For extensive touring in Switzerland, the country's best-in-the-world railroad network come quickly to mind. But the Swiss Travel System’s “yellow fleet” of some 2,000 various-size Postbuses gives travelers access to high-altitude terrain that’s impossible for trains to navigate.
The service, effectively combining passenger transport with mail delivery to outlying towns and villages, dates from 1849, when stagecoaches pulled by five-horse teams did the job. Motorization (at a then-zippy 10-12 mph) began on June 1, 1906.
Interlaken-headquartered PostBus Tourism offers excursions, city tours, and even accommodations packages. Its 824 routes crisscross Swiss territory, reaching all 26 cantons. Length: 6,440 miles, triple the national SBB railway network. Vehicles used for long-distance itineraries include the 250-hp stalwarts of Europe’s motorcoach industry: Mercedes-Benz, Setra, Neoplan, FBW and Swiss-built Saurer.
In the mix are several dozen double-deckers and—for shorter hops—a number of passenger minivans. Motorcoach amenities include reclining seats, air-conditioning, luggage compartment and rear-end bicycle racks, plus (in some but not all cases) onboard toilet facilities. A post horn’s stylized image accentuates exterior yellow color schemes. With centennial hoopla came another embellishment: an enlargement of Rudolf Koller’s depiction of a stagecoach hurtling down the Gotthard Pass, scattering a herd of cows. (Koller’s 1873 painting hangs in Zürich’s Kunsthaus).
The blowing of a post horn to announce mail delivery goes far back in continental history. Here that tradition gets wistfully patriotic. The modern Dreiklanghorn tootles a familiar three-note phrase—C-sharp, E, A-major—evoking the andante motif of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Present-day drivers also sound the acoustic horn to signal the zigzagging of especially narrow mountainside roads and while passing through upper-altitude cloud banks.
It’s altitude, in fact, that gives Postbus-riding a sightseeing edge over rail-touring. Amidst spectacular panoramics, experienced drivers negotiate steep ascents and descents involving hairpin turns, switchbacks and edge-of-cliff roads—impossible train-track terrain.
Recognizing the topographic appeal, system organizers market nine reasonably priced, interconnected day trips, called Route Express Lines.
Four Passes Postbus Route
The Four Passes (Vierpässe) version totals 101 miles roundtrip from/to Meiringen, a centrally situated Hasli Valley vacation town, near the Reichenbach Falls and the limestone Aare Gorge (Aareschlucht). Passengers are treated to quintessential alpine vistas as the Postbus traverses—in succession—the Grimsel, Nufenen, Gotthard and Susten Passes. Waterfalls, towering rock formations, woodsy chalets and meadows grazed by brown dairy cows epitomize Bernese Oberland perspectives. Nufenen’s 8,130-ft. height makes it Switzerland’s loftiest auto roadway.
From Gletsch, a road-junction hamlet in southerly Valais canton, the Rhone Glacier and the Finstaarhorn’s snow-streaked, 14,018-ft. peak can be seen looming high on the horizon. The Susten Pass merges the broad Maienthal and Gladmental Valleys, spread far below the Dammastock and Gwätchenhorn summits. Approaching that pass means driving across 25 bridges and through 23 tunnels.
The Historic Route Express
This postbus itinerary is also recommended: 37 miles one-way from lakeside Flüelen (reachable by boat or train from Lucerne) to Linthal, a picturesque Linth Valley community in Glarus canton. Along the way, Postbuses travel through a string of villages: Bürglen, Brig, Grindl, Springen, Unterschächen, Urnerboden, Urigan—as well as larger Altdorf, featuring an imposing William Tell monument.
The road climbs along the Schächen Valley’s north face and past the Gries Glacier toward the 6,391-ft.-high Klausen Pass. Here the no-frills Klausenpasshöhe hotel/restaurant has stood for decades as a mail-coach stopover. Then, after almost 100 downhill bends toward the Urnerboden Plateau, the driver crosses the border between Uri and Glarus cantons before the tightly winding road reaches Linthal.
Holders of the Swiss Pass ride the Postbuses free, though seat reservations for some buses are required.
More information: PostBus Tourism