Bern clock tower
In the Old Town of Bern, Switzerland, this famous old clock tower chimes on a regular basis.


Passenger trains on the Brienz steam route.

Brienz steam loads water.

It looks like a toy, but it's just far away


fish market

Food markets in Bologna are tempting.







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Brienz loco chugs up the mountain


by Don Heimburger
Photos by the author

I expect other countries feel it's just not fair…Switzerland has all the luck: snow-covered mountains, hundreds of deep blue lakes, small, quaint mountain towns with intriguing steepled churches, chalet-type houses decorated with cow bells and colorful hanging baskets of flowers, tempting chocolates and cheeses, and of course a variety of delicious wines and beers.

Another important Swiss fact: over the years, the Swiss have poured billions of dollars into their train and transportation systems. Today, there are 3,100 miles of track including 620 miles of mountain railway lines operated by 43 companies. A total of 98% of the Swiss people have access to public transportation within less than about half a mile of their home.

"The Swiss transportation system is concise and precise -- there is no guessing when or where the next train or bus will show up. It's well thought out, and usually with great accommodation to everyone. And it works -- efficiently." Don Heimburger

So should you take a vacation--or even a business trip--to Switzerland, you will likely find a virtually seamless ribbon of buses, trains, trams, gondolas or ships to get you where you're going. Even at the very tops of mountains, the Swiss have built funiculars or gondolas to scale the heights, and have then built restaurants and/or hotels at the top so you can enjoy the views longer while you're sipping a glass of wine.


The average American railfan would appreciate to be treated this royally, riding the Swiss Railway system trains to nearly any worthwhile destination, then jump on a boat or whatever to take you the rest of the distance. In fact, often there is an alternative transportation system, as we'll see.

Before you go, however, you'll want to obtain the correct tickets in the United States for traveling by train abroad, and that means either the Eurail Pass or the Swiss Pass.

The Eurail pass is available through or call 888-382-7245 in the US or 800-361-7245 in Canada. If you're traveling to Switzerland and planning to spend several days or longer there, and plan to visit several bigger cities, you'll probably want to obtain a Swiss Pass from Eurail. It gives you free admission to more than 400 museums and exhibits in Switzerland and gives double the discount (50%) on rail and cable car rides to places like the Schilthorn, Jungfrau, Pilatus and Rigi. With the Swiss Pass, you receive access to rail, city transport systems, buses, lake steamers and mountaintop excursion rides.

While many people in Switzerland and northern Italy speak English, it would be a good idea to know a few words and phrases in German, one of the four official languages of Switzerland. Two publishers have easy-to-use books and audio CD's that I recommend. Bilingual Books, 1719 West Nickerson St., Seattle, WA 98119 publishes a 132-page 8 1/2 x 11" softbound book titled German in 10 Minutes a Day that helps you learn the language faster, and there's a 60-minute CD German language lab and 64-page phrase book from Penton Overseas, 1958 Kellogg Ave., Carlsbad, CA 92008 that is great. In tandem, these tools were beneficial.

On a spring tour of Switzerland and northern Italy, there are numerous places to see and things to do by rail and by not-too-stenuous walking.


Bern, the capital of Switzerland, with a population of only 130,000, was founded in 1911 for strategic reasons, the old historic part surrounded by the River Aare. The city, noted for its red-tiled roofs (appreciated more when overlooking the city from the Rosengarten {Rose Gardens} high on an adjunct hill), and perhaps even more while dining at the lovely Restaurant Rosengarten, became a university town in 1834 and then in 1848, the Federal capital. Bern is Europe's most flower-decorated city and features one of the the longest covered shopping promenades (nearly four miles) in Europe. Another interesting thing to note about Bern is one-third of its area consists of public parks and woods.

At Bern, catch the ICE train to Milano.

Bern museums: a good part of your free time in the city might be devoted to visiting the many museums, such as the Zentrum Paul Klee which features Paul Klee's designs (4,000 works alone), but other exhibitions, music, theatre and dance as well. The Museum of Fine Arts, the Historical Museum of Bern with its unique Albert Einstein exhibit (until October 15--Einstein was an employee of the Swiss Patent Office in Bern in 1905), the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Communications which held an exhibit of the 100 Years of Yellow Postbuses in Switzerland in 2006, are also very worthwhile.

Other Bern attractions include the colorful trams that run throughout the city, the Munster Cathedral, the beautiful Zygloggeturm Clock Tower, the Bear Pits and free guided tours of Parliament. Multilingual city guides are recommended at the local tourism office at Laupenstrasse 20 ( The bahnhof is conveniently located at the Bahnhof Platz, and within easy walking distance of the Old Town. More Bern info is at

The main market square in spring is filled with fruit and vegetable stands and concessionaires offering numerous handmade and commercial products, as well as food, pastries and drinks. If your hotel is near the center of the Bundes Platz where this market takes place, be aware that the surrounding noise can be disturbing as it bounces off the buildings.

Eating tips: try Schwellenmatteli Restaurant at Dalmaziquai 11 near the Aare River falls, adjunct to the Kirchenfeld Bridge. The restaurant features great rigitoni and delicious red wine. A quick Apfelstrudel presented with style at Schmiedstube (address: am Schmiedenplatz 5) near the Kornhaus will perk you up on a hot afternoon.

From Bern, hop a Swiss train on the Loetschberg Line to Bologna to discover what northern Italy has to offer. Trains run like clockwork in Switzerland (excuse the pun), and you hardly need to check a train schedule ahead of time--something is always coming to take you where you want to go, usually no more than an hour between trains.

Brienz Bahn

For a completely different aspect of travel, the Brienz Rothorn Bahn in the small town of Brienz, Switzerland on Lake Lucerne is a choice spot. In 1892 the Brienz Bahn (railway) was opened to ascend the top of 7,710-foot-high Brienzer Rothorn.

The Brienz Bahn.

From mid-May to the end of October, this oil-fired steam train travels 4.72 miles to the top where visitors can enjoy refreshments and meals or an overnight stay at Hotel Rothorn Kulm.

Don with 0-6-0 loco.

A 360 degree view is possible from the top, as you watch steamers ascend. The line owns and operates three generations of steam locomotives as well as several diesels. The first steamers are from 1891-1892, while the second set were constructed in 1933-1936, and the last set in 1991-1996.

Large glass windows offer wide views of the ascent and descent, and the 70-member staff is friendly; you can even purchase stock in the company!

Train acends Rothorn.


The Loetschberg line train usually pulls out exactly on time from Bern, and firtst class car windows are big -- 4 x 3 1/2 feet. A stop comes at Spiez on the Thunersee, and the line breaks there to head towards Brig and the Simplon Pass, then into Italy at Domodossola and onto Milano, where a change of trains is required.

As you travel by train, you'll notice the concrete ties, the banked curves, the mile-after-mile of concrete infrastructure, and the steel girder overhead wire system. America could never afford this outpouring of funds.

The train travels fast through this land, and the Swiss Alps loom large off the left side of the train. If you check out the passenger car toilets, you'll see hand dryers instead of towels. You'll also notice how the lst class seats are wide, high and have two positions. At Brig you'll notice the Glacier Express yard facilities that service trains going to Zermatt. At Brig an announcement will tell you a customs search is coming, so have your passports ready.

rooftops of Bern
A view of Bern from the surrounding hills.

swiss fondue
Swiss fondue is always a treat.

Swiss rosti
The Swiss like their Rosti, a favorite dish.

At Domodossola, Swiss and Italian flags alternately wave in the breeze on the station platform. At Stresa, with enchanting Lake Maggiore in the background, you spot island villas that appear Hollywood-like in size and stateliness, and you wonder who lives in these red-tiled-roof mansions.

The Milano station is a favorite. It's busy, bustling and big. The large signboard in the terminal area next to the tracks is where passengers await arrival track information, and it's a fun place to sit on your luggage and watch the world go by. Little shops lining the station walls sell Italian lattes or cappuccinos if you need an adrenalin boost.

Italian Eurostar in Milan.

The green and white Italian Eurostar is a high quality, high speed train that connects main cities in Italy. A seat reservation is required, and the trains are roomy and comfortable with large windows so you can view the many vineyards and monasteries. In Italy, it's helpful to know that binario means track and biglietto means ticket.


Bologna, judged the most beautiful Italian city as a whole, was a seat of great learning. After Venice, it has the best preserved historic center in Europe. The central part of the city consists of a complex of streets, towers, buildings and monasteries all linked by arcades (nearly 20 miles of them).

Walking through the city center, you will find a number of the city's ring towers still standing (but perhaps leaning), ancient aqueducts still intact, centuries-old red brick floors, historic bridges and statues. The clay, selenite and sandstone are local materials from which many structures were built.

Bologna, Italy was a seat of learning; students' family crests adorn university walls.

You'll also note that streets fan out from the center of the city, the easiest route to the surrounding farmlands where citizens returned after selling their produce in the city market.

Bologna's main piazza attraction -- since 1200 -- is the Piazza Maggiore, which features a Neptune Fountain built during the years of the Counter-Reformation, the work of a Palermitan architect and a Flemish sculptor. The inside of the St. Petronic Basilica in Maggiore Square, commissioned in 1390, is the church of the local patron saint, and exceptionally large. It was hoped it would be built bigger than St. Peter's in Rome, but that idea was blocked.

The local university (Archiginnasio) has taken up space in many of the central buildings around the piazza. During the 9th through 12th centuries, Bologna and Paris were the first cities to offer examples of intellectual pursuits; in fact, by the mid-12th century, Bologna was seen as a law center throughout Europe.

If you enjoy modern hotels, the UNA Hotel at Via Pietramellara 41 in Bologna is a thoroughly new hotel representing the latest in style and design. It is comfortable and features many amenities, and it's located directly across from the train station.

Retracing your steps northbound on the Italian Eurostar to Milano, if you want to leave in the morning, you can take the 8:52 a.m. train. The Eurostar features low lighting and individual seat lamps like on airplanes. The seats, wider than on a plane, are covered in light and dark gray fabric, and offer more legroom than on a plane. You'll change trains again in Milano and head for Lugano.