A Swiss Snow Holiday With a Twist

Date Posted: 29/09/2011

Neil Murray opted for a winter snow holiday with a difference when he chose to explore Switzerland by rail.  

If you thought winter snow holidays were only about skiing, think again. Just because it’s the time of year when countries in Europe are covered in the white stuff, doesn’t mean you can’t venture forth and have a great holiday without spending hours on a ski slope.

That’s what we had in mind when my wife and I set out on a rail trip to the Lake Lucerne area in Switzerland around New Year. What we didn’t realise was just how many rail journeys we would make and how, delightfully - as most of them were in Switzerland - they would almost all arrive and depart bang on time. The starting point was St Pancras for a smooth Eurostar trip through the tunnel and across northern France (with only a smattering of snow to be seen) to Paris. A change of station from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon, and our journey continued by super-fast TGV south to Dijon for an overnight stop on what seemed like the coldest night of the year. 

We started to see snow-covered forests, fields and towns on the next stretch of our trip to Lausanne, where there was time for a quick look over Lake Geneva and the pleasure boats moored on the lake near the station, before we boarded another comfortable train for the journey past even more snowy landscapes to Lucerne. A local service then took us on the short trip to the small town of Hergeswil, which sits on the shores of Lake Lucerne below mount Pilatus, and was our base for the next few nights.

The following day, back in Lucerne for some sightseeing, we headed for the Chapel Bridge (or Kapellbrucke) (pictured), the city’s most-famous landmark which straddles the Reuss river. Built in the 14th century, it had double-side painted roof panels added 300 years later, which depicted scenes from Swiss and local history. A fire in 1993 destroyed almost half of them, however many were replaced with facsimiles or restored and most can still be seen, including number 31, which shows William Tell shooting an apple from his son’s head.

The most atmospheric part of Lucerne is the Old Town, which manages to mix the ancient (cobbled squares and medieval houses) with the new (familiar-name modern stores and boutiques), making it a great place to wander around, absorb some of the feel of the old days, and still do some shopping.

With a limited amount of time in the city, we walked round part of its battlements and ran into a herd of what looked like Highland cattle, searching for grass through the snow. Another animal - a lion - is the subject of what Mark Twain is supposed to have called: “the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world”. The Dying Lion of Lucerne was hewn out of a cliff face in 1821 and commemorates the deaths of a group of Swiss mercenaries in 1792.

We were back, briefly, in Lucerne the following day to board a boat for the short cruise across the lake to Vitznau, to get the train to Rigi-Kulm. That was when we had our first look at some ‘real’ snow, when we climbed on to the Mount Rigi Railway (Europe’s first cog railway, which has been running since 1871) to chug our way to the 6,000-foot summit.

It was misty with poor visibility when we set out so there were gasps of delight when we eventually passed through the clouds and saw the clear, blue sky for the first time and the sun shining on the snow-covered mountain slopes. On a clear day, they say you can see 13 of Switzerland’s lakes from the summit of Rigi-Kulm and even as far as France and Germany.

Trains with slots for skis at the front and carts for sledges at the back chugged up regularly to the peak as we snacked on hot dogs and marvelled at the view - the cloud cover below us looking just like a lake blanketed in snow. You really did feel as if you were at the top of the world.

Having arrived from Vitznau, we then headed back on a different route, past a series of massive icicles and down through the clouds to Arth-Goldau for the trip back to Lucerne and Hergeswil.

The following day, on the way to the ski town of Engelberg, the contrast of bare trees against the snow was highlighted when we emerged from a long tunnel to see the mountains and trees completely immersed in the white stuff. In Engelberg - which sits at the foot of mount Titlis - snow was piled high at the side of the street as, wrapped in rugs against the bitter cold (minus two degrees Celsius), we enjoyed a 45-minute sleigh ride around the town. Left to our own devices, we popped into the Monastery Church, which claims to have the largest organ in Switzerland, wandered through the graveyard - where, very considerately, the paths to the gravestones had all been cleared for visitors - and sampled some of the cheese at the nearby monastery cheese factory.

If that winter wonderland had been impressive, even better was still to come in the form of our trip on the Glacier Express - nicknamed ‘the world’s slowest express train’ because its average speed is only 30mph. After celebrating New Year at our hotel in Hergeswil with a buffet dinner that lasted almost four hours and a rather shaky group performance of Auld Lang Syne in the hotel nightclub, we set out the following morning on a double-decker train - another first for us - en-route to Thalwil and then Chur, where we picked up the Express for the journey to Andermatt.

With huge, panoramic windows to make sure you get the full effect of the dramatic scenery, and a gong sounding to draw your attention to important sights featured on the headset commentary, there’s no problem about knowing where you are and when. What followed was one breathtaking landscape after another as we headed through the magnificent Rhine Gorge on the way to Disentis, a town dominated by its monastery. Then, travelling up to the Oberalp Pass, we reached the peak of the trip - 6,670-feet above sea level - before heading to Andermatt and the return journey to Hergeswil.

The following day we travelled back to the UK via Basle and Paris, reflecting on what had been a terrific trip. Incidentally, around 20 of the rail journeys on our holiday were in Switzerland and they were only a total of three minutes late. How’s that for Swiss efficiency?

Top three sights

1.Swiss Museum of Transport: A 20-minute stroll round Lake Lucerne, the museum (The Verkehrshaus) covers everything from road and rail transport to aviation and space travel. There’s also a giant, aerial photograph of Switzerland, a planetarium and an IMAX cinema (www.verkehrshaus.ch/en).

2.Glasi Hergeswil: The Glasi glassworks in Hergeswil offer a fascinating experience, with a terrific audio-visual display, overhead views of the 24-hour glass-making operation, a chance to ‘blow your own glass’ and a kids’ theatre and play park. Groups of ten or more can book a free tour (www.glasi.ch).

3.Show Cheese Factory at the Engelberg Monastry:Switzerland's only show cheese factory is located inside the monastery in Engelberg and dates back to the 17th century. Each day, 15 mountain farmers bring their fresh cows’ milk to the factory. Group tours are welcome (www.schaukaeserei-engelberg.ch/main-en.html).

Switzerland essentials

Eat: Look out for the local speciality, Kügelipastetli, vol-au-vents stuffed with mushrooms and meat in a creamy sauce. With Lucerne being on a lake, fish is very popular, with Forellen (trout), Egli (perch), Felchen (a kind of white fish) and Hecht (pike) on most menus.

Drink: Why not try a Kaffee fertig (coffee laced with Schnapps), or Kafi Luz, which traditionally is made by putting a five-franc coin in a vase-shaped glass, pouring hot coffee in until you can’t see the coin, then adding Schnapps until the coin becomes visible again? Stir in two large spoons of sugar for the perfect pick-me-up.

Ty: Muffle up against the cold and climb on a sleigh for a horse-drawn ride around the town of Engelberg - although your ‘sleigh’ might have wheels covered in chains.

Go: Although the point of my trip was to go on a snow holiday without having to do any skiing, Treyn Holidays operate Glacier Express trips all year round and the scenery is just as spectacular but in a different way. Outside of the winter snow trips the best times to go are June, September or October.

Factfile

Travel time: London to Paris 2 hrs 20 mins; Paris to Dijon 1 hr 30 mins; Dijon to Lucerne 4 hrs 30 mins; regular Lucerne to Hergeswil trains 20 minutes.
Time difference: GMT +1 hr.
Currency: Swiss francs, currently 1 franc = 75p.
Language: Swiss-German, but English widely spoken. Red tape: All passengers, including infants, are required to have either their own valid passport or national identity card.

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