The Swiss Pass route

The Swiss Pass route
The Glacier Express chugs along on its scenic route, Photo Credit: Sanjoy Ghosh
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The north, the east and the central, every corner of Switzerland is covered by the Alpine rails

Sheetal Vyas
August 12 , 2014
14 Min Read

Monday mornings in Romanshorn are an enviable affair. Families saunter by dressed in their most relaxed, huge dogs caper about, earnestly whistled back by their owners, cyclists whiz past extracting the last drop of enjoyment from the sun that glitters over Lake Constance. Fathers and sons sail out into the blue Bodensee, ladies take in protracted three-hour lunches or sit on benches by the lake, feeding waterfowl. What the almost 10,000 residents of this lovely lakeside town do for a living, I don’t know, but that’s what I’d like to be doing.

On this morning at least, I was able to walk along the pretty, flowered paths trimming the lake to the sound of impossibly clear waters sloshing the banks, gazing out at Germany. With over 300 boats of various sizes moored at the pier, Romanshorn harbour is a busy place to the eye, it is a picture frame cluttered with masts. Small birds fluttered in the bushes and I spied a blackbird, which delighted me, because I’d never seen one before. Further on, rising out of the grassy lawns to one side was the Catholic Church of Romanshorn. Once an outpost of the abbey at St Gallen, this is a dignified building that carries its wealth well. I came to a bench in an alcove, set scenically under a drooping willow. There was a book in my bag and no question about what would happen next. I settled down to read, occasionally looking up at the fluttering sails in the distance before me, sometimes locking admonitory eyes with a duck that snorted too loudly. It was a truly pleasant time.

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Later that day, the compulsion for more structured activity took us to the Locorama, a little museum for locomotives. Set in an abandoned yard near the railway station, this houses several interesting engines and carriages from various periods. Some of these still work and are occasionally put to use in the cause of tourism. The museum presaged the motif for the visit to Switzerland trains, for our primary purpose in Switzerland was to experience the magnificent Bernina Express. The Albula-Bernina line that it runs on has recently been deemed a World Heritage Site by Unesco, and the event was celebrated in a manner quite typically Swiss they promptly invited 130 journalists from all over the world to come and have a dekko.

For now, though, we were in the region of Thurgau, on the northeastern edge of Switzerland. It is separated from Germany and Austria by the enormous Lake Constance and a little to the northwest, by the Rhine. I longed for a cruise down the fringe of the lake and the next day, I got it. Eight shiny flyer bikes awaited our group. Flyer bikes are like normal bikes, except you cheat a little. A small battery assists your pedalling efforts you get to choose between three levels of additional power and this adds considerable relief to uphill stretches and, I must say, much joy to the entire experience. Thurgau is proud of its agricultural produce and we saw why. Apple orchards flanked the trail, the boughs bent with luscious burden, the ground red with fallen apples. Considerate biker trails have been laid along the lake and we cruised along, with the Bodensee playing hide and seek to our right, affording some spectacular views. Lunch was at a farmhouse in Altnau: farm fresh food, salads with an assortment of dressings, bread, large jugs of apple juice and some great coffee. Our path took us to the town of Kreuzlingen, some 15km away. We gave up the bikes reluctantly but a museum of a historical sort awaited us in Mannenbach Salenstein.

The Napoleon Museum, dedicated to Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, France’s last monarch and its first titular President, is housed in the mansion he grew up in, where he lived with his mother Hortense, while exiled from France. The house is a slice of lovingly preserved history. Almost obsessively preserved too, because the authorities are so afraid the parquet floor might be scratched, they give visitors gigantic fluff footwear to go over their shoes. The result is a houseful of people shuffling about like penguins. It is interesting for all that this was Hortense’s home away from home and it reflects her attempts to duplicate the life she left behind: striped tent décor, exquisite if small bedrooms, a library where she had all the books relined to her taste, the dining chambers, where breakfast began activity at noon and supper ended the day at midnight.

The day was young when we finished with the museum and the temptation to take the ferry was irresistible. So with no real destination or purpose, we wound down the Rhine and hopped off at Stein am Rhine. Since this little village falls on the German side of the river, we quite thought we were on German soil – illegally, of course, which was a thrill. Sighting of Swiss flags and the ubiquitous souvenir cow in the shops put paid to that: we were in Switzerland.

From Thurgau, we sped southeast to the Alpine valley region of Engadin. The river Inn flows through the valley and Engadin is Romansch for the ‘Garden of Inn’. We descended on Scuol, a town famous for its mineral waters and its Roman-Irish spa, which is fed by hot springs of the region. This was a luxurious place, with a variety of massages, baths and treatments culminating in a quiet room with huge glass windows, looking out on to the mountains. The famous waters, of which there are four kinds, are vile but claim all sorts of cures. With grimaces all around, we downed the glasses, only to be warned later that the waters gave some people the runs.

Far more enjoyable was a tour of the village, a typical Engadin settlement. With cold winters, the houses here have small windows but what charming ones! The walls are typically thick and windows dip into the wall and are adorned with profusions of flowers and decorations. Architecture here is famous for its use of sgraffito, a technique where a thin layer of plaster is scratched to produce ornate designs. The mineral water pumps occupy a place of honour in the village centre with the houses all around. It was such a point with the early settlers to be within sight of the water that even houses at awkward angles managed to build in at least one aperture from where they could gaze on the spout.

The next two days were a blur of trains, good food and wine. Two journeys stand out sample trips on the Glacier and Bernina expresses. The first in its drawn-out avatar is a seven-and-a-half-hour journey between St Moritz and Zermatt, with views of the Graubünden and Valais regions. The second takes you over the 2,253m-high Bernina Pass and the line the one Swiss Tourism was celebrating is clearly an engineering marvel even to the technically uninformed: tunnels hewn into rock, switch-back tunnels, tall viaducts; what’s more, the train attains its height without using the rack-and-pinion mechanism.

We stayed in St Moritz, glitziest of glitzy European resorts. At one time, this winter resort played host to kings and Hollywood queens, while its ski runs and bobsleighs attracted every foolhardy winter-sportsman in the Western world. Even if it isn’t the dernier cri, St Moritz is still swanky and still coveted by the rich and famous — our own Lakshmi Mittal owns a home there. For fashionistas, the main street in St Mortiz is one treat after another. Gucci, Pucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Chanel, Louis Vuitton and more stand in line, luring in the susceptible. We blinked at the bright lights and shopped here for our obligatory chocolate, sampling goodies at local chocolatiers, Hauser’s.

There was yet another museum for us to see, this time one devoted to art. Italian painter Giovanni Segantini loved and painted the Alps with rare devotion and invested them with haunting religious symbolism. His works are displayed at the Segantini Museum, and there was much to stand and stare at, particularly his Ave Maria at the Crossing — a small boat bearing a young family and sheep has suddenly come to rest in the middle of a crossing; the heads of all bent in reverence to the Ave Maria ringing (presumably) from the church in the distance.

St Moritz gave way to Lucerne, which formed the base for our visit to Mt Titlis. So hugely popular is this spot with Indian tourists, there is an Indian hotel there as well as a restaurant. Indeed, I encountered several groups some racuous young MBAs and some older couples, who nodded pleasantly before ascertaining my city of origin.

As for Lucerne, I loved it on sight. The city stands on the river Reuss, banked on both sides as water gushes by. There are two old wooden bridges here that are worthy of interest — the Chapel Bridge that twists to arrive at the old Chapel, and the Mill Bridge both reeking of history. The 14th-century Chapel Bridge has had an eventful existence even till as recently as 1993 when parts of it burned, much to Lucerne’s anguish. It is now restored, of course, and scarlet flowers adorn it all through, making no distinction between old and new. In Lucerne, it all blends.

As we walked with Doris Fuchs, our guide, we encountered a wedding party several horse-drawn carriages with smiling people in top hats and flouncy gowns, on their way to church. We stood aside to watch them go, as did other pedestrians, and were showered with sweets. Traditionally, it is children who are greeted like this, but it didn’t seem to matter — five minutes after the cavalcade had passed, every sweet had been pocketed and nary a child in sight.

We toured the breathtaking and opulent Jesuit church by the river, and walked on cobbled streets taking in the old and the new. Dinner by the river caught me in a mellow mood — the pasta was herbed, the chocolate dessert delicately sweetened, lights wavered in the water, swans swam up to us, and across the bank, through a light drizzle, the cityscape of Lucerne... It deepened somehow, the sense of Europe.

The information

Getting there

Flights connect Delhi to Zürich on Swiss Airlines International for Rs 55,500 (return, all inclusive on economy). Emirates has flights that include one stop.

Visas

Applications can be downloaded from www.vfsglobal.ch/switzerland/india

Getting around

The excellent train network takes you almost anywhere in a few hours. Invest in a Swiss Pass (from CHF 260/4 days to CHF 578/30 days in 2nd class; www.swisstravelsystem.ch), which gives you the run of the train/bus/ferry transport system.

THURGAU

Where to stay & eat

In Romanshorn, the Park Hotel Inseli (from CHF 118; www.hotel-inseli.com) is by far the best place. Happily located by the harbour, there are views from everywhere. There is a nice restaurant that lets you sit outdoors, only you’re likely to be assailed by over-bold sparrows who think nothing of hopping on the table and helping themselves. Among more economical options are Hotel Anker (from CHF 50; www.hotelanker-romanshorn.ch) and Hotel Bahnhof (from CHF 50; www.hotelbahnhof-romanshorn.ch). In town, the restaurant Schiff, an old 1760 building that has since been rebuilt is good for a pleasant meal.

In Steckborn, a hotel by the lake called See & Parkhotel Feldbach (from CHF 165; www.hotel-feldbach.ch) is a scenic spot. Their lawns are great for sitting out in during the warmer months and their menu is exciting. A more reasonable stay option is Hotel Frohsinn (from CHF 90; www.frohsinn-steckborn.ch).

What to see & do

Cycle from Romanshorn along the Lake Constance to any town on the bike trail. Flyer bikes are available at Romanshorn railway station (www.rentabike.com).

ST MORITZ

Where to stay

High-end: This was once the place to see and be seen at, and as far as luxury hotels are concerned, there’s an embarrassment of riches. Carlton Hotel (from CHF 520; www.carlton-stmoritz.ch), an ochre-coloured chateau, was originally built for Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. He never lived in it, however; it changed hands, and opened in 2007 as a hotel. Badrutt’s Palace Hotel (from CHF 320; www.badruttspalace.com) has hosted the likes of the Shah of Iran, Greta Garbo and Aristotle Onassis. Suvretta House (from CHF 355; www.suvrettahouse.ch) is a luxurious and formal hotel that also sees some illustrious guests. And then there is Kulm Hotel (from CHF 280/305 for low/high season; www.kulmhotel-stmoritz.ch), whose owner Caspar Badrutt almost single-handedly made St Moritz the winter destination it is. In the town centre, there is Hotel Monopol (from CHF 310; www. monopol.ch).

Mid-range/budget: More affordable are Hotel Stille (from CHF 72; www.hotelstille.ch), and Hotel Waldhaus am See (from CHF 95; www.waldhaus-am-see.ch); once a tavern, it has a whisky collection — reputedly the largest in the world — to gladden the hearts of connoisseurs.

What to see & do

St Moritz has twice hosted the Winter Olympics and is famous for its winter sports. The Olympic bobsleigh and the perilous Cresta Run set off from here and these are worth a pilgrimage.

Segantini Museum (10am-5pm, Tue-Sun, mid-Oct to mid-Apr; 10am-5pm, Tue-Sun; 1pm-5pm, Mon, mid-Apr to mid-Oct; www.segantini-museum.ch) displays works of Italian painter, Giovanni Segantini.

AROUND ST MORITZ

The Glacier Express (CHF 133, 2nd class; www.glacierexpress.ch) between St Moritz to Zermatt is a journey across 291 bridges and through 91 tunnels and has some panoramic views of the Alps. A three-course meal on board costs CHF 41.

The Bernina Express (CHF 80, 2nd class; www.rhb.ch/en/panoramic-trains/bernina-express) from Chur to Lugano climbs the 2,253m-high Bernina Pass without the help of a rack-and-pinion mechanism. The line was recently accorded World Heritage Site status by Unesco.

The Engadin Bad Scuol Spa (open 365 days a year) is a Roman-Irish spa that combines the merits of two traditional bathing cultures. The four types of waters are supposed to have all kinds of curative properties.

LUCERNE

Where to stay

Among several high-end hostelries in the city are Palace Luzern (from CHF 400; www.palace-luzern.ch), Grand Hotel National Luzern (from CHF 365, low-season and 460 CHF, high-season; www.national-luzern.ch), both on Haldenstrasse. The Hotel (from CHF 370/430; www.the-hotel.ch) is a deluxe boutique hotel on Sempacherstrasse. More reasonable options include Hotel Pickwick (from CHF 90/105; www.hotelpickwick.ch) and Hotel des Alpes Luzern (from CHF 108/128; www.desalpesluzern.ch)

What to see & do

Lucerne’s old quarter, with its two old bridges and cobbled streets, is well worth a tour.


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