Going Swiss

At the end of 2011 after the almost-endless long haul back from South Georgia, I couldn't face another many-hour flight so I planned a 'trains and boats' trip round northern Scandinavia.  After getting back from the Northwest Passage last month, which, despite being boat based, did involve over 10,000 air miles, I was delighted that the next trip was going to be entirely surface based (assuming that cable cars count as being surface based).

Our trip to Switzerland was organised by InnTravel in Yorkshire who describe themselves as 'The Slow Holiday People'.  The itinerary wasn't by any stretch of the imagination, original. In fact the itinerary was based on one first put together by Thomas Cook in 1863. It’s quite possible that the details of that trip would have been lost had the entire journey not been documented by Jemina Morrell, one of the original Cook’s tourists.

So following in Jemina's footsteps we headed to London to start out on our Swiss Adventure.

Mr Cook’s party (an unbelievable 130-strong) set off from London Bridge Station on Friday 26th June 1863. We (a party of two!) set off from St Pancras International on Friday 6th September 2013.  The 1863 journey travelled by train to Newhaven, steamer to Dieppe, then train to Paris (and had a very short overnight stop there) before another very early start so that they would reach Geneva (again by train) by the Saturday night.  Thanks to Eurostar, the Channel Tunnel and the French TGV network – we were able to be in Paris just after 10 on the Friday morning, in Geneva by mid-afternoon, and in our first Alpine hotel in the spa town of Leukerbad for dinner on the Friday evening.

Leukerbad - in the morning sunshine
The 1863 tour (or at least the part of the group that Jemina M was with) went from Geneva off to Chamonix for a few days before arriving in Leukerbad.  Leukerbad was already well established as a spa town long before it made Thomas Cook's itinerary and Jemina does comment not entirely favourably on activities she observed in the baths including knitting, eating and playing of draughts. Jemina doesn't admit to having actually spent any time taking the waters, we however did, and spent a very pleasant couple of hours in the 50C waters in an outside pool watching the sun disappear off the mountain tops.

From Leukerbad, both our and the earlier tour followed the same itinerary over the Gemmi Pass to Kandersteg.  We despatched our luggage via the Swiss Transport System for delivery to Kandersteg, and then headed for the Gemmi Cable car to whisk us up almost 1000 metres to top of the pass.  Thick mists ensured we could see almost nothing, but just occasionally we got a glimpse of the steep path (“vertiginous” is a word that keeps coming to the fore here) that Jemina and her party (with their luggage presumably, although that doesn't often get mentioned in the diary) must have scrambled up.  We (and Jemina, having recovered from her climb) then walked past the Daubensee and to the remote mountain hotel at Schwarenbach.  In July 1863, the party were able to enthuse about the views, and the spring flowers under a ‘broiling sun’. In September 2013 we saw very little other than brief glimpses of what Jemina called ‘the dreary Daubensee’, and our first sight of the Schwarenbach Hotel was when we were only a few metres from it.  From the hotel we took the option of heading towards another cable car station to be whisked down to the outskirts of Kandersteg.  Jemina and companions again needed to scramble down another steep path until they reached ‘the first habitation’ where they spent the night.

Daubensee in the mist
We spent three nights in Kandersteg before again following Jemina down the valley towards Lake Thun. On this occasion, at least, Mr Cook had arranged carriages to get his party to Spiez to catch the steamer along Lake Thun to Interlaken.  We followed the same route, but used the ever punctual Swiss Railway service to get to Spiez to join the steamer.   It takes a couple of days to really absorb the slogan printed on the back of our Swiss Travel passes, “Imagine a country where public transport is always on time”. It’s true. And the buses connect with the trains.  And the trains connect with the boats.

Lake Thun ferry in Interlaken
From Interlaken, both tours headed to Lauterbrunnen to have a look at the Staubbach Falls, where water tumbles 1000 feet from a hanging valley down to the main valley below.   We then continued on from Lauterbrunnen catching yet another punctual cog-rail train to climb slowly up to Wengen, while Jemina retraced her steps to spend some more time in Interlaken.

Underneath the Staubbach Falls
For both tours the next stage was to Grindelwald.  We got there by a slightly circuitous route splitting the climb from Wengen up to Kleine Scheidegg and the descent down to Grindelwald over two days. The huge number and choice of cable cars and mountain railways in this part of Switzerland makes it very easy to flex walks according to the weather and the state of grumbling knees.  I decided, on this trip, to forego my traditional travel souvenir of a local T-shirt, and to buy a souvenir walking stick instead.  Jemima didn't have the cable car or mountain railway option, and her party had to complete the descent into Grindelwald “after the manner of the goats, leaping rents, and clearing the ground at a furious speed”.  We did not.

Trains and hotels at Kleine Scheidegg
For the final stop of the trip we again followed in Jemima’s footsteps heading back to Interlaken to catch the steamer towards Brienz with a stop at Giessbach to admire the Giessbach Falls, en route to Lucerne.  In 1863 the journey from Brienz to Lucerne involved coach and horses and a crossing of the Brunig Pass.  The route still involves crossing the Brunig Pass, but now it done in a very calm and controlled manner courtesy of Swiss Railways.

And from Lucerne it was, for both parties, a simple journey back towards Paris, although in our case it took about 4 hours rather than two days.


2013.  Trip was organised by InnTravel, and included stays at Parkhotel Quellenhof (Leukerbad), Belle Epoque Hotel Victoria (Kandersteg), Hotel Alpenrose (Wengen), Hotel Kruez and Post (Grindelwald) and Hotel Wilden Mann (Lucerne).  Travel involved Eurostar, TGV, Swiss Travel System Flexi Passes and walking.  Our luggage transfers  (which all worked perfectly) were also handled by the Swiss Transport System.

1863. Trip was organised by Thomas Cook, and included stays at Hotel des Freres Brunuer (Leukerbad), Hotel de l’Ours (Kandersteg), Hotel du Lac (Interlaken), Adler (Grindelwald) and a chalet in the grounds of the Giessbach Hotel.  Travel involved all manner of trains, boats, carriages and time on foot. Luggage transfers appear to have been handled by mule.

Thomas Cook charged just under £20 for Jemima’s trip, and my ready-reckoner suggests that this is equivalent to about £2000 in 2013, which is pretty close to what we paid for our trip.

Reliving the 19th Century?

Having just about had time to browse my images from the Northwest Passage and reformat my memory cards, it's time to pack up and escape the country again. This time replaying another 19th Century journey.

The Northwest Passage trip provided the chance to get a glimpse of some of the places visited by a number of early Arctic explorers, and most particularly to visit some of bleak and desolate islands that Sir John Franklin and his fellow travellers saw on their fateful expedition in 1846.  

Graves from Franklin expedition on Beechey Island
Visiting some of these islands from the comfort of a well-appointed expedition cruise ship really brought home the challenges that these explorers faced.  They were seeking to find routes through a maze of islands surrounded at best by drifting sea ice and at worst by wild Arctic storms.  They were trying to find their way through uncharted waters, where one of their few modern instruments was, in modern terminology 'useless'. 

Magnetic Compass Useless
To supplement paper charts we not only had radar to help spot icebergs and GPS to confirm where we were, we also had daily ice charts to help us understand what the ice conditions were.  And when the going got tough we were able to call on the Canadian Coastguard, in the shape of Captain Frost and the CCGS Henry Larsen, to clear the way for us.

CCGS Henry Larsen

There are further images from the trip on Flickr, and if you want to follow my journey day-by-day, my photodiary on Blipfoto starts here.

Franklin, and Roald Amundsen who eventually did sail the Passage in the early years of the 20th Century, would have been astonished both at the technology at our disposal, and perhaps even more surprised to find that in the early part of the 21st Century the Northwest Passage is now on the tourist circuit.

Organised tourism, in Franklin's time, was just starting to develop.  Individual travellers had for many years made journeys or pilgrimages, and the Grand Tour had become a regular rite of passage for affluent young men.  In the middle of the 19th Century, Thomas Cook started for the first time to organise trips around the UK.  In 1863, after a number of successfully tours to Paris, he decided to branch out and offered his first international tour to Switzerland.  One of the travellers on the first Swiss tour was Jemina Morrell, a woman from the north of England who in addition to being an intrepid traveller was also a dedicated diarist.  She wrote, and subsequently published, a detailed account of her travels through the Bernese Oberland.

Over the next couple of weeks I'll be repeating Jemima's tour, going to Geneva and Leukerbad by train and bus, before travelling on by cable car, train, boat and foot to wind up in Lucerne.  I'll be travelling to several of the towns that Jemima visited as she covered long distances mostly on foot.

I would love to be able to say that this tour is still being offered by Thomas Cook, but it isn't . Our itinerary has been put together by InnTravel.  

In the 1860s this trip was state of the art, modern tourism. In 2013, InnTravel distinguish themselves from other travel companies by the tag-line the 'Slow Holiday People'.  I wonder if there will be mules available for hire if the going gets too slow.