The second part of our Swiss Railway holiday began in the comfortable town of Brig, where we were staying for a few days. Brig has been an important road junction for centuries, and its history is inseparable from its location at the upper end of the main Rhône Valley and at the junction of the Furka and Simplon passes.
We enjoyed wandering through the attractive alleyways and pedestrianised streets of the old part of the town, much of which was restored in 1993 after a devastating flood. The town’s most imposing building was financed from the profits of trade. It is the Stockalper Palace, built between 1658-78 by Kasper von Stockalper, who dominated the transit and trade of salt at the time. It is the most important Baroque Palace in Switzerland and was once the country’s largest private residence.
The Palace takes the form of two- and three-storey arcades of different heights arranged around a courtyard, which is overlooked by three tall square towers crowned by bulbous gilded onion domes. It is presently administered by the local municipality. Personally, we thought the building was extremely ugly, but the rooms and decor inside were beautifully presented and really interesting!
Perhaps the finest excursion from Brig is to take the railway up the Rhône Valley to the town of Fiesch. Here, travellers can leave the train and take the cable car in two stages up to the Bergstation Eggishorn at nearly 2,900m.
From this absolutely magnificent viewpoint, we could see a large portion of the Aletsch Glacier, at over 20kms, the longest in Europe.
The Eiger and Jungfrau peaks reared up behind, forming a picture-perfect glacier and mountain landscape. The weather was kind, with clear blue skies and little wind.
So, after the chattering early morning tourist groups had left, we enjoyed a coffee at the nearby café and then just sat on our own in total silence, absorbing the natural beauty of the extraordinary panorama in front of us. It was worth making a whole trip to Switzerland just for these few moments of absolute wonder and mental rejuvenation.
Climate change is having a profound effect upon glaciers in the Alpine region, and this was amply demonstrated to us at Brig’s excellent Jungfrau-Aletsch UNESCO World Heritage Site Museum, the following day.
The exhibits in this super-modern museum clearly demonstrate the negative effects of climate change on the Alpine landscape, its flora and fauna and the men and women who live and work in the region.
There was a lot of information about the Aletsch Glacier. This vast expanse of ice is up to 800m deep and spreads over 80 square kilometres. It contains over a fifth of the total ice volume in the Swiss Alps and reached its peak extension in the mid-1800s. It has already retreated by over 3 kms since 1870 and is expected to lose half or more of its volume by 2100.
In worst-case scenarios of climate change in which greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, this Wonder of the Alps could virtually disappear by the end of the century. The museum has many fascinating hands-on exhibits to entertain the kids and there is even an ancient Jungfrau Railway car, which completed its maiden journey in 1912. You can sit in the car and, with a clever audio-visual display, experience its steep journey up the mountain!
Our final stop on our Swiss Railway tour was Lake Lucerne, which required us to change trains at Berne. The scenic journey was precisely on time (of course) and passed through a range of glorious countryside from mountains to a more pastoral landscape.
Lucerne station is a terminus and delightfully situated near the edge of the lake. Our hotel was only a short walk away and we had almost two days to explore this attractive city, which is located right in the heart of the country.
The old town itself is situated just where the River Reuss leaves the lake itself. Lake Lucerne’s reputation as one of Europe’s most beautiful stretches of inland water owes much to its irregular shape and constantly changing views of nearby mountains.
We took a short tourist cruise and were actually a little disappointed. We just went round in a large circle in the centre of the lake and were never allowed to appreciate the delights of the shoreline close-up!
Lucerne is a compact city, and most of its principal attractions can be reached on foot. Even better, the historic core of the city is pedestrianised. Strolling around this beautiful metropolis was an absolute pleasure. We soon discovered the joys of Lucerne’s most famous attraction – the wooden Chapel Bridge. It crosses the River Reuss close to where it leaves the lake. Built in the first half of the 14th century, the bridge originally formed part of the city fortifications.
The rather strange-looking water tower near the south end of the bridge was built around 1300 and used at various times as a treasury, archive, prison and even a torture chamber! This highly unusual wooden bridge has suffered many mishaps over the years, notably a tragic fire in 1993. But it survives to this day and must be one of the most photographed structures in Switzerland!
Having crossed the Chapel Bridge, we ambled slowly down the south bank of the river, past the elegant Gothic Franciscan Church, to the unique Needle Dam, built in 1860. The dam’s ingenious design still manually regulates the level of Lake Lucerne by removal or insertion of ‘timber needles’ into the river’s water flow. We crossed back over the river using a second and smaller wooden structure, called the Spreuer Bridge, completed in 1408.
From here, we could see the splendid buildings of the Old City, including the Town Hall, lining the promenade on the north side of the riverbank.
It was now time to examine the town’s Musegg wall, originally built in the late 14th century. At 800m, it is the longest medieval defensive work in Switzerland. It was a steep climb up to the wall from the busy streets below, but it was worth the effort.
The crowds of tourists thinned out and, from the wall, we could see farms and countryside to the north and a wonderful view of the city and lake to the south. The wall has nine surviving towers and, unquestionably, the most interesting is the clock tower, the mechanism of which is open to view. It was built in the 15th century and the fresco-painting on the south façade shows two giants holding the face of the clock.
It had no defensive purpose but, thanks to its enormous size, people in the city and boat crews out in the lake could all read accurate time. Since the late Middle Ages, this colourful clock has had the right to chime first, one minute before all other public clocks in Lucerne!
The following morning, we completed our journey back to Basel and vowed to return to see more of this stunningly beautiful country. We found the people friendly, astonishingly well organised and ‘politely pursuing the most important elements of life in a timely manner’. We enjoyed exemplary service on trains, in hotels and in restaurants. Every step of our detailed tour programme from the Swiss Holiday Company had been completed exactly as planned – to the letter. Remarkable!
Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 19 years ago. The couple lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s. Although now retired, Nigel still continues to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.