A golden pass through the Alps. Switzerland's famed railway is noted for its efficiency -- and for its stunning panoramas
Sometimes you just have to ask. Our train was nosing its way up a verdant Swiss mountainside, approaching Interlaken, and the passing clusters of nearby fir trees framed a stunning panorama -- a distant lake, shrouded in morning mist, curling like an affectionate cat around the feet of a congregation of stately, deep-green mountains.
And there, sitting in front of me, was a young blond woman, solely interested in staring into her small brown book.
It was than that curiosity overtook courtesy. ``Pardon me,'' I said, and made some introductory conversation. But then I got to the point: ``If you don't mind my asking,'' I said, gesturing toward the view, ``do you ever get tired of all this?''
At first she looked a little flustered; then she explained that she had lived in the area all her life and had to prepare for her day's work as a teacher. That was why she had been reading. ``But no,'' she concluded, returning to my question. ``Most of the time I just sit and look. You can never get tired of something like this.''
Such is the case in much of Switzerland, where a native's ordinary commuter train is a visitor's expedition into spectacular scenery. And such is the case along most of the Golden Pass, a rail route that links three of Switzerland's most popular cities -- Lucerne, Interlaken, and Montreux -- while moving through many of the splendors of the Swiss countryside. Along its 150-mile course, the Golden Pass weaves through lush forests and expansive farmlands, vineyards lazing beneath a nurturing sun and backwoods hamlets -- little huddles of chalets --where slow-moving cows seem to be the sole inhabitants. And intermixed are the main events: six of Switzerland's prismatic lakes and more mountains than any country seems rightfully entitled to.
Conducting you is a rail system almost notorious for its excellence. Swiss trains could serve as role models for the country's renowned watches and cuckoo clocks, regularly landing in their stations at precisely the minute they're due. The train cars are clean and comfortably equipped, with ample room and baggage space in all classes.
Access to the Golden Pass displays another example of Swiss efficiency and planning. Swissair, the country's noted national airline, services the pass's two ``gateway'' cities: Zurich, which is about an hour from Lucerne; and Geneva, similarly close to Montreux. Flights are available into one gateway city and out from the other; you can ride the Golden Pass in either direction.
For the pass itself, package tours of three days or more can be obtained from travel agents, letting you choose how long you want to stay in any of the major cities along the route. Prices this year (per person, and based on double-room occupancy during peak season) range from $247 for three nights in ``standard'' class hotels to $792 for six nights with ``deluxe'' accommodations; additional days can be taken for flat extra fees. And as part of these packages you receive a Swiss Holiday Card, which provides unlimited travel on most of the country's buses, lake boats, and, of course, railways.
I decided to follow the route from Lucerne to Montreux, preferring to trace the progression from the former city's more subdued Germanic flavor to the latter's French-speaking sparkle. After my landing in Zurich, the ride to Lucerne was a handsome preview of things to come: Curving along the border of Lake Zurich, its sun-spangled waters crested with sails, the train passed before undulant green fields, dotted with homes, that rose up to mountain ridges. And a momentary stop in a hillside village called Zug proved that the Swiss can even make attractive a town with so unsonorous a name.
But soon we pulled into Lucerne, a city whose medieval charm is strong enough to override the teeming modernity of the many tourists who come to sample it. Spindly spires and stone towers reach up from the city's Old Town, a human echo of the white-topped Alps that populate Lucerne's horizon; narrow cobbled streets and alleys feed into well-preserved market squares; fountains flow amid fanciful statuary.
Situated at a corner of crystalline Lake Lucerne, the city is divided by a racing river that tumbles under Lucerne's pair of centuries-old covered bridges -- two weatherworn wooden structures that take a few unexpected turns as they span the water. If strollers slow down while crossing these bridges, they're probably inspecting the series of ancient paintings that hang near the bridges' roofs, recounting local legends.
In fact, a few hours of spirited wandering is perhaps the best way to experience Lucerne, roaming within its colorful maze of medieval and Renaissance houses, most of which now have stylish boutiques, design shops, or restaurants as their first-floor tenants. The villagers have a delicious tradition of hanging multicolored Swiss cantonal flags above their walkways; seen along with the scarlet geraniums that sprout from so many of the city's window boxes, it's easy to get the feeling of being caught in a surreal ticker-tape parade. And the traditional wall paintings -- outdoor frescoes -- that decorate many of Lucerne's buildings will make your ambling livelier still.
But Lucerne also has its share of diversions and cultural opportunities. Steamer journeys around Lake Lucerne leave the city regularly, and a good day trip will take you up one of the nearby mountains, using steep cog railways and cable cars to show you vast fields of craggy Alpine peaks -- a real glimpse of another world.
The city is immensely proud of its small collection of Picasso lithographs and paintings, which was donated to Lucerne by a local art dealer in 1978 in honor of the city's 800th birthday, and it is on display in the Am Rhyn House. And Lucerne's well-known festival of classical music, which imports leading soloists, orchestras, and ensembles from around the world, runs from Aug. 14 to Sept. 7 this year.
The views out the train window take a turn for the melodramatic en route to Interlaken, with great skirts of sloping land becoming broader and deeper before merging with tree-covered mountains so tall that they threaten to usurp the sky. Indeed, Interlaken, between the Thun and Brienz Lakes (hence the city's name) and in a valley of the dramatically mountainous Berner Oberland, is situated in a spot that makes this wildly beautiful terrain easily available for exploration. Although this small city has an abundance of tourists' mainstays -- clothing stores, gift shops, a casino -- its principal allure is its surroundings -- as a home base from which to set out.
If you want to stay on level ground, then cruises on the two cool, placid lakes become inviting. Perhaps the more eventful is Lake Thun: Ringed by pyramidal hills and white mountains, the lake laps up to tiny villages and a surprising number of impressive castles and ch^ateaux. At its western tip is the medieval town of Thun, with arcaded shopping streets and a castle sporting four witch's-cap turrets.
But if you're more inclined to ascend, Interlaken is within striking range of numerous snow-swept mountain towns and view-stations, the highest of which is Jungfraujock, well above the snow line at 11,333 feet. Hiking, skiing, and other regional sports make good use of the bracing mountain air.
About halfway between Interlaken and Montreux lies the small resort town of Gstaad, and a stopover there can be a winning supplement to the time spent in the pass's busier cities.
Sitting in a deep scoop of a valley girt by mountains, the town is composed almost exclusively of chalets, whose warm, darkwood exteriors, long slanting roofs, and overflowing window boxes -- little blizzards of color -- contribute to one's sense of quiet intimacy.
The tranquillity of Gstaad enhances the appeal of its many sports opportunities -- including exceptional skiing -- but this peacefulness vanishes with the arrival of its annual tennis tournament, which this year takes place from July 8 to 14. Traditions with a more subdued tone include a yearly music festival led by violinist Yehudi Menuhin, a longtime resident, with concerts slated for July through September this summer.
But if you choose to stay on the train, Montreux is about an hour distant, a trip through canyons that grow longer and more precipitous, and the pass's longest stretch of forest, overgrown and shadowy. The passing towns take on French names, and a rambling zigzag down a hill leads into Montreux, a city whose character seems to stem from the drastic contrasts it contains.
Long known as a quiet retirement spot for the elite of many continents, Montreux nevertheless leaps into frenetic activity several times a year when it hosts major conventions and festivals -- including Europe's premier jazzfest, a tumultuous affair that lights up the city's casino during the first weeks of July.
Montreux's busy commercial streets, whose rows of showcase windows flash names like Bally and Dior and Philips, give little hint of the repose to be found in the city's Old Town, a place of winding lanes, cobblestones, and soft pastel colors. And the region's subtropical climate permits broad-leafed banana trees, fig trees, and palms to flourish along Montreux's lakeside promenade, while snow-hooded Alps loom just across Lake Geneva.
Afternoons in the area can be spent seeing the 13th-century Chillon Castle, a hulking fortress that served as the backdrop for Byron's poem ``The Prisoner of Chillon,'' or by visiting some of the sleepy villages in the surrounding hills for fine views and authentic fondues. Also nearby is Gruy`eres, a tiny picture-book village presided over by a somber ch^ateau that contains interesting local artifacts. Cheeses from Gruy`eres's shops are delectably fresh, and for good reason -- if you listen hard when you buy them, you'll probably be able to hear the clucking bells that hang from the necks of their sources.
Mr. Schneider's trip was partly sponsored by Swissair and the Swiss National Tourist Office.