When Theresa May went off to Switzerland on a walking holiday last August, she said it was the ‘peace and quiet’ that drew her there — but I can’t help thinking there’s more to it than that. The Swiss are famous for their efficiency — and if there was ever a Brit who would appreciate things happening on time, it’s Theresa May.
Yes, it is something of a cliché to say that no one does timekeeping like the Swiss. And in fact in 2014 a scandal erupted when statistics showed that only 87.5 per cent of trains arrived within three minutes of their scheduled time. Fortunately, Swiss Federal Railways managed to up its game the next year, and the crisis was over. This year, the focus is on getting trains to stop at the exact same spot on the platform. The drivers are rewarded with chocolate.
It’s not just the ability to run on time that makes the country’s railways so fantastic. Switzerland has some of the most beautiful countryside in Europe.
In December, I took the train from Geneva to Gstaad, in the Bernese Oberland. The first half of the journey took us from Geneva Airport to Montreux; even this everyday route delivers stunning views of Lake Geneva. The next section of the journey was the one I hadn’t anticipated, however. The Golden Pass Express, which runs from Montreux to Zweisimmen, offers two choices of train; the Panoramic, whose enormous windows are specially designed to give an unobstructed view of the landscape, or the Classic, with vintage Pullman carriages complete with carved-wood ceilings. There had been less snowfall than usual, which meant cows were still out grazing, their cowbells gently clanging. As we climbed higher, snowy peaks emerged, and the buildings changed from the houses of Montreux to more traditional wooden farmhouses and chalets.
Pulling into Gstaad, where the platform vending machines dispense local cheeses rather than Wotsits, Diet Coke and Mars bars, made me wonder why anyone would choose to arrive by helicopter. The Golden Pass Express isn’t even Switzerland’s most scenic train journey; that prize goes to the Bernina Express line, which is listed as a Unesco world heritage site.
Taking a panoramic train across Switzerland might be touristy, but what’s wrong with giving people what they want? And though sugar-dusted mountains and edelweiss might sound too typically Swiss to be true, it so happens that Switzerland doesn’t even need its tourist board to help it live up to its own clichés.
A friend of mine, on a train to St Moritz in the summer, happened to be travelling in the same carriage as a group of locals en-route to a yodelling festival. Dressed in traditional costumes (complete with dirndls of course), they took the opportunity to have a last-minute run-through of their performance. You couldn’t get more Swiss than that if you tried.