Travelling by rail in Switzerland is an absolute pleasure. I'm sure things may have gone wrong, trains may have been cancelled, but on two trips this year to Switzerland has been been seamless. Every connection in Switzerland is worked out; trains wait for each other if connections are delayed, every carriage is immaculately clean and the seating and windows perfectly designed to gawp at the view or nap comfortably. It's safe to say I'm a huge fan and it's just one of the reasons I will return to Switzerland again and again.
Swiss travel passes offer so much, including free or reduced entry to selected museums and galleries and certain mountain railways making it perfect for adventurous independent travellers. If your plan is to spend your time in Switzerland at a single location there's a cheaper option with a pass that takes you from your point of entry in the country to your resort and the return journey when it's time to go home, but if your plan is to travel the Swiss Travel Pass is the one to go for. The pass comes in two main flavours; consecutive days or a "flexi" option of any 3,4,8 or 15 days in a month. Your other choice is 1st Class or 2nd, and there's a significant price difference between them. In short 1st Class will give you more room at rush-hour, with most locals using 2nd Class. The seating in 1st is slightly better, though both are an upgrade if you're used to British trains, and on many trains you get both wifi and a charging point in the "Business Zone". The price difference in tickets is between 30% and 50% depending on your specific choice.
Travel on a tighter budget is possible, if you can plan your travel and avoid the busiest times of day, especially in and around the main cities, a 2nd Class Pass will be more than good enough, but my story is about a first class travel pass that links trains, boats, funicular railways and buses.
With the travel side of things fully under control, we set off to hike in some of the best regions in the central Swiss Alps, blessed with perfect early autumn weather.
Day one – Lucerne
Flying in from Manchester and after only thirty minutes, I was on the escalator in Zurich Airport heading down to my train platform and almost immediately on the way to our first stop; Lucerne.
Forty minutes later, I was on the bridge watching the converted paddle steamers slip away across Lake Lucerne. I stayed in the Hotel de la Paix, a central three-star and only ten minutes’ walk from the train station.
Lucerne is a great hub city, well travel linked and acted as our gate way to get deeper into the mountains. The beautiful medieval centre flanks where Lake Lucerne empties under the Kapelbrucke into the River Reuss. Lucerne, also a university city, then spreads out into a fairly urban outer city beyond the lake itself. Heavily visited by Asian tourists, it is a major sightseeing base and selfie heaven (or hell) along the lake-front. The lake and surrounding hotels hark from the Belle-Epoch era and in that sense, I find some of Lucerne a little old-fashioned and expensive. If you’re on a tight budget, it’s quite possible to head deeper to the south in one day, but for a spot of classic city sightseeing, Lucerne stands out as a beautiful location.
The medieval section of Lucerne and the Chapel Bridge are amazing and atmospheric at night. I took a few walks into the side streets, wandering aimlessly and ever aware of Mt. Pilatus looming over the city. I was already itching to get out on some mountain trails.
Day Two – Engelberg
The following morning we took an early train on the Globi-Express to Engelberg, for what proved to be a great day of moderate hill-walking in stunning alpine sun. Globi is a famous Swiss cartoon character that adorns a family friendly carriage that transports you to Engelberg station and the terminus of this line. Meeting the more sharply rising mountains, we walked on to to a Brulibahn, a farm cable-car that takes tourists up the mountain-side and we hiked on towards our lunch stop. Clearly marked and graded trails are everywhere in the Swiss mountains and Engelberg is no exception. The walks around the valley up to about 1000m are excellent territory for families or non-mountaineers.
At this time in September the local community were out in force, scything and collecting grass from infeasibly steep slopes to feed cattle over winter. Herds of cows were being brought to lower pastures, what the French call 'desalpes' and the sound of cow-bells were everywhere in the still valleys. No romanticising is needed for these scenes, it was the epitome of Swiss rural culture.
Day Three and Four– Bettemeralp
My first chance to follow a boat link, through our longest journey of the trip, taking in a paddle steamer (now diesel converted) along Lake Lucerne to connect with the Gotthard Panoramic Express, on through the Andermatt region via a cog-train and finally over the Oberhard Pass to Bettmeralp and the Aletsch Arena for the following day.
This is where the versatility of the rail pass comes into its own, because anticipating any journey like this usually requires a lot of planning. The boat journey, because it's Swiss travel, is of course scheduled to meet up with the Gotthard Express! I sat on a covered deck and soaked up Lake Lucerne from the steamer, which can manage around 20 knots. Despite the swish first class restaurant, food on these boats is pretty basic for the prices, but as with much of Swiss hospitality, the service is excellent. I highly recommend the boat travel options; they were a relaxing highlight of the trip.
At the terminus, I waited five minutes and we were off again on the train. Things then begin to get a lot more rural as trains become smaller gauged and cog driven and we made our climb into the Andermatt area.
Getting to Andermatt is fun! There is a road link up to Andermatt, the Gotthard Pass, but by far the best way to travel is of course by train. The superb tunnel system spanning the valleys as you rise towards Goschenen is at first bewildering. There are three spiral tunnels built into the Shollenen Gorge, allowing the train to corkscrew through the gradients, looping back on itself and popping out on opposing sides of the infeasibly steep valley. Swiss engineering is impressive in the mountains and this leg of the journey to Goschenen then heads off through the Gotthard rail tunnel to Italy, carved right under the Alps.
We changed trains in Andermatt, to travel over the Oberhard Pass. This is a stunning climb and then lengthy descent into the Aletsch area, halting at Bettmeralp.
We stayed for two nights at the 3 star Hotel Alpfrieden,. The Alpfrieden has excellent food and we treated to a la carte style meals for two nights. The breakfast room has stunning views back over the Alps to the Matterhorn.
Bettemeralp is a car-free resort and is so peaceful and safe as a result. As a visitor, the only access is via the cable car system, straight into the village centre. The resort is small and traditional, high on the valley side with limited narrow roads and it’s easy to see why cars are restricted here. There is a core area of wooden chalets and hotels the rest of the area is devoted to ski slopes and lifts for winter. However, in summer months it is excellent hiking territory, with lower green meadows leading to the high paths and scrambles of the Aletsch Arena.
Day four – This day was the highlight of the trip and met all my expectations for high level scrambling, walking and some via ferrata routes above the Bettermalp resort and Aletsch Glacier.
Following a great breakfast at the Hotel Alpfrieden we made an early start as a small group, moving up quickly to the cable car station below the Bettmerhorn summit. We took a T4 graded route and ascended on a jumble of rocks and slabs, scrambling over to the Bettmerhorn summit and some of the best views in the entire Alps.
We finished the climb at Eggishorn, taking in the rest of the Aletsch glacier, Jungfrau and Breithorn among many summits. There are a series of via ferrata routes available from Eggishorn and harnesses and gear can be hired at the cable car station. I cheated after my tired English legs and lungs screamed no!! and I used the cable car down the mountain, to take a long meander through the meadows back to Bettmeralp.
Day five & six
We transferred on our final leg of the trip to Interlaken. We’ve covered Interlaken as a destination in previous My Outdoors articles, so I shan’t go into too much depth here. Interlaken is an excellent base to explore the Alps and lakes in all directions, whether on funicular railways, boats or major rail links. Caught between Lake Thun and Brienz, the town is a major tourist destination and Asian tourists love all the jewellery and watch shops. We stayed in the dominating Metrolpole Hotel in the town centre, near to all rail links and certainly the best hotel for facilities and views in Interlaken.
Our first day took us to the otherworldly blue hue of Lake Brienz. We walked via Giessbach Falls ) and around the lake, to catch a boat back into Interlaken.
I caught three separate rack railway journeys while in Interlaken, all included in our 1st class travel pass. We travelled up to the Schyinge Platte, had dinner at Harder Kulm, high above Interlaken (in heavy fog and rain!!) and on our last full day of the trip, we took the amazing steam driven rack train to Brienzer Rothorn.
The Rothorn region offers some amazing hiking opportunities, sadly we didn’t have enough time to explore further than short walks, but the high ridges and summer meadows look enticing and I shall return.
In an article of this size, it’s difficult to encapsulate six very full days of sightseeing and hiking across multiple regions of Switzerland. I’ve tried to create a snapshot of all the great hiking areas we accessed, all courtesy of Swiss Tourism and the amazing Swiss Travel Pass. If you have the budget and time to explore fully, then I recommend the travel pass wholeheartedly. Never slowing down, from train, bus and boat links I felt like a true adventurer. The weather is now at its best to hike these regions, through June to September and the high mountain routes are breath-taking.