The glamorous resort town of Montreux, on the eastern end of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva, is the starting point for one of Europe’s most spectacular great train journeys. This “Golden Pass” is not just one, but a whole connected set of trains that dawdle around lakes and clamber across alpine passes, making molehills out of mountains on their way to their final destination, the elegant lakeside city of Lucerne.
It is a journey with added significance this coming winter, because it is 150 years since the first ever tourists came to the Swiss Alps for a winter holiday. Up until then Switzerland was a country of poor peasantry, for whom the mountains were a blessed nuisance. But the coming of the tourists changed all that, creating a new economy and fuelling a huge demand for mountain railways and elegant places to stay. Today, some of the trains, and some of the hotels along their route, have retained a flavour of those early pioneering days, when Switzerland’s high country became so fashionable among the uber-rich.
For my journey, the Golden Pass Classic starts me off from Montreux in style. Its handsome navy-blue and cream livery, and walnut walled interior is reminiscent of the glory days of the Orient Express, although these are actually reproduction carriages, not originals. They need to be state of the art to cope with the terrain, because as soon as it leaves Montreux the train is hard at work, zigzagging back and forth up a steep climb, with great views of the lake opening up below. Then, after about an hour, the landscape changes suddenly and we dive inland past frozen waterfalls to emerge into a high-altitude secret world of snow-covered meadows.
The main stop up here is the glamorous mountain resort of Gstaad, famous for its wealthy residents and cosmopolitan visitors. Horse-pulled sleighs are parked outside the tourist office, just as they were a century ago, and the main street is a frosty boutique-lined catwalk of glamorous-looking women in furs, with unfeasibly good skin. Many are staying, as I am, up in the Gstaad Palace, a magnificent 100 year old pile that looks a bit like a castellated Disney chateau, with interiors that mix Alpine chic and baronial splendour, frescoed ceilings, deep sofas and roaring log fires.
The following day I pick up the Golden Pass again from Gstaad, head over to Zweisimmen, and plunge back down through the Simmental valley to Lake Thun, one of those mountain-cupped Swiss lakes with that hard-to-believe luminous blue.
The train’s destination is Interlaken, which as its name suggests is poised between two lakes, Thun and Brienz. The posh older part of this resort, once known as the Paris of the Alps, is along the banks of the Aare river, where it is lined with old lake steamers. Here I’m staying in the Victoria Jungfrau, another grand hotel where eminent Victorians would come to gaze at snow covered peaks, with a ballroom and a glorious brasserie covered in paintings and scrollwork. There’s been some modernisation, however, and the back of the hotel is now a sumptuous, state-of-the art spa.
There’s no such sophistication at my next night’s stop, however. For this I travel off-piste from the Golden Pass, joining the skiers by taking the 120 year old mountain railway (the Jungfraubahn) from Interlaken up to the mountain pass at Kleine Scheidegg. But I’m not here to ski: I’ve come to stay in the Hotel Bellevue des Alpes, the most beautifully preserved fin de siècle hotel in the Alps. Owned and run by the same family who built it in 1893, it’s a world of tasselled lampshades, herringbone floors, claw-footed bathtubs and polished nickel taps. Its location up on the high pass, 2,070 metres up, couldn’t be more dramatic, with the Jungfraubahn its only connection to the outside world. That night, when the skiers are gone, it creaks like a ship in the wind, and with the huge unsullied firmament of stars above us, we residents feel like we’re adrift in a remote and snow-covered sea.
Next day I’m back down on an early train to Interlaken, and picking up the last section of the Golden Pass. Once again there’s climbing to be done, and this time the train has a notched third rail to help it up the steep sections, but once we’re over the top at Hasliberg the landscape seems to relax, becoming increasingly pastoral.
Finally Lucerne heaves into sight, on the shores of one of the most serene lakes in the world, a giant spangle of water protected on all sides by snow-capped mountains. A paddlesteamer trails white ribbons of smoke into the distance, creating barely a quiver on its surface. I watch it until it rounds a headland and disappears from sight, resolving that once I’ve found my hotel, that that’s what I’m going to do next.