Switzerland - Rail Holidays with Heavenly Scenery!
A small selection of rail holidays in the UK and abroad will be coming soon, designed and personally delivered by yours truly. If you would like to hear about them first, please leave your email address on this site or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Travel to Switzerland is tricky right now, but when it returns would you like to come along with me? Meanwhile, to whet your appetite, here's my article from Group Travel World magazine on how the railways and scenery of Switzerland changed my life.
I can picture the scene vividly, even now. The first ever text message from my dad. He had just bought his first mobile phone. This was a while ago and my parents weren’t well-travelled. I always assumed that my own itchy feet were born out of a childhood that rarely ventured further than the nearby Yorkshire coastal resorts. Those were idyllic family holidays 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. So back to that first ever text message:
“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. Within a few years I would have more than rectified this with regular visits, but that’s another story. I wasn’t in that place back then. And so my response?
“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 hotel 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 big coach tour operator and this was my own first experience of Swiss rail.
We had flown into Zurich, myself and an assortment of tour operators from a variety of companies. Having reclaimed our luggage from the carousel, our host handed out our Swiss Passes, that incredible passport to mobility throughout Switzerland’s enviable integrated transport system, with access to trains, buses and boats. Our bags wouldn’t be with us for long though as they would be checked in at the station and would be miraculously waiting for us at Zermatt. 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. This was a packed itinerary and we were soon whisked onto the Gornergratbahn, the highest open-air rack railway in Europe, dating from 1898. As the sun began to fall, we had amazing views of the Matterhorn all the way to 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!
The following day offered my first experience of the Glacier Express. From Zermatt the journey on “the world’s slowest express train” 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. Our First Class ticket included lunch on board as sensational scenery outside our panoramic windows gradually became the norm. Could this trip possibly get any better?
Changing trains at Andermatt, we headed down to Lake Lucerne at Flüelen, where, of course, the boat was waiting for the train’s timely arrival. Everything runs 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 to Lucerne itself.
Lucerne 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 and Pilatus round trips, combining boats with once-a-lifetime mountain railway experiences.
Next up, the Golden Pass Line connects Lucerne with Montreux via Interlaken, offering an incredible variety of scenery through high alpine Bernese Oberland to chic Lake Geneva. The first section from Lucerne to Interlaken climbs over the beautiful Brünig Pass, then descends to the northern shore of Lake Brienz, hugging the lakeside all the way to Interlaken.
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 yet more fabulous views. From Zweisimmen the train climbs up to the steepest part of the line at Saanenmöser (1,279 metres) before hitting the mountain resort of Gstaad, playground of the rich and famous.
I haven’t mentioned the train! Oh my goodness! We were fortunate to have First Class tickets, with 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. A 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 Lake Geneva, I had a eureka moment. 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 the very first rail holiday I made was in homage to the Golden Pass Line, which is still my favourite Swiss journey.
In Montreux we stayed at the Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic, an ornate and opulent lakeside hotel from the Belle Époque era. Gazing across the lake I wasn’t to know what was in store. Within a couple of months my life would change track, a train track thanks to Switzerland’s amazing, inspiring integrated transport system. Merci vielmal!