A Railroad Buff’s Alps
April 2, 2003
From France to Austria, trains remain the most comfortable way to reach Europe’s famous alpine resorts and observe the region’s traditional lifestyle.
An SUV owner driving us to the Aspen airport asked: “Can you rent these strong cars in Europe for a long trip around the Alps?” My lecture, often repeated for American travelers, followed. By the time we arrived, I had listed the reasons why European trains are almost always a better choice than driving.
First, the frequent and punctual trains start right from the airports in many hub cities. Second, they take you from the center of one to the heart of the next city. Third, you can watch the passing gorgeous scenes much better from the trains than while driving crowded roads and swallowing diesel exhaust.
I also told my driver, as we stopped for $2-a-gallon gas ($3 in Europe!), that a train fare is usually cheaper than renting a car. There is no hassle, no parking, no search for gas stations, no paperwork and insurance – and no danger of accidents. European trains are clean, reliable and quiet.
I assured our friend, a lover of good food, that all major trains feature proper dining cars. Betsy, my wife, rarely misses an opportunity to order a veal sausage in onion sauce.
I prefer the railroad station bistros. In many lands, train stations are a wasteland and their food is to be avoided. Not in Switzerland and Austria. Their buffets and elegant restaurants are worth a wait for the next train. In Geneva, Zurich, Basel, Innsbruck or Vienna, well-respected chefs preside over the stations’ haute cuisine. And service is unfailing – just don’t drop a syllable as you ask for paniertes Schweinschuftschnitzel.
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“OK,” my driver asked, “but how do you reach the small towns, the mountain passes for hiking or the slopes for skiing?”
We pulled up to the airport terminal, so I couldn’t switch to lecture No. 2, the one explaining how trains connect seamlessly to funiculars, boats, and buses, and how a simple ticket from the rail station is good all the way to the ski lifts on the highest peaks.
We thanked our driver and promised to send postcards and brochures from our annual pilgrimage to the high countries of the Old World. Betsy quickly added that she’d be taking pictures to prove how we survived the complex travel without renting a SUV.
A complex rail network
Aspen old-timers will remember the arguments for and against a mountain transit system, and the input of Swiss and other European engineers who “discovered” the local commuters’ need for rail in the 19th century. The issue was hot in 1996 when Aspen Mayor John Bennett and a contingent of city and state officials visited the Alps to see firsthand how trains move millions of Swiss workers and tourists throughout the country. The study of transportation seems to go on forever in Colorado. In the Alps, rail transit always came first and people rarely consider cars as a sensible choice to take to work.
Recently, I have taken an unscientific poll about Roaring Fork Valley residents’ 2003 travel plans. Ranging from millionaires to ski bums, most put the Alps on top of their list, and many considered taking the famous trains.
The skiing, the cool lakes, the great food, the history, the mountain climbing and the elegant resorts combine to make the Alps a favorite destination for Americans. All are within easy reach from the punctual and comfortable trains from any European city, and SUVs rarely intrude on the pristine Alpine lands. Indeed, many mountain towns ban cars.
We usually buy a three-country Eurailpass, but they are also practical for travel in one or all of the 17 countries within their system. There are so many variations and prices that it is best to look up the conditions (http://www.raileurope.com) before calling your travel agent. The passes are also good for boats, buses, most cable cars and even streetcars in some big cities. They can be validated from 15 days to three months.
The best-known of the scenic trains is the old Glacier Express. But “express” it is not; it takes more than seven hours, crossing 291 bridges and 91 tunnels, to connect Switzerland’s two top resorts, St. Moritz and Zermatt, and traverse the headwaters of the Rhine and the Rhone. We prefer to interrupt the spectacular trip in Andermatt, a ski resort at about the middle, or Oberwald. Both have excellent inns, glorious forests and vistas. For history and architecture, Chur is also a good stopover.
In winter, when we took our most recent trip, the snow is deep all along the trip, which spans 4,718 feet from the lowest to the highest point. Fog and blizzards often obstruct the view at high elevations, but in the comfortable, red-upholstered seats or the dining car, with tasty Swiss specialties and Italian wines, time passes pleasantly. Once out of the snowstorm, the view opens suddenly to sharp peaks and smooth valleys.
The Glacier Express requires reservations and so do its dining cars (http://www.glacierexpress.ch).
North to south
On an earlier trip, we crossed the Alps the shorter way, from north to south. The Bernina Express left Chur around 9 a.m. and from the panorama cars we marveled at the high viaducts and sparkling streams all the way to Tirano. After crossing over from Switzerland through a narrow Italian area, a bus took the train passengers to Lugano. Our arrival at 5 p.m. in this lovely Swiss city on the huge lake was just right for chocolate cake and coffee, with mile-high whipped cream that tasted fresh from the mountain barn.
Another north-to-south route over and under the Alps took us from the Bavarian Alps to Milan, but many fast trains run this stretch during the night. Sleeping cars are a great convenience for the business crowd, but they defeat the purpose of the tourist who wants the see the countryside.
There is, however, a highly scenic route that starts from the busy Swiss capital, Bern, and takes you all the way south to the palm-studded fishing villages of Lake Maggiore (http://www.centovalli.ch). Although this is a daytime experience for a look at the craggy, snow-covered Alpine passes, great tunnels often interrupt the view.
Once you pass through one of the world’s highest train tunnels, however, you exit at the south slopes of the Alps and face tiny Italian villages. Arriving at the border town of Domodossola, passengers can switch to another train to ride through the deep gorges, vineyards and wild forests of the Centovalli.
Be it duly recorded, there are many other high-country choices: the Heidi, the Mont Blanc, and the Wilhelm Tell express, and for sweet-lovers, a Chocolate Train. The vintage belle epoque Pullman cars of the latter run from Montreux along the Lake Geneva vineyards to Broc where tourists are led to Nestle’s huge showrooms for the sampling of their rightfully famous chocolate creations.
Although addicted to Swiss chocolate, we have avoided this promotional trip, which – somewhat counterproductively – stops in Gruyere for a visit to the town’s cheese factories. However, one summer we did go there for a pot of bubbly fondue made with the sharp, excellent gruyere that demands to be washed down with a dry local wine.
Before leaving, we study the trains’ timetable. The Swiss railroad’s Web site provides all connections in Europe (www.sbb.ch).
Our pastoral favorites are Engelberg, the last stop of narrow tracks, or the cliff town of Muerren. Over the years, several European and Colorado friends met us at these colorful, secluded towns and they still talk about the ambiance, the hikes and the great food.
We usually meet friends in Interlaken, a train hub between two lakes in central Switzerland. Well-known for its grand pastry shops and the elegant dining at the Victoria Hotel and Spa, the classic resort is worth an overnight stay in the shadow of the Jungfrau’s snowy peaks.
From Interlaken, the train ride to Grindelwald is a photographer’s dream, and the grand vistas continue from the gondola to Mannlichen, about 8,000 feet up. A cable car then travels down to 4,000 feet at Wengen, a popular ski town with splendid inns. In Wengen, we usually catch the small train (or a post-bus) to Lauterbrunnen in the valley.
Lauterbrunnen (loud fountain) is named appropriately for the huge waterfall that roars down near the bus stop and the bottom of the steepest funicular. People can then ride either a swinging cable car or a narrow-gauge train to the tiny, car-less town of Muerren.
From the balcony of our quaint chalet hotel, the Alpenruh, on Muerren’s only street, we sit with a drink on the top of the world as the sun sets in the purple sky behind the Jungfrau and other snowy peaks. The cowbells and alpenhorns from distant hills provide the evening’s concert. In the winter, we hear the songs of the local skiers after their descent from the Schilthorn’s dangerous runs to fill the town’s noisy beer halls.
West to east
To discover new remote villages, we have recently crisscrossed the Alps by train from west to east. Starting in Grenoble, France, at the foot of the Mont Blanc, we have traveled all the way to the lower Alps in eastern Austria. The trip took 10 memorable days.
With the first stop in Geneva, and the second in Zermatt, a stretch on the Glacier Express was the obvious choice. From Chur we switched to the scenic Austrian train to Innsbruck. We spent a couple of days in Kitzbuehel, a civilized, Aspen-like ski resort. From there, the slower Austrian train through Klagenfurt is more attractive than the fast train to Vienna.
We ended up in the still imperial-looking Panhans hotel in Semmering. It was frequented by the 19th-century court of Vienna for concerts, gambling and social engagements with the courtesans and diplomats. The waiters still click their heels and vintage wines are decanted over candlelight. And the Sacher Torte is genuine. A favorite of Hungarian aristocrats, the hills and forests became famous for great hunting and horseback riding.
We tried to catch the Semmering train, the grandfather of all mountain trains, built 155 years ago by a decree of the emperor. The train’s schedule through 17 tunnels somehow remained a mystery to us. We ended up walking a good portion of the 25-mile track under romantic viaducts and imagined the Austro-Hungarian emperor congratulating the engineers when boarding his private car as the band played. But our train never came.
Semmering is only one hour from Vienna, but Vienna seemed like an entirely different world. The busy Vienna airport swarmed with incoming traffic from all over the world.
A couple with Texas accents asked us for the rental car booths. I was tempted to stop them and send them to the railroad station, but we had to hurry to catch a plane back to the States. The Texans escaped my lecture about trains.
But never mind – the Alpine roads of Austria are fun even from an SUV.
Between long trips abroad and producing travel articles from their New Orleans base, Paul and Elizabeth Fabry spend many months at their old cottage in Aspen’s West End.