No Swiss visit is complete without a train ride but with so many to choose from, it’s hard to know which ones are worth the time and money. Switzerland’s impressive train network reaches right into, and under, the mountains so the best bet is make a day of it and see the Alps in all their glory. The Gotthard Line from Zurich is definitely one of my favourites.
It was by far the greatest Swiss engineering project of the 19th century: building the world’s longest rail tunnel deep under the Alps. And on 22 May 1882, with great razzamatazz, the Gotthard Tunnel opened. The Alps had been conquered so that north and south were no longer separated by mountains or snow, and Switzerland finally had a rail network that united the whole country.
A train at the Oberalp Pass, swiss-image.ch/Christof Sonderegger
The tunnel itself isn’t that exciting – it is just a tunnel, after all – but the journey there is one to remember. From Zurich the train rushes southwards through Zug and its pretty lake, past the southern shores of glistening Lake Lucerne and then up into the rocky mountains of the Gotthard massif. The valleys narrow as the hillsides get steeper and the train climbs slowly but steadily upwards. You duck in and out of tunnels, sometimes coming out facing the other way, the train having curled round inside the rock. This is most noticeable at Wassen, where the white church with its onion-domed steeple seems to switch sides three times. It’s an illusion but one which never fails to impress.
Then comes the big tunnel, 15km long and the high point of the whole Gotthard line, sitting at 1151 metres above sea level. Come out the other side and the air seems clearer, the sun brighter, and the houses more colourful, or maybe that’s just because you can start speaking Italian. Welcome to Ticino! From here it’s downhill all the way to the palm trees and blue waters of Lake Lugano.
A train near Sedrun, swiss-image.ch/Christof Sonderegger
The Gotthard tunnel took ten years to build, with the difficult terrain and bad conditions leading to many workers’ deaths, including that of the project’s architect Louis Favre. Next year (after 17 years’ work) a new Gotthard Base tunnel will open deep below the existing one and will regain the title of the world’s longest rail runnel, this time 57.1km long. Ironing out the steep inclines and slow curves will increase speeds and cut journey times but some of the romance will be lost.
Now is the time to enjoy the original Gotthard line, with its wonderfully historic character and scenic route. It is one slow train trip that might not be around for long.
Zurich to Lugano takes about three hours in a direct train. All Swiss train passes are valid and advance reservations are not obligatory.
First class often has a panorama car with swivelling seats so you can enjoy the views from every angle.
Try to avoid the trains which go on to Italy as they are usually very crowded; opt instead for a Swiss train that ends in Lugano.
Timetable and tickets at www.matterhorngotthardbahn.ch