A Swiss-Italian Rail Connection

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 www.raileurope.com 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.

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

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 (berninfo.com). The bahnhof is conveniently located at the Bahnhof Platz, and within easy walking distance of the Old Town. More Bern info is at www.berninfo.com.

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.

(left to right) Passenger trains on the Brienz steam route.; Brienz steam loads water.

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.


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.

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.

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!

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


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.

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.

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.

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.

Our beautiful wooden boat on Lake Lugano

Back in Switzerland, Lugano is a picturesque village surrounded by tree-covered mountains and Lake Lugano (The Lake That Steals Your Heart). Lugano is situated in Ticino, the southernmost corner of Switzerland where the climate is exceptionally mild, and where palm trees and cactus thrive.

The Lugano waterfront is one long tree-lined promenade, with plenty of hotels set back from the shore, and mountains that rise precipitously from the lake. It’s a relaxing spot to recover from train-riding in Switzerland, and a couple of days here will set your mind straight for weeks to come. Its beautiful serenity, combined with quiet tradition, contrasts with the hustle-bustle of everyday life in America.

For a scenic boat tour, contact Societa’ Navigazione Del Lago Di Lugano that can take you to a number of locations on the lake, from cogwheel railways to funiculars to the Swiss Customs Museum (has been open since 1949 and offers attractive exhibits in a former customs officers barracks).

Lugano is blessed with many museums, both large and small, to keep you occupied including the Cantonal Art Museum, Municipal Fine Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum and the Galleria Gottardo (owned by the Bank of Gottardo). The Gottardo exhibit highlights the archaeological findings from Poggio Civitate (near Siena, Italy) which was controlled by Etruscan aristocrats, who wore zany pointed, broad-brimmed hats. Other museums include the Villa Saroli, the Cantonal Natural History Museum and the Wilhelm Schmid Museum. Many more museums are also in surrounding towns.

The Swiss Miniatur in Lugano is a permanent “little village” that opened in 1959 that “synthesizes, symbolizes and summarizes Switzerland “– in 1:25 scale. The exhibit consists of 120 models of houses, castles and cathedrals, mountains, lakes and towns, and 11,480 feet of scale track that can accommodate 18 trains, funiculars, rack railways and cable cars! A modeler would have to put this display on his agenda; kids and spouses would enjoy it as well.

To cap off a day of exploration in Lugano, take the funicular up to the top of 3,000-foot-high Monte San Salvatore (the last downhill train leaves at 11 p.m. in the summer) for a mediterranean supper at Le Ristorante Vetta. Overlooking Lugano, this outpost high above the city can be a memorable experience. While you’re there, look for the Daphne Odorosa, a rare plant with delicate pink flowers, found only on the mountain’s slopes.

Good local guides can be tricky to find, but Romeo Bozzini, Ra Cara 16, CH-6926 Montagnola, Switzerland (Fax 41 91 994 36 40) should not only give you excellent history details of the Lugano area, he is saavy about local foods, customs and people. He has a good sense of humor, as well.

One of the experiences you’ll want to try in Lugano is eating at a grotto. Grotto means cave, but today dining at a grotto means dining outside with twinkly white lights strung in the trees. Grotto Figini, located up the side of a steep slope in Gentilino, will fill your plate with delicious local Ticino foods such as hot minestrone, risotto with fresh mushrooms and onions, sliced local meats, small round cheeses and good, dry red wines (the area is home to elegant Merlots) poured from an earthenware pitcher known as a boccalino.

More Lugano information can be obtained from www.ticino.ch.

(left to right) Eating next to the water on Lake Lugano; A quiet restaurant reached by boat on Lake Lugano serves these specials.

From Lugano station, you can catch an SBB train to a fascinating, unspoiled region that begins at Locarno, Switzerland and ends in Domodossola, Italy. The Centovalli Railway is a 32-mile electric line that passes through numerous valleys as it snakes its way over high trestles and through tunnels (there are 83 bridges and viaducts on the line), over streams, past chesnut forests, vineyards and villages clinging to the sides of mountains. After Camedo the train crosses into Italy, and border guards may board the train at that point.

The countryside offers a lot to be explored, and you’d want to plan in advance if you want to stay overnight at any of the charming towns located on line. There are monuments, churches, paintings, embroidery, old streets, stucco work, old frescos, engraved glass, grottos, 500-year-old stoned roof houses and more to see tucked back into the hills and villages here. Go to www.lagomaggioreexpress.com and www.centovalli.ch for more information on these trains and the area.

This remote, beautiful region is accessible via numerous modern two-car wide-window Centovalli trains that leave from a tunnel station at Locarno. Soon the train encounters steep grades, as much as 6%, as it heads for Santa Maria Maggiore, the highest point on the line at 2,624 feet and approximately two-thirds of the way to Domodossola.

Three trainsets were built in 1959 and one in 1993, with scattered vestiges of older equipment on various sidings and yards. In all, the railway is very modern, well-kept, and it employs 95 people. It’s a railfan’s delight because of its scenery and because it’s a bit hard to “discover” unless you know it runs there.

There are special Lago Maggiore Express packages with both rail and boat transportation available, with featured locations such as the Borromeo Islands, Cannero castles and the resorts of Stresa and Ascona.

A tiny but richly-adorned church near Lugano
View from the top of Mt. Salvatore at Lugano

Leaving Lugano, you can board the popular northbound William Tell Express that combines rail and ship travel over the famous Gotthard Pass, the watershed between the Mediterranean and the North Sea. Be sure to ask for the small all-color 6 x 8″ William Tell Express guidebook when you make your reservations with Rail Europe back home. It gives a map and pictures of what you’ll be seeing on the route.

You’ll board a first-class Panoramic Car, which means you’ll be riding high with huge six-feet-wide windows (with sunshades) for excellent views. The seats are comfy and large, with two-abreast seating on one side of the car and one seat on the other side with wide aisles. Be forwarned, however, to board the train quickly when it arrives at the station. To maintain its schedule, it waits for no one!

Besides the mountains and waterfalls en route, you’ll see granite quarries, vineyards, small villages, churches and meadowlands. The Gotthard route sees 270 trains on peak days, with 50 international expresses and 100 merchandise freights on average. The Gotthard Tunnel itself is nine miles long, and it opened in 1881.

At Gurtnellen the first of three loop tunnels appears. At Wassen, look out the window at the quaint little church below you — you will pass it three times! Then at Wattinger spiral tunnel you are at the same height as the church, and at the Leggistein tunnel, you are lower than the church. Don’t miss this three spiral tunnel show — it’s worth noting.

Morning view from our room in the magnificent Palace Hotel, Lucerne

At Fluelen, the train station is a few steps from the paddle steamer boat ramp, and your luggage can be off-loaded to the boat using the Swiss railway’s Fast Baggage service which takes care of your luggage so you don’t have to load and unload it yourself.Check in your luggage at the station from which you depart.

On a clear day, the view from Fluelen towards Lake Lucerne as you await the Vier Waldstattersee steam paddle boat is as good as it gets: snow-covered Alps loom in the distance, contrasted by lush green hillsides filled with sheep, cows and farms.

A lake cruise between Fluelen and Lucerne is something one should experience at least once in a lifetime: it’s relaxing and dignified. Definitely a stress reliever.

The Lake Lucerne Navigation Company is Switzerland’s largest steam and motor ship operator with five paddle steamers and 15 motorized ships, transporting 2.3 million passengers each year. Since 1835 the ships have been plying the beautiful blue waters of Lake Lucerne, and recently the firm took over its food services on board the boats. The firm even owns its own shipyards.

In 2006 the steamboat Schiller, considered to be the most well designed steamer in the country, celebrated its 100th birthday. A portion of the ship is considered a national monument!

Watch for the Burgenstock Bahnen as you pass or stop at Burgenstock. It’s a funicular that takes visitors to the Burgenstock Resort high on the top of Hammetschwand.

Lucerne, located on the shores of Lake Lucerne and only 36 miles from Zurich, is a captivating medieval city steeped in history and surrounded by the Swiss Alps. As they say, you can arrive as a stranger and leave as a friend. Lucerne has a population of only 60,000 people, and the boat dock and Bahnhof are located across from one another to make transfers very easy.

The Old Town, straddling narrow waters of the River Reuss, is a particularly beckoning section, with quaint shops and restaurants that draw you up the cobblestone streets. Be sure to visit the Kapellbrucke (Chapel Bridge), the oldest wooden bridge in Europe built in the early 14th century. But there are many other treasures to investigate as well.

The late-Renaissance style Altes Rathaus was built between 1599 and 1606, and the Hofkirche, with an 80-rank organ and one of Switzerland’s finest, was built in 750.

The Swiss Transport Museum, at Lidostrasse 5, is the most comprehensive of its kind in Europe, and a railfan could easily spend the entire day there. A very extensive HO gauge Marklin train layout shows in miniature the Gotthard Tunnel track arrangements. There is a large selection of prototype locomotives and cars contained in 26,000 square feet of space, including 3,200 feet of track on which the cars and locos sit.

Swiss Transport Museum’s “Crocodile”

Special exhibits include the Limmat, a replica of the first Swiss steam locomotive; the Rigi No.7, the first European rack railway engine: the C 5/6 (the largest Swiss locomotive); and the legendary Be 6/8 Crocodile. There are numerous electric locos, SBB’s Red and Blue Arrows, and the Landi-Loco which was the most powerful Swiss locomotive. There’s even a cutaway view of an 0-6-0 to show how a steam locomotive operates.

An overhead walkway traverses the entire railway exhibit, making it easier to find the main attractions. There are also glassed-in exhibits of scale models to view. and special smaller exhibits such as one showing how the Langweis railway viaduct was constructed.

Other historical attractions of Lucerne include the Spreuerbrucke, an all-wood covered bridge dating from 1408, the Weinmarket, now a popular fountain square where passion plays were once conducted in the 15th to 17th centuries, and the Lion Monument (Lowendenkmal) called by Mark Twain “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.”

You’ll want time to visit the local chocolate shops, and perhaps purchase a watch or Swiss Army knife in one of the stores. You’ll not have a problem locating this merchandise in town! Also take time to sit at an outside café for coffee and pastry (kuchen). It’s something Americans just don’t do enough.

For model railroad fans, stop in at Modellbahn Boutique at Frankenstrasse 5, next to the railway station.

A visit to the city landmark Palace Hotel (Haldenstrasse10), which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2006, is like visiting, well, a palace. The original owner of the hotel also built the Burgenstock funicular, as well as the Stanserhorn and San Salvatore funiculars, and the tramway system in Genoa, Italy. Franz-Josef Bucher wanted to build the most beautiful hotel in Switzerland, and spent 3.3 million francs to accomplish his dream in 1906. The current hotel has retained its old world charm but is respectful of what the 21st century traveler wants: attention to detail, more room — the hotel has reduced its rooms from 168 to 136 — and a good bit of pampering.

Two close-by Lucerne attractions that are easy to get to and worth your time are Mt. Pilatus and Mt. Rigi.

Mt. Pilatus (Mountain of Dragons), near Lucerne, is home to the world’s steepest cogwheel railway. At a maximum gradient of 48% over its nearly three miles of 31.5″ trackage, the line ends at 7,000-foot-high Pilatus Kulm, where two hotels, seven restaurants and hiking trails await the traveler. Opened in 1889 using steam, the line was electrified in 1937. Two of the former Pilatus steam locomotives are now in museums: #9 is at the Museum of Transport in Lucerne and #10 is at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

Today, bright red 40-person cars travel the route from May to November at 6-8 miles an hour ascending in 30 minutes to the top through several climate zones. On the way up or down, you’re likely to witness trains passing at one of the unique “passing turnouts” on the line.

You can spend an entire day on Pilatus and its surroundings. Once on top, you can hike down, or take an aerial cable and panorama gondola down the back side. If you stop off part way down (at 4,640 feet), your kids can enjoy Switzerland’s largest rope park where they can swing and sway on all manner of ropes and bridges. The Pilatus Railway is adding more fun-related activities to the mountain rail experience, and last year 268,000 visitors rode to the top.

For a refreshing toboggan run, stop at Frakigaudi (www.rodelbahn.ch), the longest toboggan run in Switzerland at 4,428 feet. It’s located at Frakmuntegg, a cable car station stop between the top of Pilatus and the town of Kriens.

Mt. Rigi (Queen of the Mountains), also located on Lake Lucerne but in the opposite direction from Mt. Pilatus, is 6,000 feet high, and the Vitznau-Rigi Railway ascends to the top. As the oldest cogwheel railway in Europe (1871), the line has enjoyed 135 years of service. In 2005, it carried 562,320 passengers to the top. The line was electrified in 1937, but today steam still operates on the line on special occasions.

The Rigi operates two steam engines built in 1923 and 1925, two 1873 carriages and a 1899 carriage, and the oldest self-propelled cogwheel train in the world from 1911. Much of this older equipment is reserved for special occasions.

Trains leave frequently for the mountaintop from the Vitznau station. As the line angles up the side of the Rigi slope, Lake Lucerne quickly falls away in the distance as the train continuously gains height. At the top, you can hike on the marked paths, take advantage of the restaurants and hotels, or just watch the clouds drift by.

Luzia Weber is a hostess on the luxurious Belle Epoque, an 1873 salon car.

From the top on a clear day, you can see 13 lakes and Germany and France. A total of 400 Swiss inhabit the mountain, but I bet there are more cows on the Rigi hillsides than that. To vary your route back to Lucerne, you can catch a cable car at Rigi Kaltbad that descends to Weggis where you can board a boat for Lucerne.

Leaving Lucerne, you can take SBB trains that go directly to the Zurich airport located 7 miles north of downtown Zurich. That way you can skip having to change trains at the main train station in Zurich.

This Swiss-Italian journey would appeal to both railfans and their spouses. There are enough train adventures to more than satisfy the fan, and enough of life’s other historical attractions, dining and shopping experiences to please everyone. If you go, enjoy the trip, and be prepared to become a bit emotional when it’s time to leave. If you do, it means you had a great time!

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