You might have seen Michael Portillo’s television series, where he makes train journeys accompanied by a Victorian-era railway guidebook, the Bradshaw Guide.
I caught up with Diccon Bewes, who has undertaken a similar train trip and written about his experiences in Slow Train to Switzerland. “My book is similar but better,” laughs Diccon.
He follows in the footsteps of a British woman, Miss Jemima, who took a Thomas Cook holiday package to that country in 1863. What you might not know is that the British holiday company was instrumental in transforming this central European country. Diccon says that the landscape remains just as beautiful as it was 150 years ago, but Victorian Switzerland would have been unrecognisable to 2016 travellers. “The people have become wealthier, the towns are larger and the glaciers are sadly smaller,” he says.
Thomas Cook was a Leicestershire-based Baptist minister who arranged short journeys within the UK. His daytrip business went bankrupt and he needed a new venture so he picked Switzerland despite never having been there. “It was like travelling with Ryanair today,” says Diccon. The packages proved highly popular and transformed the way we travel.
In Britain it’s difficult following railway routes from that period because of the 1960s Beeching line closures, but Switzerland’s lines were not removed to such an extent. Diccon was able to follow the woman’s diary route from Geneva. “Often the party were on foot or in horse-drawn carriages because Swiss tourism was in its infancy,” says Diccon.
The book helps you see Switzerland before it was rich and famous. “Reading the account is like looking at a high school picture of George Clooney – you recognise it but some things are a bit different,” he adds.
“Today we are used to Switzerland being a healthy, wealthy country where everything runs perfectly and the place is immaculate. Before tourism that was not the case. Most people lived off the land and they had the lowest life expectancy rate in Europe. There was no money, there were no natural resources other than woods and water. Tourism helped change that.”
The Switzerland that Diccon described was so different to the organised and well-heeled country I have visited. “There were people scrabbling around for food in the gutters and trying to rip you off or take you to their cousin’s shop. It was like travelling to India today,” he said.
Diccon now lives in Switzerland and I asked him why rail travel in the country is so highly regarded. “It’s partly the scenery and partly the service,” he says. “The train lines were built as tourist attractions to try and get the British to visit Switzerland. They wouldn’t be constructed today because of financial and ecological reasons. You wouldn’t be able to ruin a mountain with a railway line now.”
“Compared to Austria, Germany or France there’s a lot more on offer with the railway network. You can, for instance, take Europe’s first cogwheel railway, built in 1871. It’s the steepest railway in the world with a 48% gradient. The landscape and the railways’ history makes them so unique. Once on board, they run on time even if you’re travelling for eight hours across the country. You’ll find a polite and efficient service and you can expect a great journey,” he says.
So which particular route does Diccon recommend?
“That’s really hard,” he frowns. “There are so many to choose from. One of the most well known and perhaps my favourite is a glacier express, which runs through the middle of nowhere from Zermatt to San Moritz. Those are two famous resorts but most of the journey passes tiny little villages that wouldn’t warrant a train line and yet the service runs a few times a day. It’s called an ‘express’ but it actually takes eight hours crossing the country. You’ll see a cross section of Switzerland.”
It sounded a perfect way to spend a spring or summer day.
“If you want a shorter run I would take the train to the top of Mount Rigi, beside Lake Lucerne. It’s the oldest mountain railway in Europe and operates using the original infrastructure. It only takes half an hour to ride but you get an amazing 360-degree panoramic view of all of the Alps.”
And finally I asked Diccon to recommend a city or town as a Swiss base. “There is only one in my opinion,” he says. “Berne.” It is the city where he’s made his home but he claims his suggestion is made on merit rather than bias. “It’s a beautiful place. I’ve been to nearly every European capital and Berne is one of the prettiest and most accessible. It’s not huge – you can walk around the city centre in an hour or so if you’re rushing it.”
So what makes it so special?
“It is located on a huge bend of the River Aare. You can see the Eiger and the other Alps from the city centre and you can swim in the river.” Diccon says the town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is beautifully preserved, with mediaeval and baroque buildings and a stunning cathedral. “It has an atmosphere that isn’t too touristy, it’s down-to-earth but at the same time it has an air of being lost in time, relaxing and beautiful to walk around.”
You can listen to my chat with Diccon here: