Tracing travel trails on Swiss trains
“We are world champs for travel by public transport,” Swiss Travel System market manager for America, Asia and Australia, Fausto Zaina tells me proudly on the first day of my Swiss tour.
It’s my first visit to the country and I am not going to contradict my host, who appears to know what he is talking about.
By the time the trip was over I admitted he was right. It is hard to rival the sheer complexity and density of the country’s public transport systems and that is even the more surprising when you recognise this is a relatively small country when compared with neighbours Germany and France.
Just the rail system alone is a dense network of 5,063 km, stretching like a spider’s web across the country’s 41,265 sq km land mass. The trains take you anywhere in Switzerland and on average citizens accumulate around 2,000 km of rail travel every year.
Where the rails cannot go, buses fill the gap. Where the rails cannot climb, cable cars carry you to the peaks and on the lakes there are boat services that transfer to your destination.
Swiss Air Lines International cooperated with Swiss Travel System and the tourism offices, to organise a trip to show Bangkok’s media the western Alpine region and introduce us to overland travel Swiss fashion.
Landing in Zurich in the northeast of the country, we head west taking a peek at Bern, the capital city, before turning southward to Interlaken, checking out the Bernese Alps. Then we travel west to Lausanne on the banks of Lake Geneva that divides Switzerland and France. From there we journey south to Zermatt and the Pennine Alps close to the Swiss-Italian border and all the way back to the east to Zurich with a side trip to the country’s oldest town of Chur.
We are equally impressed by the variety and beauty of the travel products as well as the commitment to punctuality and efficiency; a national trait we assume reflected in the creation of Swiss time pieces.
Equally, pure nature – water, fresh air and quality pastures that produces top-notch milk and gives us the famous Swiss chocolate – impresses us, while Swiss Army knives reflect an outdoor sporty life and the skills of wood craft are all part of being Swiss.
Swiss Travel System
Even remote communities are easily accessible by public transport particularly electric trains. It is all part of the services offered to residents but they also a huge benefit for tourists too.
Swiss Travel System bundles bus, boat and trains services. If you buy the famous Swiss Pass, you can hop on any transport option. You display the card when boarding and enjoy the ride.
The pass also offers discounts on cable cars and mountain gauge trains at 25% to 50% off regular fares, plus free entry to museums and attractions.
But at the core of the transport is the rail system and with it comes detailed maps, a timetable, information screens at stations, multi-language signs and announcements. It is as easy as hopping on to a train. No worries, no surprises. The system is one of the most user-friendly a visitor will find anywhere.
To locate your cabin, look at the information screen to save you running up and down the station platform to find the right cabin especially if you have luggage to haul and are travelling in a group. The train usually arrives and departs on-time and the stops at each station are brief, so you have to be at the ready.
There are distinct improvements in the first and business carriages, although it costs 50% more on the standard fare. The seats are more comfortable and there is better cabin insulation.
On the first class train, there is a noise-free cabin where chatting and singing is forbidden. If you can’t refrain from talking wehn travelling on a train, this is not the cabin to choose.
Business zones are available in the first class carriages of many InterCity trains, identified by a laptop icon. They have workstations fitted with power sockets and a battery charging facility. Internet costs extra.
Some Swiss trains even have play areas for children in the double-deck carriages. They will be available on all trains by next year.
The vital advice is to keep your Swiss Pass secure as this valuable item if it is lost cannot be replaced.
In addition, Swiss Travel System provides luggage transfer services to ease hauling heavy luggage on and off trains. Better to travel light, but the option is there to take although it does cost extra.
Swiss Travel System works with all airlines offering Fly-Rail Baggage which means luggage can be tagged through to the final destination using a train. It works both ways so on the return leg it is possible to check-in, get your boarding pass, board a train and have your luggage tagged to Bangkok through the rail and airline system.
However, the check-in at train station service is available for selected airlines such as SWISS, Lufthansa, ANA, Austrian Airlines and Malaysia Airlines services. THAI does not use the service.
The six-day trip begins in Zurich, the business capital and the country’s gateway. We head west to reach the first day’s destination, Interlaken. The train station is located right below the terminal.
The journey involves a stop in Bern and this breaks up the transfer allowing us to enjoy a half-day tour of the old city of Bern listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983.
The old city nestled in the inner curve of Aare River has retained its medieval charm. The historic buildings are typified by sandstone facades, arcades and stone paved roads.
The old town and the Aare river embankment offer a pleasurable walk from the railway station to the bear pit at the end of Nydegg Bridge (Nydeggbrücke). Along the way you can browse shops for clothes, chocolate, Swiss knives, watches and souvenirs.
Zytglogge is the landmark medieval clock tower with moving puppets; Albert Einstein’s house where he resided from 1903 to 1905 and 11 fountains crowned with Renaissance allegorical statues. From Nydeggbrücke there is a spectacular view of Bern on the banks of the Aare.
The bear park at the end of the bridge opened in 2009. The historic Bärengraben or old bear pit is now empty. According to legend the city’s founder, Duke Berchtold V von Zähringen, named the city after the first animal to be caught here which was a bear.
Further uphill from the bridge is Rosengarten. Here visitors can enjoy a panoramic view of the old town. Tramdepot is the old station of Berne’s first tramway. The building now houses a popular brew pub and the tourist office, with free shows depicting the city’s history.
As long as you have the Swiss pass, you can simply jump on to a tram and go back to the train station if you are too tired to walk back.
It is exactly 48 minutes from Bern to Interlaken, the land between two lakes on Bernese Oberland. When the train approaches the town, you get an impressive view of the lake and residencies along the banks.
Interlaken is a year round destination, a home of outdoor activities – skiing, paragliding, white water rafting, you name it.
Thai travellers know Interlaken as the closest town to the Jungfrau, where you catch a scenic train to Jungfraujoch, the highest train station in Europe, at 3,454 metres. Visitors marvel at the white landscapes of ice and snow. On clear days, you can see as far as the Vosges Mountains in France and Germany’s Black Forest.
However, during this trip we do something different from the typical Thai tour as we go to Mount First from Interlaken Ost which is the base station of the Bernese Oberland Railway. The journey on a cogwheel train to Grindelwald covers 22 km passing through beautiful mountains dotted with typical chalets decorated with bright potted flowers. Thanks to the open train windows, tourists can take photographs without too much fuss.
From Grindelwald, travellers continue on the cable car to First. The station is located in the centre of Grindelwald, 10 minutes walk from the railway station. The aerial cableway trip to the summit station takes approximately 25 minutes.
Mount First is not a high peak (2,168 m), but it offers excellent viewpoints. From here, you see the three giants Eiger (3,970), Monch (4,107 m) and Jungfrau (4,158 m) standing tall side-by-side.
The First region is the starting point for hikes along a network of trails covering 2,000 km. There is also a flight on a cable line, scooter-bikes for downhill racing through hairpin bends and a children adventure playground close to the Bort intermediate station.
In the original plan, we were to swoop speedily down the First Flyer, a 800-metre cable from First station to Schreckfeld station at 84 kph. Riders sit in in a hanging chair strapped in with a harness. Up to four people can ride on the gigantic zip lines at one time. However, this ride is subject to weather conditions and on the day we were there, it was foggy and windy.
Instead, we go downhill to Grindelwald by Trotti Bike available from Bort, a station down from Schreckfeld to First Aerial Cableway in Grindelwald. This is only available from late May through late October before the path is covered by snow. The distance from Bort to Grindelwald is about 6 km all downhill.
The Trottibike is basically a scooter but it has three wheels. The road is narrow, bumpy and follows a very steep valley. As you descend, the road becomes wider and the angle less steep making it easier to control. Riding the scooter, you can stop whenever you want and this is good for taking photographs.
After a downhill ride, we hop back on the train from Grindelwald to Interlaken Ost, to take the train to Bern and from Bern board another train to the French-speaking part of Lausanne on the shores of Lake Geneva. We start the journey late in the afternoon, but the trip takes just two hours and 56 minutes. We have plenty of time to walk around before having dinner.
Lausanne was made famous in Thailand as it was the home of HM the King from 1933 to 1951 where he completed his education before moving to Thailand. The house where he lived in Lausanne is no longer there.
However, in 2006 a Thai Pavilion was built at Parc Denantou, Ouchy in Lausanne to commemorate two important occasions: the 60th Anniversary of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s accession to the throne and the 75th anniversary of Thai-Swiss diplomatic relations.
When in Lausanne, explore the old town, which boasts medieval style buildings that now house shops and museums. On top of the old town is the cathedral that claims to be the finest gothic cathedral in Switzerland.
On Saturday, the car-free streets of the old town transforms into outdoor markets where farmers sell their products including cheese, sausages, flowers, vegetables, fruits as well as handicrafts.
Just 25 km from Lausanne, to the east following the Lake Geneva shore, we come across the Chateau de Chillon or Castle of Chillon, a gigantic stone complex on a rock island originally used as a residence, fortress, arsenal and prison from 12th century until the end of World War II.
The rocky island, on which the castle is built, was a strategic location to control the passage between northern and southern Europe.
When you are there, you will be fascinated by the sombre rock. Above ground you feel safe and the view of Lake Geneva through long slit windows is enthralling.
The castle is open every day, except 1 January and 25 December. The opening hours vary according to the season. The fee is CHF12 without guides and CHF80.5 for guided group tours for a maximum of 40 people per guide.
After a visit, independent travellers might like to take a stroll along the lakeside for 4 km to the town of Montreaux along a path lined with flower beds.
On the way to Castle of Chillon, you will pass the vineyards of Lavaux that became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007. Lavaux consist of 830 hectares of terraced vineyards that stretch for about 30 km along the northern shores of Lake Geneva against the backdrop of snow tipped peaks.
En route to the castle, travellers can drop by Lavaux Vinorama, a centre of Lavaux vineyards and wine tasting. Open last year on the hill next to Lake Geneva,visitors can shop and taste samples of 200 local wines from various villages. Wine tasting packages start from CHF13 inclusive of wine, water, bread and puff pastry sticks.
From the lake we once more travel to the mountains. This time to the German speaking Zermatt village located at 1,620 metre above sea level.
We travel on the InterRegio train from Montreaux to Visp and change to a Regio train to Zermatt, taking just two hours and 34 minutes to complete the transfer.
Zermatt has been designated a car-free town so if you travel by car there is a place where you can park and then continue by train to the village.
In Zermatt only silent battery vehicles are allowed.
Due to its car-free status, Zermatt is a relaxing health resort where you can reenergise.
However, it was once just a small farming village with a few hundred people before growing into a popular ski resort at the foot of the highest Swiss peak. Zermatt has a permanent population of around 6,000 people.
The mountain is known by its English name Matterhorn and has been the scene of tragedy many times when climbers attempted to conquer the difficult climb to the summit.
The famous Matterhorn is clearly the trademark of Zermatt. The triangle shape of Matterhorn is familiar as it appears as the logo of Toblerone, the famous triangle-shape chocolate bar from Switzerland.
At dawn, or dusk, the bridge over the Vispa creek that runs through the village will be packed with tourists who gather to get the best view of the Matterhorn when its icy peak takes on a pink and red hue.
Matterhorn Zermatt is surrounded by 45 high peaks, but the region has over 4,000 mountain peaks of varying heights.
Monte Rosa, Switzerland’s highest peak at 4,634 metres above sea level is also in the area. The Matterhorn at 4,478 metres is the 10th highest summit, but by far the most famous. It was among the last Alpine peak to be conquered.
Zermatt is packed with shops and restaurants along the main Bahnhofstrasse, where the train station is located. However, to explore the surrounding mountains most visitors will join trekking tours, take cable rides or hire mountain bikes. It wil take days to even explore just the most popular areas.
If you want to learn more of Zermatt, you can register for a village guided tour for CHF10 lasting one hour and a half. Or you can visit the Matterhorn Museum, an underground museum covered by a glass roof. It is not only about the Matterhorn, as it also features the lifestyle and history of the region.
In order to see the Matterhorn close up take a lift to Klien Matterhorn or Glacier Paradise. It is the highest cable car in Europe. The peak is at 3,883 metres with the cable car terminal at 3,820 metres.
Glacier Paradise is the highest altitude mountain railway station in Europe and is close to the border with Italy.
On the ascent, the cable car provides spectacular views of the main peaks and valleys as you are leave the village far behind. The cable car climbs a slight slope over a valley to Furi and from Furi to Trockener Steg to Klien Matterhorn, it ascends at a steep angle that gives you a hint of the challenges climbers faced. Down below you have breathtaking views of the white-wash glaciers, snow covered mountains and valleys. On the summit, a viewpoint platform offers stunning a 360 degrees panoramic view, well worth CHF49 (50% off from CHF9 using a Swiss pass).
Also, you can visit the Glacier Palace (CHF8 with Swiss Pass) and try the experience of walking through a huge freezer. The tunnel web is dug under the glacier, almost 15 metres below the surface. So you know how it feels. Ice sculptures are on display.
Besides a Gondola ride to Klien Matterhorn, a train trip to Gornergrat is a must-do excursion from Zermatt and it can be done year-round. Whereas the Klien Matterhorn station is in the south, the Gornergratbahn station is north of the village close to the main train station.
The Gornergrat is an Alpine ridge, located between the Gornergletscher and Findelgletscher (glaciers) and offers a view of more than 20 four thousand metre-high peaks including the highest Monte Rosa, Lyskamm, Matterhorn, Dom and Weisshorn.
Gornergratbahn cogwheel railway will take 29 minutes to reach the Gornergrat peak at 3,089 metre above sea level, 9.3 km from Zermatt. At the summit, there are hotels, restaurants and a viewpoint platform.
From the top, try trekking down gentle hills to the next station, Rotenboden, approximately 2 km or a 30-minute easy stroll. From Rotenboden, it is a short walk to Riffelsee, the clear blue lake that reflects the Matterhorn.
From Zermatt, we travel on the scenic Glacier Express taking in the stunning scenery – green in summer, yellow orange brown in autumn and white in winter which would be a true ‘glacier’ experience.
The train service linkis two Switzerland’s prominent mountain resorts –Zermatt and St. Moritz and covers a distance of around 300 km through picturesque mountainous landscapes, valleys, passes, meadows, rural villages. It goes through 91 tunnels and crosses 291 bridges. It takes almost eight hours to cover the whole distance, which involves switch-back sections on a difficult course that climbs to high altitude; thus, the tagline ‘Slowest Express Train of the World’.
Fares vary according to distance. A one-way trip from Zermatt to St. Moritz costs CHF136, in second class and CHF226, first class. Tourists with a Swiss Pass can hop on the train but it costs an additional seat reservations fee – CHF33 in summer and CHF13 in winter.
The Glacier Express also features complimentary audio guides giving information of 74 points of interest along the route in German, French, English, Italian, Chinese and Japanese through earphones. Passengers will be alerted by bing sound before the next narration.
If you want to learn more during the journey about landscape and the culture of people who live here, you can plug in the earphone. Every time the gong rings, information will be relayed. The number will appear on a display so you can find where you are on the route.
During the summer months there are up to four services a day; reduced to two a day in winter. The express stops during late October to mid-December.
We disembark from the Glacier Express at Chur to visit this old city before we board a train to catch a night flight in Zurich, 120 km away.
Chur is the oldest town in Switzerland, having been inhabited since pre-historic times and is listed as Swiss heritage site of national significance.
Chur’s old quarter is only in short walking distance from the railway station. The old town is a car-free zone. Buildings are now occupied by government offices, shops and restaurants.
Chur Tourism makes a city tour easy as you can download audio guide, available in 11 languages , but not yet in Thai from the tourism website.
Switzerland has long been a dream destination for Thai people. Despite, its charm never ceases–towering peaks, meadow, deep gorges, Swiss chalet and medieval buildings. Together with convenience, cleanliness and safety, it is an all-time favourite for travellers.
Shopping: Shops in Switzerland close early, generally at 1900 on weekdays, while on Saturdays, at 1700. Shops close on Sunday. So, early birds catch the goodies. Try to avoid a city on Sunday, better be off in mountains.
Outdoor gear: A hat, sunglasses and comfortable walking shoes are a must if you plan hill excursions. In snow the sun glasses are essential to prevent glare and eye damage.
Water: A water bottle is essential as bottled water is at expensive at around Bt100 a bottle. So, buy one and refill it from the tap.
More tour options: Visit a local tourism office to get maps and advise for possible activities around the area before you begin exploring.This is essential in mountain towns to follow trails correctly.
Brochures: Since Switzerland is popular with Thai tourists, there are brochures and even a rail guide that has been translated into Thai.
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