It’s a bit odd that my first post here is a trip report, but this site has been invaluable in terms of providing advice and information for the planning of our holiday, so I thought it would only be fair to give a bit of love back! We had two fantastic weeks in Switzerland last month, divided between Lausanne, camping in Beatenberg (Berner Oberland) and Intragna (Ticino). Hopefully something of interest/use in the below. I’ve visited Switzerland several times in the past, but this was my first visit of this length (and my partner’s first visit at all).
Some general points:
Passes/tickets – we purchased Half Fare Cards to cover the entire holiday, buying discounted super-saver tickets for the longer journeys. This combination provided some very cheap journeys – just CHF23.80 to travel the length of the country from Bellinzona to Basel, for example, and I always found a range of Super Saver journey options available at decent prices if booking just after the one-month availability window opens. The only downside is the cheaper Super Saver fares can involve slightly sub-optimal routes – for example, the Bellinzona-Basel fare mentioned above involved a (perfectly do-able) 9-minute connection at huge Zurich HB, rather than the simpler cross-platform change at Arth-Goldau. For our time in the Berner Oberland, where we were travelling more intensively and fares are notably higher, we purchased a 6-day Berner Oberland Regionalpass, discounted by 25% as we were Half Fare Card holders. I haven’t done the exact sums, but I suspect we saved a small-ish amount by getting the discounted Regionalpass as well as the Half Fare Card, especially with the small but worthwhile attraction admission discounts that come with it. However, even if it was break-even, the freedom to travel at will that the pass provides is very valuable. In Lausanne, all accommodation provides a free pass covering the entire city transport network and a generous amount of the area beyond. Our campsite in Beatenberg also provided a guest card, but this only covers the bus down to Interlaken, which was obviously also covered by the Regionalpass – nevertheless, that was handy on our final day there when our Regionalpass had expired. The usual pre-trip qualms about the cost of travel in Switzerland melted away when faced with the quality of the Swiss transport system – nevertheless, I was pleased that we purchased nearly all our tickets and passes before my compatriots decided to vote to collapse the value of the pound…
Luggage transfer – we are normally light travellers, but as we were camping for the middle part of our holiday, we had a big suitcase containing tent, sleeping bags, etc that we didn’t need at the start and end. We used the SBB luggage transfer system to move it from our entry point in Switzerland at Genève to Spiez, and then after camping from Interlaken West to Bellinzona to pick up on our way home. The system is incredibly efficient, hitch-free and at CHF12, an absolute bargain. British people can only dream of a railway system that could provide a service of that nature. Just one hint: make sure you check that the correct destination has been entered for your luggage on the slip that is handed to you when you check it in, in case the staff member has misheard your mangling of Swiss place names – and particularly if you are sending luggage across the linguistic divide. Had I not done this at Genève, our tent would have (disastrously) ended up in Schwyz, not Spiez…
Switzerland Mobility app – I can’t remember now if this is free or a minimal cost to download to your smartphone, but I can’t recommend it enough. Complete coverage of the country with high-quality, large-scale maps, with the ability to overlay signposted walking paths, cycle routes, tourist information, accommodation and even Migros supermarkets (they sponsor the app, so don’t expect to find any Co-ops marked!). Given how costly Swiss walking maps are to purchase, especially in the UK, I suspect this app saved me at least £100. Worth noting for UK visitors who are with the Three mobile network, that Switzerland is part of their ‘Feel at Home’ offer, meaning that calls, texts and (vitally!) data are covered as part of your normal package.
Lausanne 9-13 July
We travelled from London via the new-ish ‘South of France’ Eurostar to Lyon Part-Dieu, then on by regional train to Genève, where we sent our tent on in advance, and a hop on to Lausanne. This is a slightly slower route than some others, but it avoids the inter-terminus transfer in Paris and gives time for lunch at one of the bistros in front of Lyon Part-Dieu station. It is worth noting that groups of at least 2 can get 40% discount on regional train tickets in Rhône-Alpes, including Lyon- Genève on Saturdays, and daily in high summer.
In Lausanne we stayed at the Hotel Aulac, on the Ouchy waterfront – comfortable rooms, excellent views across Lac Léman to France from rooms on the right side, and the Ouchy-Olympique metro station basically on the ground floor. It was lovely to arrive at the tail end of Lausanne’s Festival de la Cité, with the Ouchy waterfront very much ‘en fete’ with live music, theatre, food stalls and general good humour. We loved wandering Lausanne’s old town, cathedral, the Escalier du Marché, the (free!) botanic garden, the views from the Parc de Milan and searching for the above-ground River Flon in Sauvabelin woods. In terms of eating, we can recommend the Café Romand on Place Saint-François – an old-style eating establishment with super fondue (I know, fondue in July. Slapped wrists all round) and a very good local wine list. More informally, we enjoyed the veggie burgers at Lausanne institution Holy Cow! on Rue Cheneau-de-Bourg, near Bessières metro station, and became devotees of the jaw-droppingly gigantic range of excellent ice creams/sorbets at the Veneta kiosk on the lake front in Ouchy beside the chateau.
On a very sunny Sunday we walked through the Lavaux vineyards from the picturesque little station at Bossière (on the line towards Puidoux-Chexbres, just five minutes from Lausanne, but in the middle of the vineyards high above the lake – journey covered by the Lausanne guest card) to Rivaz, passing through the gorgeous wine villages of Aran, Grandvaux, Chenaux, Riex and Epesses – beautiful views over the terraced vineyards, the lake and on towards the Dents du Midi, with easy paths (though some steep-ish climbs and descents near the start). Stumbled upon the Café de Riex (in Riex, obviously!) for lunch – a lovely, friendly, little dining room with imaginative, fresh food (including a surprisingly wide vegetarian choice), accompanied by some excellent chasselas from the vineyards we’d been walking through. Arrived in Rivaz in time to take the afternoon stopping boat back from Rivaz-St-Saphorin pier to Ouchy – lovely to see the vineyards from water level as well.
On a very wet Tuesday, which couldn’t have been much more different weather-wise (about 15 degrees colder!), we did the cheese and chocolate combination of Gruyères and Broc, taking the c90 min train journey from Lausanne with changes at Romont and Bulle, and squeezing in a walk up to Gruyères village between the cheese factory visit and taking the train on to Broc. Very much enjoyed both visits (and a good rosti at the Gruyères factory café) – we nearly balked at a two-hour wait for a space on the Maison Cailler chocolate tour, but the torrential rain meant we were happy enough to wait, drinking hot chocolate, and made the chocolate tasting at the end of the tour all the more enjoyable from anticipation. Bulle’s chateau and old town are worth a quick stroll if you are on one of the Broc-Lausanne journeys that has a 30 minute or so connection there.
Beatenberg, 13-19 July
Travelled the slightly slower, but far more enjoyable route to the Berner Oberland via Montreux and the Golden Pass route, meaning a journey by train > narrow gauge train > train > bus > ferry > funicular > bus, all of them spot on time, of course. Even on a mixed-weather day, this was what my partner described as ‘a fairy-tale journey’. Can strongly recommend the Golden Pass Classic train, with its sumptuous belle époque carriages, even in second class. Many fellow travellers were finding it hard to believe that their ordinary tickets were valid… The incredible climb out of Montreux up to the tunnel at Jor never fails to impress. I had considered purchasing reservations at CHF8 each for this leg, but am pleased I didn’t bother – even in mid-July the 08:44 departure from Monteux was barely half-full. At Spiez we decided to wait an hour for the heavy rain to ease up, pick up our tent and do some grocery shopping at the handy Migros across from the station. We then hopped on the bus for the short trip down to the pier (Schiffstation), and on to the gorgeous paddle-steamer ‘Blüemisalp’ for four stops across the Thunersee to Beatenbucht. The funicular took us up to Beatenberg, then the postbus a few stops through this incredibly long village to the stop closest to the campsite.
For anyone wanting to camp in the Berner Oberland, I can’t recommend Camping Wang enough – it’s true that Beatenberg is a twenty minute bus ride from Interlaken, and on the ‘wrong’ side of the valley for accessing the big attractions, but I think that is more than made up for by the incredible views from your tent of the Eiger trio, the owners who can’t do enough to make you feel welcome (they even offered us use of their yurt on a very wet night), the clean, uncrowded facilities, and the fact that the site is about 20% of the size of the mega-sites in Interlaken and nearby – a lot less institutionalised, with well-spaced pitches.
On our three sunny days in the Oberland, we:
Took the train up to Schynige Platte – a wonderful journey through the forests and pastures up to a very fine location – excellent views from Schynige Platte of the Lauterbrunnen valley, the lakes and, of course, the Eiger massif, plus the local bizarre topography. The alpine botanic garden by the station was a very helpful primer for the local flora and we very much enjoyed walking the Oberberghorn Panoramaweg (c.90 minutes, with one steep descent), even if we had to share parts of it with the runners of the Eiger Ultra marathon. The cows had just been bought up to the pastures on the Oberberg, and the symphony of their bells was overwhelming. Some travel hints: the train journey up or down from Schynigge Platte is remarkable regardless, but if there is an open-sided carriage in your convoy of trains, try to grab a seat in that: magnifies the experience significantly. If coming from the western end of Interlaken, or on a bus or train that goes to Interlaken West, take the postbus to Wilderswil to get the Schynige Platte train, rather than schlepping over to Interlaken Ost for the BOB train – likely to be quicker, and means you can grab a seat on the Schynige Platte train before the hordes descend from the Interlaken train. In the late afternoon of the same day we took the cable car up the Niederhorn, our ‘local’ mountain – fantastic views down into the isolated Justistal valley, and some very tame ibexes and alpine choughs.
Travelled by train to Meiringen, then a short hop by bus to Unterdorf in Willigen, to take the funicular (not covered by Regionalpass or Half Fare Card, but moderate fare) up to the Reichenbach Falls. Super view of the very dramatic falls from the top station, even though today’s regulated water levels make it hard to believe that anyone’s corpse (or lack thereof) could remain hidden for long. From the top station, we took the relatively easy path up the hill, over the bridge at the top of the falls and then down the other side, via the ledge (with amusing wreath) where the ‘death struggle’ took place, as certified by the Sherlock Holmes Society. Note that despite being shown on signs and maps as a ‘yellow’ path (i.e. unchallenging), the route down the eastern side of the falls is actually quite tough going in terms of gradient and underfoot, but worth it to visit the Holmes ledge and for the idyllic pasture walk below through Schwendi and Willigen. We walked on towards Aareschlucht, pausing at the Restaurant du Pont next to Aareschlucht West station for amazingly generous portions of käseschnitte (cheese on toast, but as if you’ve died and gone to heaven). Very much enjoyed the walk through the dramatic Aareschulcht gorge (discount with Regionalpass) along the cantilevered walkways and tunnels – having seen the Aare river in numerous forms, it was remarkable to see it squeezed through such narrow spaces. Took the little MIB train back to Meiringen from Aareschulcht Ost station/doorway-in-the-valley-wall, stopping in Meiringen for meringues in the garden of Frutal bakery (because you sort of have to!).
Travelled to Lauterbrunnen on the BOB train, and broke our journey there to walk up to the Staubbach Falls – it is well worth the scramble up the path behind them to get the full experience of standing behind the veil of mist they create: my partner was very grateful for the help-yourself box of walking poles at the bottom of the hill. We then continued on the train up to Wengen, kitted ourselves out for a picnic at the Co-op next to the station, and took the cable car up to Männlichen – again, superb views. We then walked the Romantikweg to Alpiglen station (about 2-2.5 hours of steady descent, generally easy but with a couple of rocky stretches) – fantastic alpine flowers, lovely woods, picnic spots by mini lakes, and above all the incredible views of the Eiger North Face coming closer and closer, before the final stretch to Alpiglen in its shadow. There is very welcome cold spring water in the hamlet of Bustiglen! Travelled back from Alpiglen via Grindelwald, including the rarity of an over-crowded and over-hot train on the Grindelwald-Wilderswil leg.
We also had two days of rather mixed weather which we used to:
Take the 21 bus along the north shore of the Thunersee to visit Thun castle (Regionalpass discount) – a fairytale building with a very interesting local history museum and fine rooftop and lake views. Good wander round the old town, then bus back along the lake with the intention of visiting St Beatus-Höhlen, only to find that after 48 hours of pretty steady rain, the caves had flooded and closed about an hour before. No matter – the waterfalls down from the cave were incredibly dramatic in their swollen state (about four times the volume of water as when we passed by a couple of days later) and the museum still worth a visit, especially to understand the karst landscape we were camping on top of.
Visited Ballenberg open air museum (train to Brienz, bus from there to the west entrance) – a superb, fascinating collection of old buildings from across Switzerland in a stunning location – a generous discount on admission with the Regionalpass. Included thatched roofs of a height I have never seen before, from Canton Aargau and an interesting preview of our next destination in the Ticino, along with many adorable farm animals. We had pretty much a full day there, and barely saw half of the site – worked our way from the west entrance to the east (which also has a bus stop) to avoid spending time backtracking.
Intragna, 19-23 July
We sent our tent on ahead from Interlaken West then travelled via Spiez and down to Domodossola in Italy (time precluded taking the route over the old Lotschberg route), where we headed down into the basement to take the panoramic narrow-gauge train towards Locarno. This is a very lovely run through the Centovalli and back across the border – note that if you end up on one of the (Italian operated) panoramic trains, there is a supplement of €1.50 (I think they also accept CHF at parity) even if you have a through ticket, so have some coins handy. From Intragna station it’s a very short postbus ride down the steep hill to the hamlet of Golino, where we stayed in the Hotel Cà Vegia. This is another accommodation choice I can’t recommend highly enough – a gorgeous 17th century house, by the village fountain in this stone-and-slate Ticino village, run by a very welcoming Austrian couple who are a fount of information about the local area. Lovely thick walls keep the comfortable rooms cool in the summer heat. Golino is only served by a postbus about every two hours, and these stop quite early in the evening, but if coming back later or is more convenient, the steep walk down from Intragna station is quite short and on an easy road.
We had a day out in Ascona and Locarno (bus to Intragna, train to Locarno-St Antonio, town bus to Ascona) – we particularly liked Ascona, with a really beautiful lakefront on Lago Maggiore, with good restaurants for lunch, plus a very strollable old town. We took the lake boat out to the Isole di Brissago, an incredibly lovely little gem in the lake, with well-laid out and varied botanic garden and a fine palazzo, in a beautiful setting – only slight downside is that the boats on Maggiore are surprisingly expensive and do not accept Half Fare Cards. Still very much worth it though! On another day we travelled into Locarno and took the funicular up to Madonna del Sasso – beautifully situated hill top church with a stunning interior and some excellent trompe d’oeil architectural paintings.
For walking, we took the postbus from Golino up the Isorno valley (not a bus-ride for the faint-hearted, but you’ll hear plenty of use of the postbus horn) to Loco, to walk the mule track back towards Intragna. A fabulous walk, this starts with a steep, zig-zag descent down through vineyards to the incredibly isolated hamlet of Niva (accessible only by foot), across a brand new dramatic footbridge across the Isorno, then through the chestnut woods, with frequent wayside shrines, hidden hamlets and views all the way to Lago Maggiore. Arriving at Pila, a village that seems to have grown out of the mountainside, we intended to take the cable car up to Costa, but it was on its lunchbreak (well, this is practically Italy!), so walked up the zig-zag path to Costa in a thunderstorm instead, for lunch at the grotto (rural restaurant) there. Excellent pasta, but just be aware that it is a one-man show, so expect a bit of a wait at busy times – such as when it begins to rain heavily and the place fills up with walkers! Returned to Intragna on the diminutive cable car, and spent the afternoon visiting the regional museum and climbing the campanile – the highest in the canton, and recommended for the views.
In terms of eating, we loved the Grotto Brunoni, just outside Golino on the Locarno road, with excellent pasta, polenta, cheese and local wine in a lovely garden with friendly service. We also enjoyed the Grotto du Rii, just out of Intragna on the Camedo road, who do interesting variations on Ticinese cuisine in a dramatic setting above a gorge.
Bellinzona, 24-25 July
For our final night, we moved to Bellinzona to save a very early start the following morning. Stayed at the very acceptable Albergo Croce Federale, 5 minutes walk from the station and whose very popular downstairs restaurant is excellent. Bellinzona’s old town is a beautiful mix of baroque and traditional Ticinese architecture and a lovely place to wander, especially during the Saturday morning food market. Alongside this, the town’s three castles are stunningly set and truly dramatic – the walk up to Montebello in particular is worth it for the view. We liked the Porta Ticinese bar for lunch, with excellent miniature pizzas, and where we were introduced to locally popular Cynar, an artichoke liquor. Well, we liked it… Evening spent listening to one very bad and one very good Beatles tribute band at Bellinzona’s open air ‘Beatles Days’ festival, below the floodlit castle.
The following day we returned to London, taking the tilting train over the Gotthard Pass (the last summer of long-distance trains via this spectacular route before the base tunnel opens), past the Vierwaldstättersee and the Zugersee to Zürich, where we changed for a Eurocity train to Basel. An hour there to stock up on provisions, then on to Strasbourg, a TGV to Lille and home to London from there – a full day travelling, but an enjoyable and relaxing one, including feasting on Swiss cheese as we raced through the Champagne region at 180mph!
Sorry this has been lengthy, but hope there are a few things in there that might be useful to others. We had a fantastic time exploring the three main language zones – and Switzerland worked its usual magic: we got engaged on the Isole di Brissago. Thanks again for all the help and information this site and forum has provided towards a great holiday.