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Riding the Rails
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Riding the Rails
  Zurich Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton ...

As precise and accurate as the movements of the legendary Swiss watch, Switzerland's trains rumble past glorious countryside, across high bridges, by idyllic lakes and through long tunnels, linking medieval villages, modern cities and sophisticated resorts so efficiently and effortlessly, a visitor with a Swiss Rail Pass can get a good sense of the country and the people in as little as 8 days.

Breathtaking landscape notwithstanding, the train stops in the middle of enchanting villages and cities throughout Switzerland, like Berne, Lucerne, Lausanne and Geneva.

Both Lausanne and Geneva are situated on the banks of Lake Geneva. Lausanne is full of colors and shades because of its many parks and nearby hills; however, even in the silvery, gray and white hues of the winter season, the city sparkles with pleasant, traffic-free shopping streets and a broad choice of museums, galleries and theaters -- all easily reached on foot from the train station.

Geneva, of course, is famous for its peace talks and Red Cross work. Seldom is heard that it's a world-class city, with rows of antique stores, fine restaurants, elegant clothing boutiques, exquisite jewelry shops, historical monuments, museums, stately architecture and well-utilized lakeside boardwalks.

Lucerne, surrounded by the majestic scenery of Mount Rigi, Platus and the Central Swiss Alps, is one of the most picturesque cities in the world. Strictly from a visual point of view, the tranquil lake dotted with fairy-tale swans and shadowed by medieval city walls and hand-carved painted bridges creates a powerful photographic image. However, it is walking on the uneven cobblestone squares, breathing in the pungent smells of cheese and dark chocolate, listening to the impromptu yodeler's call, pausing for a bit in a 16th century Jesuit church and gazing at sculptures like the dying lion -- described by Mark Twain as " the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world" -- that leave a lasting impression.

In the capital city of Berne, church bells chime, cuckoo clocks chirp and colorful markets, an integral part of Bernese daily life, continue to proliferate. The Onion Market, in fact, has developed into a major festival. It is celebrated the fourth Monday of November throughout the city. Other aromatic fruit, vegetable and flower markets are found on Bundesplatz and Barenplatz each Tuesday and Saturday. Craft markets, located by the Cathedral, are set up on the first Saturday of each month and a festive December Christmas market takes over Munsterplatz and Waisenhausplatz daily until Christmas Day.

Berne is a well-preserved medieval city, listed in the UNESCO catalogue as one of the world's major cultural assets. Its eleven statuesque historic fountains (built around 1545), Baroque-style churches from the 18th century and the 1406 Gothic-style Town Hall isn't the only evidence of its roots. Other historical gems are the ancient city gates: Prison Tower (1256-1344-46) and Clock Tower ( 1256). Actually, the only evidence of the 21st century is found in the sandstone shops under 6 kilometers of covered promenades, which, by the way, make up the longest covered shopping mall in Europe. And even here, ancient curios mingle with the latest fashions.

These are only a few of many gratifying stops the trains make as they zigzag back and forth across Switzerland. Every station has tourist information stalls staffed with bilingual hosts who are eager to assist with directions and talk about the highlights of their city. There are lockers for those who want to explore for a few hours and then move on. Hotels for overnight stays can be arranged at the stations or prior arrangements can be made at the time of booking the rail passes. Best Western International has excellent properties within walking distances from most stations in major cities such as the Hotel des Balance in Lucerne -- a historical building in its own right and one of the most photographed structures in the village. The Paix at Lausanne is also a fine hotel with outstanding service as is the Baren Hotel in Berne.

On many occasions, the train itself becomes the journey, like the famous Glacier Express excursion between St. Moritz and Zermatt. This 7 1/2 hour journey, with its twists and turns over 291 bridges, through 91 tunnels and over the 2,033 m Oberalp Pass, is judged by the members of the Society of American Travel Writers as one of the top ten scenic train excursions in the world. Passengers who can't tear themselves away from the view miss the culinary delights in the stylish dining car.

The vistas that unfold as the train climbs up the narrow-gauge railroad to the resort town of Gstaad never fail to elicit involuntary oohs and aahs. Gstaad is very likely bustling with the rich and famous during the skiing season. Its crooked streets, lined with rustic ski shops and luxury gift shops are a pleasure to peruse both inside and out. And sipping cafe au lait in a quaint sidewalk bistro is definitely more satisfying in this higher altitude.

There are other classic journeys: There's the picturesque connection between Bern and Lago Maggiore along deep ravines, splashing waterfalls and forests of chestnut trees. There's the Arosa Express, a brand new train that connects Chur with Arosa, one of Switzerland's most famous winter and summer mountain resorts, and starting in 1998, Rhatian Railways is offering three nostalgic rides on three different historical steam trains built in 1906. (These runs are limited so book early to insure reservations.)

As for the trains, there are almost as many styles as there are railroads. First class is superb and second class can get noisy when school is out, but it's always comfortable and clean. Most cars that service the scenic excursions are built to take advantage of the view. Passengers need only to sit back in comfort and listen to the slick wheels click-clack on the rails beneath their feet as beautiful Switzerland rolls by.

Quite possibly, it's the smartest way to move about Switzerland, and considering that the Swiss Railroad System is the densest transport network in the world, it's remarkable that it runs as smoothly as the workings of their intricate watch.

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