The Rail Holiday Maker
From Matterhorn to Montreux – Glacier Express & Golden Pass
I can picture the scene vividly, even now. It was the first ever text message from my dad. He had just bought his first mobile phone. This was in 2005 and, to be fair, I too had only very reluctantly agreed to leave the analogue world behind around two years earlier, my wife heavily pregnant with our first child and the heavy load of real-life adult responsibility beginning to dawn on me.
My parents were not well-travelled. I always assumed that my own itchy feet and thirst for travel were born out of a childhood that, although contented and carefree, rarely ventured further than the nearby Yorkshire or Lincolnshire coastal resorts, dotted with static caravans, amusement arcades and kiss-me-quick hats. Those were idyllic family holidays in an era when we had to cut our cloth accordingly and I wouldn’t change a thing; hunting for fossils on Filey Brig, wasting my bag of coppers in the bandits on the seafront, the patter of rain on the tin roof that was our shelter for the week. With their kids having fled the nest, my parents began to spread their own wings, purchasing a touring caravan and beginning a quest to explore this island, especially Scotland. Mum in particular developed a huge interest for all things Caledonian. So back to that first ever text message from dad:
‘We are sitting in Fort William gazing at Ben Nevis.’
At this point I’m pretty ashamed to say that I had never been to Scotland. I had lived and worked abroad, and, working in the travel industry, had been fortunate to travel with work quite a bit already. But not to Scotland. Within a few years I would have more than rectified this with regular visits, a passion for all things Caledonian to match my mum’s and an absolute basic need to be north of the border every once in a while. But that’s another chapter. I wasn’t in that place back then. And so my response to dad?
‘I’m sitting in Zermatt gazing at the Matterhorn.’
Oh, how smug must I have felt tapping those words into my little Nokia?! I hadn’t told dad I was going on a trip. And my mountain was definitely bigger than his. Ben Nevis indeed. I was on the balcony of my room in a cosy family-run chalet hotel in the car-free resort of Zermatt. This was an educational trip organised by the Swiss Tourist Board to promote the idea of travelling around Switzerland by rail. I was working at the time for a company that had been created from the merger of the UK’s two biggest coach tour operators, both of which had offered the delights of the Glacier Express and the Bernina excursions for some time. But this was my own first experience of Swiss rail.
Why I am beginning my memoirs in Switzerland? Well, something happened that week that changed my life. If you have been on an organised rail holiday at some stage since 2005 it is quite possible that I designed it, tested it, made it possible. This rail tour of Switzerland sparked something and sent me off on my own journey. I’d like to take you along for a ride behind the scenes in the travel industry, with the triumphs and troubles, the highs and lows of making holidays happen. Along the way I’ll describe the journeys too; great railway journeys will punctuate the story as they have punctuated a large chunk of my adult life.
It began in Zurich. I was joined by a few other tour operators, all of us identified as people who might give more brochure space to the Swiss. Having reclaimed our luggage from the carousel, Ivan from Switzerland Tourism handed me my Swiss Pass. ‘What’s a Swiss Pass?’ you might be asking at this point. Well, imagine a golden ticket way beyond Willy Wonka’s wildest dreams. If Switzerland were a chocolate factory (actually, many would say it is!), it would open the door to almost every delicious delight. But this book is about travel, not chocolate, and the Swiss Pass is the golden ticket that opens the door of trains, boats and buses on Switzerland’s enviable integrated transport system. Our bags wouldn’t be with us for long though as they would be checked in at the station, sent ahead and would be waiting for us at Zermatt station. How clever are the Swiss?!
Zermatt in the summer is a peaceful haven for walkers and mountaineers, with the combustion engine banned and only battery or electric powered vehicles permitted. I would have liked to lead you in gently to my story, but Ivan had other ideas. This was a packed itinerary and, no sooner had we arrived along the southern route of the Glacier Express, we were whisked onto the Gornergratbahn. If you like facts as much as I do, the Gornergratbahn is the highest open-air rack railway in Europe and, dating from 1898, the oldest electrical rack railway in Switzerland (and second oldest in the world). As the sun began to fall, we had amazing views of the Matterhorn all the way to the mountain station at the Gornergrat’s summit, no less than 3,089 metres above sea level. That’s more than twice the size of your mountain, dad! And the little Gornergrat is dwarfed by the mighty Matterhorn! Ben bloody Nevis!
I believe I just mentioned the Glacier Express in passing. ‘What’s going on here then?’ you might be asking. The route between Brig and Zermatt forms part of one of the world’s most famous excursions. How could I skip over it in such blasé fashion? Isn’t this supposed to be a book about finding great railways to great destinations? Well, in my defence we would retrace our tracks to Brig on the Glacier Express the following day, before continuing along the second stretch of the Matterhorn Gotthardbahn to Andermatt as well. Though there are many descriptions of this famous journey, for the uninitiated I’m happy to oblige. It was, after all, my first time.
It is known as ‘the world’s slowest express train’ and the route from Zermatt begins with a descent down the Mattertal Valley to Visp, with mighty rocks either side of the narrow valley and racks used to help the train grip the tracks on the steepest sections. From Brig to Andermatt, where we would leave the train, the scenery opens up into everyone’s idea of the perfect Swiss idyll, following the Rhône Valley through a natural landscape of mountains, meadows, flower-adorned houses and hamlets. As we were guests of the Matterhorn Gotthardbahn railway company, we were treated to lunch on board as sensational scenery outside our panoramic windows gradually became the norm. There was schnapps involved too. Could this trip possibly get any better?
In Switzerland transportation is complicated yet simultaneously effortless. Changing trains at Andermatt, we headed down to Göschenen. Changing again here, the next part of the descent uses another masterpiece of Swiss engineering, a series of spiral tunnels around the village of Wassen, cutting deep through the mountains, peeping occasionally back into daylight to get your bearings before the next tunnel deep into the Alps. We eventually reached the lakeside at Flüelen, where, of course, the boat was waiting for the train’s arrival. Everything really does run like clockwork. What a perfect way to end an exhilarating day, relaxing on board a Lake Lucerne ship, gently navigating our way across the lake known locally as Vierwaldstättersee (lake of the four wooded cantons!) to Lucerne itself.
I’ve been back to Lucerne several times since this trip. It is arguably Switzerland’s most attractive large town, with its wooden covered bridges and quaint alleys opening out to the lakeside quays from which some of the great Swiss excursions begin, such as the Rigi round trip or the Pilatus round trip, combining boats with once-a-lifetime mountain railway experiences. Lining the lakeside are some pretty swish hotels, one of which, the Art Deco Hotel Montana, boasts the world’s shortest funicular railway (did I mention that I like facts?), linking the lakeside with the hotel lobby. I know this because I went back a few years later and arranged a contracting visit to the hotel, with no intention of actually contracting it, purely to ride on its funicular. You have probably gathered that after this tour I started to like trains. A lot.
This was a trip of superlatives and our designated hotel in Lucerne’s city centre provided me with another first. On opening my case my shirts were now too crumpled to retain any self-respect that evening. I was sure the imperfection of creases would be frowned upon in perfect Switzerland and so I popped to Reception to request an iron. This being logical, efficient Switzerland I wasn’t allowed to take such fire-starting equipment to my room, so they logically and efficiently set up a board for me right next to Reception. I doubt this experience will be repeated, standing next to Reception in a 4* hotel with an ironing board, ironing my shirts. I swear that, given a bit more time, I might have made a few Francs from people checking in and admiring the hotel’s very visible ironing service.
There was no time for side hustles on this tour though. There was barely time to catch your breath before it was taken away again by the next awe-inspiring experience. A new day, a new dream journey. The Golden Pass Line connects Lucerne with Montreux via Interlaken, requiring changes, but offering an incredible variety of scenery through high alpine Bernese Oberland to swish and chic Lake Geneva. The first section from Lucerne to Interlaken begins with lakes and hills before climbing over the beautiful Brünig Pass, then descending to the northern shore of Lake Brienz, hugging the lakeside all the way to Interlaken Ost, one of Switzerland’s great interchange stations.
As its name suggests, Interlaken sits between two lakes, Brienz and Thun. Leaving the town, the line skirts the southern shore of Lake Thun, with fabulous views from the right-hand side of the train as it heads for Spiez and Zweisimmen. From here the train climbs up to the steepest part of the line at Saanenmöser (1,279 metres – are you paying attention, dad?!) before hitting the high-end mountain resort of Gstaad, playground of the rich and famous.
I haven’t mentioned the train! Oh my goodness, the train! We were fortunate to have first class Swiss Passes and reserved seats on the Golden Pass Panoramic train, with those panoramic windows enhancing one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world. What’s more, on this train the driver sits elevated above you in a little cab, leaving the front seats for travellers. I had the driver’s eye view and panoramic windows! This journey changed my life.
As the Golden Pass train twisted and descended through the lush vineyards towards distant and tempting Lake Geneva, I had a eureka moment. A travelling companion showed me his employer’s brochure, with an impressive selection of escorted rail holidays. It hadn’t occurred to me that rail holidays could be a thing. A voice inside me screamed, “That’s what I’m going to do!” And within a year I was doing just that, working for the world’s largest rail holiday company, travelling all over the place by train, dreaming up next year’s new tours. And the very first one was my homage to the Golden Pass Line, which, for me at least, still beats the other long-distance and more celebrated Swiss rail journeys.
At Montreux we descended the escalator and crossed the road into the convenient and splendid Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic, an ornate and opulent grand lakeside hotel from the Belle Époque era that would also be the first hotel I would sign up for my next employer. Gazing across the lake I wasn’t to know what was in store. Within a couple of months the grand old lady of Yorkshire coach travel, Wallace Arnold, was closed down and my colleagues and I had to find new paths to tread. My next path would actually be a train track thanks to Ivan, Swiss Tourism and Switzerland’s amazing, inspiring railways. Merci vielmal!