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Tunisie
Switzerland in the summer, by train

In a few words: it is perfection and performance, in all services provided and initiatives put forward to celebrate the magnificence of its natural environment, the purity of the water and the air, the peaceful atmosphere, the cultural diversity of the German, French, Italian and Romansh, and its legendary know-how, notably in cuisine.

In summer, because Switzerland has much more to offer than ski trips, namely a very mild temperature of 25 degrees Celsius. By train, because it is the best way to discover and enjoy this country.

Elsewhere, the train is often a kind of boring, surviving transportation mode. In Switzerland, it’s the opposite. It is an immense asset, brilliantly taken advantage of not only to serve the local population on a daily basis but also to entertain tourists while allowing them to travel easily and economically.

The true stars of our trip this summer in the Bernese Oberland region, more precisely, in the counties of Vaux, Lucerne, Bern and Fribourg, here are a few words about the Swiss trains before reviewing what we experienced.

Always on time

Swiss trains are frequent, stations are numerous and their cleanliness is an unavoidable virtue. Trains are so loyal to the reputation of the Swiss watchmakers that if you are one minute late and running to catch your train, you can be sure that it won’t stop or slow down for one second, if it is the exact time to leave… Fortunately, the next one should be at the station in a few minutes.

Diverse ambiance and décor

Many private and public train companies serve Switzerland and its touristic routes. In this country of mountains, one enterprise can own and use many types of transportation such as regular train, cog-wheel train, funicular, cablecar and gondolas.

Trains are also interesting in of themselves. We appreciate their velocity to reach a destination or slowness that gives us time to enjoy the scenery and take photos. Their interior design, as well as exterior, also come as nice surprises: ultra modern, in which you don’t even have to climb stairs with your luggage, or vintage and luxurious, with huge apple-green or dark-green velvet seats and brass luggage racks, or panoramic with large windows.

A smart and generous offer

To discover as many sites and panoramas as possible, while enjoying excellent rates combined with other transportation modes and entertainment, such as cruise boats with meals, shuttles, cars, restaurants, workshops and others, it is worth buying one of the different passes offered.

Some are specific to a particular region, such as the one that covers the Top of Europe with Jungfrau Railways and Mont Pilatus with Pilatus Railway; others offer itineraries built around a county’s specialty such as chocolates or cheeses, or the Golden Pass; others serve the entire country, like the Swiss Travel Pass, to proudly show the superb scenic routes of the 1,600 km Switzerland Grand Tour, like the Glacier Express, the Bernina Express and the Wilhelm Tell Express, 22 lakes, 5 alpine pass and 10 UNESCO Heritage Sites.

Interlaken: happiness and boldness

Interlaken, the lovely town where we stayed, owes its name to the fact that it is located between two superb lakes, Thun and Brienz, whose waters are opaque turquoise, a color rarely seen elsewhere. It is easy to spend hours upon hours watching them. After a few minutes on the train, we reach other watercourses, the Lake Geneva and Lake Lucerne.

These vast areas of water allow the practice of a multitude of nautical activities, some quiet ones (panoramic or culinary cruises), some more active (canoe, rafting, kayak, jet boat and canyoning).

Interlaken, at the foot of the Swiss Alps, means that the launch sites for paragliding (see other article) are a few minutes away.

When the time comes to rest after all the effort, guest houses, youth hostels, boutique hotels or a palace are all good choices.

We were lucky to be hosted by the Grand Hotel and Spa Victoria and to enjoy its 5-star designation in its huge hall, comfortable rooms, sunny dining rooms, indoor modern "Roman-inspired" pool with a colonnade of pillars and over all of its open-air hot, salt water Jacuzzis, with a natural backdrop and underwater frame that allowed us to stretch and float.

What’s more, a 5-minute walk to the left or to the right took us to … a train station.

Harder Kulm: the ultimate platform

With excitement, we climb into a shining red funicular along a vertiginous slope, crossing a long, dark uphill tunnel that increases the impression of being about to experience something out of the ordinary, that gives us a glance at the genius of the creators of the Jungfrau Railways, as well as at the courage and ability of the workers who built it.

The oohs and aahs ring out at the summit: we find ourselves on a large platform with a glass floor in the shape of a triangle, like a ship’s bow, looking over the Interlaken lakes and looking across other surrounding summits. An elegant restaurant offers a complete menu and serves cocktails on the outdoor terrace. This was where we really became hooked on the Swiss Alps.

The Jungfraujoch: and there was light…

The Top of Europe, the Jungfraujoch, almost 4,200 meters high, forms the highest point in a triangle that is completed by the Eiger and Mönch summits.

At 10 degrees Celsius in the summer, it is one of the most distinctive sights in the Swiss Alps and very popular amongst tourists, even though it is covered by eternal snow.

A windbreaker and a scarf are the only equipment you will need to enjoy the slide and zip line or to reach the observatory at its highest point. An “Ice Palace” houses a museum and a bar.

The Jungfrau Railways Company organizes some colorful sports events, with the Hublot Watches, where Olympic and professional international athletes compete in a friendly atmosphere with Swiss sports stars and children, signing autographs and taking selfies… before leaving in a helicopter.

There are many opportunities to reunite with alphorn players. This instrument, with its long and straight tube, has been around since the 14th century and was used as an instrument to signal from high mountains. The traditional costumes of the musicians contribute to a quasi-solemn ambiance at this exceptional site.

Grindelwald: active and fun!

In other parts of the Swiss Alps, trekking, interspersed by panoramic clearings and stunning cliffs, is the activity of choice and many paths will suit different fitness levels.

Back from a trek, a well-known restaurant’s terrace offers all we need to build our strength back… before going back down on the zip line First-Flyer, 800 meters by 50 meters from the ground level at a speed of 84 km/hour. It is not for the weak of heart!

Should such an adrenaline rush not make you rejoice, or if it’s too windy, you can choose to go down with a Trottibike that uses almost deserted winding paths. It should take you between 30 to 45 minutes, depending on your rhythm. This push scooter, with brakes on the handlebar, is like a bike, and is easy to ride after a 3-minute test. All you risk is a wrist cramp. Without being steep, the path is nonetheless mountainous and pressure has to be applied to the brakes almost continuously (at least for the first time).

Or, relax and take the gondola down and reach Grindelwald’s main street, which has restaurants and terraces and leads to the … train station.

Thun: millennial and medieval

A dinner cruise along the coast of Lake Thun, while admiring beautiful houses and castles, takes us to the city of Thun. The site was already occupied by 2500 B.C., and its historical centre was built in the 12th century. Many pedestrian streets still showcase beautiful buildings built at that time next to trendy restaurants, bars and terraces.

Traditional and culinary festivals are held every year here. It has a lovely river that is crossed by an old wooden bridge that plays the role of a dam and creates swirls for the great pleasure of surfers as well as passers-by. It makes for quite a lovely scene at sunset!

Speaking of sun, during the summer, sunset occurs around 10:30 PM, providing long evenings for pleasure.

Mount Pilatus: so powerful!

Leaving the surroundings of Jungfraujoch and Harder Kulm, we are heading to Mount Pilatus. The visual sensation is different. This time, we face immense rocks and are fascinated by their forms and the strength they emit.

Tunnels, ramps, stairs and platforms are laid out so that the rocks can be seen from inside, outside, from the top, from the bottom and from the side, at a wide angle or through a small hole. These various points of view represent a 45-minute or a 4-hour walk, depending on the degree of difficulty you choose – between 1 and 4. We met a few Tibetan monks who seemed very enthusiastic.

It is also possible to see stein bocks – a sort of big ram with long, sharp antlers. And we hold our breath in front of the small, white chapel built on the very edge of a precipice, as a sign of unshakable faith…

Adding to the enchantment of the site, we are told tales about Pontius Pilate, who retreated there and was saved by the dragons, and about other wandering souls guided by gnomes or the story of the miraculous stone.

The top of Mount Pilatus is reached with the world’s steepest cog-wheel train that climbs 4,618 meters to the summit at 1,635 meters with a slope of 48%, defying the laws of gravity. Before boarding the train at the station, where it is preferable to leave the luggage, it was fascinating to watch the trains laterally moving to interchange their rails.

At the summit, apart from the panorama stretching away in front of us, we reach two hotels with a large terrace linked by an indoor and outdoor walkway. The Bellevue is a 4-star establishment while the second, the Pilatus-Kulm, classified as an historic monument, is 5 stars. All modern comforts were added in 2010 when the rooms were renovated, which cohabit with the charm and the grace of the Victorian décor from the end of the 19th century in the dining room, where the menu is resolutely gastronomic with great service.

Going back down, adults and kids enjoy themselves – sometimes with fright – on the 10 obstacle course of the Suspension Rope Park or while riding the country’s longest summer toboggan. Another option: a ride with the new cableway, Dragon Ride, also gets adrenalin pumping but is a smoother way to get down, allowing everyone to see lovely houses with their flower gardens.

Lucerne: art with a big A

It is with some regret that we only spent half a day in Lucerne. Nonetheless, we can evoke the beauty of its historical centre, which is overlooked by a while castle on a hill and the lovely cruise over Lake Lucerne, surrounded by swans.

And there is the richness of the collections at the Rosengart Museum, showcasing 23 major artists from the 19th and 20th centuries: Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Mirò, Modigliani, Cézanne, Pissarro, Chagall, Renoir, Vuillard, Soutine, and Monet… One full day is the minimum you will need to see it all.

Chocolate and cheese: irresistible

Gourmet adults and kids easily leave out all the promises made to the dentist or their low caloric resolutions when boarding the chocolate train, which stops at Broc and the cheese train, which heads to Gruyères.

Switzerland is not a producer of cocoa but is nonetheless recognized worldwide for its chocolate. It is where, at the end of the 18th century, the production of milk chocolate began. More precisely, at the Maison Cailler. Travelers can visit the house, over a hundred years old and modernized: after an exhibit on the history of chocolate and the emotions it has been evoking for centuries, we participate in a production workshop and, of course, we taste. The one we preferred was the one with the Botzi peer, a Fribourg variety.

Since our arrival in Switzerland, we patiently waited to be in Gruyères to order Swiss fondue. We were rewarded after a visit to a factory, where we learned the difference in taste of the cheeses produced since 1115, depending on the type of grass and flowers eaten by the cows, the location of their pasture land and the aging process (5 to 18 months), without any additives or preservatives. The fondue was divine, served on a terrace in the picturesque village of Gruyères, almost at the foot of the castle. The fondue “half and half” is favored, a creamy mixture of Gruyère and Vacherin from Fribourg, with garlic, white wine and kirsch.

Other specialties of Gruyères are the soup of the chalet, macaroni of the chalet and an assortment of cheeses and charcuterie.

Surprise: here, the Swiss do not eat chocolate fondue. Their favorite desert is the double cream on raspberry and meringue. Divine, if you have room after all the Swiss fondue and its side dishes that would satisfy Pantagruel.

Worth noting: another itinerary with the Golden Pass allows for an all-you-can-eat raclette while admiring the sunset en route to Rochers-de-Naye. Just thinking about it…!

Other routes emphasize the Saturday Night grill or a night of shooting stars.

Gruyères Castle and HR Giger Museum: fantastic!

Literally original, and for many other reasons. Overlooking the town at a height of 830 meters, the castle, built 8 centuries ago, is outstandingly well preserved, inside as well as outside. A completely different experience awaits the visitor at each story. First, the décor, the furniture and the works of art collected by every resident of their time are all intact. Baroque, Renaissance or Romantic. A few halls house contemporary exhibitions, notably modern photography and fantastic art… it is quite different from a usual visit to a castle; the interest is in that, in fact.

The castle’s team, visibly passionate and an endless source of information and entertainment, works hard to set up an eclectic program of events, some even outdoors.

Another place that is just as surprising leaves us in awe: the house of the artist HR Giger, known internationally for having conceived the Alien from the famous movie, as well as other horrifying creatures. The house, converted into a museum and a bar across the street, showcases sculptures and walls on which to lean, seats to sit and tables that are all very unsettling. It is a surreal discovery in such a small medieval village.

Bucolic concert: an unusual curfew 

Heavy bells, often decorated with lovely motives, are not only souvenirs designed for tourists. They are really worn by the cows grazing on grass in the alpine scenery. Their tinkling is normal ambient background music. We love it. But, following complaints from residents who became insomniac by what has been heard for centuries, the Zurich court of appeals just ordered a few farmers to take off the bells from 10 PM to 7 AM, putting an end to the night concert.

Lausanne: elegance

During another too short stay of one day in Lausanne, the capital of the canton of Vaud and host of the International Olympic Committee, we visited the vast Olympic Museum. An architectural masterpiece, it has been recently equipped with the most innovative entertainment and interactive technologies.

Absolutely everything about the Olympic Games, from their introduction by Baron Pierre de Coubertin to the modern era, is exposed here: photos, videos, souvenirs and of course real objects from every game, showing the evolution of science and performance: flames, medals, costumes, mockups of stadiums and Olympic villages, clothing, hats and shoes of most famous athletes and even menus from yesterday and today, etc.

The food that is served is excellent. At Tom Café, with a stunning view of the sculpture garden – one of which is by Niki de Saint Phalle – and Lake Geneva: one of the largest lakes in Western Europe, which extends over 73 km with a width of 14 km and a depth of 309 m.

From there, we can board the fabulous 5-star vintage paddlewheel steamer, built 150 years ago and classified as an historic monument. We follow the banks of the Ouchy and its docks, known as the Swiss Riviera, where bathers, cyclists and roller blade enthusiasts are regaling themselves. Then, we reach the first hotels built to accommodate tourists and see the old Savoy Palace on boulevard Cauchy, which will soon become a 5-star hotel-spa, as well as Art nouveau buildings, such as l’Estérel.

One shouldn’t miss climbing towards the historic centre with its Gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral and the market stairway – 174 stairs built in 1717 – as well as the Palud Place, its colorful Fountain of the Justice and the city hall with its dragon gargoyles.

At night, we visit the Flon district, a once abandoned district where the river was covered a long while ago; today, terraces, restaurants and trendy boutiques, as well as "look alike" river and beach are very popular among professionals, artists and business people of all ages.

Montreux-Vevey: music and cinema

The famous Montreux International Jazz Festival was in full swing when we arrived in this attractive little town with buildings of various, strange forms, ancient and modern and colorful.

Apart from its rich annual program, one of the most attractive aspects of this Festival are the terraces overlooking Lake Geneva, the numerous free outdoor performances and its entertainment that lasts until late at night. In 2016, the Festival will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. Of course, the programme should be even more phenomenal than usual. For those interested: book as early as possible.

The natural attractions of Montreux and its environs such as Vevy and Morges have prompted various personalities that once came to live or to spend long stays: Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Rousseau, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Freddy Mercury, Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel, Audrey Hepburn, Maurice Béjart and Yul Brynner.

In 2016, Vevey will be hosting a festival paying tribute to Chaplin and its contemporary artists, the Vevey International Funny Film Festival. And Chaplin’s 14-hectare property will be transformed into a museum open to the public next year.
In Montreux, we stayed in the small, but very cordial, hotel de La Rouvenaz. Its modern rooms have large photos of European actresses from the 60s. It is conveniently located a 3-minute walk from the Festival and the station.

With regards to Montreux, we often hear “the three suns”. The one shining in the sky, its orange reflection on Lake Geneva and the one that heats the stones of the wineries and that gives the wine of the region such a distinctive taste. In Switzerland, the wine is excellent.

Because we didn’t have enough time, we missed the Chillon castle and the Corniche Lavaux vineyards on the terraces. Next time, we won’t fail to see them!

We suspected Switzerland was a nice country, but discovering it by train this summer was accompanied by refinement, astonishment and bedazzlement; a delight at all times.

Sylvie Berthiaume

Translation: Christiane Théberge

This trip was made by invitation by the Switzerland Tourism Office, in cooperation with its railway partners.


www.swisstravelsystem.com
www.switzerland.com



 


Vintage train

Jungfrau Funicular to Harder Kulm

Chocolate Train

Station on the Chocolate and Cheese trains  

Chapel between sky and precipice, Mount Pilatus

Grand Hotel and Spa Victoria, Interlaken


Restaurant, Harder Kulm

The Top of Europe

Trottibike

Aerial adventure at Mount Pilatus

Oberhofen Castle, Lake Thun

Hotel Pilatus Kulm

Cruise on Lake Lucerne

Maison Cailler

Fantastic art at Gruyères Castle

Gruyères

Gruyères Castle's gardens

Market stariway, Lausanne Cathedral

Mockup at the Olympic Museum

Flon district, Lausanne

Lake Leman

Terrace on the lake, Montreux

Hotel La Rouvenaz, Montreux

Double cream, raspberries and meringue 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

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