Story by Tom Koppel, Photos by Annie Palovcik
Our two car mini-train glides steadily up a precipitous 48-degree slope. Toothed wheels mesh smoothly with a similarly toothed track as it claws its way skyward. We gaze down at the distant scenery from ever more dizzying heights. But our seats, built to accommodate the extreme angle, remain comfortably level. Soon we leave the last pines and gnarled shrubs behind. Weaving in and out among tall crags and passing through short tunnels, the half-hour ride takes us to the rocky 7000-foot peak of Mount Pilatus which towers over Lucerne, Switzerland.
This is the world’s steepest cog railway, a masterpiece of technology designed and built way back in 1889. Initially powered by steam, it was electrified in 1937. My wife and I enjoy a few idyllic hours at the summit, having lunch in the elegant dining room of the mountaintop hotel. (When Britain’s Queen Victoria visited in the 19th century, she had to do the trip the hard way, riding up on a mule.) We take in the panoramic views and watch as a man assembles a paraglider, runs downhill and lifts off to soar on the thermals alongside the peak. An hour later, he is still swooping and hovering out there, not far away.
What makes them run?
A funicular is a cable railway in which a cable attached to a pair of tram-like vehicles on rails moves them up and down a steep slope.
A gondola lift, also called a cable car, is a type of aerial lift which is supported and propelled by cables from above. It consists of a loop of steel cable that is strung between two stations, sometimes over intermediate supporting towers.
A cog railway operates with a toothed rack rail, usually between the running rails. The trains are fitted with one or more cog wheels or pinions that mesh with the rack rail. This allows the trains to operate on steep grades above 7%, which is the maximum for adhesion-based railways.
In our 10-day visit, we savor spectacular mountain landscapes, pristine lakes, and fascinating old cities and meet welcoming local people. Looking back, though, I realize that half the excitement of traveling in that country is simply getting from one place to another. Swiss geography certainly has its ups and downs, with drastic inclines and extremes of elevation. But these natural features have been tamed in modern times by an impressive array of transportation systems.
Along with the cog railways, there are aerial gondolas and cable cars, funiculars galore, a wide variety of ski lifts, narrow-gauge alpine railways and, of course, steep mountain roads. We sample them all. Our vertical adventures begin as soon as we arrive by train from Italy, pulling into the station at Lugano in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. The city is built on a hill overlooking Lake Lugano, with some districts well up on the hillside and others down low along the lake itself.
The train station is situated about half-way up the hill. Fortunately, there is a convenient and inexpensive funicular, a little car that runs on tracks and is guided up or down by a heavy cable on a large rotating drum. The ride down takes only about a minute and deposits us and our luggage right at our hotel in the lower city.
A funicular takes students to Zurich University.
But this is only a baby funicular. Just outside the city is a grand one that carries us nearly 3000 feet up to a little chapel and scenic outlook atop Mount San Salvatore, offering fabulous vistas over Lake Lugano. And these gravity-defying people movers are everywhere.
In Zurich, we join thousands of students and faculty who ride the funicular daily up to the university and the famous technical institute where Albert Einstein studied for his doctorate. Then there are the gondolas and cable cars, which scale giddy heights or dangle over alarmingly-deep chasms.
Driving through the sheer-sided gorge of the upper Rhine, we notice aerial cableways that connect high villages to the valley far below. Tortuous switchback roads also lead up to these villages, but that requires a half-hour or so of driving. The cable cars allow children from the villages to attend school in the valley and get back home in minutes. They are also reliable in winter, when the roads may be buried in snow.
Whether taking the world’s steepest cogwheel railway from Alpnachstad or the panorama gondolas and aerial cableway from Kriens, Mount Pilatus offers visitors a unique alpine experience.
Following our ride up Mt Pilatus by cog railway, we board a large, gently swaying gondola with a dozen other passengers to descend the mountain’s opposite side. This means trusting our lives to a finger-thick steel cable that spans hundreds of yards between the tall towers. But we are whisked from the windswept peak into a warmer zone of lush forest and meadows. Halfway down, we transfer to smaller cable cars for four. These are used in winter to access the mountain’s ski runs.
Nearly everyone we meet skis, and the country must have hundreds of ski lifts – from enclosed cable cars to open chair lifts to simple T-bars. They soar up every cleared hillside in sight. But one of them is unique. We visit a tiny mountain village called Tenna high above the Safien Valley. There is a two-room school, a cheese-making shop, and a church dating to 1524.
Houses have huge stacks of firewood and tiny outbuildings that are actually large ovens for baking bread. It is a very traditional place, and yet remarkably modern as well. The village has recently installed the world’s first solar-powered ski lift, with photovoltaic panels strung out up the hill. In the snow-free season, excess electricity is sold to the national energy grid.
Our most memorable experience in Switzerland is a spectacular train ride. I have always loved train travel and have ridden the rails on four continents, but nothing compares to the narrow-gauge Bernina Express route. With dome cars for enhanced viewing, the train leaps and twists southward across the Alps from Chur, the hub city of southeastern Switzerland, to the Italian border town of Tirano. In a distance of only 122 km/76 miles, it negotiates 55 tunnels (including the highest in all the Alps) and crosses 76 bridges and vertigo-inducing viaducts perched on towering stone pillars.
One viaduct makes a perfect circle, doubling back upon itself but at a much lower elevation. Similarly, some of the tunnels, blasted out of the mountains by dynamite over 100 years ago, spiral like corkscrews deep within the rock and come out much higher or lower than where they enter the cliff face. At the route’s summit, we pass glistening white glaciers and look down upon a lake that is still frozen even in late May. Except for the rarest times, the rail line is kept open right through the winter. It is the supreme accomplishment of Swiss engineering. Traversing the Bernina Pass at 2253 meters/7392 feet is, in every sense of the word, the high point of our visit.
The Bernina Express scenic train is one of the world’s most visually- memorable rail experiences.
We used the convenient Swiss Pass. Purchased from abroad, the Pass allows unlimited travel on trains, busses and boats, free entry to most museums, and 50% discounts on most cog railways, funiculars, and aerial systems. For special scenic trains like the Bernina Express and Glacier Express, seats must be reserved at a small extra cost.
Tourism Switzerland info: www.myswitzerland.com.
Further information on some key destinations:
Mount Pilatus and Lucerne, www.pilatus.ch and www.luzern.com.
Mount San Salvatore, www.montesansalvatore.ch.
Lugano and Ticino, www.ticino.ch.
Tom Koppel is a veteran Canadian journalist and author of popular non-fiction. For over 25 years, his travel features have appeared in the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Globe and Mail, National Post, Canadian World Traveller, Georgia Straight and many other publications. His latest book of history, science and travel is Mystery Islands: Discovering the Ancient Pacific, for sale at Amazon. Signed and dedicated copies are available from firstname.lastname@example.org.
Annie Palovcik’s photographs have appeared in publications worldwide, including Dallas Morning News, Globe and Mail, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Sydney Morning Herald. She and husband, Tom Koppel, live on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.