Paris Disneyland features, among other Disney dreams, the Railroad Discoveryland Station, the Railroad Fantasyland Station, the Railroad Frontierland Depot and the Railroad Main Street Station. I haven’t visited them but it’s hard to imagine they could even begin to compete with that other railwayland at the heart of Theme Park Europe – Switzer-land.
This giant train set is just the biggest, bestest boys’ toy of all, and you get to play with it to your heart’s content, as I have recently, by acquiring a Swiss Rail Pass.
This magic ticket takes you on the Swiss Grand Tour, as they call it, whether on the State-owned main lines or on the many privately owned and operated railways. It allows you to ride first class on all the famous tourist trains – the Wilhelm (oh, all right, William) Tell Express, the Bernina Express, the Glacier Express (which bills itself as the slowest express in the world) and the Golden Pass Express – plus much of the vast network of narrow gauge railways, cable cars, funiculars, buses and boats that criss-cross the mountains and lakes. The ticket also gives you entrée to many of the country’s terrific museums.
On top of that you can engage Swiss Rail to deal with your luggage the entire time. This is worth paying for, especially if you’re getting on a bit. It’s no fun for a senior citizen struggling with bags on and off trains, finding space for them on the trains and then getting them from train to hotel and back. I’ve just been doing that in France, Britain and Ireland and I’ve become more grateful to Swiss Rail with the passing of every day.
Switzer-land is a highlight of Theme Park Europe and I would recommend the Grand Tour as a holiday to anyone, train freak or not. It’s seamless, faultless and painless, and the pictures beyond the windows truly are breath-taking – the imperious peaks, the dazzling glaciers, the spraying waterfalls and the little towns and villages nestling neatly in the valleys or perched on hilltops. Every view brings a gasp of wonder and delight. Everything meets all expectations. Nothing is out of place; nothing goes wrong. It all ticks along like, well, clockwork.
Or, as I said at the beginning, like a train set – one of those model train spreads your old man took you to see when you were a kid, and the kind you’ve taken your kids and their kids to see in turn. They’re amazing in their perfection, aren’t they? Villages, towns, cities, factories and farms are modelled in impeccable detail. Trains buzz around, station to station, rattling over points and whooshing through tunnels and over bridges, shunting logs and minerals and people.
And isn’t it the case that at the heart of all this activity is always a very serious nerd? This clichéd cardigan-wearer is most probably the man (hardly ever a woman) who put it all together and very much the master of all he surveys. He’s like the planet-builder from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy: he fashioned the fjords. Or maybe he’s God. Or the controller of the Swiss rail system.
Consider this then. At the unbelieveably picturesque village of Bergun, about 45min. on the train from St Moritz, volunteers run a small museum dedicated to the rail conquest of the Albula Pass, which involved some tricky tunnelling and switchbacks actually inside the mountains. Within this establishment a fellow has built an operating, exact scale-model of the Albula Pass system. But that’s not even the point. This planet-building lunatic has equipped his model locomotives with cameras showing on CCTV where they travel and how.
I reckon it’s men like him who run the Swiss rail system. Everything is perfect, everything is under control, everything is engineered.
I’ll go further. There seems to be hardly a centimetre of Switzer-land untouched by human hands.
Take for example the Matterhorn, probably the second most famous mountain in the world. It so happens that when I was there a little while back the people of Zermatt at the foot of this imposing rockpile were celebrating the 150th anniversary of the first time climbers reached its summit. (Small historical dispute: the British say the conqueror was Sir Edward Whymper; the Zermatt brochure merely states he was one of the party.) A feature of the celebration was a nightly lighting up of the path those climbers took to the top. Watchers were led to believe the lights were being held by a chain of actual people all the way up the mountain. Pardon me if I don’t believe it; clearly the path now has street lights.
Switzerland is all like that. It’s been engineered to the n-th degree. All those chocolate box pictures of the Alps are not just the result of freaks of nature. The African tectonic plate smashing into the European plate created the Alps – but it’s taken the Swiss to show them off to best effect.
A train runs up and inside, literally, the Jungfrau to take tourists to its imposing heights, a very swift cable car rockets skiers up Mont Blanc, a system of cable cars swings people from Zermatt past the Matterhorn over the glacier and down to Italy on the other side of the Alps, skiers, walkers and mountain bike riders can go just about anywhere via cable car or funicular railway to pursue their madness.
Want a view from above of wherever you happen to be? Look around: there will be a way to get up the mountain. Want to reach the apparently unreachable slope on the other side of a lake? There will be a boat to take you.
More than that. Power and water seem unlimited. Is that picturesque lake a result of geophysical action, or of human intelligence? Think about it and suddenly you begin to notice the power pylons marching through the valleys and over the mountains, and the pipelines like ski-jumps rushing water in man-made falls from the top to the bottom for power generation.
And how do the trains you’re enjoying get where they’re going in such terrain? Sometimes they crawl on cog-wheels up slopes mountain goats find daunting, all the while clinging to cliffs and crossing deep gorges on arches of stone and concrete; often they simply just go through the obstacles in tunnels that are feats of human ingenuity and endurance.
How does that house there, over the ravine, get its supplies? How do people get in and out of apparently isolated spots? Roads wind round and round until they get there. Sometimes, if you look, you’ll see a flying fox that when the winter snows set in is someone’s only connection with the outside world.
Swiss engineering can be as simple as a flying fox, or as complex and forceful as the tunnels, like the Gotthard, Simplon and Lotschberg, that transport goods and people swiftly between northern and southern Europe. It can be a lit path up the Matterhorn, or it can be a bridge that defies gravity and plate tectonics – so you and I can enjoy our Grand Tour.
And that’s not just a throwaway tag, either. Everything you see in modern Switzerland is the result of the tourist trade. Before the sons and daughters of the British Empire decided sight-seeing, mountaineering and ski-ing were wonderful ways to spend their leisure time, and their sterling, Switzerland was a struggling, poor place – not even a united country.
There’s a terrific book by a Swiss-domiciled Englishman named Diccon Bewes which explains what happened after Thomas Cook sent his first tour party there. The book, Slow Train to Switzerland, makes clear that tourism created the demand for trains and trains were the catalysts for the political and economic development of the country. Most of the Swiss rail system was built for tourists, and remains so dedicated today, but it demolished the isolation of many communities and brought them electricity, transport and commercial opportunities.
The Swiss are to be admired for their achievements but sometimes when I’ve been there over the past 20 years I’ve longed to see something untidy or out of place. On my Grand Tour I took to looking out for some piece of litter on the streets as evidence that unruly human beings lived there (and this in heavily trafficked tourist areas!). My wife was mortified when the wind on a mountain-top blew away her ice-cream wrapper. We were waiting for the Swiss Inquisition to leap out of the rocks and drag us off to durance vile.
Somehow, alas, Switzerland remains clinically neat and tidy, although I can testify that Swiss trains don’t always run on time. The stories of people being stranded are myths. I have seen conductors hold up trains to allow people struggling for whatever reason to get on and off.
Switzerland, therefore, is not perfect, however much the nerd at the heart of the Swiss rail system might try to make it so.
Sometimes, oh great cardiganed planet-builder, I don’t mind my trains a bit gritty, grubby and ill-behaved. Last summer, I went on a steam-powered 1600km rail odyssey between Cairns and Brisbane. Air-conditioning in the 100-year-old carriages meant opening the windows. The whole event was hot, dirty and cantankerous. When we pulled into Roma Street Station at the end of a long week, I felt like I’d achieved something worthwhile. Like a pioneer, maybe.
It’s a fantasy, of course, but not a Disneyland one, and it’s not a Switzerland one, either.