In truth, my journey aboard what many consider the world’s most scenic train ride begins before I even climb aboard. But then Switzerland’s like that, in a country dominated by unearthly blue lakes and soaring Alps, there’s very few in-between moments to nod off and catch up on sleep. And so it is that I’m barely an hour from my arrival point into Switzerland at Geneva airport – making my way by commuter train to Montreux to begin my passage on The Golden Pass Line – when I see one of the world’s truly great wine vistas.
Perfectly kempt vineyards teeter precariously on hillsides, as if they might one day slip right into nearby Lake Geneva. Amongst these vines and ancient villages of cobbled streets and pink and yellow stucco inns and pintes (or mini-restaurants), a network of thousand-year-old terraces line the landscape. They’re all that stop the Lavaux wine region sliding away. These terraces – there’s 10,000 of them measuring about 15 metres wide by five metres high set on 40 levels – were a medieval engineering masterpiece that have yet to be surpassed and are now World Heritage listed. If there’s a prettier wine region on Earth I’m sure yet to see it.
But wait, we’re not even in Montreux yet. The majestic Victorian-era town on the shores of Lake Geneva has attracted the likes of Dame Joan Sutherland, Noel Coward and Freddie Mercury as residents. With its sprawling turn-of-the-20th-Century apartments and its belle époque grand buildings, Montreux is a fitting departure point for one of the world’s most revered train journeys.
Most who catch the Golden Pass Line will start north in Lucerne and work their way south to Montreux, but I’m preferring to introduce myself to Switzerland in the most spectacular fashion by doing it in reverse, having just landed in Geneva. I’ll be travelling from Switzerland’s French-speaking region right into its German-speaking centre, traversing two very distinct cultures along the way.
So I climb aboard the train, nabbing a window seat in the train’s spectacular panoramic carriages (the Golden Line Pass also offers eight front row VIP seats where you’ll feel as if you’re driving the train itself, or you might like to travel aboard the Golden Pass classic train set out in 1930s-era Orient Express style at no extra charge). A rail attendant in a tailored suit brings me coffee and cake, and the sudden burst of caffeine and sugar gets me excited about the track ahead.
In the first minutes after we leave Montreux the train dips into a world of plunging green valleys bordered by snow-flecked mountain peaks that stick out of the earth at perfect right angles. Tiny villages are the only sign of human habitation – every one of them set on a perfect grid, traditional wooden Swiss chalets with never a single Starbucks or McDonalds, just a Catholic Church in the town centre – its tall, skinny steeple piercing the blue sky above. The mountains that surround it are Disney-like – they’re how mountains should look but rarely do – ending in perfect triangles, over 2,000 metres high, the prettiest peaks on the planet.
We travel through long, dark tunnels and each time we make it out the other end the vista changes entirely: a new mountain town even prettier than the last, a valley greener, deeper, more pristine.
We change trains at Zweismmen then travel just a few metres from Lake Thun where homes framed by neat hedges and atriums of yellow, pink, green and white flowers teeter at ungodly angles on the edge of the water, to Interlaken where the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau peaks are framed in the background. These are some of Europe’s most renowned peaks: “…the most impressive mountain mass that the globe can show… it’s as if heaven’s gates had swung open and exposed the throne,” is how Mark Twain described them. The Golden Pass Line somehow manages to weave through this pitching landscape, giving us access to the kinds of locations generally only reserved for mountain goats.
We pass through the Interlaken region and journey further east, and yet the scenery doesn’t ebb for a moment. We journey beside waterfalls (one waterfall, Giessbach, is said to fall 500 metres across numerous tiers), then climb the mountains to Meiringen before descending through the Brunig Pass till we reach Switzerland’s most famous lake, Lake Lucerne and its namesake town, one of Switzerland’s most famed tourist destinations.
Though the journey takes scarcely a day, the scenery doesn’t let up long enough for me to even sneak a minute’s dozing time. And yet so many rail options beckon beyond this journey for the train enthusiast. With a Swiss Pass, there’s still over 10 rail lines left to travel that will take you on journeys right across Switzerland.