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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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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