Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

The Glacier Express is one of Switzerland’s most celebrated rail journeys. But it is expensive and dreadfully touristy. Travellers looking to see the best of Switzerland by train could, we think, do better. The rail journey from Zürich to Lake Geneva via Lucerne, Interlaken and Gstaad is one of our favourite Swiss excursions by train.

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Even as late as 1881, when railway lines had already penetrated into the principal Swiss valleys, the eminent Baedeker — ever a reliable informant on travel matters — was still reminding his readers of the patience needed for long journeys through the Bernese Oberland. Travellers approaching from the north could take advantage of the railway from Zürich to Lucerne (opened in 1861), but the continuing journey south from Lucerne was more difficult.

Baedeker advised taking the steamboat to Alpnachstad from where diligences were available for the journey over the Brünig Pass to Meiringen. Baedeker, always so very attentive to fine detail, cautioned against booking the diligence too long in advance. “Those who are first on the conductor’s list,” he wrote, “are invariably consigned to the ‘intérieur’, from which little or no view is obtained.”

The journey west from Meiringen required a further diligence to Brienz, where passengers transferred to a boat for an hour long cruise west towards Interlaken. Baedeker commended the lakeside villages of Oberried and Niederried, both “charmingly situated among fruit-trees at the foot of the Augstmatthorn.”

The efficiency that we all associate with Swiss public transport today was evident even in 1881. Baedeker advised that although the journey was slow, the stagecoaches (‘diligences’ in Baedekerspeak) and steamboats were well coordinated, and through-ticketing was available. A single ticket for the nine-hour journey from Lucerne to Interlaken cost about 15 francs.

It is good that Baedeker updated his guidebooks to Switzerland so frequently, typically every two years, for Swiss transport in the sweep of mountain territory from Lake Lucerne through Interlaken to Lake Geneva was rapidly being transformed. A metre-gauge railway over the Brünig Pass opened in 1888, initially linking Alpnachstad with Meiringen and Brienz. The short link from Lucerne to Alpnachstad was added the following year, but passengers still needed to transfer to a boat for the journey from Brienz west to Interlaken. By the turn of the century, that waterborne finale to the journey — the railway from Brienz to Interlaken did not open until 1914 — was judged by many travellers as refreshingly quaint. It was an antidote to the railway which was increasingly stretching its tentacles into even the remotest corners of the Confederation.

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About the authors

hidden europe

and manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.

This article was published in hidden europe 34.