Before I embarked on this incredible overland journey from Cork to Cape Town, people kept asking me what I was most looking forward to. While Ian had his sights set on doing a Game of Thrones tour in Dubrovnik and mounting a camel in Cairo, I was most excited about our Grand Train Tour of Switzerland.
The name (“Grand Train Tour of Switzerland” – go on, say it a few times!) alone evoked images of trains passing through valleys and along side vast lakes, passing the greenest meadows and mountains in the world, through quaint Swiss villages, fields full of the world’s happiest cows. When I came across their promo video which included a mixture of sweeping drone shots and panoramic views of spectacular mountains and ancient railway bridges, I could hardly contain my excitement.
Now that the tour has ended, you can see that it lived up to my expectations and more – I believe the smile on my face in this video tells the full story more than this blog post ever will!
We secured two 8-day passes for the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland, valid for travel on all trains, buses and boats in Switzerland, which meant that virtually all transport for the entire week was covered by one pass. While many people think it’s just a train pass, it’s honestly way more. It allowed us to take buses for free in all the cities we visited, free boat rides in Lausanne, Lugano and Lucerne and even a cable car ride down Mount Rigi. While we didn’t have time to see any of Switzerland’s famous museums, your pass will also get you in free to many of them too. While we opted for the 8-day pass, they also have a 4-day pass for just €350 while unbelievable value for Switzerland (seriously, google the price of a simple one-way intercity ticket and you’ll cry.)
Stop 1: Lausanne
We decided to start our Grand Train Tour of Switzerland in lovely Lausanne, a city that won my heart and has found its way on to my favourite places in the world list – an impressive feat considering I just arrived in my 60th country!
I can’t quite pinpoint what it is I loved about Lausanne – but I believe it was the cities charming mix of old and new, combining a rich and fascinating history with many events, organisations and architecture that we associate with today’s world. Situated on Lake Geneva, and home to many of the world’s leading hotels, its was the perfect city to start out tour and help us fall in love with Switzerland.
Highlights included a boat trip around the northern end of Lake Geneva on a 100-year-old steam boat, passing by the famous Vevay Vineyards and an island owned by the Queen of England (apparently it was gifted to her!) and time spend pointing at mansions lining the shore of the lake, trying to decide which house we wished we could live in!
Lausanne is also home to some great restaurants, bars and nightclubs (if visiting be sure to go to MAD) so we over-indulged for 2 days eating our own bodyweight in delicious Swiss cheese and local wines. Another highlight of our weekend in Lausanne was visiting the Olympic Museum, which my travel buddy Ian has written about in great detail. There’s something very special about visiting an Olympic Museum in The Olympic city and just days after the RIO 2016 Olympics had finished.
From Lausanne, we took the train direct to Interlaken, a town famous for being the adventure sports capital of Europe. Like I wrote in my 50 Unique Things To Do in Switzerland post, Interlaken could give towns like Queenstown and Victoria Falls a run for their money in terms of being crowned adrenaline junkie capital of the world. Be it skydiving, hiking, biking. paragliding, or a variety of winter sports, Interlaken has it all. We stayed in Balmers Hostel, the longest-running independent hostel in Switzerland and one of the funkiest hostels I’ve ever stayed in. They even have their own night club!
Travelling by rail in Switzerland really means travelling in style. We always beelined straight for the first class seats, and once a lady questioned whether we were in the right section due to our scruffy backpacker clothes. We showed her our tickets with pride and she returned to her seat hastily!
From the moment we boarded our first train in Lausanne, to the moment we disembarked our last train in Lugano on the Swiss Italian border, Ian and I were blown away by the scenery. It was difficult not to be overwhelmed by how beautiful Switzerland is. People often refer to is as ‘straight from a fairytale’ and when travelling the country by train you have to agree. It’s certainly the cleanest country I’ve ever been to, and the colours of the fields, lakes and sky are so vibrant I had to pinch myself to make sure they weren’t photoshopped!
While in Interlaken we took an old cog railway half way up the mountain to Lauterbrunnen, probably one of the most picturesque towns in the world. I can remember hanging out the window with my camera, taking videos and getting more and more excited with each passing moment. We chugged on by old railway stations, a fast-flowing river with water so cold and so clean (straight from the snow-capped mountains) that it was a strange blue-grey colour – a colour I have never seen before in a river.
While staying in Interlaken we visited one of the most picturesque towns in Switzerland, if not in Europe or even the world. I even saw my friend Nicola from Polkadot Passport say on Snapchat that Lauterbrunnen is one of her favourite places i the world – and that’s something coming from a lady that has photographed some of the world’s most famous landmarks and cities. Lauterbrunnen is that Swiss Mountain Village that you have always dreamed about but were never sure it’s really existed. Where every house looks like it’s from a fairytale, where the local graveyard looks like a scene from Chelsea Flower Show and there are so many waterfalls flowing off the side of the surrounding mountains that you begin to lose track of their names and how many you have seen.
When we came across yet another sign for a waterfall, we weren’t sure if we were bothered to pay the 11 euro entrance fee. However we decided we had hiked the whole way there so we might as well see it. To say we were not disappointed would be a major understatement as Trummelbach Falls has to be one of the most incredible, powerful and mind-blowingly incredible waterfalls I’ve ever seen…and I’ve seen Niagara Falls, Victoria Falls and many of Iceland’s most famous waterways. The power of the water pushing through the rock, swirling in mini funnels that look like washing machines and gushing down level after level until the water emerges at a raging river at ground level is a spectacular sight. A must visit if you are in the area!
On our way from Interlakken to Zurich, we passed the small village of Spiez and I was so mesmerised by it that I told Ian I was jumping off the train to take some photos and that I would meet him Zurich. I grabbed my bags and jumped off the train just before the doors shut, and carried all my worldly possessions out of the train station and over to the local park. I decided my drone need a little outing and had great fun over the next 15 minutes flying my drone over the lake, local church and marina and getting some pretty cool aerial shots (and a short video) of this beautiful town which you can see below.
Sadly our time in Zurich was way to short, which is something I didn’t mind too much (I’ve never really been the biggest fan of cities or visiting museums instead favouring small villages or local mountains!) but Ian had been really looking forward to Zurich as it’s one of the banking capitals of the world and a place which has fascinated him for some time. Unfortunately we arrived in the evening and had to leave on an 7.30am train the next morning so all we really saw was the street next to our hostel, the train station and this one stunning view of the skyline at sunrise. We also came across two English girls who never seemed to leave the hostel dormitory – just one example of the interesting characters we met on the road so far!
Stein Am Rhein
While we were pretty exhausted waking up at the crack of dawn to catch a train from Zurich to Schauffhussen, the minute we arrived in this picturesque little village situated on the mighty River Rhine, we started feeling refreshed and were excited for our morning boat ride that would take us down a river that splits two countries (Germany and Switzerland). We passed by some beautiful little villages but it’s the town were we finally disembarked that will forever be etched in my memory. It’s crazy how a town I had never previously heard of could be so incredibly beautiful, and yet remains hidden away from it all in a small area of Eastern Switzerland.
Stein Am Rhein is one of the towns where it would be a crime to out your camera down for even a single second. It is honestly the most beautiful place, and every building has ancient paintings covering the outside facade with a million stories to tell. We also found a restaurant that served some of the best crepes I’ve had outside of Paris so an all round hidden gem!
Lucerne was unexpectedly one of the highlights of our week in Switzerland, mainly thanks to Ladina who works for Swiss Travel Pass telling us about the boat trip across the lake and taking the old cog railway up Mount Rigi. I swear the photos we took were so spectacular that most of my friends thought they were drone shots when the reality is we just kept snapping away while leaving out of a moving train! We also made friends with some lovely Koreans which made our day even more enjoyable – I always love the chance to practice my Korean and reminisce about my favourite Korean foods.
While I could write about how beautiful it is, how amazing the train ride was and how spectacular the views were, I believe the photos below will do a better job at that. By far one of the best things to do in Switzerland, be sure to get the cable car back down – it was a bit like being in a rollercoaster as it swung from side etc side and everyone let out fun little screams of joy!
While we really enjoyed our time in Lugano (especially a morning spent wine tasting at a very small, family-run winery) it was the train ride on board the Wilhelm Tell Express from Lucerne to Lugano that stands out the most. While Ian spent much of his time trying to get some work down, I simply could not take my eyes off the changing landscapes whizzing by outside of the trains panoramic windows. We passed through hundreds of spiral tunnels, past towering mountains and then came out the other side on the border with Italy, a town with a very distinctive Italian feel! While in Lugano, we took a boat trip around the lake (free, like the others!) and stopped off at this stunningly beautiful village that reminded me of Cinque Terre except we were the only tourists for miles! That’s my type of town!
As with all good things in life, even the most memorable of journeys have to come to an end. We were pretty devastated to hop on the train in Lugano, sad that our magical week in Switzerland was over all too fast, but were excited to continue our 6 month #Cork2CapeTown journey with a fun weekend in Venice.
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Editors note: I want to profusely thank the Swiss Travel System for providing a travel pass for both myself and Ian to make this dream trip possible and to the incredibly friendly staff that work there for ensuring we had a magical trip and for believing in me and my blog!