Saturday, May 10, 2014

Swiss Tracks

Five Great Train Escapes For All Seasons

With the Matterhorn in the distance, a sledder glides through the Alpine village of Findeln, Switzerland.

Call it Europe’s track star. Though small-this Alpine nation is about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined-Switzerland offers some of the world’s most spectacular scenery, from glacial lakes to misty peaks. And nearly every adventure is connected by train.

A classic route like The Golden Pass from Lucerne to Montreux can be done in a single day packed with sights and heights, including views of the highest Alps. But why rush? Part of the romance of rail travel is the sense of timelessness it affords.

The Wilhelm Tell Express, a panoramic boat-and-train tour that crosses lake Lucerne and rolls into Italian-influenced Lugano, connects areas ideal for summertime hikes. The Glacier Express from Zermatt to St.Moritz chugs across the heart of the alps through 91 tunnels and over 291 bridges. From urban trams in artful Zurich to cogwheel trains up mountains and a few bus rides along the way, you can cover an entire nation by rail, boat, and bus, with a romantic (an hypnotic) click-clack as your sound track.

In Switzerland, curiosity rides on rails. Here are five thematic train journeys across a multilingual, multicultural country. All aboard!

The Wide Angel

Lucerne – Meiringen – Interlaken – Gstaad – Chateau d’Oex – Montreux

Every tour of Switzerland is a photographer’s dream. But the 130-miles train route from Lucerne to Montreux, known as the Golden Pass, provides killer shots. With end points at Lake Lucerne and Lake Geneva, the itinerary offers mountains, alpine meadows dotted with chalets, and towns rooted in the Middle Ages. It also links French-and German-speaking Swiss cultures.

My photographic journey always begins in lakeside Lucerne, where flotillas of swans paddle alongside vintage boats. Thanks to an Old Town that’s a car-free maze of Renaissance buildings and the Kapellbrucke, a wooden bridge that dates in part to 1333, there’s plenty to photograph. For mountain images, devote an afternoon to cruising by steamer from Lucerne to Weggis and ascending Mount Rigi by railway or cable car. Or  take a boat to Alpnachstad to Mount Pilatus, the latter reached by the steepest cogwheel railway in the world, with a 48 percent gradient.

Leaving Lucerne, the Golden Pass train climbs 3,284 feet to cross the Brunig Pass. Since I’m a Sherlock Homes fan, I get off in Meiringen and take a funicular to the top of Reichenbach Falls, where the fictional detective met his death. (He was resuscitated by Arthur conan Doyle after public outcry).

Interlaken (between the lakes) is indeed bookended by Lakes Thun and Brienz. It’s the gateway to the Jungfrau region, a cluster of Alpine villages at the base of the legendary Monch, Eiger, and Jungfrau peaks. Board a local train for the 20-minute ride to Lauterbrunnen, take a short bus ride to Stechelberg, and then step onto a gondola to ascend to the tranquil village of Murren. Plan to take the Jungfrubahn from nearby Grindelwald the next day, climbing through a nearly four-and-a-half-mile tunnel to the Jungfraujoch, the roof of the Alps (bring a jacket-you’ll need it at this elevation) and the highest railway station in Europe at more than 11,000 feet.

From Interlaken, the Golden Pass reaches 4,180 feet between Saanenmoser and Schonried before sotpping at the winter resort town of Gstaad, which has been attracting the uber-rich for Olympic-class socializing for more than a century. The Gstaad Palace rises like cinerella’s castle over the village; both town and hotel are stuffy and deliriously expensive. I like to watch the scene from Charly’s, a village patisserie. Just try not to act like a paparazzo.

South of Gstaad lies Fench-speaking Switzerland. Look for balloons overhead as you approach Chateau d’Oex. Better yet, plan a visit during the International Hot-Air Balloon Festival (January 26 to February 3). Balloons lift off year-round here; the best bet for a photogenic ride is Balloon Chateau d’Oex. Bring your wide-eagle lens.

Back on the train, prepare to plunge into the 1.4-mile-long Jaman Tunnel, emerging with a glimpse of Lake Geneva. The ride may end in lake side Monteux, but the photos don’t have to. This is the Swiss Riviera, with palm trees along the shore, the French Alps across the lake, and French culture everywhere. In July, catch the Montreux Jazz Festival. For a fun photo, shoot the statue of singer Freddie Mercury, who is honored annually in Montreux.

The Path to Greatness

Lucerne – Lugano – Tirano – Davos – Pontresina – St.Moritz

WALKING and HIKING are national pastime (bordering on obsessions) in Switzerland, with more than 37,000 miles of trails. Many of the best waling routes-think snow-frosted mountain ridges and quiet hamlets-begin steps from the train station.

From Lucerne travel across the lake by steamboat to Rutli on the Fluelen line to walk all or part of th 22-mile Swiss Path, inaugurated in 1991, marking the 700th anniversary of the 13th-century Swiss Confederation (the precursor to modern Switzerland). Start walking in Rutli Meadow, stroll around Lake Urn, and end in Brunnen. Along the way, check out Beroldingen Castle and the Tell Chapel, honoring 14th-century Swiss hero William Tell.

Walking is so integrated into daily Swiss life that even snow-covered walking trails are scrupulously maintained throughout the Alps. Signposting is better than the road system in other countries; yellow signs point the way along lower elevation hiking routes and indicates to nearby villages. “Walking in Switzerland is about absorbing the natural beauty with all your senses,” says Paolo Santioli, who guides walkers in Switzerland for the Wayfarers. “The cable car system links up well with many trails and provides a convenient way for walkers to cover more ground and conserve energy.”

While in Lucerne, book a trip on the William Tell Express, a package that starts with a steamboat cruise down Lake Lucerne to Fluelen and continues with a first-class train to the Italian-influenced canton of Ticino, where palms  define the waterfront resort of Lugano. I’ve tested my mettle here on a six-hour high-altitude hike, but a more accessible route begins with a cable railway ride up to Mount Lema with its views of both Lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano and then a walk along a ridge to Mount Tamaro.

My favorite summertime adventure kickds off with a calm morning at a lakeside café in Lugano followed by a scenic three-hour bus ride to Tirano, Italy, for lunch. The next day, take the spectacular Bernina Express to Davos, best known for skiing and the World Economic Forum. The following morning, take a walk from the Davos Frauenkirch station along a path lined with abstract sculptures leading up to the mountain hamlet of Stafelalp. The expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner lived here and became enamored with the dense forest, jagged peaks, and changing light of the landscape. After this three-hour adventure, head to the Kirchner Museum in Davos to see your hike depicted in the collection of Kirchner’s paintings, including “Rising Moon on the Stafelalp.”

The next stop is Pontresina. A two-hour round-trip hike fro mthe station goes along the Val Roseg, a dramatic valley in the Engadine region. Another highlight is lunch at Hotel Roseg Gletscher. Sit on the deck ,dig into regional spcialities like capuns and pizzcheri (buckwheat noodles wit hpotatoes, vegetables, and cheese), and view the Bernina range glaciers.

The Bernina Express continues on to St.Moritz., which has one the sunniest climates in the country and 360 miles of hiking trails. My favorite excursions from the St.Moritz area include a challenging hike up Piz Nair, a crossing of Corvatsch (take a bus to Surlej to catch a cable car), and a guided glacier tour of Diavolezza (backtrack pas Pntresina to access the cable car) for a walk that’s more downhill than up.

The Art Smart Set

Basel – Bern – Zurich

Switzerland has a strong relationship with the visual arts. Gallery-hopping begins along the Rhine in Basel, where more than a dash of modern flash sparkles near the city’s well-preserved medieval heart. The city’s Kunstmuseum is filled with works by 14th-to 16th-century Upper Rhine artists and 20th-century cubits and German expressionists. Look for paintings by Hans Hobein the younger, Konrad Witz, and Arnold buckling, all of whom lived and painted in Basel.

Since 1970s, Junes’ Art Basel has morphed into one of the world’s glitziest  art fairs, a monied mélange of galleries, dealers, and museum curators. But Basel is also a site for architecture buffs; in the St. Johann neighborhood, 14’stachitect’ buildings populate the campus of the Novartis corporation, including buildings by Yoshio Taniguchi and Frank Gehry.

Basel’s Fondation Beyeler museum has works by van Goh, Miro, Picasso, Kandinsky, Matisse, and Rothko. And the Museum Tinguely houses kinetic, art-making machines by Jean Tinguely, a Swiss sculptor known for large and playful mechanical pieces. 

Next, hop a train to Bern and head to the Zentrum Paul Klee to embrace the world’s largest collection of work by one of Switzerland’s best artists, housed in a rippling Renzo Piano-designed building. Visit the Kunsmuseum Berne to see the creations of other Swiss artists such as Ferdinand Holler and Meret Oppenheim, and then dine alongside the Aare River at the Schwellenmatteli, where lamb tangine with plums, cardamom, mint, and almonds is delicious.

The next stop is Zurich, a city of bankers-and collectors immersed in a young art scene. The Kunsthaus Zurich is heavy with Swiss masters like Henry Fuseli, but there are other delights, like Robert Delaunay’s vibrant “Formers Circulaires: Panneau Mural” and a comprehensive collection of work by Alberto Giacometti. Take a train one stop to Zurich Hardbrucke to experience the postindustrial zeitgeist of Zurich West, where artist and architects have repurposed moribund manufacturing buildings. Lowenbrau Areal is the center of Zurich’s art scene, a . a converted brewery that houses the Kunsthalle Zurich, the Migros Museum of contemporary Art, and a handful of contemporary galleries.

Zurich West has an edgy Berlin-like energy. “Some of the best galleries in Zurich are here,” says bobbie Leigh, a New York-based art critic who suggests visiting Galerie Bob van Orsouw, Peter Kilchmann Art Gallery, and Hauser & Wirth. After art-hopping, kick back at Spheres, a bar or café or bookstore along the Limmat River, or Restaurant Viadukt, a café over looking Josefwiese, a small city park.

The Snow Cape

  Zermatt – Andermatt – St.Moritz

THINK of the Swiss rail system as the ultimate ski lift: It’s the smart way to stitch together several resorts in one trip. Begin in Zermatt, the holy grail of European winter sports, where slate-roofed barns sit next to five-star palace hotels. The village is dominated by the Matterhorn, the most iconic and mesmerizing Alp of all. You can only get there by train-the town has always been car-free-and depending on your wallet, you’ll arrive at your hotel by horse-drawn carriage or electric cart.

Embrace the day by taking a series of aerial trams up to 12,500 feet on the Klein Materhorn and skiing across the Italian border to the resort of Cernivia. After a pasta lunch and a taste of Italian la dolce vita, return to Zermatt in time for après-ski frolics. There are raucous bars like Papperla Pub and  little boites such as Elsie’s, where people in fur coats sip champagne and eat snails after a day on the pistes (ski runs). Then kick back at the futuristic Vernissage, a chic hotel, bar, and gallery.

“Think cuckoo clocks and Toblerone,” says Lizzie Norton, a Londoner and former ski tour operator who now spends her winters in Zermatt. “The village has such a traditional and romantic feel. Though it might not be Europe’s largest ski area, it offers about 80 mountain restaurants to choose from and the always delicious attraction of lunch in nearby Italy.”

Board the famous Glacier Express in the morning. The ‘express’ is a misnomer, as the train takes nearly eight hours to make the 180-mile trip to St.Moritz. but since there’s no hurry, get off in Andermatt (which means ‘on the meadow’), a folksy and understated resort where the average Swiss-not the international crowd-enjoy a simple winter holiday. It’s short on glamour but long on local customs. Book a room at the River House and , if there’s fresh snow, follow the savvier locals to the north-facing bowl on Gemsstock Mountain for powder that rivals Colorado’s.

Back on the rain, brace for a thrilling ride through the Oberalp Pass, with a high point at 6,770 feet. Disentis is the next stop; you can see the country’s oldest Benedictine monastery (founded in 720, rebuilt in the 17th century) from the window. This is the heart of the Vorderrhein Gorge, which has been enthusiastically (and somewhat dubiously) dubbed Switzerland’s Grand Canyon.

St.Moritz, the classic glamour-puss of Swiss skiing, is indeed grand-if not outlandish. Can you name another resort where polo matches and horse races take place on a snow-packed froze winter sports were all but invented here by the British in 1865. In some ways, the town seem to value flash more than its neighbors, but though the jet set seems to regard the mountains as mere fashion backdrops, you should head straight to the pistes. Intermediated skiers can try the Corviglia area, while experts should go for the Corvatsch section and its lengthy run from Piz Corvatsch to Margun Vegl. If you’re there at just the right time, the snow might appear red, stained by sand blown up from the sahara.

The Movable Feast

Zurich – Bern – Lausanne – Lugano

To those who think that the subject of Swiss cuisine can be summed up in one word-fondue-I say not so fast. In a country with four official languages (French, German, Italian, and Romansh) culinary traditions reflect a complex national identity.

Put your fondue prejudice aside in Zurich by cruising the food hall of the tony Globus department store. There’s perch from nearby lakes, organic produce, dozens of sausages, bundnerfleisch (dried beef), and more varieties of cheese than you can possibly imagine. My favorite spot for breakfast is within the belle époque splendor of Café Felix, where an omelet with schinken (ham) and Swiss cheese is a pricey delicacy. Wander into Schober for the city’s best hot chocolate. Lunch is as simple a s a local weisswurst from a vendor along Lake Zurich.

The city’s newest food site is Markthalle at Im Viadukt, a food hall beneath a railroad viadut in Zurich West. The oldest is the elegant Kronenhalle, where the menu is nearly as seductive as the original works by Matisse and Picasso on the walls. I prefer the more egalitarian Hiltl, a vibrant spot that opened in 1898 and claims to be Europe’s oldest vegetarian restaurant; go for the creative curries.

From Zurich, take a train to Bern, the capital whose gastronomic claim to fame is classic Emmentaler rosti: cheese melted atop potatoes. Sounds simple enough, but at Restaurant Brasserie Anker Bern, there are more than 20 varieties of rosti, incorporating staples such as ham and eggs and outliers such as bananas and anchovies.

The next stop is Fench-speaking Lausanne, on the hillside overlooking Lake Geneva; its cafes offer the Gallic cuisine of the canton of Vaud. If you have pockets as deep as Lake Geneva, try the Anee-Sophie Pic at the Beau-Rivage Palace, the essence of modern culinary yart. Or duck into the casual Café du Grutli in the old city for some of the best fondue in the country, made with Gruyere and Vacherin Fribourgeois cheeses and perfectly paired with a local white wine such as St.Saphorin, a prestigious appellation.

“Switzerlnad has preserved one of the best larders in Europe,” says Alexander Lobrano, a paris-based food writer for the New York Times. “One of the Old World’s most delicious under-the-radar gastronomic destinations is the littoral of Lake Geneva, where you can eat everything from addictively good Malakoffs-cheese beignets-in simple, friendly taverns to some of the world’s finest haute cuisine.”

For an Italian-influenced culinary tour take a two-and-a-half-hour rail ride from Zurich to Lugano. With each click south into the Ticino canton, Switzerland picks up a palpable Mediterranean feel. Italy is just a few miles away from lakeside Lugano, a fact evident in the sweets-panettone and orange-flavored amaretti-at the venerable Garand Café Al Porto pastry shop, which dates from 1803. Pop into Laderach for chocolates, and slurp a scoop of nocciola (hazelnut) gelato at la Gelateria.

Europe’s most exuberantly scenic country is tied together by more than just train tracks. Food, art, a passion for the outdoors, and a pleasure in the details aren’t mere ides here. They’re Swiss bliss.

Swiss rail aficionado EVERETT POTTER publishes a blog for travelers in search of value :

Best of the Alps

SWITZERLAND is good for the soul, says Andrew Evans, traveler’s Digital Nomad, who spent a month exploring the Alps, “I left happily exhausted, my limbs sore from climbing, my tummy content, and my spirit elevated,” he says. Here are five travel tips. Read more Digital Nomad dispatches at

Switzerland offers more opportunities to east superior chocolate than anywhere else in the world. One of my favorite shops is Max Chocolatier in Lucerne.

In summer, don’t miss the Geissenkehr, in Zermatt: Each morning and evening for six weeks, local goatherds lead their long-horned balckneck :glacier goats” through the Bahnhofstrasse.

Swiss cheese is a national treasure. Once you’ve tried the beg cheeses (Gruyere, Appenzeller, Emmentaler), sample a few of my favorites : l’Etivaz, Sbrinz, Bundner Bergkase, Tilsiter, and Heutaler.

Swiss spas represent a centuries-old holistic healing tradition, so take the waters. Options abound, from posh spas like the Kronenhof to low-cost public spas fed by natural springs, like the Bellavita in Pontresina.

Keep time. The Swiss railway clock, designed in 1944, is a national icon, present at every train station and copied by Apple. Buy an official watch and head home on schedule.

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