Grand Train Tour

Of Switzerland

By Don Mankin

For variety during the week long stay, I sometimes walked down the winding pedestrian streets through town, lined with ritzy shops and restaurants and leading into hidden plazas.


If I had the time, I could have also caught a funicular up a steep hill to where most of the town’s residences are located.


Lugano is very close to the Italian border so, the language and food is Italian. The pasta was a revelation. Unlike the robust, chewy pasta I am used to eating here, it was silken, delicate, velvety.


All in all, southern Switzerland is like Italy with more efficient trains and less graffiti.


A World Heritage Site on rails

At the conclusion of the summit, we boarded a bus for a three-hour scenic ride along Lake Lugano, then Lake Como (I peered through the bus windows for a glimpse of George Clooney but to no avail) to Tirano where we boarded the Bernina Express.


That was the first of three iconic train rides over the next few days (plus several more of a more traditional variety) to St. Moritz.

The Bernina Express is listed as a World Heritage Site, one of the few railroads to be so designated. It is also the steepest narrow-gauge railway and one of the most scenic train journeys on the planet.


The train sure beats Amtrak. It is comfortable and roomy with huge windows, the better to gawk at the jagged peaks, plunging waterfalls and gleaming glaciers of the southern Alps with farms, tiny villages and church steeples nestled in the broad valleys.


The color palette was wide and vivid, including blue skies, green fields and trees tinged with the reds and yellows of autumn. Everywhere you looked was a post card. Think of The Sound of Music and Heidi

and you get the idea.


Our first destination, St. Moritz, is known for its skiing as well as for the beautiful, rich and limber people who populate the slopes and shop in its ritzy stores. It wasn’t ski season so we spent our one evening wandering among stores selling products we can’t afford until we stumbled upon La Scarpetta, a restaurant that served some of the best, freshest pasta I have ever eaten.


As we ate, Ray Charles rocked on a soundtrack in the background from one of my all-time favorite albums: “I got a woman, way over town, that’s good to me, oh yeah.” Fresh pasta and Ray Charles; it doesn’t get much better than that.

A cruise back in time

Since the shape of the lake is irregular, with many bends and turns, the boat trip is more like cruising down a winding, scenic fjord than crossing a large, open body of water.


The lake is surrounded by steep mountains so, the views throughout the trip were magnificent, at first silvery and moody from the low clouds, then sparkling and bright when the clouds and mist lifted in the afternoon.


The boat, a classic paddle wheeler built in 1926, stopped in several picturesque and historic lakeside villages and towns along the way, including where the Swiss Confederation was established in 1291, the site of Wilhelm Tell’s heroic exploits in the 14th century, and a town where Mark Twain lived for several months in 1897.


We disembarked at Flüelen, the town at the far end of the lake, took a short walk, and stopped at a café for a takeaway lunch. We found a place to sit and eat our lunch while admiring one of the best views of the trip, toward a mountain across the water while a lone sailboat floated in the light breeze in the distance.


Before heading back to Lucerne on the next boat, we tried to absorb the scene and burn it into our memories. It will have to do until our next trip to a destination as beautiful as Switzerland and as easy to get to via the most efficient and comfortable transportation system in the world.

The Glacier Express to Zermatt

The next day we boarded an even posher train, the Glacier Express, to Zermatt. During the seven-hour train ride, we were served a three-course meal on “white” linen (more beige than white) with fancier glass and silverware than we use at home for special guests.


Zermatt is best known for its cross-country skiing, hiking and mountaineering as well as the Matterhorn which looms over this rustic but upscale town.


The weather was mostly overcast for our two-night stay, precluding a gondola or cogwheel train ride up the slopes for a closer look at the Matterhorn and the usually breathtaking views of the surrounding 13,000-foot-tall mountains.


But it cleared enough on our second morning for some stunning photos of the rays of the rising sun shining off the slopes and peak of the mountain.


To Montreux, masterpiece on a lake

From Zermatt, we took two trains to Montreux. Neither of them were luxurious or iconic just the usual comfortable, clean, punctual and efficient components of the deservedly famous Swiss Rail system.


Monteux was my favorite stop on our train tour. I first heard about Montreux when I was a teen-age jazz fan and fantasized about attending the Montreux Jazz Festival, then one of the premier jazz festivals in one of the most beautiful settings in Europe.


Now the festival leans heavily toward pop music but the town is still incredibly beautiful, sitting on a huge, sparkling lake ringed by mountains. We were only here for one night, just enough time to take a long walk on the wide, lakeside promenade, dotted with whimsical sculptures, colorful patches of flowers and grand old Belle époque homes and hotels.


We stayed in one of these grand old hotels, the Suisse Majestic, in a room overlooking the lake. If we didn’t have a train to catch, we would have stayed there for days.


The Golden Pass to Lucerne

From Montreux we headed to Lucerne on the Golden Pass, a Belle époque-era train with red-velvet seat cushions, wood paneling and bronze fixtures. It was old-world, regal and elegant, a leftover from the days when train travel was the thing to do.


The Golden Pass was only the first of four trains we had to take that day, illustrating the precise choreography of the Swiss Rail system. Switching trains was literally like clockwork. I knew exactly where to go, how much time I had between trains, and when the train would pull out of the station.


Like Lugano and Montreux, Lucerne is a charming town located on a large, scenic lake surrounded by mountains. Besides its stunning setting, Lucerne is also known for its well-preserved medieval architecture, including a wooden bridge built in the 14th century.


Our plan was to ride the gondola to the top of Mt. Pilatus just outside town, ride the cog railroad down and take a boat back to town but the skies were leaden with clouds. Since we figured the views wouldn’t be great, we opted instead for a round-trip, six-hour boat ride to the opposite end of the lake.

If you go

Economy round trip flights from San Francisco-area airports to Zurich are about $800. Check for current fares.


A Swiss Travel Pass, which is good for travel on trains, buses and boats plus access to many museums and other attractions, costs about $700

for a first class, 15-day pass. Seats on the Bernina Express, the Glacial Express, and the Golden Pass are extra. Contact for more information or to purchase.


Contact The Swiss Travel Centre at to arrange a tour. For general information go to


In Lugano, we stayed at the Hotel International au Lac ( Rooms are about $200/night, including breakfast.

In St. Moritz, try the Hotel Steffani ( for about $300/night with breakfast.


A Zermatt splurge is the Hotel Julen

( at about $350/night. And in Montreux, try the Marriott’s Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic for about $250/night.


The Hotel Continental Park ( in Lucerne is close to the train station and offers rooms at about $200/night


Don and Katherine’s trip was organized and hosted by the Switzerland Travel Centre. For more photos, go to Don’s blog on his website,

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