It’s 7 am and Paris’s Gare du Lyon station is already bustling with a cross-section of travellers. My wife Lata and I are waiting for the Eurail TGV to Lausanne, with barely controlled excitement. Before long, we are hurtling lickety-split through the countryside and the scenery outside blurs into a uniform shade of green.
The TGV is the fastest and most comfortable way to see Europe. In fact, the TGV is as fast as flying when you add up the commute to and from the airport and the mandatory wait there. In terms of comfort and convenience, however, there is a world of difference. No wonder seasoned travellers prefer to Eurail it through the Continent.
Slowly the landscape changes to more hilly terrain — the Jura Mountains. Soon we roll into Lausanne on Lake Geneva and change trains for Montreux. Deep blue waters reflect the Savoie Alps in the far distance. White painted yachts bob on the gentle waves. Vineyards extend into the distance.
Lausanne-Montreux -Can I have some more, please?
We roll into the historic city of Lausanne on Lake Geneva and change trains for Montreux, the gateway to the quintessential Swiss experience. The 30-minute train ride along the lake dramatically reveals why this area is called the Swiss Riviera. Deep blue waters reflecting the Savoie Alps in the far distance, white yachts bobbing on the gentle waves and the vineyards that extend into the distance are reason enough.
Enough to make us want to stay a little longer—a lifetime, perhaps?
We do not quite realize it then but this is our introduction to one of Switzerland’s most significant but least publicised contributions to travellers—the Swiss Railway System—but more on that later.
Montreux to Zweisimmen — From the Mediterranean to the mountains in minutes
Montreux itself is a quaint town that enchanted travellers for centuries with its unique brand of charm and tranquillity. The likes of Freddie Mercury, Noel Coward and Ernest Hemingway have called this place home, if only for a while. We are tempted to stay and explore but we have only five days to take in Switzerland, Rome and Venice before heading back to Paris. Meanwhile, the mountains beckon and we get on the GoldenPass Panoramic Line to Interlaken, the heart of the Bernese Oberland, arguably the most beautiful part of Switzerland.
A steep ascent passing through vineyards and country estates takes us through the hills into Chamby and continues through to the village of Les Avants, one of Switzerland’s oldest winter resorts. Suddenly we plunge into the 2-mile long Col de Jaman tunnel. Coming out at the other end, we find ourselves among alpine forests, turbulent mountain streams and picturesque mountain villages.
Like a change of scene in some celestial play, we are transported from the Mediterranean to the Alps in the blink of an eye!
Past Montbovon, the line snakes up to Chateau d’Oex, which the guidebook tells us is “the world famous hot-air ballooning paradise.”
Waterfalls crash down sheer cliff sides. Glacier-fed creeks force their way through narrow canyons. Forests of dark pine roll down the hill slopes. Little clusters of wooden chalets nervously huddle together. One highlight follows the other in rapid succession as we head deeper into the Bernese Oberland.
Soon we are zipping past Saanen, famous for the annual Yehudi Menuhin concert held in the 15th century Mauritius Church, and stop at Gstaad. From the window, we see a group of alphorn players rehearsing near the car park. The alphorn was used by shepherds in the 18th century to communicate across the Alps. Today, this traditional instrument has been given a new lease of life with younger artistes taking it up in a big way. We want to get down and listen, but the call of the Alps gets louder with each passing moment.
Gstaad is one of the world’s best-known playgrounds of the rich and famous. This charming one-street village of restored weathered-wood chalets comes to life in winter with sparkling soirées and lavish banquets thrown by the who’s who. Try Monaco’s Princess Caroline, Liz Taylor and Roger Moore for size.
The train continues to Zweisimmen, transporting us through landscapes that could easily inspire a whole new generation of fairytales.
Zweisimmen to Interlaken — Happy cows make the best milk
At Zweisimmen, we change trains to get to Interlaken via Spiez. As the train passes through the Simmental region, the mountain peaks become clearer, glimpsed intermittently through the rolling hills. The lush green slopes of the Simme Valley are increasingly peppered with cattle herds.
We discover that the Simmental cows, raised here for centuries, are now bred all over the world. These red and white beasts are literally the cash cows of the region and have brought great wealth to the farmers. The happy cows spend their summers on the Alps, wandering freely and munching the fragrant herbs of these lush alpine meadows. This must surely be the secret behind the success of Swiss dairy farming. However, of late, we are told, many farmers have switched to more exotic animals. Travellers are as likely to come across ostriches, yaks and bison as Simmental cattle in the Swiss Alps.
As we rollick along, the landscape darkens, the valley narrows and the mountains loom ever larger. We exit the valley through a narrow gorge, whip past Wimmis and roll into Spiez, a delightful little town on Lake Thun. The train line runs alongside Lake Thun and offers enticing views of the Niederhorn across the water before coming to a halt at Interlaken Ost.
Interlaken — A lull before the storm
We step out of the smallish platform and discover a simple idea that underlines Switzerland’s obsession with traveller comfort and convenience. A large board advertises the hotels in the area complete with attractions, tariff and contact number. A row of free telephones wait for tired tourists to either book rooms or call for a pick-up if they have booked in advance.
As we scan the ads, a young chap walks up and says, “Hi. I am Terry. If you’re looking for a good hotel, I recommend the Backpackers Villa.” We ask, “Are you staying there yourself?” He replies laughing, “No. I own the Falken Hotel but it’s full. The Villa is the second best.” We take him at his word and call the hotel. He takes the phone and books a double room for us. Then he says, “If you don’t mind waiting for five minutes, I’ll drop you there. The taxis can be expensive.”
Before we can say, “Danke Schoen” for this godsend, the gods themselves decide to welcome us to Interlaken. Out of the clear blue sky comes a blast of wind that increases in intensity until the metal chairs and tables are flying dangerously around us. Even Terry looks stunned at the sudden onslaught. After a couple of minutes (it seemed like ages) the wind lets up marginally and it starts pelting hail and pouring. Then as suddenly as it started, the storm clears up, and we are bathed in mild sunshine.
We are told that this freak weather is very unusual but not unheard of in early summer. Terry drops us at our hotel and says, with a twinkle, “Welcome to Interlaken!”
“Interlaken” literally means “between the lakes” — it lies between the big lakes of Thun and Brienz. At only 570m it is dominated by the three mountains of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau looming to 4000m. Everywhere we go they are omnipresent – like divine sentinels guarding rare treasure.
We saunter down “Höheweg” promenade looking for treasure of our own—souvenirs, watches and cuckoo clocks. This is called the best shopping arcade in Switzerland with excellent reason. Everything from chocolates and cowbells to designer jewellery and the world’s best chronographs is available right here. A word of caution, however – always ask the salesperson about the product’s country of origin. Most of the cheap merchandise without the “Made in…” tag is Chinese mass-produced rubbish. We even came across a horrendous electronic cuckoo clock with a parrot-green face. Ugh!
The following morning, we saunter along Hohematte—an open field right next to the promenade. Paragliders come soaring over the cliffs and land here one after the other in procession. Adventure sport is popular in Interlaken and beginners are encouraged to experience the thrill with experienced pilots and guides in attendance. Active travellers will find just about any sport they can think of—from badminton to zorbing and everything in between!
Jungfraujoch — The roof of Europe
The next day, we embark on what must rate as the finest experience in Switzerland — the train ride from Interlaken to Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe.
From Interlaken Ost to Wilderswil, through the Lauterbrunnen Valley on to Kleine Scheidegg, the cog-and-pinion railway snakes its way up to the roof of Europe—Jungfraujoch.
Of all the Alpine journeys, this section is one of the most unforgettable. No wonder even veteran alpinists call it “the most beautiful valley in Europe”.
With its thundering waterfalls, secluded valleys, colourful alpine meadows and lonely mountain inns, the Lauterbrunnen Valley is an immense U-shaped valley (the world’s deepest) with 1000m sheer bluffs on either side. In 1779, its utterly spectacular beauty inspired Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to write his well-known poem ‘Spirit song over the waters’.
We lose all sense of direction as the little train travels deeper and deeper into the mountain. Finally, we reach the top. Row upon row of mountain peaks dominated by the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau extend into the distance. Alpine choughs, the crow-like acrobats of the dizzy heights dive deep from peak to valley in feathered majesty. The Aletsch glacier, the frozen heart of the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn UNESCO World Heritage Site creeps down into the Valais.
If the thin air at 3,454m takes our breath away, the view leaves us gasping. We are transfixed, unmindful of the intermittent flurries of snow driven by a 35 kmph wind in the sub-zero cold. We stand in silence, holding hands, soaking in the primordial awe until it’s time to leave.
We head back to Interlaken by a different route—via Grindenwald—lost in a gentler landscape. At Interlaken Ost, we change trains to Spiez and then onward by overnight Eurail to Rome.
In just a couple of days, Switzerland has enchanted our imagination and captured our hearts. Not only with its scenic superlatives, traditional hospitality and gastronomic pleasures but strangely enough, with its superb railway system!
The height of efficiency — This is the country where the journey is truly the destination
Our journey from Paris to the “roof of Europe” is as remarkable for the sheer efficiency of the Swiss railway system as for the dramatic alpine scenery. A seamless sequence of super-fast TGVs and tenacious mountain trains designed to take the hassle out of travel and the puff from the views. Talk about cuckoo clockwork!
Doing Switzerland in two days is like wolfing down a box of chocolates. Intensely pleasurable while it lasts but desperately desolate once it’s over. Never mind. Before too long we will return.