Story by Carol Canter with Photos by Carol Canter and Jack Heyman.
We looped through Switzerland on a 15-day Swiss Travel Pass in May, taking panoramic train journeys through legendary mountain passes, boat rides across shimmering silver lakes and cable car rides to postcard-perfect Alpine villages and peaks. With almost everything included in the Swiss Travel Pass – even museums and heritage sites – travel through Switzerland was seamless and easy to plan. Service was friendly, helpful and multilingual.
What to Expect
Swiss trains are punctual, efficient, immaculate and modern, as their reach extends throughout the nation. And the remarkable Swiss rail network, with its winding switchback tunnels and circular viaducts, has been engineered to navigate the treacherous mountain landscape like Swiss clockwork. Our own rail system in the U.S. lags shamefully far behind on every one of these points.
Our journey aboard Swiss rail was train travel for dreamers. Landscapes unfurled like brilliant canvases of chalet-studded emerald slopes where robust Brown Swiss cows graze in seeming ecstasy, snow-streaked mountains whose saw-toothed peaks reach to the heavens, hillsides with vineyards so steep one is incredulous that workers get their footing to plant, cultivate and harvest the grapes. Why did I think I’d read books when such cinematic splendor was taking place just beyond my seat? Waterfalls thundered, rivers raged, and wildflowers splashed moors and meadows with exuberant colors. Chateaux stood stately atop cliffs, weathered wood houses were framed in purple wisteria, and the clean lines of church steeples emerged from the center of every pristine Swiss village.
Our trip was bookmarked by two of Switzerland’s standout panorama rail journeys, the Wilhelm Tell Express and the Bernina Express. The first, named for the nation’s founder and Swiss national hero, connects the lovely lakefront cities of Lugano and Lucerne via train and boat. What an overture! On the rail portion, the train spirals into a dramatic double horseshoe curve, offering a three-in-one perspective on a strategically placed church in the mountain village of Wassen. Coached by a multilingual personal travel guide who accompanies passengers in the first class carriage, we knew the right moment to look for the church from above, from below, and when it was immediately alongside us. The guide also made sure we had each picked up our Welcome Package before boarding the train, with its cool miniature Swiss Army Knife, food voucher worth almost $20 and a souvenir travel guide.
The knife and scissors served us well on our picnics while hiking in Switzerland, and the food vouchers paid for most of our lunch aboard the vintage paddle wheel steamer. We ordered the Swiss- German specialty spätzle and cheese and a light asparagus mousse served with a salad of fresh green with white asparagus and ham in the first class dining room, savoring our meal as we traversed Lake Lucerne in all its magnificence.
The trip from Flüelen, where the train delivered us, to Lucerne takes almost 3 hours, and in full sunshine under blue skies, we relished every nautical mile. Our paddle wheeler ferried passengers between small villages, towns and holiday resorts with splendid old world hotels, passing windsurfers and sailors of every stripe enjoying the Lake Lucerne good life. The Bernina Express, our panoramic finale, lives up to its “Palms to Glaciers” moniker as it transitions from the sensuous Mediterranean landscape of Ticino near the Italian border past the posh 6,000-foot high ski resort of St. Moritz to the terminus at Chur, Switzerland’s oldest city with its picturesque Old Town. The express bus between Lugano and Tirano offers up a scenic feast of olive trees, a brilliant blush of exotic flowers and palm-fringed lakes — Lugano, Como and Menaggio — while the epic rail portion between Tirano and Chur is a jaw-dropping high altitude ride through countless bridges and tunnels. The stunning Landwasser Viaduct, a triumph of engineering, is considered the railway’s scenic highlight, yet we jockeyed for position with fellow passengers throughout the entire trip. All were eager to document our sleek red train with its seat-to-ceiling observation car windows as we skimmed past unparalleled vistas, from a trio of Alpine lakes to the mist-shrouded Morterastch Glacier.
A Few Tips: Here are some tips for seamless travel with the Swiss Travel Pass:
Whenever possible, find out in advance the time required to make a connection, and verify the track number of your next train.
When you’re waiting on the track, locate your car number, and where first or second class is located – i.e., in Section A, B or C – to avoid a last minute walk or run.
Find out which trains have dining cars or pack food. Migros is a popular Swiss chain. The one on Marketgasse, the main shopping street in Bern near the railway station, offers a lavish selection of goodies for a nice meal on board: open-faced sandwiches of lachs – “lox” with capers and onions, small shrimp with rosemary and mayo, long baguette sandwiches of tuna, chicken, hams and cheeses.
Bring binoculars to trace the funicular ascending the mountain, the waterfall coursing down, and to view the distant snowy peaks – perhaps the magnificent Matterhorn!
Swiss trams are a model of what a peak urban transit experience can be. They’re quiet and efficient and run every few minutes wherever you need to go. With pass in hand, you get on and off without a care.
On most– if not all– the trams we took in Switzerland, nobody checked our pass. That makes it easy and tempting for those hopping on and off trams and buses without a pass to avoid paying the fare, especially foreigners who don’t intend to cheat, but don’t understand the system and where and how to pay. It’s not a good idea. Ethical questions aside, the fine is a very stiff 90 CHF (Swiss francs), which is about $90 for those caught traveling without a valid ticket.
We based our sightseeing around what was included in the Swiss Travel Pass, so in Zurich we rode the tram to the vista point at Uetliberg, set in a forest with hiking trails, and later cruised Lake Zurich by boat. In Lugano, a boat trip skimmed us along the lake to lovely Gandria. There we followed the gorgeous flower-lined Olive Trail for a memorable hike back to town.
From Lucerne we chose the day trip to Mt. Rigi because it was free, rather than to Mt. Pilatus where the discount was only 50 percent. It was a magical day, combining a charming red cog rail that chugged us up to the summit, a snowy walk to a panorama that swept in Switzerland, Germany and France, and a hike several miles down the mountain to the cable car station at Rigi Kaltbad. There, people soaked in cliffside mineral pools, part of the new spa designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, who designed the landmark San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that opened in 1995. The descent by cable car, gelato by the lake and boat trip back to Lucerne completed another perfect Swiss day.
The pass gave us the flexibility to change our plans at the last minute, so we chose to forego a much-anticipated scenic train ride from the Domodossala to Locarno via the Centovalli Railway due to heavy rains. We headed instead to Bern, a lovely city where the portals kept us dry and the Einstein Museum kept us engaged.
What You Get
Contact Rail Europe for details on the various travel passes that access Switzerland’s 16,000 mile public transport network.
Here’s what you get:
- Unlimited travel on the Swiss Travel system including trains, buses and boats.
- Consecutive pass is available for 3, 4, 8 or 15 days of consecutive travel.
- Flexipass is available for 3, 4, 8 or 15 days of consecutive or non-consecutive travel within a 1 month period.
- Free access to over 490 Swiss museums.
- Travel bonuses including free or discounted access to various mountain excursions.
Prices start at $221 per adult for a 2nd Class Pass, $354 for 1st Class for 3 Consecutive Travel Days.
Visit the Switzerland Tourism website at http://www.myswitzerland.com/en-us/home.html