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Traveling the rails in Switzerland

by Richard Mason | July 10, 2021 at 8:40 p.m.
Richard Mason

Over several decades of travel in Europe, Vertis and I developed a fondness for Switzerland. One of the primary reasons is the country’s transportation system, built around a series of interconnected railways.

Tourism is one of the top Swiss job creators; the country strives to attract visitors and make them want to come back.

One of the incentives is a Swiss Travel Pass that can be purchased before arriving in the country. It lets a visitor ride almost any form of transportation in the country including buses, trains, boats, lake ferries and mountain lifts.

It’s surprising how easy the Pass makes traveling, and as a bonus, it allows free admission to 50 Swiss museums. Since the country has relatively high pay-as-you-go fares, depending on your itinerary, the Pass can be a good deal.

We usually start our trip by flying to Zurich, resting for a couple of days, then heading to various areas of the countryside. A few days in Zurich can be a fine start to your trip because of the great restaurants and the Banhofstrasse, one of the most exclusive shopping streets in Europe.

Or take a 30-minute train ride to Lucerne and stroll across the Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge), a covered wooden footbridge spanning the river Reussan into an old downtown that looks as if Disney had designed it.

The Swiss are sticklers for promptness, so if your train ticket says 10:32 a.m., you had better be on the train by 10:31, because at exactly 10:32 the train will begin to move.

The Swiss are also very picky about keeping their coach cars clean and attractive.

We once were traveling there with relatives when one of the young girls in our group put her feet up on the seat in front of her (many of the trains have sections of coaches with facing seats for families). When the conductor came by he shook his head and said to our girl, “The seats are not for feet.”

Make it a point to vary your methods of getting around. You can travel by lake paddle steamers out of Zurich, by regular trains to St. ­Moritz, and by boarding the Glacier Express or the Bernina Express, which travel along a UNESCO World Heritage railway line.

Don’t ignore public rail and bus travel in the larger cities, starting with a ride from the airport to the center of town, with your Travel Pass. Transportation to most towns will be on regular trains, but if you want to visit some of the mountain villages such as Wengen, it will be on a cogwheel train, a very steep railway with a toothed rack rail usually between the running rails.

Traveling by train will give you the opportunity to interact with the locals, and since you can hop off a train at any station and catch another one later, it provides the freedom to vary your trip at a moment’s notice. That has happened to Vertis and me several times.

We were traveling from Zurich to Lauterbrunnen, which calls itself the most beautiful village in Switzerland, when the train made an intermediate stop. As I looked out the window, I saw a crowd gathering along one of the main streets in town.

“Vertis, come on. Let’s get off. They are about to have a parade here!”

Soon we were lined up along a main street with almost everyone else in town. A lady standing beside us could tell we were puzzled and smiled as she said in perfect English, “It’s a military parade.” I expected tanks and modern soldiers, but as the first units approached, I was shocked.

There were Swiss soldiers all right, but they were carrying crossbows and swords. Then, after about another 30 minutes, it became obvious that the Swiss parade soldiers were marching through the centuries, bringing up the rear with a unit of modern Special Forces. Just think of the experience, which we would never have had if we weren’t riding a train.

That memory brings another experience to mind with friends from Texas. We were going to Wengen, but before we reached our connecting rail station the train made a stop at a fair-sized town near the edge of the Swiss Alps. We hopped off the train as another parade approached.

It was led by what looked like Swiss farmers with their dogs. I spoke to a young man about what was this parade all about. He spoke English, as most Swiss do, and said, “It’s the day the cattle herders bring their herds down from the high pastures in the mountains for the winter. In the spring they will do the whole thing in reverse. They have been doing it for hundreds of years, and it has become an annual celebration in the town.”

As we watched, a lead Brown Swiss cow, wearing a large cowbell, led several hundred Brown Swiss cows and one bull, all wearing smaller bells, down Main Street accompanied by herders, boys and large dogs. It was really a sight to behold. The whole town turned out for quite a celebration; we spent the afternoon enjoying a festival that we had never heard of.

The Swiss love jazz, and American groups are usually featured at the Montreux Jazz Festival, nonstop music for several days, or go to Fasnacht (the Protestants’ answer to Carnival) in Basel. It is the largest festival in the country, a combination of floats and hundreds of small bands.

Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Swiss businesses in the town work on costumes, masks and their bands all year long. At daylight on the first day of the festival, bands start to emerge, with as few as three musicians or as many as 100, and they all play the same song.

That’s just a taste of Switzerland, a small country in the heart of Europe that makes a point of welcoming travelers. Before making travel arrangements to visit other countries, check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to learn if there are health notices in effect at your destination.

Visit travel.state.gov for more information.

Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email [email protected]


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