Switzerland by Rail

October 25, 2013

Switzerland was warm, sunny, and spectacular this October, always the best time to travel to Europe. Swiss Air, the only nonstop from Chicago, landed in Zurich and we headed out straight away for Luzern. Yes, that Lucerne on Lake Lucerne de rigueur on the Grand Tour of Queen Victoria, Mark Twain, and home of Richard Wagner. Today the old city remains intact, survivor of wars, with authentic 14th century ramparts and wooden bridges, 16th century clock towers and 17th century Rathaus and cathedral.

Smart Switzerland. Quiet Switzerland. In the airplane, the airport, the outdoor cafes with the wool felt knee blankets, in the restaurants and the bare bones Hotel Alpina — the lack of noise was startling, the muted tones, even whispers, of the citizens in public places and — no music. Two weeks of peace, no rap, no Sinatra, a vacation in itself.

Mountains being the raison d’etre of this trip, and trains being the chosen transport, we left the next day for Interlaken in the foothills of the Alps, beckoning in the blue mist. The original Alpine resort, another Grand Tour standard it has Jamesian reminders, the Victoria Jungfrau or Royal St. George hotels now afforded by those from the east, Arabia, India, the Orient. Bollywood films are made here instead of Kashmir so there are more currie, foo yong and kebab places than eateries like the Alps Restaurant where we settled for Rosti the potato national dish in a cuisine that doesn’t exist in the nether cantons. Would that the wonderful Fendant white wine, rye bread and Emmenthaler could sustain one.


Interlaken is however the best starting point for a visit to Jungfraujoch, in the Bernese Oberland, an hour away, the ”Top of Europe” with the Eiger, still claiming lives, though not this time when a 19 year old Brit had just scaled a huge rock face on the North Side, Paciencia. Jungfraujoch the highest railway station in Europe has the lowest temperatures and highest wind speeds in Switzerland and is accessible only from the village of Klein Scheidegg where we boarded a special cog wheel train straight up to 13,000 feet to the base of Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger.  Such a thrill to walk on the  Aletsch Glacier the glory of the high altitude Alps and a UNESCO Protected Area, 14 miles long and the largest ice glacier in Europe which sadly since 1950 has shrunk by one third.

The Jungfrau Erlebnis (Experience) was however not for sophisticates and Alpinists, with shrieking Japanese schoolgirls, a dreadful “Bollywood Restaurant”, a phony Ice Palace, Shopping Fun stores, Snow Fun kid runs. Switzerland caught the Kid Bug. in the years we were away as had England as when last year we saw Warwick Castle transformed into a grisly fun fair for children.

An antique steamer slowly cruised Lake Briesz which with the larger Lake Thun gives Interlaken its name, stopping at little wood-carving villages for fuzzy apples, picking up passengers who seemed Scandinavian but were actually speaking singsong Swiss German Schwyzeritsch. After vertically ascending the steep Harder Klum funicular for dinner at the top of a mountain we were off with the Swiss Saver Pass.

Eiger from Kleine Scheidegg

Heading south through landscape that instantly became breathtaking, and more breathtaking a half hour out of Interlaken, The Alps. Gasps all around, windows dashed opened in the rushing wind, iPhones and cameras on high alert. You could not snap enough photos quickly enough. Everywhere you look in Switzerland right around the corner there is an even better view than the previous, absolutely uncanny how absurdly beautiful the southern half of this small country is. Endless valleys with tiny mountain villages in the distance, and cows, glorious, big, subsidized by the government, brown cows, black cows trekking down from high mountain pastures in the annual Parade of Cows. And black faced sheep, larger and heartier than English Herdwicks.

Aletsch Glacier

Mountains and more mountains and finally three hours later, almost into Italy – Zermatt in the canton Valais. A classic ski town it was zwischenzeit, between times, the shoulder season, about to close down in November but due to earlier snows skiers and snowboarders were already taking the lifts up to Matterhorn Paradise Park. It was a stiff climb up Steinmattstrasse to the hunting lodge Hotel Jagerhof where our room had a direct view of the Matterhorn transforming itself by the hour from the cloudy shroud in morning to blazing pink at sunset.

On to the Gornergrat Bahn a high altitude cogwheel railroad all in the open air, no tunnels, was a completely different experience from the Jungfrauloch. From Zermatt to Riffelalp and Rotenboden to the viewing station over the Alps and the base of the Matterhorn we were outside, the apex of Europe, snow laden, cold, another world. So astounding to see lone hikers lighting out in the white wilderness, all glacial ice and a bleak netherworld of white peaks and treacherous steps, a challenge to keep upright. Seemingly every Swiss was born with backpacks and walking sticks, from small children to octogenarians. And yes, they were thin, tall and disturbingly good looking.

The Glacier Express to St. Moritz on the east side of Switzerland was booked up but we took the identical route, on the same tracks by slow local trains, five of them, in a nine hour journey, making all stops along the way. At Andermatt, the largest Swiss Army base, we had lunch watching soldiers on maneuvers. Switzerland has mandatory national conscription, the defense of the mountain paradise very much in evidence in fighter pilots whizzing overhead in formation. There is a huge underground network of hidden fortresses in the Alps and every new construction mandates a bomb shelter with supplies.

From Andermatt up the Oberalppass to Disentis, then Rheinegau finally St.Moritz in the beautiful historic Upper Engadine, the Eastern Alps, a long sunny valley, home of the Romansh people who still speak a Latin dialect. St. Moritz, the birthplace of Alpine resort skiing, celebrating its 150 anniversary of winter tourism in 2014, originated in 1864 when hotelier Johannes Badrutt urged his friends to ski in this insulted valley where the sun shines 323 days a year. There was no wind at all for three days and it was warm enough to walk along the lovely lake in shirt sleeves. We stayed at the Languard Hotel on the Via Veglia with its thick masonry Engandiner architecture built in 1867 and perfectly restored.

Rick Steves hates “the glitz” in St. Moritz, so mild compared to Aspen’s. with all the usual suspects, Gucci, Lauren, Tom Ford and where everything was 25% higher and far too small for Americans. There were even acceptable restaurants the Steffani, the Schweizerhof, the Hauser and three wonderful museums the Segantini, Berry and Engadiner celebrating the local culture. We hopped a free bus to Pontresina (Saracen’s Gate) a chic resort with Engadiner style hotels and ski shops. Arabs made it this far north in late Middle Ages as they did to nearby Samedan but were nowhere in evidence though numbering 400,000 Arabs in country of 7.5 million. There is urban Switzerland and there is Alpine Switzerland, homogeneous, conservative, insular.

St. Moritz from the Languard

The real reason to stay in the area is The Bernina Express slowly traversing over 200 bridges and through 55 tunnels and high viaducts to Tirano, Italy, the highest railway line in the Alps from high glaciers to palm trees and Renaissance palazzos. After the Bernina Pass at Ospizio Italian speaking Switzerland begins and from higher up at Diavolezza you pass the famous Pitz Palu glacier in the Bernina Range the setting of the 1929 Pabst film The White Hell of Pitz Palu with Leni Riefenstahl in her first role. Then the Morteratsch Glacier receding 56 feet a year since 1878 and accelerating to 330 feet from 2005-2006.  The high Alps watersheds of Europe flowing into the Danube, the Rhine and Rhone have a problematical future.

Finally some days in Zurich, grey, Germanic, homely, functional bridges over the lake and Limmat River, no Pont Alexandre Trois here. We stayed near the university in the stark Hotel Bristol, the Bohemian Zurich of Cabaret Voltaire, Dada, and James Joyce, buried here with his family. A trolley tour revealed the other side of this rich city of 300,000 the richest city in Europe, many the descendants of the Celtic Helvetii tribe who Tiberius Caesar conquered and created the commercial outpost it still is.

The aloof, cool descendants of the tribes tolerate outsiders which is what you always will be if not Swiss born. With a federal system of 23 cantons where each has as much state’s rights as here in the States, the Italian canton of Ticino had just banned the wearing of burkas. The tax haven business is under attack by America and some small banks are folding but not UBS with its secret accounts in a country where one third of all global wealth is controlled.  The sheer number of building cranes in the sky reveal all is well here in  this beautiful country with the purest water in the world.







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