The tour members who took the option of joining the tour in London met bright and early at St Pancras to join the 6am Eurostar under the English Channel to Paris, travelling to Europe by rail as well as travelling in Europe by rail. It is a Swiss Mountain Trains Tour but we experienced two of the world’s great high speed trains en route to Switzerland. All train tours of Europe should start in or end in London so that the Eurostar - one of the great rail journeys of the world - can be enjoyed.
Check in on Eurostar is rather like an airport check-in, with UK Customs and Passport Control, then French Customs and Passport Control, then Security. The Eurostar travels at 300kph on the English side, slows down through the tunnel (this takes 20 minutes) and speeds up again to deliver us into the heart of Paris, Gare du Nord Station, in under two and a half hours.
On board (First Class, of course, on the Great Trains of Europe Tours, as on all of Europe’s best rail tours) we were served a complimentary hot meal. We moved one time zone East and so lost an hour.
On arrival at Paris’ Gare du Nord, we taxied the short distance to Gare de l’Est. Here we boarded what was, for many years, the world’s fastest train, the French TGV (Trein Grand Vitesse = train very fast) bound for Zurich in Switzerland. The TGV doesn’t have a restaurant car like the German and Italian trains, nor is there a meal service to your seat as on the English Channel Eurostar and the Belgian Thalys, but one can purchase food at the buffet and bring it back to the seat. But it was the first High Speed Train in Europe and it still offers one of the great train tours of Europe and the world. Only for the first hour on today’s train journey do we reach 300kph, then the high speed track gives way to track which is not yet built for high speed.
In Zurich we met those tour members joining the tour here. They had just arrived in from the airport and were still looking a bit zonked after their long flight, but the journey on to Chur, our home for three nights, took less than 90 minutes.
Switzerland is certainly a beautiful and unique country. It has not joined the European common currency, the Euro. In Switzerland we spend Swiss francs - plenty of them at about $1.15 Australian each. It is famous, of course, for its watches and chocolates as well as its numbered bank accounts.
Switzerland has four official languages, but there is no language called Swiss: German is spoken as the primary language by about 70% of the population in the central, northern and eastern regions of the country, including Luzern, Zurich, and Bern. French is spoken by about 20% in the West, around Geneva and Lausanne, and Italian is spoken by about 10% in the South. A further 1% in the South - East around St. Moritz speak Romansch, a variant of mediaeval Latin. Yes, I know that is 101% - arithmetic was never my forte. Swiss banknotes are written in all four languages; because there is not enough space on a Swiss postage stamp for four languages, their country of origin is identified by the Latin word for Switzerland - Helvetia. The internet suffix for Switzerland is ‘ch’ - Switzerland is spelled differently in the various languages, so the original Latin is called into service again - Confedratio Helvetia.
As a political entity, Switzerland dates from the twelfth century when four small cantons (shires?) around Lake Lucerne joined together. They were called the four forested cantons, and they called Lake Lucerne the lake of the four forested cantons - Vierwaldstattesee - still its name in German. The English “Grand Tour” visitors in the eighteenth century couldn’t get their tongue around the German name and, in English at least, it has been called Lake Lucerne ever since.
In the three towns where we will be stopping on this tour - Chur, Spiez and Lucerne (or Luzern, as the locals spell it) - we are in the German speaking area of Switzerland, and the dominant cuisine is also German. Bratwurst, weisswurst, knackwurst, all manner of snags (and beer). I told my joke about the German restaurant with a reputation for slow service, whose motto was “the wurst is yet to come”.
Those who learned German at school had difficulty coping with the very distinctive dialect of German called Switzer Deutsch - Swiss German. But English was understood in most places.
We met at 6.30pm for our Welcome Drinks and Dinner and an early night as jetlag kicked in.
Sunday - some slept in and others attended the local (Protestant) Church to hear the magnificent (and humungous) pipe organ.
We commenced our love affair with the Swiss mountain trains today on one of the shorter train tours of our holiday, but one of the most spectacular rail tours from Switzerland’s oldest town, Chur (there is evidence of habitation 5000 years ago) to Switzerland’s highest town, Davos. En route we crossed the Wasser Viaduct, famous for its appearance in practically every coffee table book ever published on Great Train Journeys of the World. The little red train crosses the high bridge straight into a tunnel cut into solid rock. From the nineteenth century, Davos gained a reputation as a “Wellness” centre, and is now a very trendy ski resort in Winter. The rich and beautiful congregate here. It is a favourite haunt of the Windsors. We didn’t see any corgis, but lunched in a restaurant whose motif is a giant snail and whose house speciality is cheese fondue.
We took another scenic train journey home via the equally pretty ski village of Klosters.
One of the world's great rail journeys today on the Bernina Express across the Alps to Tirano in Italy. So stunning is the scenery that one section of the route has been classified a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Bernina Express boasts that it is the slowest express train in the world: it even stops for a 20 minute coffee stop at a trackside restaurant!
Our Bernina Express train journey takes us across dozens of high bridges, deep gorges, viaducts, tunnels and breathtaking scenery all the way. We loop the loop towards the bottom of the descent into Italy.
On arrival we crossed into Italy for a quick lunch stop in an unmistakably Italian town of Tirano.
We retraced our steps back over the Bernina Pass, home to Chur
Glacier Express to Spiez
We checked out of our hotel today and crossed to the station, ready to move on to the Bernese Oberland, the area around Interlaken. Our destination was Spiez, a beautiful lakeside village on Lake Thun. This is the day so many have looked forward to - the chance to take a ride on the world’s favourite train, the little red Glacier Express.
We boarded the Glacier Express for the journey of a lifetime across the roof of the world. This cute little red train took us over mountain passes, past sweeping panoramas, across high bridges, and through tunnels. We chugged over the Oberalppass - a not entirely original name for an over-alp-pass - at 7,000 feet. All this we enjoyed from our Glacier Express panorama car.
There is a restaurant car on the Glacier Express as well as a little man who wheels his trolley of goodies through the carriages.
We left the Glacier Express in the village of Brig many photos later. Thank heavens for the delete button on digital cameras. Here we joined an InterCity train for another of the great ‘Europe train tours experiences - the tunnel between Brig and Spiez is one of the longest in Europe.
We arrived in our hotel at 4.30pm. Wow! The Eden Hotel Spiez is really something - magnificent views across the lake to the Jungfrau and the Eiger, fabulous food, very comfortable rooms, and wonderful staff, friendly and helpful. There was time for a stroll around the lake but the bar looked too good for that, so it was sundowners all round on the terrace overlooking the lake. Our included dinner tonight was in the hotel restaurant.
We took a rest from train tours this morning and instead did one of Europe’s great cruises - on Lake Thun from Spiez to Interlaken. We all took a few hundred pictures of the Alps reflected in Lake Thun.
We disembarked in Interlaken and strolled through the town, enjoying an early lunch. We then joined another Swiss Mountain train for another of the great train rail journeys of the world - the Golden Pass Panorama Express which took us from Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland to Montreux on Lake Geneva.
The route took us through what in summer is high meadows being grazed by beautiful Swiss Brown cows; in winter it a wonderland for snow sports. We passed through the very fashionable ski resort of Gstaad.
The descent towards Lake Geneva, at the end of our train journey, was truly breathtaking.
Montreux could be the Swiss Riviera. It boasts a lakefront to stroll, very trendy shops, and an opportunity to polish up your French. Here we were in French speaking Switzerland. We took the more circuitous but faster route home to Spiez via Visp.
Literally, the high point of all rail tours of Europe today to the highest railway station in Europe - the Jungfraubahn. I advised the tour members to bring warm clothes, although it is high summer.
It is only fifteen minutes by train from our hotel to Interlaken, and there we changed to a cute little green and yellow train as far as Lauterbrunnen where we changed to the rack railway and began seriously climbing. At Kleine Sheiddeg , at an altitude 6700 feet, at the foot of the notorious Eiger North Wall, we changed again. From there the Jungfrau Railway climbs through the Eiger Tunnel. We enjoyed spectacular sightseeing through large observation windows hewn from solid Alpine rock.
We arrived at the Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest railway station at a staggering 11,333 feet above sea level, in the heart of a glorious glacier world on the very roof of Europe! We were half again the height of Mt Kosciusko, and sitting in a train.
The thermometer said 2degrees as we enjoyed superb views across the millennia old glacier as far as the summits of the Vosges Mountains in France and the Black Forest in Germany. I guess that visibility was close to 50 miles
We rejoined our little red train and wound down and down, retracing our steps to Kleine Sheiddeg, where we changed trains and descended by a different route, stopping off for an afternoon stroll through the beautiful village of Grindelwald. Four different trains on the one daytrip added up to one of the greatest of Europe’s train tours.
We checked out of the hotel this morning but left our bags to collect later in the day. A different adventure today - to the top of the Alps on a steam train! We skirted the lake to Brienz where we took the Brienzer Rothornbahn one of the truly unique rail tours of Europe. Not only it is a steam train, but the carriages are pushed by the steam engine. The views across Lake Brienz to the Eiger are magnificent.
Through an idyllic setting we went. The evocative sounds of the steam engine were counterpointed by the chime of the cow bells as we grunted up and up from lake level to 2,200 metres at the top of the Rothorn. It was 25 degrees at the bottom, 5 degrees at the top.
Back down the hill, we had time for lunch before we collected our bags at the Spiez station (the Eden Hotel had brought them up to the station for us - wonderful service). Within an hour we were in lakeside Lucerne and our hotel. A short stroll across the Chapel Bridge brought us into the historic cobblestone mediaeval shopping area. The views from the old town, across the lake, the Chapel Bridge and the city skyline to Mount Pilatus towering above, is the stuff of tourist posters.
Today we had not only one of the great train tours of Europe, but also a lake steamer, a cogwheel railway, a gondola, a cable car, and even a town bus ride on our circuit of Mount Pilatus. We began by steaming down the lake to Alpnachstadt, then taking the historic rack railway to the top of Pilatus. This is the steepest cog railway in the world. At the top of Mount Pilatus (named for Pontius Pilate who - legend has it - fled Jerusalem to live a hermit’s on this mountain after washing his hands of Jesus of Nazareth), we stopped for lunch and unsurpassed views of Lake Lucerne below. The gondola, then the cable car, brought us back down into suburban Lucerne, where we caught the bus back to the centre.
Another day, another Swiss mountain train. Today we rode Europe’s oldest cogwheel railway as we ascended to the top of Rigi Kulm - one of Europe’s great train tours. Some tour members suggested that we had saved the best till last. This is Europe's first ever cog-wheel railway we climbed to the top of the “Queen of the Mountains” for 360degree Alpine views. We enjoyed the great views, looking down on the clouds, and tucked into a nice Sunday lunch. We, took the cog-wheel back down the mountain for some afternoon shopping in Luzern and our Farewell Dinner.