Sunday, 30 September 2007

The planning stage

Please note: Normally, blog postings appear in reverse chronological order (ie newest first). I have adjusted the dates for these postings so they appear in chronological order (ie oldest first). This post, for example, was created in May 2007 and hence predates the trip which happened in July 2007.

The main purpose of this blog is to provide anyone who is considering planning a trip on the Swiss Railways to share in my experiences. I could have done it more cheaply, but I was determined to organise the whole thing myself. Partly because I wanted to set my own itinerary and partly because I wanted to travel independently, rather than feeling hassled and hustled. OK, it took a bit more effort, but planning the trip was, for me, as interesting and exciting as actually doing it. I hope my ramblings (in both senses) are of help to you. If you have any questions which have not been answered or suggestions as to what could be added, then please leave a comment.
Ever since I can remember I have wanted to travel on the Swiss railway network. This year, for various reasons, I decided to fulfil this ambition. Apart from a car trip through Switzerland a few years ago, I knew nothing about the Swiss railway system. So my first enquiry led me to the Swiss Travel System website and their map of the system:

Five airports are shown on the map - Basle, Zurich, Geneva, Lugano and Bern. Looking at the rail network, Geneva looked like a promising start and end point. From here, I plotted a route which would last approximately eight days and started looking for hotels. It was at this point I started looking also at air fares. None of the airports appeared to be destinations for cheap flights from Liverpool or Manchester, so I looked for an alternative - for example, travelling by train or flying to another airport and catching a train to Geneva.

The RyanAir service map made me realise that one of its destinations, Milan (Bergamo) is quite close to Lugano, the southernmost point of the Swiss rail network. Furthemore, looking again at the map of the railway network, using Lugano as the start and end point was going to be far more effective than using Geneva.

Consequently, a new route was determined:

The route
Day 1 - Milan - Lugano - Goschenen - Andermatt - Chur
(This includes the St Gotthard tunnel and part of the Glacier Express route)

Day 2 - Chur - Tirano - Lugano
(The Bernina Express)

Day 3 - Lugano - Locarno
(An easy day - with an opportunity to visit Swiss Miniatur )

Day 4 - Locarno - Spiez - Interlaken
(The Centovalli Line and Simplon Tunnel)

Day 5 - The Jungfrau
(The Jungfraubahn)

Day 6 - Interlaken - Lucerne
(Part of the Golden Pass Line)

Day 7 - Lucerne - Lugano
(The William Tell Express)

Day 8 - Lugano - Milan

With the route finalised, the hotels and trains were booked.

Booking Hotels and Trains
Booking the hotels, hostels and guest houses was a relatively straightforward process using the internet and was accomplished in a couple of evenings. To keep costs down we booked into cheapish rooms (around £60 per room per night - 2007 prices). It remains to be seen what they are like.

Buying the Swiss Rail Pass was accomplished easily online through the Swiss Travel Centre. As this was going to be a once in a lifetime experience we decided to travel first class which at £205 each for eight days (you get 15% discount for two) seemed like a bargain (and cheaper than a first class return ticket from Crewe to London!).

Named trains in Switzerland need to be booked in advance. A phone call to the Swiss Travel Centre in London quickly solved this - I was even able to book a meal on the Glacier Express and return tickets from Milan to Lugano on the Italian Railway system.

The trip begins on 18th July. Watch this space!

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Day 1 - Liverpool to Bergamo

I had heard a few horror stories about budget airlines cancelling flights and hence decided to fly out a day earlier than planned. The trip was so carefully planned that a delay on the first day would have had disastrous consequences for the whole holiday.

As it turned out, the Ryanair flight from Liverpool to Bergamo was uneventful and we booked into a the recently built Art Hotel in Bergamo which was comfortable, air conditioned and well within budget.

A ten minute stroll into the centre of the local community of Stezzano led to a pleasant meal outside the local pizzaria. Although this hotel is a ten minute taxi ride from the station, it was certainly worth it in terms of facilities and value for money.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Day 2 - Bergamo to Milan

After a leisurely breakfast, a taxi ride to Bergamo station and our first experience of the Italian railway system.

A stopping train eventually took us into the centre of Milan. The Centrale station building in Milan is very impressive, though it was in the process of being renovated. I had booked us into the Hotel Gonzaga which is within easy walking distance of the station; it was clean, cool (the temperature in the city was 39 degrees!) and comfortable. Don't be put off by the exterior, inside it is great!

Divested of our suitcases we were able to explore the city. A day pass on the subway system enabled us to travel to the centre and thence to Porta Genova where we discovered the delights of the 'Happy Hour' at the cafes, bars and restaurants beside the canal. A set price entitles you to a drink as as much food as you can consume from a buffet. Beware though, we discovered that the price of the second drink is the same as for the first (ie including the cost of the buffet).

We weren't that impressed with Milan - maybe we didn't find the interesting sights - or maybe it was too hot. We found the Museum of Technology (which was quite interesting - though we were disappointed we were unable to go aboard the submarine), the Duomo and arcade (expensive!), the opera house and the park. However, the atmosphere by the canal was pleasant and relaxed.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Day 3 - Milan to Chur

This was the day the rail holiday really began!

The Swiss Railways train took us from Milan Central through the southern states of Switzerland, through the St Gotthard tunnel and on to Goschenen. Here we disembarked and boarded the rack railway which climbed up the Schollenen Valley to Andermatt.

By this time I realised I had made a tragic error in booking the train from Milan, which meant we missed the Glacier Express (and our meal booked in the restaurant car). H0wever, we found the quality of food at the station cafe in Andermatt was very good - including home-cooked lasagne and some staples of Swiss fayre (eg sausages). Fortunately, trains run regularly over the Swiss system and we were able, with our Swiss Passes, to board the next available train to Chur which followed the same route as the Glacier Express. For me, the journey on the local train was far more interesting and rewarding than it would have been had we been crammed into the panorama coaches. On the local train, the windows could be opened for uninterrupted photography. In addition, we had the first class section of our carriage to ourselves and hence felt uninhibited in opening all the windows and leaping around taking pictures and video clips at our leisure.

We arrived in Chur in sufficient time to be able to stroll into the city centre to find food (and drink). The town has been modernised and pedestrianised but there are some interesting nooks and crannies to explore.

We stayed at the IBIS hotel in Chur, which is within walking distance of the city centre (though not with suitcases).

As can be seen, the hotel has an interesting pyramidal design - we stayed very near the apex in a large and comfortable room. The staff were very friendly and the buffet breakfast was well worth the extra cost - setting us up for the day ahead.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Day 4 - Chur to Lugano

The station at Chur is fascinating. A junction of several railways - both standard and metre gauge - with arrivals and departures every ten minutes or so, means there is plenty to watch while waiting for the train.

We had booked aboard the panorama train of the Bernina Express which ensures everyone has a superb view of the scenery, but being unable to open the windows makes photography difficult. However, the commentary in German, Italian and English was very helpful in alerting us to particular and impressive aspects of the railway, which winds and spirals its way up and over the Bernina Pass. A key feature of the line is that it uses adhesion for the entire journey - there are no rack sections, even though the gradient is a steep as 1 : 14 (7%).

Key features of the line are:
  • The Landwasser viaduct (probably the most well known railway feature in Switzerland)
  • The spirals between Bergun and Preda
  • The Montebella curve and Alp Grum
  • The descent into the Poschavio valley
  • The spiral viaduct at Brusio
The line terminates in the Italian town of Tirano where a coach (which must also be booked in advance via the Swiss Rail Centre) took us past Lake Como to Lugano. The coach journey was particularly interesting as we neared Lugano where the road wound through the mountains and villages and in several places narrowed to a single lane. Our driver was clearly familiar with the route and threw the coach (sometimes almost literally) through impossibly narrow gaps and, with blasts on his horn, sent other motorists into complicated reverse manoevres.
The only positive thing we can say about the hotel we booked into was that it was close to the lakeside and was reasonably priced. Lugano itself is fascinating with plenty of night life and slightly faded elegance. We found the bar at the Lido to be particularly pleasant for a glass (or two) of Prosecco or a Campari Soda as an aperitif before strolling into the centre for a leisurely al fresco meal. Mind you, the selection of food is fairly limited. It's fine if you like staple Italian fare (pizzas and pasta) - but limited if you want a bit more variety.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Day 5 - Lugano to Locarno

Day 5 was relatively restful. My daughter spent a leisurely day reading, swimming and eating in Lugano whilst I took a short train journey beside the lake to Melide to see Swiss Miniatur.

It was a blisteringly hot day but the modelling was of a very high standard and the whole thing is well executed. It's well worth a vist if you already happen to be in the area.

A rail journey of about an hour took us to nearby Locarno. I found Locarno to be more to my liking. Although similar in many ways to Lugano, the Piazza Grande has a more interesting range of shops and the lakeside seems more attractive. We arrived just before the Film festival was about to start - which takes place in the Piazza

We booked into the Hotel America - which is tucked away just off the Piazza Grande above a bar. It was clean, pleasantly decorated and comfortable.

After a thunderstorm and torrential downpour we ventured out in the evening to await the grand firework display - which was staged on the lake. I have never seen such a spectacular display - which must have lasted a good 20-30 minutes.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Day 6 - Locarno to Interlaken

After a leisurely breakfast we boarded the Centovalli train for Domodossala. Again, we had the first class compartment to ourselves and hence could open all the windows and leap about taking video and photos without disturbing other passengers. We were fortunate to travel in some of the older rolling stock with opening windows; the more recent air conditioned panorama coaches do not afford this luxury.

For the mostpart, the railway clings to the side of the wooded gorge, crossing the 100 valleys (which gives the railway its name) on a series of stone and steel viaducts. The most impressive is very early in the journey at Verscio where the viaduct spans a gorge 75m below(see video below).

The descent to Domodossala is also quite an impressive feat of engineering with the line zig-zagging across the hillside as it loses height. At Domodossala we boarded the standard SBB express bound for Berne to travel through the Simplon tunnel, via Brig to Spiez.

The scenery after emerging from the tunnel was incredible, particularly as we could review it from different perspectives as we retraced our journey at different heights along the side of the valley.

At Speiz, we changed trains for Interlaken.

The views along the lakeside contrasted with the mountain scenery of the Lotschberg line.

We left the train at Interlaken West to find the Lotschberg Hotel, a short walk away. This was my favourite hotel of the trip. The staff were extremely friendly and helpful, there is a coffee lounge with internet access (free wifi) and the room was clean and comfortable. Furthemore, a washing machine and drier is provided for a small charge.

There was time for me to visit the Modelleisenbahn-treff, a five minute walk from the hotel. The main feature is a layout depicting many of the key railway sights in Switzerland in what appears to be 7mm scale. 50 trains run simultaneously spiralling up mountains and across the ceiling to connect with different parts of the layout. I tried following one train as it traversed the layout but lost track of it in one of the tunnels. I did spot it later in a totally unexpected part of the layout. The hour I spent there was nowhere near sufficient - and I wish now I had taken more photos and some video. I think I've talked myself into a return visit!