Swiss Railways train in Zurich Station
It is pleasant to spend an hour on a sunny summer morning drinking coffee on a terrace by the Zentralplatz outside Basel’s SBB station, watching the colourful metre gauge trams come and go, hearing a smattering of different languages, checking the morning paper and planning your onward journey.
Basle SBB station (Yes, I know there are three ways of spelling the name of this border city) has always impressed me by its great murals of the Berner Oberland mountains and the Lake of Lucerne in the great entrance hall – and this August I was on the way to visit both.
I chose to stay in Spiez, a pleasant small town on the main line towards Italy and had booked a room at a lakeside hotel. I was partly influenced by the advice of my Rough Guide against staying in busy Interlaken. As it was, my hotel had an hourly postbus service from Spiez station. The lakeside pier was served by regular boats along Lake Thun terminating in a small harbour next to Interlaken West station. These boats are operated by BLS, the long-established company for the Berne – Lotschberg – Simplon main line and associated links.
“Swisstainable” is now the “in” word for Swiss tourism, as suppliers aim to meet high environmental standards. Indeed, I was also interested to read in the Sonntagszeitung an article by a Swiss academic recommending holidays using “green” transport. Switzerland of course has a largely electrified rail network and many of its cities have trams and/or trolleybuses.
The ERC(UK) website already contains an information section on rail travel in journeys in the east of the country. I was exploring the centre and west.
My 10-day Interrail ticket took me from Lowestoft to Spiez (minus the Harwich – Hoek van Holland ferry and the RET light rail to Rotterdam Alexander). I also used it for five boat trips along Lake Thun and obtained a reduced fare on the Berner Oberlandbahn to Kleine Scheidegg via Grindelwald and back via Lauterbrunnen.
I decided to forgo the highest peaks – the mountain walls of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau were spectacular enough from this junction to Jungfraujoch, as while clouds kept coming down to conceal and then reveal them again, and the previous week I was told there had been snow over 2000 metres.
The Brienzer Rothorn rack railway was very busy (and gave no Interrail reduction) but I took the train halfway to the summit. It was fascinating to be pushed by a steam locomotive up through the forests, with the sounds of rushing water from the streams and falls down the mountainside and impressive views of Lake Brienz far below. The small town of Brienz was just one train ride from Interlaken Ost – itself an impressive station surrounded by modern developments.
Two other routes well worth exploring were those to Montreux and Luzern – for which Spiez serves as a good starting point and gave me good value from my Interrail pass.
For Montreux you can catch the Golden Pass Express which changes gauge at Zweisimmen; but I caught the normal regional trains and had easy cross-platform interchange there. Soon after the summit of the line the metre gauge train crosses the Rostigraben (“Roast Potato Dyke”) between German and French speaking Switzerland – but you only notice this when the train stops at a station called Rougemont after a short tunnel.
The gradual descent to Montreux on the shore of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) is spectacular and this upmarket resort has almost a Mediterranean feel. The station is a stone’s throw from the lake but there was no beach and the wind off the water made the esplanade feel rather bracing and whipped up waves to be dodged.
Luzern (Lucerne) is another well-known Swiss city which, from Interlaken, involves a scenic ride on a narrow-gauge train (which in one direction also had a bar-bistro), terminating in a spacious lakeside terminus with seamlessly co-existing standard- and narrow-gauge platforms, a landing stage opposite the entrance and quiet smooth modern trolleybuses to transport you round. There were a lot of expensive shops in the city centre – but the mountain and lakeside scenery was free for everyone to enjoy!