In 1814, on one of his many visits to Switzerland, the famous American writer, Mark Twain made the comment; “There isn’t a mountain in Switzerland that hasn’t a ladder railroad or two up its back like suspenders. Indeed, some mountains are latticed with them.” His comment was spurred by surprise, for just a few years before that trip the entire country could only boast a single railroad track.
The impeccable railways of Switzerland
Switzerland’s enthusiastic adoption of railways isn’t difficult to understand. A quick glance at the landscape is sufficient: the country is blessed and cursed with some of the steepest mountains and precipitous valleys in all of Europe. The rugged landscape inevitably bred some of the finest mountaineers on the Continent but for merchants and ordinary travellers, traversing the Swiss countryside was an exercise in logistics and physical exhaustion. Small wonder then that the railway was quickly adopted.
Switzerland is justifiably proud of its railway system, which is widely praised as the best in Europe. The trains are on time, clean, comfortable and affordable. The Swiss railway system is also a godsend as it makes it that much easier to appreciate the country’s beauty. Switzerland is blessed with some of the world’s most awe-inspiring landscapes, a picture postcard come to life. Over the centuries, its towering mountains, steep walled valleys, verdant forests and deep cool lakes have been immortalized by Europe’s best artists and every year, thousands of visitors come to pay homage to its beauty. Switzerland is a picture postcard brought to life — and one of the best ways to enjoy its beauty is to board a train and just ride around the country.
Train journeys to see the Swiss countryside
One of the most popular train journeys is the Glacier Express, which despite is name, is quite possibly the slowest express train in the world. The journey begins in the city of Zermatt in southwest Switzerland and ends 300 km to the east at the ski resort of St Moritz. Along the way, the train passes over 291 bridges and traverses 91 tunnels as it makes its way across some of the country’s most inaccessible regions. The journey takes a leisurely 8 hours, the better to appreciate the spectacular scenery outside every window. There is also a dining car on the train and one of the most unforgettable Swiss experiences is gazing out of a frosted window at the alpine landscape while enjoying an excellent meal.
For those interested in taking in a bit more culture along with the scenery, there is the daily William Tell Express, which goes from the beautiful lakeside resort of Lucerne all the way to the city of Lugano. The journey begins on a paddleboat steamer, which takes passengers across Lake Lucerne to the town of Fluelen, where they can board the train for the rest of the journey. This train ride is particularly spectacular in terms of landscape, for it travels along the steep ravines and cliffs of the Reusse Valley, passing through many charming villages. It is also fascinating for the train leaves the predominantly German-speaking region of central Switzerland only to arrive in the Italian-speak East, a marked reminder of the strong influence surrounding countries have had on Switzerland’s history.
A train journey to whet your appetite
One of the most unusual train routes is the Chocolate train, which caters to the gastronomically conscious. The route runs from Montreux to Broc. Though train offers stunning views of Montreux Wine Country and the Swiss countryside, scenery is of secondary importance to the trip’s main attraction: the Swiss specialties, cheese and chocolate. The train’s first stop is at Lake Gruyere, the quaint, half medieval, half modern town where the destination is the famed cheese factory. Here, visitors can tour the working dairy, seeing for themselves the fascinating cheese-making process and of course sampling some of the freshly made cheese. There are fondues, meringues and other delicacies available, to suite every taste.
Once sated of any cheesy longing, the train carries its passengers on to Broc, where the main point of interest is the Nestle-Cailler chocolate factory. Here, visitors watch the chocolate-making process on film, but the main event is a sampling of the entire range of Nestle-Cailler products — a task calling for the appetite of a dedicated chocoholic! This trip is definitely not for those concerned with their waistlines, but it is a great introduction to the more popular elements of Swiss cuisine.
Going up a Swiss mountain on a train
Of course, if you’re not inclined to such standard packages, there’s nothing stopping you from going your own way. One of the most interesting ways to explore Switzerland is to simply get on a train and keep sitting until you reach somewhere that looks interesting. Admittedly, a little more planning might be a bit more practical but even so haphazard a method can often produce fascinating experiences. Anyone interested in trying their luck this way might consider buying a Swiss Pass or Card, which allows unlimited travel on the trains within a specified time period, as well as a host of other advantages.
Most people visiting Switzerland make a point of going up the mountains. Actually, in a country as mountainous as Switzerland, it would be rather difficult to avoid going up a mountain or two, but it is still worth the effort to make a trip to the higher altitudes. Most visitors go on the package tours to Jungfraugoch, the highest railway station in the world, or the Matterhorn, Europe’s highest mountain. Though these destinations are noteworthy, there are plenty of other peaks less crowded and as easily accessible. The less overrun town of Muerren, for example, is set on an idyllic plateau surrounded by mountains, and a cable car ride from the town up to the Schilthorn can, on a clear day, offer a view of over 400 peaks.
As Mark Twain observed, many of the mountains are equipped with rails, but it is hardly a straightforward experience. Many of these picture postcard mountains are so high and steep that only pin-and-rack rails can climb them, much less cars or the average unfit human. Once at the top, the air is so thin that most people either become lethargic wheeze with the effort of breathing or become drunkenly giddy. Once you’ve adjusted to the high altitude however, the view is nothing less than majestic.
The Swiss railway system a huge boon to any visitor interested in seeing the beauty of the country. It also brings within reach even the most remote and untouched outlying regions, allowing a more thorough exploration of the country that is otherwise possible. The train network is renowned for its efficiency and to reach even the most out of the way destination not covered by the trains, there are always connecting postal buses or steamers available. The schedules for these connections are even timed to make transferring between services easy and convenient. If all else fails, most stations are even equipped with bicycle renting facilities, or know of a convenient shop nearby where they can be rented. It might be more difficult to enjoy the scenery when you’re paddling along rather than riding comfortably in a train cabin, but the beautiful surroundings are often enough to make you forget your aches and pains, at least for a little while.