Enjoying train travel and admiring Europe’s efficient system as I do, it was almost a foregone conclusion my retirement travels would include a EuRail chapter. In all, I spent May to September 2010 in Europe. With a home base in Tallinn, Estonia, I used a regional Pass to visit some places in Norway on my “bucket list”. The Flaam Railway, Bergen, Geiranger Fjord and the midnight sun in Bodo. (But that’s another story.) After leaving Estonia, I arrived in Berlin by bus September 1 and boarded the InterCityExpress train for Basel.
Over the years I said I wanted to see all of Switzerland from my train window. Obviously I did spend time off the train, but all in all, I rode at least one train 18 of 21 days in September. Because of the efficiency of the Swiss system and the relatively small size of the country, it was easy to establish a home base and travel out and back in the same day. I first settled in a hostel in Zürich, and finally in Bern, with short stays in Chur and Brig in between.
After a day to see Zürich, I went to Appenzell to see the cows coming in from the mountain pastures. It was the idyllic ride through pastoral vistas on a bright sunny day. As with all tourist sights these days, it was a bit arranged. The tourism bureau posts a list of which farmer is bringing in his cows when and where to see them. But the bells, the yodelling and Heidi and her goats were still much fun. Again, a short train ride brought me to St. Gallen. For years I’ve taught catechism students about medieval monks using St. Gallen as a pattern because it was one of the major monastery communities in Europe. Today it’s an all-boys school but, as with all of medieval Europe, the stones were the same and had their stories. And thanks to Swiss Rail, I was back in Zürich for supper.
The mix of railways in Switzerland is so well coordinated one doesn’t know when he has left the national company and boarded a more local or district line. Plus, major stations are almost a destination in themselves. Wednesday is Farmers Market day in Zürich, and I was excited to see the huge public area full of kiosks selling the most delicious of eats. And with trains running every hour to almost everywhere, I had time for a Falcon beer and raclette, with some olives on the side. Because the EuRail Pass is also good on many boats, one of my days included a ride around Lake Züurich.
Trip Two took me to Luzern for a stamp show and the usual tourist sights. The wounded Lion monument, carved into a local rock outcropping, is profound and mesmerizes. Oddly enough it memorializes 700 Swiss soldiers who died protecting the king of France. Lying helpless with an arrow in its side, the lion almost begs you to stay.
Sunday I was off to Stein-am-Rhein, with its elaborately painted town hall, stores and houses. The crowds, mostly tourists I suspect, were also serenaded by a group with medieval instruments, and later a small orchestra in the plaza. Next, I began my visit to the Black Madonna at the Einsedeln monastery by joining tourists and locals for mass. It’s quite touching to share a handshake of the Lord’s peace with folks who may not speak the same language but all know the practice and share a common faith. Seeing a small chapel, I strolled a kilometer admiring fields and pastures and kids at school, and the hillsides where the monks raise their stud horses.
My next trip definitely had me seeing Switzerland from my train window. Bellinzona is near the Italian border so my EuroCity train (14 minutes late! Unheard of in der Schweiz!) sped south for nearly two hours, passing villages with their chapels and churches perched above, and giving glimpses of incredible, soaring bridges , and spending almost an hour total inside tunnels. This was the only day that stymied my plans with rain. But I wanted to see the UNESCO World Heritage castles, so Bellinzona in the rain it was.
Time to move on. Train to Chur. A short visit and tour with Marlys, mother of Golden native Konrad Grass, grandmother of Ariana and Natalia, and then a night in the best hostel of my trip. Only $35, corner room, pinwood bed, white duvet, breakfast included, eight minute walk to the train. The Bernina Express took me south past the St. Moritz ski resort, over the famous Landwasser viaduct, which everyone has seen on a calendar or somewhere, and on to Tirano, Italy. A bright, warm, sunny hour in the plaza and then home again. Ready for the Glacier Express to take me across the country to the Matterhorn in the southwest. On a brilliant sunny day, the Gornergrat train took me to 10,000 feet (3089 m) and a front row seat to view this famous and magnificent mountain. I was told September was good for travel in the fall because kids are back in school, folks are back at work and seniors go on holiday. That was evident to me here and I enjoyed exchanging stories with a few, and of course, had them take my picture with the mountain.
From Brig, my EuroCity train sped through immaculate vineyards to Montreux on the eastern shore of Lake Geneva, where I was to change trains. But there was a shiny, 1020s era train on the track with prompt my departure time posted. Hmmm. I found the conductor and he assured me it was the right train and there was no surcharge. So I found a plush first-class seat amid the natural wood paneling and was promptly asked by the steward if I would like a drink. So, as we climbed above the city and lake, I hoisted a glass of wine and toasted this amazing land.
I’d arrived in Gruyeres intending to stay the night. I also expected to see a small farm town of 1400 and found a hilltop castle fortress overrun with 3000 tourists, expensive hotel rooms and a lot of commercialism. So, some quiet time in the church to regroup, a visit to the classic sights and peeked into…would you believe, in this medieval setting…a bar and museum dedicated to the producer of the Alien movie, H. R. Giger, complete with skeleton chairs, etc. Plan B turned out to be, train to Bern. I’d arrive a day early but the hostel found a room and I was set for another week.
Life was more casual for me at this end of the trip. Local visits to the art museum, churches, riverside strolls, a country fair right on the national parliament’s plaza, train-watching at the Aare river bridge. Side trips took me to sights and farmers market in Neuchatel (the French part of Switzerland), the great cathedrals in Olten (one Old Catholic and the massive St. Marten’s), and a visit in Zug with a young man whose family I’d met at Wait-a-bit campground two years ago, and a quick ride down to Lusanne where I happened upon a street fair amid my walk up to the cathedral and about town.
Friends from church in Invermere, Hans and Sandra Stettler, were home in Thun for a brother’s birthday and a school reunion. So we met up for our trip up to Jungfraujoch. The three peaks – Eiger, Monch, Jungfrau- rise to the east above Interlaken , about in the center of Switzerland. Alas, the clouds and sprinkles gave us pause, and as we changed trains in Lauterbrennen and then Scheidegg, we wondered. But at 12,000 feet anything can happen. And the sun did not disappoint. We saw Monch and Jungfrau and the glaciers beyond, while learning to “walk slowly, breathe normally”. The air is thin at 3454m.An ad on the train directed us to an evening fondue cruise on Lake Brienz, complete with three-piece accordion band.
Finally, I saved the best for last. InterCityExpress to Basel, TGV to Paris, Thalys to Brussels and the Eurostar to London for my flight home. A night in Brussels gave me time to bask in the glorious buildings of the Grande Place, the hilltop cathedral, Manniken Piss fountain and more. Whipping through the countryside at 300km/hr, 20 minutes in darkness under the English Channel, and a casual ride through English countryside was a great end to a grand journey.