I must confess. I am in love. With European trains.
I travel by train whenever I can, making myself at home in the cozy compartments and scanning the scenery as we head toward what for me are new horizons.Last October I went to Switzerland, a country replete with scenic train rides. The sun's warmth was faded, the mountain colors subdued and the crowds of summer gone.
One day faded into another. I ensconced myself next to a window, my sweater for a pillow, my carry-on bag for a footrest and a bar of Swiss chocolate for my food.
Sometimes I lowered the window, filling the compartment with crisp autumn air and aromas of damp forests and dewy meadows.
I traveled through mountain valleys, over mountain passes andalongside mountain lakes. I started in Zurich and ended in Geneva. In between I visited Romanshorn near Lake Constance, St. Moritz, Chur, Lucerne and Lugano in a trip that took almost two weeks. Each day brought another chapter of splendid scenery.
A summary of three segments of my journey follows.
CHUR - ST. MORITZ
Chur (pronounced Coor), established 5,000 years ago, is Switzerland's oldest city. A self-guided walking tour points out important buildings in the Old Town, which is small enough you can stroll through it in an hour. Visit the 800-year-old cathedral, the Rhaetian Museum of History, the Art Museum and the Natural History Museum.
My taxi speeds through a maze of one-way streets to Hotel Freieck, my home for the night. The hotel was built in 1575 and renovated in 1978 and 1980. It is modern, not plush, and has a fine restaurant where I eat a dinner of grilled Norwegian salmon.
The city's appeal, however, is more than historic. Chur is the capital of the state of Graubunden, which shares its eastern border with Austria and Italy. The mountains of Graubunden are famous for their ski resorts and exquisite scenery.
The privately owned Rhaetian Railway serves the region's mountain towns and the train station at Chur is its nucleus. The railway accepts EuRail and Swiss Passes or you can purchase a ticket at the station.
My heart is set on going to St. Moritz. Trains leave throughout the day and travel the most scenic portion of the Glacier Express, an excursion train that runs between Zermatt and St. Moritz.
The route skirts along steep mountainsides. Rapids roil in the river that runs along the canyon floor far below. Above, mountains disappear into clouds. We pass through villages where window boxes with flowers decorate chalets.
The canyon opens into a broad valley. The sky has cleared and peaks with a fresh dusting of snow look pristinely white against the sky.
St. Moritz comes into view. It is built on a mountainside and even I, a seasoned hiker, huff and puff as I walk from the train station to the shopping district. Prices are as steep as the hillside. A man's dress shirt on display in a hotel window sells for $100. My lunch of croissants and cookies purchased from a fancy bakery adds up to $5 or so. I poke my head into an optical shop long enough to find out the cheapest pair of sunglasses sells for $55.
St. Moritz is the land of the rich.
I forego shopping and head for the hiking trails. I reach a point where I look down on villages along the valley floor and a lake that glistens in the sun. The mountains of Italy are across the valley to the right. The Austrian Alps are off to the left. Snow-covered peaks are stacked up one behind another as far as I can see.
I summarize my feelings in a postcard I send to a friend. "St. Moritz is a knockout."
THE WILLIAM TELL EXPRESS
Switzerland's newest excursion train combines a boat ride on Lake Lucerne with a train ride over St. Gotthard Pass to the Swiss-Italian cities of Lugano or Locarno. The train takes its name from the legend of William Tell. He lived in the region and his heroic deed made him a symbol of Swiss independence and liberty.
I begin in Lucerne, a seductively beautiful city famous for its covered bridges. The flower-laden Chapel Bridge, built in 1333 and decorated with gable paintings that tell the area's history, is the city's most well-known landmark. But I remember it for dinners in outdoor cafes with the lake lapping nearby and a bevy of swans glistening in the moonlight.
William Tell Express passengers must check their luggage at the train station before boarding the steamer at the dock across the street. The boat has been maintained in tip-top condition and the wood-paneled dining room and linen-covered tables remind me of what travel must have been like at the turn of the century.
I take a seat. A retired British banker and his wife are my tablemates. We dine on a multi-course lunch and talk about the BBC while the boat heads to Fluelen where we will board the train. On one shore are rolling hills in varying shades of green. Mountains rise into clouds on the other.
Lake Lucerne has to be one the world's most beautiful bodies of water.
The boat pulls alongside a granite pinnacle with a gold plaque - a monument to Schiller, the German writer who committed the William Tell legend to paper. It also passes by the William Tell Chapel and Rock. The rock is supposedly where Tell escaped his captors.
We dock at Fluelen and board the train that will take us over St. Gotthard Pass to Lugano. We don't worry about getting lost. A guide holds a William Tell Express sign high above her head. We follow her like a herd of sheep to the club cars reserved for us.
St. Gotthard Pass is one of the most scenic in Switzerland. The train route over Gotthard is also one of the best-engineered. Near the village of Wassen we go through two spiral tunnels. The village church first appears on our right and then on our left as we pass through the two tunnels.
Darkness engulfs the train numerous times. The longest blackout occurs in the nine-mile-long Gotthard tunnel, an engineering marvel when it opened in 1882.
The train descends to Bellinzona, where passengers going to Locarno make their connection, and then continues to Lugano.
The William Tell Express operates daily from May 8 to Oct. 20. Reservations are strongly recommended. The trip takes six hours and the cost, one way, is 132 Swiss francs or about $100.
For information contact your travel agent or the Lake Lucerne Navigation Co. SGV, Werftestrasse 5, P.O. Box 4265, CH-6002, Lucerne, Switzerland.
The Panoramic Express takes its name from its spacious cars with windows that extend into the ceiling. They give passengers a panoramic view of the scenery.
The scenery ranges from vineyard-covered hills above Montreux and Lake Geneva to snow-covered Alps near Interlaken. In between are rolling pastures of the Bernese Oberland.
I am not taking the Panoramic Express per se, which goes between Montreux and Interlaken with a change of trains in between. But I am traveling on portions of the route.
I begin in Lucerne and travel over Brunig Pass, mentioned prominently in the writings of Mark Twain, to Meiringen, the town after which meringue (as in lemon meringue pie) was named.
Across the valley from Meiringen are Reichenbach Falls, where Sherlock Holmes supposedly met his death in a struggle with Professor Moriarty. Water cascades hundreds of feet over the face of a cliff, an impressive sight even from a distance.
I change trains in Interlaken where I crane my neck for a look at the snow-covered top of the Jungfrau. Interlaken is the heart of the Bernese Oberland. And the Bernese Oberland contains some of the highest peaks in the country. The Jungfrau is one among many.
From there the train goes through a beautiful alpine valley to Zweisimmen, where I again change trains to reach my destination of Gstaad. Gstaad is a resort village where numerous world celebrities own chalets.
Along the way are villages, rolling pastures and chalets covered with flowers. The scenery is unforgettable. I get off in Gstaad. The Panoramic Express continues to Montreux.
- Kathryn Clayton visited Switzerland as the guest of the Swiss National Tourist Office.