Bruce E. Woelfel is a travel writer and photographer. He specializes in trains and publishes the quarterly guides Rail Europe: Direct and Trains of Switzerland. Here are excerpts from the latter.
For those unfamiliar with its virtues, Switzerland has many traditional advantages. For the tired traveler it is a refuge; for the cautious it is an oasis; for those in a hurry, it is a discovery; for the visually oriented, a revelation. Information is easily obtained. Hotels of all classes are reliably clean and well run. Trains and everything else are on time. Scenery is everywhere. English is spoken by nearly everyone. Order and tranquility are maintained. It is no exaggeration to say that in Switzerland one is safe, everything will work the way it is intended, and one will get full value.
Train travel in this country, 215 miles east to west, 140 miles north to south - smaller than the state of Ohio - evidences all the traditional Swiss virtues, and additionally may restore faith in this mode of transportation to travelers disillusioned by Amtrak's limitations and resigned to America's dependence on the automobile. For here is a peerless system of international long distance trains, fast city to city expresses, coordinated locals, short and long haul narrow gauge, streetcars, funiculars, cable cars, riverboats and buses.
Virtually every street corner is accessible by rail of one sort of another, from its cities and agricultural valleys to its steepest slopes and mountain tops. And everything is coordinated, "linked," in transportation jargon. Upon reaching a terminal, there is nearly always at least one other train waiting, and, more than likely, a bus, funicular, or a river boat a few steps away.
But is this place a paradise for the traveler? In many ways it is, provided certain rules are observed. For this is a country of rules, and everyone, tourists included, is expected to observe them. The borders are zealously guarded by observant officials: do not try and rush them or violate their procedures. Travel is by honor system and there are no gates, except at the borders, but frequent checks are made and violators are fined. Have the correct papers, passport, rail passes, transit ticket, ready to meet the appropriate situation. Observe the local customs.
A few of my own experiences over some 40 years of travel in this delightful country may help to enlighten.
In the post war years, when there were still three classes of travel, and third class had wooden seats, conductors routinely made travelers remove feet resting on seats.
During 90 degree weather a passenger repeatedly closed our window each time we opened it to cool off, and we lost the argument when the conductor interceded on his behalf. On one trip, when I renewed my passport and continued to use my Eurailpass with the old passport number, only the Swiss officials noticed the difference.
Another caution: Attempting to use a Eurail Pass to ride on some private Swiss Railways, (it is good on almost all trains), will result in an embarrassing encounter with a red faced conductor and payment of Swiss Francs for continuation of the journey in a second class compartment.
So, being forewarned, enjoy the ride, and, more than likely you will, like me, find this country to be a train riders dream.
Although there are no overnight domestic trains, various choices are available for overnight travel between Switzerland and other European cities. The sleeping compartments ($150-$250), contain comfortable beds and a small lavatory sink with drinking water, towels and soap. Each sleeping compartment also has a menu with items available for purchase from the attendant, including beverages, a few snacks, and continental breakfast served in the morning in your room. The Spanish Pablo Casals, between Switzerland and Barcelona, with a bar and restaurant, serves breakfast in the diner, and also carries a few "grand clase" suites with private shower and toilet.
Most night trains also offer couchettes: four (first class) or six (second class) bunk beds and bedding in a compartment shared by both sexes and converted to seats during the day. Pablo Casals, carries four person couchettes with greater space and privacy, including a lavatory sink (unlike standard couchettes, the sexes are segregated, about $40 per person).
The best night trains are designated "EN" for Euronight. They make fewer stops (usually traveling non-stop from midnight to 5 a.m.), offer snacks and drinks at night and a more complete breakfast. Roma, to/from Rome, Wiener Walzer, to/from Vienna and Budapest and Pablo Casals, are in this category. Two trains, Pablo Casals and Wiener Walzer carry restaurants open for dinner. Look for overnight listings under the appropriate cities.
Three different types of diner are available, clearly identified by their outside logo: conventional fare (SSG); various types of cheese dishes (described below); and two cars run by McDonald's. Some international trains carry German diners with SSG crews. The German equipment is necessary because Swiss cars are not built for the high speeds possible in some parts of Germany.
The latest innovation is Le Buffet Suisse: which features cheese specialties. One of these is Raclette, a do-it-yourself meal with wooden spatulas used to scoop cheese slices, melt them on an electric burner in the center of the table, season them with paprika, peppercorns, salt and pickled onions, and eat them with boiled potatoes. More familiar to Americans is fondue; melted Gruyere cheese and wine dipped from a bowl with squares of dry bread ($14 for two). Also soups: I had something called Gersteneintopf mit Engadinewurst, white potato and barley soup with sausage ($13). An elegant dessert followed: Gebrante Creme Emmanthalet tart, an abstract design of custard, pastry and chocolate sauce ($4). A half-liter of very good Geneva white wine was ($10).
Possibilities are also available for dining on the cuisines of France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, on trains bound from various Swiss cities to international destinations. Note the various Eurocity, Euronight and ICE runs described below.
Zürich - Austria Route
Zürich - Sargans (Chur) - Buchs - Austria:
Recommended trains: Transalpin, and Robert Stolz. Spectacular Austrian scenery: a series of mountain passes from Buchs at the frontier, past Innsbruck to Worgl, 160 miles. Among three trains between Zürich, Innsbruck and Vienna with Austrian diners are Transalpin, Franz Schubert, and Maria Theresia. Transalpin, with first class panorama observation cars, is the best choice.
Robert Stolz, also with an observation car, has a Swiss diner (housed in a German restaurant car); takes a different route after Innsbruck, through more mountains to Graz.
These trains turn south at Sargans, continuing to Chur: Rembrandt, with Swiss diner (German car), Chur-Zürich-Basel- Cologne-Amsterdam; and Ratia, with German diner, Chur-Zürich-Basel-Cologne-Berlin.
The principal night runs are Euronight Wiener Walzer, Basel-Zürich-Vienna-Budapest-with Hungarian diner; #465/5 Basel-Zürich-Innsbruck-Graz; and 468/9 St. Moritz-Zürich-Basel- Paris. All have six passenger couchettes and one and two passenger sleeping compartments.
EC163 Transalpin Schedule:
* Lv Zürich 8:42 a.m., Arr Innsbruck 1:16 p.m.
* Lv Innsbruck 2:44 p.m., Arr Zürich 6:50 p.m.
EC169 Robert Stolz, Schedule:
* Lv Zürich 11:20 a.m., Arr Innsbruck 3:10 p.m., Arr Graz 9:00 p.m.
* Lv Graz 11:00 a.m., Arr Innsbruck 2:36 p.m., Arr Zürich 4:26 p.m.
Route Description: Beginning at Zürich and traveling south, the tracks skirt the Zürichsee for 22 miles before arriving at Pfaffikon, then pass through a valley for 16 miles to Ziegelbrucke. In and out of a tunnel beside Lake Walensee, to Walenstadt, then six miles through a valley to Sargans, where the route splits: one leg south to Chur and a narrow gauge connection to St. Moritz and Pontresina; the other north across the mountainsides to Buchs on the Swiss Austrian border, and through a spectacular mountain route to Innsbruck and Salzburg. The trip from Zürich to Buchs stops at Sargans and takes an hour and 10 minutes.
Other recommended schedules using this route:
Night: #463, with couchettes, compartments, begins in Basel at 8:25 p.m. Lv main station #465 9:23 p.m. (2123), No food, Arr West Station 7:32 a.m.
Euronight: Wiener Walzer, with couchettes, compartments, Hungarian Restaurant, ends in Budapest. Lv Main Station EN467 10:23 a.m. (2223) with restaurant, Arr West Station 8:05 a.m.
Euronight: Wiener Walzer, with couchettes, compartments, Hungarian restaurant, ends in Budapest. Lv Main Station EN467 10:23 p.m. (2223) with restaurant Arr Keleti Station 11:53 a.m.
(Editor's Note: Subscriptions to Mr. Woelfel's train quarterly train guides Rail Europe: Direct and Trains of Switzerland are $42 per year or $8 for a single volume. Contact Bruce E. Woelfel, P. O. Box 1846, Aptos CA 95001-1846, phone 408-662-1864.)