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……
As luck didn’t have it, by the time we got back down to street level the rain had stopped and it had actually brightened up; just in time for us to take shelter for lunch and leave Bellinzona behind!
We were Brig bound after lunch on IR2280 1245 Locarno – Zurich. We made our plus 4 onto MGB’s 1412 Goschenen – Visp at Goschenen and did all the way to Brig Bahnhof Platz. The weather was slightly better for the climb up to Andermatt but still dull. The run forward to Brig was nowhere near as nice as the same journey had been in January when the Winter snow had blanketed the whole area but it was relaxing all the same.
With only 11 minutes at Brig I was surprised when the doors on the train were opened on the non-platform side, as well as the platform side, at Brig Bahnhof Platz. The station is basically in the street right outside the front of Brig SBB station so the doors opening on both sides certainly aid a quicker exit towards the main station.
Before heading off to our hotel we did a quick trip to Domodossola, Italy, and back. As SBB run the trains from the Swiss side across into Italy the Swiss passes are valid to Domodossola and are then valid directly across to Locarno also. The only reason we’d not come that way to get to Brig was due to the fact that it would have been EMU’s from Locarno to Domodossola.
As the weather had taken a turn for the worse again it was actually quite cold on the old stock on the way to Domodossola, the windows were all misted up and the fact that the first 20km into Italy were in a tunnel gave it a more Wintery feel. The fascinating part about the journey is the fact that the train does a spiral in the tunnel, which of course you can’t actually comprehend but you do get the sensation that you’re constantly turning in one direction.
It was still raining in Italy and just as miserable as in Switzerland. The tell-tale signs of the fact that we were in Italy were visible enough, mainly as most of the trains/locos were graffiti’d. En-route back to Brig we spotted one of SBB’s Auto trains at Iselle, having arrived with the 1713 from Brig, which was just unloading its cars. It was still hammering down when we set off on our short walk to the Hotel Good Night Inn and we got drenched for the second time that day!
The hotels’s reception was a very welcome sight, and we were checked in within moments, having paid up front. It was quite busy with guests and it soon became evident that virtually everyone there was part of one tour party or another, the majority of whom were going to Gornergrat the following day according to the itineraries up on the hotel notice boards. The 5th floor room had an excellent view down the valley, and it was spacious with a massive flat screen TV. All in all a good choice for two nights.
As the hotel’s restaurant was only open at weekends to cater for the tour groups we ended up walking as short a distance as we could to a decent Italian restaurant in the main square. There are plenty of eateries to choose from, all in close proximity.
Sunday 28th April 2013
By the time we left the massive breakfast hall in the basement of the hotel we’d been the last in there, al the tour groups having done and gone. In fact some were on a bus outside as we set off on our walk to the station. We had a big decision to make; did we or didn’t we go to Gornergrat? Whilst it wasn’t raining it was overcast and it was quite a costly day out to get from Zermatt to Gornergrat on Gornergratbahn. We decided to make a decision at Zermatt based on the weather when we got there.
The run down to Zermatt on MGB follows the bottom of the valley all the way from Visp and there are various rack sections during the run, both up and down hill, with plenty to draw you from one side of the train to the other during the journey. The weather didn’t improve much but by the time we’d got to Zermatt we’d made the decision to just go for it and made a bee line for the adjacent Gornergrat Bahn station to make sure we got a seat on the right hand side of the 1136 train for the journey up to Gornergrat.
While waiting in the queue to buy our tickets our minds were put a bit at ease when we saw a big TV with a live feed to the Gornergrat observatory which had a panoramic webcam beaming back constant pictures. As we’d possibly suspected, even though it was cloudy, the cloud was broken higher up and the sun was actually shining through the gaps. Paying CH37 each for two tickets suddenly became a lot easier on the mind. That price was half price with the Swiss Passes; it’s CH74 per person for a return without!
We got our seats on the right hand side of the train, which was worked by GGB’s Bhe 4/8 EMU’s 3051/3053, and departed bang on time, immediately after a rotary snow plough arrived and shunted onto shed, covered in snow.
The 10km run takes just over 30 minutes to reach Gornergrat. The initial climb from Zermatt gives excellent views over the town as the line snakes its way up into the heavens. Once above the tree line and away from Zermatt evidence of snowfall begins to appear and before you know it you’re surrounded in a Winter Wonderland. The sun was shining through the clouds and the reflection off the snow was that bad that I had to dig my sunglasses out of the bottom of the bag. Once I could see again though I was in awe of my surroundings; not knowing which way to point the camera.
Once at the top it was clear that fresh snow had fallen overnight as the pathways had just been cleared by a JCB, which was finishing off as we alighted the train, by chucking snow over the edge of the walls down into the valley below! It was only waist deep though……
The viewing platforms allow for views in every direction, the cloud blanket and sun shining through it making the whole experience more than worth the effort. I was so glad we’d made the trip and not based our decision solely on the weather at the bottom of the world. Due to the cloud cover the one thing that everyone wants to see was hiding well and truly behind a blanket of cloud; The Matterhorn itself. It didn’t matter though and we both thoroughly enjoyed our time in the sky.
Within the confines of the building that houses the observatory is a restaurant and a couple of shops. Despite its altitude the food costs no more than it would down in Zermatt and is all freshly made upon order.
Our journey back down to Zermatt was on the 1331 departure, this time with BHe 4/8’s 3054/3052. The service is limited during the off-season and trains are less frequent. As we departed the cloud cover seemed to be thickening, obscuring more of the view as it did so. The webcam in Zermatt showed it to be a bit of a wash-out when we got back down, which really would be a shame for those arriving any time after we’d departed. It had also started to snow, which probably hadn’t helped visibility either.
Back in the real world at Zermatt we had a quick walk round town before we treat ourselves to a nice warm drink in the station buffet to await the arrival of the train to form the 1539 return service to Brig.
Strangely, back at Brig it was still pleasant enough, i.e. not raining, for a walk round town and up to the Stockalper Schloss, which is worth a look round. Then we tried out a restaurant that the hotel receptionist had suggested to us the previous night called Channa, on Furkastrasse just off the main square. The food was great, the surroundings nice and the menu was in English as well, which is always a bonus.
Monday 29th April 2013
A change of location to Neuchatel, in the French speaking area, en-route back towards Geneva the following day for our flight home. Firstly we headed towards Bern. Another journey spent mostly inside a tunnel as the train climbed towards Spiez, emerging a lot higher up than it had been down in Brig. Before continuing on to Neuchatel.
The idea of heading straight for Neuchatel was so we could check into our hotel and dump the big bags before returning to Thun to have a scan round; Schloss Thun being the main reason. We did stop off at Thun en-route to Bern and managed to find the castle during the 20 minutes we had, although it wasn’t hard to spot with its turrets standing out above the town.
Bern station is a bit like Birmingham New Street, just with it’s concourse below the platform level instead of above it, and the platforms are more open so you can see across the whole station. Neuchatel station is at the top of a hill, the main town being immediately below, by the lake. Of course our hotel was down at lake level, even though it wasn’t much more that about 500m from the station it took 10 minutes to amble down the steep hill to the main road. There is a transporter that runs from the station to the University, below ground, costing CH2.70 per journey if you prefer not to walk.
The Hotel Des Arts allowed us to check in at 1245, over an hour early, our room luckily being available. We didn’t hang around long but long enough to figure out the room was modern, spotless and well equipped with free WiFi included.
The walk back up the hill to the station was a bit harder on the heels than the walk down it but it still only took about 15 minutes to get there. Our conveyance back to Bern was the 1333 Neuchatel – Bern, where we managed to make a late running Romanshorn – Brig forward to Thun for a much needed lunch. There are plenty of options for lunch in Thun and we opted for Italian at the Restaurant Primavera overlooking the old wooden bridge over the water outside.
It seemed that the off-season was the time to do maintenance on anything that was worth photographing in most cities. Bern had scaffolding round its main steeple, visible from the train as we’d arrived, and Thun was no exception with scaffolding round part of the castle’s turrets and a massive great crane sticking out above it; which just didn’t complement its look at all.
A walk round town and even up the steps towards the Castle offered plenty of different views of it and eventually we managed to find a point when the crane turned enough to allow a clear photo of the Castle without it spoiling the shot.
After a rather pleasant sit down to admire Thun passing by and the glacial blue water passing through it we returned to Bern, via Spiez, before heading back to Neuchatel for the night.
Back down in the Hotel Des Arts the receptionist was very helpful in allowing me to e-mail her our boarding cards once we’d checked in on line and she printed them our for me. She also allowed us to take a couple of croissants for our breakfast the following morning as we had an early start on the 0653 towards Lausanne. It was a shame we’d not had a bit of time to explore Neuchatel as the waterfront area looked quite nice.
Tuesday 30th April 2013
The early morning walk up the hill to the station woke us up if nothing else and at the station SBB’s morning commuter to Lausanne was just pulling in to the platform. It was a decent length train an although full it was comfortable.
We were off at Renens to pass the time and caught on one of the two Vallorbe – Lausanne commuters forward to Lausanne, which only had 5 coaches with it and was the only train we’d ended up on in Switzerland that was full and standing.
As we headed towards Geneva we found ourselves going over the past few days and discussing the good and bad points; the bad being virtually nothing of course. And as we made our way up from Geneva Airport station and to the airport itself I actually found myself not wanting to go home. The trip had gone to plan, the weather had been initially great and in hindsight even the rain in Bellinzona made it a memorable day, as did the snow at Gornergrat. Switzerland was growing on me and I’m pretty sure we’ll have a third trip at some point soon…….