnegga for a cable car onward to Rothorn.
Ted’s trip from Zermatt to Klein Matterhorn
Walking in the mountains above Zermatt
3 The Bernese Oberland
Steve, refusing to look at the Alps of the Bernese Oberland
The Bernese Oberland, the alpine part of the canton of Bern, is one of the most popular areas of Switzerland with tourists. At the centre of the area is the town of Interlaken, which is busy with visitors all year – so busy that we have been grateful that on our personal visits and tours we have stayed elsewhere and travelled in for short visits. It is certainly worth a look round and there is no shortage of accommodation for those who wish to base themselves there. On a recent visit we discovered some decent beer at the Barrel Brew Café, which proves that Interlaken is not just souvenir shops. On the edge of Interlaken the Harder funicular reaches 1305m and the summit restaurant and viewpoint provides good views over the town and towards the Alps – in particular the three major mountains to the south, the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.
The view of Innsbruck from Harder – the summits were obscured by cloud that day. Meanwhile, the bear enjoys a drink in Interlaken
Interlaken is the major main transport interchange of the region. As the name suggests it sits between two lakes, the Thunersee and Brienzersee both of which have regular steamer services linking the lakeside villages. It is an important railway centre. Long distance trains from the Swiss cities and Germany arrive at Interlaken Ost and connect with the network of metre-gauge railways leading further into the mountains.
The Jungfrau railways
Interlaken and Lake Thun from Schynige Platte
From Interlaken mountain railways, operated by an alliance of several companies, head south into the mountains and ultimately reach Jungfraujoch, the highest station in Europe (3454m) reached by tunneling through the Eiger. There are resort towns and villages and attractions en route and one can easily spend a week exploring the area.
A Schynige Platte locomotive at Wilderswil, the train climbing the mountain and a walk from the summit station
Berner Oberland Bahn (BOB) trains depart Interlaken Ost every half hour for Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen. The first stop is Wilderswil, which is a pleasant quiet village where Colin and Steve stayed for a couple of nights in 1996. From Wilderswil an 800m gauge railway climbs up to Schynige Platte (1987m). The line is operated by antique trains and the summit station gives access to an alpine wildflower garden, terrific views and walks. The BOB line continues up the valley to Zweilütschinen where trains divide, the front half goes to Lauterbrunnen and the rear half to Grindelwald (there are always a few passengers who have boarded the wrong part of the train and they have to scurry along to the other section).
A WAB train at Wengen station
From both termini the Wengernalphahn (WAB) climbs further then crosses alpine meadows to Kleine Scheidegg. From there a third company, the Jungfraubahn (JB) operates the trains to Jungfraujoch. The network provides the option of travelling from Interlaken to Jungfraujoch out via Lauterbrunnen and back via Grindelwald, or vice versa.
The railcar to Murren, and a cow walks along the parallel path
Lauterbrunnen, is a pleasant small place in its own right though often in shade due to the steep valley sides. It also provides access to the upper Lauterbrunnen valley and the car-free resort of Mürren on the ledge above. A cable car links Lauterbrunnen to Grütschalp where a connecting railcar runs along the mountain ledge to Mürren. A path follows the railway and the restaurant at the intermediate station of Winteregg provides a beer stop for those walking along the route. The only routes to Mürren involve a cable car journey and special equipment is used to transport heavy loads to the village. From the village there are tremendous views across to the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau – on a clear day the buildings at Jungfraujoch can be seen.
The village of Murren and the view across to the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau
The Schilthorn cable car journey, where the summit station makes the most of its James Bond connection
At the far end of the village is a cable car to the Schilthorn (2970m). The cable car is famous from the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the revolving restaurant and souvenir shops at the summit make the most of it – there is no problem about just popping in for a look round and a beer. The journey itself is spectacular and building the cable car must have been technically very difficult. The first time we visited Mürren the alpine peaks were obscured by cloud and very few people were travelling. The ticket seller pointed to the summit webcam which convinced us to travel. The summit was above the clouds with clear views across the Alps. We have also watched some mad person para-ski – jumping off the summit with skis on and paragliding to land on a ski run thousands of feet below, then continuing downhill on skis.
Two views (on separate occasions, as you have guessed) from the Schilthorn summit
From the Schilthorn cable car station in Mürren a further cable car descends to Stechelberg. From there a regular bus service runs along the valley to Lauterbrunnen, providing an alternative return route. There is also a well-marked walking path along the valley. Between Stechelberg and Lauterbrunnen are the Trümmelbach Falls, a series of ten glacier-fed waterfalls inside a mountain, accessible to visitors by inclined lift and paths.
The Trummelbach Falls
Views of the Lauterbrunnen valley from Wengen
From Lauterbrunnen to the west and Grindewald to the east the WAB rack line climbs to Kleine Scheidegg. On the Lauterbrunnen route trains call at the substantial car-free resort of Wengen. One week-long tour was based in Wengen which is located on a sunny alpine plateau. Grindelwald is a substantial and busy resort. From there gondola cable cars climb to First. Somehow Steve was persuaded to pose for photos on the viewing platform.
The viewing platform at First and a very nervous Steve – the bear refused
From Grindelwald the WAB train travels downhill to Gründ then climbs to reach Kleine Scheidegg. From Gründ there is a long gondola lift to Mannlichen from where a cable car descends to Wengen, providing more opportunities for round trip. Kleine Scheidegg station can be chaos as everyone changes trains – in addition to individual tourists there are tour groups from all over the world – the trip is on every Europe in a Nutshell itinerary. People watching while having a beer and bratwurst at the terrace café is a fun way to pass some time. Since our visits a new cable car has opened between Grindelwald Terminal and Eigergletscher on the Jungfraujoch line, avoiding Kleine Scheidegg and providing a faster route to the summit.
Wengen from the Mannlichen cable car
The view from Eigergletscher station (in July)
A flotilla of trains depart every half hour for Jungfraujoch. Much of the journey is in tunnel inside the Eiger mountain. However, halfway up the train stops at Eigergletscher and everyone has the chance to alight and see the view of glaciers from windows cut into the mountainside. There is plenty at the summit to keep people occupied. Inside the building there are places to eat and drink, souvenir shops (as elsewhere in Switzerland the price of souvenirs increases the further up a mountain you go) and the Ice Palace
Inside the Ice Palace
with ice sculptures. When weather permits there is access to the outside to take in the views and to walk on the glaciers. It is busy, some of it is tacky but it is a once in a lifetime experience. Bear in mind that the cost of building and maintaining the line means that the journey from Kleine Scheidegg is expensive, even with reduced fare passes, so choose a day with good weather and visibility. Also, check the temperature at the summit before you set off – it will be cold.
Outside views at Jungfraujoch plus a couple to prove that Steve and Ted braved the cold
Thunersee, Kandersteg and Bern
From Interlaken regular steamers, including a historic paddle steamer, sail along the Thunersee (Lake Thun) to Thun, calling at several villages and the town of Spiez along the way. The railway line between Interlaken and Bern follows the south bank of the lake through Spiez, where it is joined by the Lötschberg line from Brig and the Goldenpass line sets off to Gstaaad and Montreux.
From the Lotschberg line near Spiez
The Lötschberg line to Brig climbs immediately on leaving Spiez until, at Frutigen, the new Lötschberg route disappears into the tunnel while the old line continues to Kandersteg. Kandersteg is a small resort and a good base for travel to both Interlaken and Zermatt. From the town a cable car leads to Oeschinen from where it is a short walk down to the Oeschinensee lake.
The Oeschinen cable car and lake
A cloudy day in the mountains gave us the excuse to travel to Bern, the capital of Switzerland, a stunning small city built on a loop in the River Aare, which Steve had not visited since the 1970s. A walk through the old town from the station is impressive and, at the far end across the river Aare, there is a brewpub and restaurant in an old tram depot with views back to the city (it is called the Altes Tramdepot – what a surprise).
The old city of Bern and the views from the Alte Tramdepot where Ted decided to have a drink of lunch.
Brienz, Meiringen and Sherlock Holmes
Brienzer Rothorn Railway locomotive and panoramic carriages
To the east of Interlaken, the second lake, the Brienzersee, is also plied by steamers. This time the railway, a narrow-gauge route to Luzern, follows the north shore to the small town of Brienz. From Brienz a mountain railway climbs to the summit of the Brienzer Rothorn (2244m). The line was constructed in 1892 and, unusually, is still operated by steam locomotives, specially constructed to cope with the steep gradients.
Sherlock Holmes was here and is now stoned in Meiringen and cyrogenically preserved at Jungfraujoch. Plus the Reichenbach falls and the Innertkirchen railcar waits to depart from Meiringen
The next town is Meiringen, where the trains reverse then climb the Brunig Pass to Giswil and Luzern. Meiringen is famous for meringues and Sherlock Holmes, and on one tour our base was in the Hotel Sauvage where Arthur Conan Doyle stayed in 1892. We visited the Reichenbach Falls, where Sherlock Holmes was killed (or was he?) in a struggle with Professor Moriarty. Today it is easily reached by a funicular – on the day we visited all the local cows were being brought down from the summer alpine pastures, bells clanging. Also from Meiringen, a series of cable cars leads to Alpentower with fantastic views.
The views from Alpentower, above Meiringen, where a tour manager seems to have lost his group
A branch line runs from Meiringen to Innertkirchen along the upper Aare valley. The line was built as part of the construction of a hydroelectric scheme but has been kept open for local travel. The line tunnels through the mountains but the parallel footpath (admission fee) goes through the deep Aareslucht (Aare Gorge) between the request stops of Aareslucht West and Ost. The latter is one of the most bizarre railway stations on the planet – a door in the cliff face. You press a button to stop the next train and when it arrives the cliff door opens and on you get.
The Aareslucht gorge and the entrance to Aareslucht Ost station, where a bear is waiting for the next train
4 Lake Geneva and around
An evening view of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) from Mont Pèlerin, above Vevey
The main line from Italy to Geneva passes through Brig and Visp (see section 2 above) then follows the Rhone Valley to Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) where it follows the north shore of the lake via Montreux and Lausanne to Geneva. Along the valley you leave the German speaking region and enter the French speaking area of canton Wallis/Valais. Neighbouring communes have different first language and the cantonal capital of Sierre / Siders is one of the few places in Switzerland that officially has a bilingual name. As you cross the divide announcements by train guards/conductors change the order of languages.
The local trains to Les Diablerets and Leysin, and the village of Les Diablerets
There are plenty of opportunities along the way for side trips on local railways. At Martigny a line climbs uphill and crosses over a pass into France and the town of Chamonix at the foot of Mont Blanc. The main line then enters canton Vaud. From the first Vaudois town, Bex, a line leads through the town then climbs in two sections to Col-de-Bretaye (1810m). From Aigle three narrow gauge branch lines lead into the surrounding countryside and mountains. One of them, to Champéry, Ted and Steve have yet to visit. The second leads via Le Sépey to the village of Les Diablerets. The third leads to Leysin – the final stop is in the basement of the Grand-Hôtel, the previous stops of Leysin-Village and Leysin-Feydey are more convenient for the village and civilization.
Shortly after the main line reaches the lake the Château de Chillon comes into view. The island castle occupies a fine defensive site guarding the upper Rhone Valley and the route to Italy. It was held by the Savoyards then the Bernese and today it has been superbly restored. Next is Montreux, a large and popular resort. We were there during the Jazz festival and could have got tickets to see Van Morrison from the manager of our hotel in Vevey – unfortunately I had to be with the group at dinner and had to turn him down (but we did visit the statue of Freddie Mercury – pictured). From Montreux the Golden Pass line climbs the hills and heads to Zweisimmen for Spiez and Interlaken – though we’ve never managed to get beyond Gstaad. Also from Montreux, a mountain railway zigzags up the hills to Glion and on to the summit of Rochers-de-Naye.
The mountain railway climbs to Rochers-de-Naye
The next main stop is Vevey (pictured), a pleasant old town by the lake, our base on a couple of tours and an overnight stop on our 2008 journey to Zermatt. It makes a good base and is less over-developed than Montreux. From the pier steamers do a circuit of the upper part of the lake to Saint-Gingolph, where you can walk across the French border.
The French border at Saint-Gingolph, and a train arrives at Les Pléiades
A mountain railway runs through pleasant countryside from Vevey to Les Pléiades and a funicular climbs from Vevey to Mont-Pèlerin for views over the town and lake. Behind Vevey and Montreux is the Blonay-Chamby museum railway, with steam trains and antique electric trams both in operation.
The Blonay-Chamby museum railway
From Vevey tours visited the La Maison du Gruyère cheese factory You are guided round by an electronic cow called Cerise – it is highly touristy but good fun. There are farms in the area where you can see the cheese being made traditionally. Nearby is the small hilltop medieval town of Gruyères. The village is picturesque with a castle and many historic buildings. More unusual is the bizarre Giger Bar in an old house – the interior was constructed by H R Giger based on his designs for the film Alien. We reached Gruyères by coach but it is on the Bulle – Montbovon railway line and can be reached by train from Lausanne and Montreux with a bit of effort.
Gruyères – a walk around followed by a drink in the Giger Bar
The Lavaux village of St. Saphorin
Between Vevey and Lausanne is the Lavaux, the main wine growing area of Switzerland, on the south facing slopes above the lake. It is possible to walk through the Lavaux vineyards and drink the local wine (good stuff…but expensive) in cafes by the lake. Lausanne itself is a pleasant city – on a market day we found a stall selling the best empanadas this side of Chile, and Les Brasseurs, a bar brewing its own excellent Alsace-style beers. The suburb of Ouchy, linked by the driverless metro has lakeside promenades. From there to Geneva much of the lakeside is built up with very expensive suburbs. From the train and station Geneva looks interesting enough, though we have been advised it is expensive and more of a business city – we’ve only passed through (many times) to change trains or to reach the airport.
A view from the railway from Meiringen over the Brunig Pass to Luzern
This page has covered most of our visits to Switzerland. However, it is not the only page about Switzerland on gowithted – there are two others:-
Around Lake Lucerne covers our most recent visit to Switzerland, in May 2019. Based in the towns of Brunnen and Stansstad we explored the area round Lake Lucerne (the Vierwaldstättersee), travelled on the surrounding mountain railways and visited the city of Luzern.
WALKS Switzerland Walks in Switzerland does what it says – it describes the walks we managed to take, usually on the free days during the tours. They are relatively easy, fairly short and follow well-marked footpaths. They don’t involve climbing mountains – mountains are for looking at, like this view of the Matterhorn from the balcony of our chalet in Zermatt in 2008.
Finding out information about Switzerland is not difficult – there is plenty both on paper and online. Plenty of people have written about Swiss railways, so we haven’t included any rail buffery here. However, here are a few useful sources for those beginning to plan a trip to Switzerland.
Online, the Swiss Tourist Office site www.myswitzerland.com provides plenty of information. For those wishing to take organized trips, either accompanied by a guide or independent but with travel (including flights) and accommodation organized, the Swiss Travel Service www.switzerlandtravelcentre.com/en/gbr is invaluable. Great Rail Journeys retains a major focus on Swiss tours by train, accompanied by experienced tour managers. See www.greatrail.com . The usual guidebooks such as the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet are easily available.
Buses await the arrival of a train at Scuol, Graubunden
For those wishing to travel around independently by public transport, as you will have gathered from this page, Switzerland has an excellent network. Main line and branch railways are complemented by bus services to remoter areas, and a network of mountain railways, funiculars and cable cars. Single fares by rail are expensive but there is a huge variety of national, regional and local passes which can reduce costs considerably. Mountain railways and cable cars can be particularly expensive – some passes exclude them or only offer a discount. It pays to do a bit of research to select the best deal for your plans. The Swiss Travel Service www.switzerlandtravelcentre.com/en/gbr provides much of the detail on national passes (and a selection of regional options). Tickets and travel information is available from the Swiss Railways (SBB) sites www.swissrailways.com and www.sbb.ch . A range of passes for public transport in Graubünden is available from www.graubuendenpass.ch . The Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB) network from Disentis to Zermatt via Andermatt and Brig, plus surrounding public transport is covered by the Erlebnis Card / Adventure Card pass. Details at http://www.erlebniscard.ch . The Jungfrau Railway companies sell the Jungfrau Travel Pass for the area around Interlaken – details at www.jungfrau.ch . The Bernese Oberland Regional Pass covers a broader are stretching to Bern, Luzern and Brig – details at www.regionalpass-berneroberland.ch . The Regional Pass Lake Geneva – Alps is available from the Swiss Travel Service site.
All public transport timetables in Switzerland (except town and city services) are available online at www.fahrplanfelder.ch . The Swiss railways app SBB Mobile provides a good journey planner, covering all public transport. Summary timetables of the main lines and tourist routes and details of passes are included in the European Rail Timetable, available from www.europeanrailtimetable.eu . The magazine Todays Railways Europe publishes details of Swiss (and other European) passes from time to time.
The Swiss Survey produces the equivalent of Ordnance survey maps. The Swiss Map Mobile app provides online access to them. Paper maps are available in the UK from the map shop Stanfords www.stanfords.co.uk .
Our travels around the country mainly took place in May / June and September / October. Three of the Great Rail tours were winter journeys in January / February. While dull and wet days are not unknown we’ve never had a whole tour or trip ruined by bad weather – it rarely lasts more than a couple of days. In winter our experience has been that snow tends to fall mainly at night and the days are clear with thick snow on the ground and bright blue skies. The mountainous terrain means that weather can change from valley to valley. On occasion valleys can be dull and wet but peaks and upper cable car stations are above the clouds. The Swiss National Weather Service app meteoSwiss is invaluable for local weather conditions. If the weather is variable it is a good idea to check the summit webcams on mountain railway websites and at lower stations. Needless to say bring suitable clothing – its cold at 3000m even in summer.
Switzerland has the reputation of being expensive and it is. As most of our visits were between 2007 and 2017 we cannot provide up to date prices here. However, some basics such as accommodation, beer, and coffee are not too outrageous – mainly on a par with London prices. Wine and spirits are pricey as is food – both in restaurants and supermarkets. Prices increase the higher up a mountain you go, though we could still afford a beer at 10,000ft. The savings using the right transport pass compensate for this, and the scenery makes it all worthwhile. Enjoy your trip.
Ted drives the Bernina Express…and he has the certificate to prove it
Photographs: The vast majority of the photographs were taken by Steve Gillon. There are a very few (mainly those of Steve) which were taken by passengers on Great Rail Journeys tours or by helpful passers-by. Thanks goes to them. Steve Gillon.
Copyright: © Steve Gillon, 2020, plus minor updates 2022.