Switzerland April 2013
As we’d enjoyed our trip to Switzerland so much in January a quick return offered itself up as a trip away for my girlfriend’s birthday. Having planned it quite well to get between the places we’d visit there were some cracking opportunities to get some Re420’s in, among other stuff.
As our journey from Doncaster to Montreux was throughout by train in January, and it didn’t go too well, this time we opted to fly to Zurich with Swiss Air, and a far better option it was.
Our 8 day Swiss Passes were booked through Switzerland Travel Center (STC), only 3 weeks before we went, via their website, and the tickets arrived in the post 2 days later.
All our hotels were booked through Booking.com before we went. I did have to do quite a bit of hunting about though, especially in Zurich as the prices were way too high; this ultimately resulted in us spending a couple of nights in Neuhausen instead, which really wasn’t an issue.
All booked up and ready to go, all we had to do was get ourselves there……..
Wednesday 24th April 2013
Having spent the night at the Heathrow Ibis Hotel we had a leisurely enough morning before our 1150 flight to Zurich; which I’d already checked in online for and printed the boarding passes. The flight was fine and on time into Zurich, despite a 30 minute delay ex Heathrow.
Zurich Airport was a breeze and we were soon heading out of it and down to Zurich Airport station. Although we were staying in Neuhausen, north of Zurich towards Schaffhausen, we had an afternoon run out to Basel and back first.
The run across to Basel was pleasant, the train was empty towards the front and the weather was nice outside too. There was plenty to see en-route and although we didn’t actually explore Basel when there we had a nice relaxing afternoon out.
The run to Schaffhausen in the evening, via Rafz, is a nice run, or should that be amble? The Rhine Falls are clearly visible on the right hand side as the train curves round into Schaffhausen from Neuhausen; this would be taking up most of our morning the following morning and the water looked to be flowing well.
Our digs for the night, which is what they really turned out to be, were at the Edelweiss Hotel back in Neuhausen, where we arrived off an EMU and made the short walk to the hotel in a few minutes. It turned out that there was actually nobody else staying at the hotel at all, which was good for us, what wasn’t though was the fact that nobody spoke any English. Thankfully my limited German got us checked in and sorted for the night, including a time for breakfast the following morning. Although the Edelweiss (no website, all bookings through booking sites) was a hotel it had more of a budget type vibe about it even if the price tag for the night didn’t! Still it had a decent room with en-suite, heating and a large bed. Unfortunately though the heating made quite a noise, all night.
Thursday 25th April 2013
After a typical European breakfast, served by someone different who also didn’t speak English at all, we walked the short distance to the Rhine Falls. It was a clear morning but quite cool when out of the reach of the rising sun.
The Rhine Falls can be heard before they’re seen, the thundering water drowning our anything else around with its constant rush over the falls. There’s a walkway all the way round the Neuhausen side of the falls and we managed to be early enough to walk most of the way round before the numerous buses turned up and spilled out their tourist occupants. Down at the bottom, directly opposite the Falls, there are plenty of restaurants and places to take a rest, the railway being directly above where we’d admired the Falls from the previous night as we’d arrived.
We ended up at Schloss Laufen having walked all the way back round the falls and over the railway bridge which takes trains to Zurich via Winterthur. Laufen is the prominent castle above the falls, which has a viewing platform looking down over the falls. We’d intended to have a look at it but decided not to when we got to a gate that required a ticket to get through it. Tickets cost CH5 but we didn’t have the time nor the inclination to pay to be honest and relaxed on the platform at Schloss Laufen am Reinfall station with a very, very, overpriced cold pop to cool us down after the morning walk……….
After the EMU back to Schaffhausen and a quick stroll round the old town our conveyance into Zurich was one of SBB’s Stuttgart – Zurich HB international IC trains.
Round the edges of the massive station hall that Zurich HB has are plenty of places to eat and our afternoon Italian was very good indeed and set us up nicely before a quick walk outside the station to see what Zurich had to offer, where there are trams everywhere, heading in all directions. As the sun was still out and it was nice and warm it was quite a nice stroll.
We were on the 1905 Zurich HB – Stuttgart again, back to Schaffhausen for an EMU back to Neuhausen and then a good evening meal at one of the restaurants on the main street in town, where we’d been the previous night as well.
We weren’t alone in the Edelweiss that night and there were only two other rooms occupied. I was quite amazed that I’d managed to arrange an early breakfast at 0645 the following morning, all in German, before we retired for the night. This time the heating was turned off but it didn’t make much of a difference as the water pipes for the system must have been in the wall of our room…….
Friday 26th April 2013
Breakfast was a quick affair and so was working it off! 25 minutes before our train was due away from Neuhausen, with a 10 minute walk to the station, the woman serving breakfast managed to get across to me that they only accepted payment in cash, which was not what I needed to hear as I didn’t have enough on me. The result being a mad dash to the nearest cash machine, which I managed to make a longer journey than I needed to by not taking the quickest route; my poor body didn’t know what had hit it when made it back to the hotel. Whilst I did figure out later from my Booking.com confirmation that the hotel did indeed only accept payment in cash I made sure my displeasure was put across while I was trying to pay and gather my breath at the same time! Thankfully the walk to the station was downhill…..
All the local trains from Schaffhausen to Zurich run via Winterthur so there was a change of scenery as we headed over the bridge, that we’d walked over the previous day, at the Falls and beneath Laufen Castle en-route.
Despite the early start on my girlfriend’s birthday (which she did forgive me for) we were in for a pleasant enough day as we made our way down to southern Switzerland and the Italian speaking area of Bellinzona, via Basel, Luzern and the Gotthard Pass.
Again our time in Basel was limited, more a change of trains than anything else, and then we were Luzern bound. Immediately outside Luzern station is plenty to keep anyone’s camera occupied, the lake, Kappelbrucke (old wooden bridge across the water) and just the general scene up and down the waterfront as well as the stunning mountain back-drop that Luzern has. And with the sun out what more could we ask for?
We watched Luzern pass us by from the waterside restaurant of the Hotel Des Alpes while enjoying a leisurely early lunch, where the taste of apple sauce mixed with a creamy pasta sauce came as a pleasant surprise.
We didn’t walk far after lunch, only really over the Kappelbrucke to admire its paintings, but we did soak up the treats that Luzern had to offer which even included two girls walking round the block in their underwear!!!! It must have been a bet as both had their faces covered by scarves and their two mates, holding their clothes, were giggling profusely as they watched them set off on their walk of embarrassment.
Unfortunately as we headed towards the Gotthard Pass and Arth Goldau the sun disappeared from the sky and was replaced by plenty of cloud, the air getting quite a bit cooler. The mountainous terrain en-route was soon visible in all directions, some snow capped, while the grass at the bottom was all studded with a typically Spring yellow flower.
Our afternoon break was at Goschenen where the little Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB) train was sat hiding behind the station in the MGB platform and with only 3 minutes to make it we had to be quick but made it easily. The train was empty for the run to Andermatt which made it all the more enjoyable. It was only 4km and took 10 minutes but it was 10 minutes of not knowing which way to look. The train immediately attaches to a rack section just outside the station and climbs what looks an impossible gradient all the way up to Andermatt, twisting and turning, travelling through tunnels, under rock breaks and offering some excellent close-ups of the nearby mountains and the waterfalls running off them as the last of the Winter snow melts. Even though the sun wasn’t out and it was quite misty the whole journey was very atmospheric as a result; one I highly recommend, even if you don’t plan to use the MGB to get anywhere else.
At Andermatt we only had 25 minutes but it was a busy 25 minutes, trains arrived and departed in all directions with Andermatt being the meeting/connecting point. The line towards Disentis is another that climbs immediately after departing the station and the sight of a train immediately above the station, seemingly stuck to a hillside, is something to behold at any time. Watching it slither down the hillside, disappearing out of sight a few times as it did so just makes you realise how simple our railways are in the UK. Yes we have rack railway but this is electrified too, climbs up seemingly impossible terrain, and isn’t stopped by a few inches of snow. This runs when there are feet of snow on the ground!
Another MGB train took us back down the hill to Goschenen, the weather having changed since our ascent, it now being even mistier and more mysterious that it had been on the way up. It was quite chilly too, with the windows open so I could take photos.
IR2275 was shown on the screens as being delayed when we arrived. We’d only been on a plus 6 and ended up stood in the cold on the deserted platform waiting. It was eventually shown as being 32 late, which at least allowed me to get some photos of the MGB trains arriving/departing Goschenen, in the rain!
Our train eventually came bowling into the platform 30 minutes late. The conductor couldn’t apologise enough to us that the train was 30 late ex Goschenen. I did manage to get out of him that the original loco had failed at Erstfeld and been replaced by a Cargo loco which was now on the train. He was soon announcing that the train would terminate at Bellinzona due to the late running and passengers for Locarno should change there for a connecting service. One thing the lateness did actually do was scupper my plan to do the 1710 Bellinzona – Chiasso commuter out and back, just for the ride. I wasn’t that bothered though as it had been a long day and sat back to enjoy the stunning scenery that the Gotthard Pass had to offer with its twisting, turning, spiralling and the general confusion it offered when you realised you’d passed something 10 minutes previous, on the opposite side of the train or valley, then spent the next 5 minutes trying to figure out how you’d got there. Again the miserable weather made the journey quite atmospheric throughout to Bellinzona.
Luckily we didn’t have to walk too far at Bellinzona with the Hotel International being right across the road from the station entrance. The Hotel International was very nice, modern, clean and well kept as you’d expect from a hotel of its type; a world apart from the Edelweiss in Neuhausen. It had a good restaurant too, which was used by non-guests as well as guests and seemed quite popular.
We made ourselves at home before having a brief walk round town to get our bearings, all three of Bellinzona’s castles (Castelgrande, Montebello & Sasso Corbaro) were perched above the town shrouded in the cloud that was passing through the valley and being drenched by the pouring rain. They’d be our challenge for the following morning, well maybe not all of them eh?
Saturday 27th April 2013
Before breakfast I had a quick trip to Locarno on my own. The railway runs right beneath the foundations of the Montebello Castle as it leaves Bellinzona heading towards the Swiss/Italian border. Upon arrival at Locarno the leading loco was detached immediately and we were on our way back departing 3 minutes after the train had arrived on the inbound. The staff on the return didn’t quite know what to make of the fact that I was sat in the front coach on the return, as I had been on the outward, and didn’t even bother to ask for a ticket.
After breakfast it soon became apparent that whatever we did that morning we were going to end up soaked by the pouring rain. Bellinzona has so much to offer and we probably didn’t have enough time to do it all but we were going to have a go.
Castelgrande was first, the easiest of Bellinzona’s three castles to access. Even more so as there’s a lift built into the big stone hulk that it sits on that whisks you to the top in seconds. This is accessible from the main piazza in Bellinzona but it isn’t as clearly marked as you’d think, as we found with everything in Bellinzona.
Of the three Castles, Castelgrande is the lowest of them, Montebello Castle sitting slightly higher and virtually directly opposite, nestled into the hillside, with the smaller Sasso Corado Castle perching further up the hillside all on its lonesome some 270m up. We’d been a bit skeptical about the weather and concerned that it would spoil our time in Bellinzona but once up at Castelgrande and looking over the valley below my opinion was soon changed. The views are tremendous and even though we were being rained on the way the cloud was clambering over the adjacent hillsides made the whole scene look fantastic and very atmospheric.
After our trip to Castelgrande we used the fact that our hotel was nearby to get dry and warm up for a bit. As all available maps and associated leaflets on Bellinzona didn’t really make it too clear on how to get to the Castles we confirmed directions with the hotel receptionist for how to get to Montebello Castle, which was just as well we had as I’d have attempted to get there a completely different way than we actually needed to go had she not told us the correct way.
Access to the pathway/steps up to Montebello Castle is via Salita alla Motta, which is left off Viale Stazione, immediately after the big church, if you’re coming down from the direction of the railway station. It’s actually signposted from there and the pathway leads quite steeply up to the entrance of Montebello Castle, taking about 15/20 minutes from that point.
The views over Castelgrande are superb, even when it is raining. With Montebello Castle being close to Sasso Corado Castle you get a much better feeling for just how high up the hillside it is, along with its smaller size, compared to the grander Montebello & Castelgrande. Having made the walk up to Montebello we had absolutely no ideas of making the walk up to Sasso Corado and were more than happy to ogle at it from where we were and leave the walking up to that one to the more hard core walkers……