Armed with a Swiss Travel Pass I was able to go pretty much anywhere on the train network and also gain access to hundreds of museums and gondola rides in 75 towns and cities. But what I really wanted to do was ride the Gotthard Panorama Express south to Ticino, through the world’s longest train tunnel. 57km long it takes over 17 minutes to pass through including a little stop in the middle specially arranged for the inaugural journey.
After flying into Zurich then catching a train south I was in Lucerne in an hour. I then caught a cable car up to the top of Mount Pilatus to stay at the hotel perched there. At 3000m in height it had quite a bit of snow around and the weather was much colder than in the town. It is possible to see 72 other mountain peaks from here!
You can of course (this is Switzerland) make your own way up this mountain if fitness isn’t an issue allow about four hours. Either way the views are spectacular. The hotel is modern and ultra warm. Legend has it that a dragon lived in a cave near the top; I had to have a look. No dragon but more spectacular views and possibly teeth of dragons in the form of long icicles hanging from the craggy ceiling of the cave.
Descending half way and I could walk among the beautiful woods still above mist height but warm enough to be in shirtsleeves. I was lucky enough to catch a couple of musicians playing Alpine Horns. I had never heard this haunting instrument before. It’s also a perfect spot for lunch.
Along Lake Lucerne is the Swiss Museum of Transport. This vast collection held many treasures but I was really there to whet my appetite for my train journey to come. They have a one thousandth scale model of the Gotthard Panoramic Express. So 57m long it showed me the depth, bends and the type of rock it goes through. They have a slab there that is at the exact temperature of the rock inside the deepest part of the tunnel 46c. It’s hard to keep one’s hand on it for long because of the heat. It’s an incredible feet of engineering.
I checked into The Wilder Mann Hotel right in the middle of town. In contrast to the previous night here everything is a few hundred years old. With its paneled walls, wonky staircases it offers charm around every corner.
There’s a wonderful produce market on Saturday mornings with local meats, cheeses, flowers and vegetables on sale. It’s a great people-watching place as well superb food on offer. You can see the Swiss ride up on bicycles and put their purchases in baskets and off they go.
And so my journey began properly. I boarded the paddle steamer ‘Stadt Luzern’ for the first part of the Gotthard experience. Built in 1928 she still has it in her. The leviathan of the lake lets everyone know when she’s around with her incredible loud horn. Still using the original engine thumping away and with commands from the bridge using a speaking tube we set sail.
The gentle progress took me past outstanding scenery from German speaking Lucerne towards Flüelen and nearer the Bellinzona in the Italian Canton of Ticino. With a three course lunch on board and the wine flowing I was taken back to an era when speed was not an issue, when time was more plentiful and one had time to think and relax.
In first class there’s always a guide to point out the interesting sights along the route. The windows stretch up into the ceiling so a panoramic view is guaranteed. The best coach for photos in 14 as the windows open. It’s comfortable, relaxing and utterly mind blowing. You could almost get beauty fatigue. Switzerland is simply sunning even at 240km an hour.
Leaving the ‘colder’ part of Switzerland behind we entered the tunnel and somewhere half way through as a treat on this inaugural journey they slowed the train and we were given a projected movie show of workers who first dug the tunnels through the mountain (there are two tunnels). It is possible to use the old tunnel that winds its way through a series of corkscrew turns and enters nearer the top or the new fast and much longer tunnel that is at the base.
Bursting through without any warning into the bright sunshine of Ticino the scenery has completely changed. It’s seems almost Mediterranean. The spring flowers were everywhere and the warmth of the sun put form to the shadows of the colder north.
Bellinzona is a gem of a town, small, walkable and full of charm. Strategically significant in the Middle Ages it has three historic castles. Italian is spoken and Euros accepted in shops and bars in this southern most region of Switzerland. The mountains stop the colder, northern winds so it’s much warmer here. Napoleon granted the region the autonomy of Canton otherwise it would probably be in Italy now.
I climbed up numerous steps to two of the castles (all three are World Heritage sites) a restaurant in one serves great food and both afford excellent views of the town. The pedometer in my smart phone said that day I had walked some eight miles and climbed 58 stories! I also had a crack at making some salami in Castello di Monebello. It was great fun and worth the walk up the numerous steps.
The cable car to the Roman village of Curuzzüt is a trip worth making. A well-preserved farming community with many of the buildings now holiday homes. But the gem here is a long the winding path through the woods and the church of St. Bernard’s, which dates from c11th. Inside are walls with astonishing frescoes from the c14th and c15th. As ever if you want to there’s the option of walking down the 600m, allow about 45 minutes if you do.
40 minutes drive from Bellinzona and you’re in Lugano. This is a picture perfect lakeside town. Stay more than one night here and you are entitled to Ticino Ticket giving you discounts on lakeside attractions and local transport and it’s valid throughout the canton.
The morning mist on the lake is like an impressionist painting. The ripples of the boat that took me to Morcote only added to its beauty. The village was voted the prettiest in Switzerland. Quite some feat as the competition was stiff. Passing mountains and villages on the way the difference between the northern Alpine region and the Ticino in the south is marked. With the sun on my face I feel 500 miles further south. There are palm trees and bamboo and the buildings are in the Italian vernacular.
The Morcote was beautiful with restaurants on pontoons floating on the lake. It’s not unlike Venice at times. Originally a gateway to Lombardy it was mainly a fishing village. The back streets offered a glimpse into a world gone by. A slower pace of life that forces you to take stock and absorb the rich surroundings.
I took some more steps (404 since you’re wondering) up to Santa Maria Sasso a church built in c15th with more frescoes and brilliant views of the lake below. With the travel pass I could have village hopped all day around the lake calling in whenever it suited me, a great day out in good weather.
So finally the next day my wish came true. I got to travel through the longest train tunnel in the world. I board the train to Zürich and travelled the 57km and 17 minutes and 30 seconds from the south with its warmth and Italian influences into the Alpine region. It’s like going through a time tunnel for seasons. The temperature dropped a few degrees as I headed through the heart of Switzerland and on to Zürich and home to a scenically less dramatic London in a few hours.
To make my trip easier I used the Taken Ahead Luggage Service who looked after my case and delivered it (before I got there) to my hotel. It’s an excellent and inexpensive way of enjoying your break without lugging heavy bags everywhere. They can even arrange for them to be delivered to your home address.