Switzerland really is unlike anywhere else in Europe. It’s quite small, quite expensive, but has the most dazzlingly exotic landscape of mountains, lakes and alpine flowers, yet it’s just an hours flight or a fascinating rail journey from the UK.
Although diminutive it has more railway lines per square mile than anywhere else on the planet and as the most mountainous country in Europe, that just makes it even more impressive. Not only can you travel by rail to just about anywhere in Switzerland, even to the top of the 11,454 feet high Jungfrau, its efficiency and reliability are extraordinary. Internationally, it has direct rail links to Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein and indirectly via France or Germany to the UK.
Our base was in Meiringen in the spectacular, mountainous Bernese Oberland and the journey from Zurich was a treasure trove of sightseeing gems. The train weaved through deep valleys, around glacier blue lakes and skirted mountain pastures, dotted with cows and wooden chalets, that looked like green aprons of the towering mountains. Still tipped with snow in June mountain waterfalls spouted everywhere, some cascading prettily, others shooting out of the rock like faucets and still others meandering like silver threads to the lakes below.
Meiringen is a small town surrounded by mountains and my hotel window overlooked a rumbling waterfall, tumbling 1,000 feet, and thoughtfully illuminated in the evening. Beside the hotel entrance had a plaque commemorating Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s visit in May 1891 and a few steps away is a London street sign – Conan Doyle Place – where a bronze statue sits, with deer stalker and pipe, outside the Sherlock Holmes museum.
All this ‘consulting detective’ fuss is the presence in Meiringen of the Reichenbach Falls. Conan Doyle’s visit to Meiringen gave him the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes spectacular end in the short story, The Adventure of the Final Problem. The Reichenbach Falls was the setting for the fictional sleuth’s final duel with Moriarty, and where Holmes eventually plunged to his death – or did he? Well yes he did, but popular demand forced Conan Doyle to bring him back to life. Such is the power of popular fiction.
Today a funicular, built a few years after the book’s publication, carries visitors up to a viewing platform and a winding and slippery track climbs to the top of the Reichenbach Falls.
Across the other side of Meiringen a more traditional series of lifts and cable cars carry visitors high into the mountains with spectacular views of hundreds of mountain peaks and at the very top is the Alpen Tower restaurant with breathtaking panoramic views. There’s skiing, snow boarding, sledging, scooters and bikes as well as good old fashioned hiking along numerous trails. Alternatively, plenty of people simply opt for a quiet meal and a leisurely drink whilst enjoying the amazing views.
Meiringen is only a 30 minute train ride from Interlaken, useful for any large town shopping that might be needed. Interlaken’s tallest building is the hotel Metropol and it is worth going to the top floor restaurant and observation deck for coffee and cake and the best views in town. As the name suggests Interlaken is a town between two lakes, the Thunersee and the Brienzersee. Both have modern ferries that zig-zag around the lakes, stopping at lakeside villages, but a cruise around the lake and back again is a popular visitor attraction.
However, the top highlight of Interlaken is as the starting point for a trip to the Jungfraujoch – the ‘Top of Europe’ – at 11,454 feet the highest railway station in Europe. Sitting in the saddle between the famous Eiger and the Jungfrau mountains it towers above the cloud, shrouded in perpetpual ice.
Packed with more tour groups than skiers in June, the cog-operated train weaves through Alpine pastures and up the mountainside, stopping every now and again to disgorge excited groups at various hiking trails. Passengers more interested in spectacle rather than lung bursting hikes continue upwards through a tunnel bored through the heart of the Eiger. It took 16 years, and cost many lives, to hack and dynamite this 4.4 mile tunnel through the mountain, and it has been open for over 100 years. The train stops twice inside the mountain, allowing a little time for acclimatisation and for passengers to disemnark and peer out of windows carved into the north face of the Eiger, which in emergencies enable climbers to scramble off the face of the mountain to safety.
Arriving at 11,454 feet the panorama is of dazzling ice fields, surrounded by snow-clad mountains, and glaciers. Birds circled below us and when the cloud cover breaks tiny houses can be seen on the valley floor.
After lunch in one of several restaurants the final leg is up another 427 feet in an express elevator to the very top of the glacier. The temperature is a chilly –5C but out on the exposed glacier the wind chill can drop it to a freezing –24C, but on this trip it was dazzling sun and no wind.
The journey up to the Jungfraujoch is one of the world’s most amazing railway journeys and a true wonder of the modern age; a staggering feat of ingenuity and engineering, with breath-taking views only previously enjoyed by intrepid mountaineers.
Since I was there five years ago Switzerland has been incredibly successful at marketing itself in Asia and the Far East. In high season up to 5,000 people a day cram the trains so that this year (2016) the railway company has had to introduce a seat reservation system to control the flow of visitors. New developments include shops, mechanical manakins and moving walkways to hurry visitors on.
Instead of an incredible alpine experience, marketing has created a quasi-theme park ambience with interactive gadgets, light shows, chocolate and watch shops along with cartoon characters. The experience of shuffling between large tour groups has replaced the previously marvellous walking on the glacier experience to one packed with shouting groups taking group photos and enough selfie sticks to fence off the glacier.
Buying an individual ticket to the top costs an eye watering 204CF (£160). A useful tip is to catch one of the early morning trains, before the tour groups can organise themselves, bag a 20% ticket discount and enjoy the mountain scenery before the circus starts.
On the other side of lake Brienz, in the village of Brienz, a fabulous mountain stream railway hauls guests up the Rothorn. This 1892 steam railway route reaches a mere 7,710feet although that’s nearly twice the height of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain. Puffing up a winding four mile route, though lowland forest and flower studded alpine meadows, the view from the top takes in 693 breathtaking alpine peaks, including the Eiger and Jungfrau and the lakes at Interlaken. The Brienz Rothorn railway is not on the large tour group itinerary so it’s Switzerland without any commercial hype and where the landscape does all the entertaining.
This was a trip with Great Rail Journeys (01904 527180) on a 7-day escorted group holiday – Jungfrau Express Fly:Rail, from £1,695pp. It included all flights and rail travel, hotel accommodation at the Parkhotel Du Sauvage, meals as per the itinerary, excursions to the Reichenbach Falls, the Jungfrau Railway to Jungfraujoch, and a steam mountain railway journey to the summit of Rothorn.
GRJ Independent (01904 527181) can tailor make holidays for those inspired to visit Switzerland on an individual basis. Customers booking 2017 departures can save up to £60pp when booking on or before 16 August 2016.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Great Rail Journeys