Rough Guides writer Lucy Pierce travels around Switzerland sustainably by rail, visiting thermal spas, alpine villages and world-renowned ski resorts.
Toblerone-shaped peaks, chocolate box villages and thermal spa towns are all connected by Switzerland's incredibly efficient train network. Sitting back in a plump chair, I watched tranquil lakeside locations, towering peaks and wild gorges pass by.
Rough Guides readers have voted Switzerland in the top four most beautiful countries in the world, and I have to say, deservedly so.
If you’re tempted by Switzerland, why not opt to travel more consciously by rail? Trains leave London St Pancras from 5.40 am until 8 pm, arriving in 6-8 hours via the London-Paris Eurostar and Paris-Geneva TGV and you’d omit five times less carbon.
Striving to live in a climate-neutral nation by 2050, the Swiss have a specific sustainability strategy: Swisstainable. Home to one of the most closely-knit and densest rail networks in the world, 9,600 trains travel each day, and they are on time over 90% of the time. British transport could learn a thing or two.
Impressively, SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) generates the electricity for its trains, stations and offices from hydropower, and is already 100% carbon neutral. These trains link up the 19 Swiss national parks, which offer a vast 65,000km of hiking trails.
Sticking to the trails is so important, as they are often through sensitive areas of flora and fauna and you never know where a furry marmot may be hiding.
As Geneva is encompassed by the French border, onward travel is on the scenic train that hugs the northern side of Lake Geneva. It passes Lausanne, Vevey, Montreux – known for its summer Jazz festival – and the impressive 11th-century Chillon Castle that juts out on the lake on its own island.
On one side, the dazzling Lake Geneva lies beneath the Alps and Jura mountains, on the other side vines sprawl up the hillside. These vineyards mostly produce crisp and fruity white wine from the chasselas grape, known as perlan around Geneva, but once I reached the Alps, it goes by the name of fendant.
I continued into the canton of Valais, renowned for its wine – the region alone has 52 grape varieties – making it the largest wine region in Switzerland. Just 1% of Swiss wines are exported, so oenophiles will find plenty of grape varieties to taste. My particular favourite was a Valais speciality called Petite Arvine, a dry white wine that is crisp with citrus notes.
I awoke at Hotel Quellenhof to the faint clunk of cowbells and pitter-patter of rain. Leukerbad is a typical Swiss chocolate box village, where some chalets have stood the test of time for more than 400 years.
The Dala river gushes downstream from 65 natural thermal springs that reach up to 51º! It’s no surprise that the Romans crossed the Gemmi pass for a soak hundreds of years ago.
Mornings were spent walking, after which I soothed my legs in the pools of the Leukerbad Therme and Walliser Alpentherme. I meandered up the thermal canyon walk’s steep ramps, which are wheelchair accessible. On the Dala gorge’s rock walls are rusty streaks showing the iron content in the thermal water.
I tugged on the pulley that was full of warm water from the spewing waterfalls and springs above that feed into the spas.
Rising above the clouds on the Gemmi cable car, I spotted the longest via ferrata in Switzerland – Daubenhorn – which takes around 8 hours and is not for the faint hearted or the wobbly-legged. I gave it a miss this time.
What had been rain in the village, was snow at the top of the Gemmi. The first snow of the season at that, my snow dance had worked!
My lunch at Gemmi Lodge was a delicious roesti, made from grated potatoes and oozing with cheese, which looked like a giant hash brown and was equally as filling. As the clouds dissipated, I was graced with sweeping views of the mountains lightly dusted with snow and the verdant valley below.
The water in Leukerbad is said to have healing properties, and the natural spas were the perfect warm up after a soggy walk. Both Leukerbad Therme and Walliser Alpentherme have outdoor pools overlooking the rugged peaks, a postcard-perfect view as I wallowed in 35 degree pools and inhaled the clean, fresh mountain air.
Yet to be brought down for winter in the annual Swiss Cow parade – désalpe – I trundled past many black cows nonchalantly grazing with their clunky cowbells. This particular breed was the Hérens, and the women are often locking horns. So much so, that the cow that wins, becomes the queen of the herd.
I was surprised to hear a thud as the cogwheel engaged with the tracks as we ascended the mountains to Zermatt. I passed St Niklaus, where the world’s largest Santa Claus is dressed over the clock’s 42-foot tall belltower. In Zermatt, I continue upwards on the Gornergrat, where I finally spot the iconic Matterhorn face peeking out from between the clouds and sugar-coated with snow.
The Gornergrat Express is the highest open-air cog railway, the tooth-like rail is engaged to ensure traction on the rails. On the descent, the recuperation brakes cleverly convert the motion into energy, and that energy is used for other trains ascending the Gornergrat. Another impressive Swisstainable feat.
Zermatt is car-free and since the 1970s, tiny electric taxis have been used to get around the town. Before this 44 horse-drawn carriages would have ferried you around! I stayed at the charming family-run Hotel Aristella that was on a quiet street and a short walk to the main thoroughfare of shops, bars and restaurants.
The self-proclaimed “slowest fast train” traverses three cantons – Valais, Uri and Graubünden – to either Chur or St Moritz. I travelled from Zermatt to Chur, through the Alps where a foam of mist secretly shrouds the mountains and pine forests either side.
The train is split into three carriages – Excellence, 1st Class & 2nd Class – all with panoramic windows and comfortable chairs.
The food and the service is nearly as impeccable as the views, with a button for drinks (aptly a wine glass) that will beckon your waiter, almost immediately. I took full advantage, and was brought Heidi Wii, a velvety Pinot Noir from Graubünden.
The three-course meal onboard was made fresh using regional and seasonal ingredients from the cantons the train travels through. It was impressive to see what was concocted in such a narrow galley-kitchen, especially with the odd lurches of the train.
I don’t doubt that this is one of the most beautiful trains in the world, but couldn’t help but imagine how magical it would be in the depths of winter on a bluebird day. It was snowing as we passed through the popular ski resort of Andermatt, and the Rhine Gorge – dubbed the Swiss Grand Canyon – is undoubtedly impressive come rain or snow.
Book with Eurostar London-Paris trains (from £78 return), Paris-Geneva TGV (from £52 return), and the Glacier Express (from £134pp one way).
Train journeys can be booked through SBB (Swiss Federal Railways), and the Glacier Express can be booked directly too.
The Swiss travel pass offers unlimited travel on rail, bus and boats and is available for 3-15 consecutive days, as well as access to 500 museums and exhibitions.
Find out more about travel in Switzerland.
Discover more about this beautiful country in our Rough Guide to the Switzerland. You might also want to see our list of the best things to do in Switzerland, or our guide to the best outdoor experiences in Switzerland. Go on the trip of your dreams with our customisable tailor-made trip itineraries to Switzerland.
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Lucy looks after the Rough Guides social media and is a freelance travel writer specialising in adventure travel, culture and lifestyle. You can follow her on Twitter @LucyPierce