From Lucerne to Lugano, take the slow train in Switzerland

No one has perfected slow travel like the Swiss, and a journey from Lucerne to Lugano sees the country transform from dense Alpine forests and wooden chalets to rustic-stone houses and vineyards snoozing in the sun.

By Kerry Walker
Published 1 Apr 2021, 13:53 BST
Lucerne has a beautiful medieval bridge, belle époque hotels and a piercingly blue central lake.

Lucerne has a beautiful medieval bridge, belle époque hotels and a piercingly blue central lake.

Photograph by Getty Images

It’s a radiant May morning in Lucerne. The spring light has a sharpness that renders every iPhone snapshot a masterpiece and the snow has melted on all but the highest peaks. As I wander through Lucerne, pausing briefly to admire its medieval covered bridge and fancy belle époque hotels, a heavenly scene opens up before me: a lake of the most piercing blue twisting into mountains that rise sheer and rugged.

A spritz of culture, a dash of good living and an enormous helping of natural beauty — Lucerne is Switzerland in a nutshell, I muse, as I board the paddle steamer that forms the first leg of my 113-mile journey on the Gotthard Panorama Express to Lugano in the country’s southernmost crook.

Many places wax lyrical about the joys of slow travel, but few nail it like the Swiss, who have been harnessing their colossal outdoors with bridges, loop tunnels, viaducts, cogwheel railways, cable cars and other ingenious ways since the dawn of 19th-century tourism. Back then Queen Victoria, Goethe and Wagner were among those who fell for Lucerne’s romantic charms. And from the outset the trip is redolent of a more graceful era of travel. As we drift away from the harbour, the boat ruffles lake waters that leap through a spectrum of greens and blues, from sapphire to jade and deepest turquoise. Above them rises the 5,898ft peak of Mount Rigi, which Turner obsessively painted in three different lights to capture its ever-changing moods in 1842.

The water narrows like a fjord as we enter Lake Uri. This is Switzerland's heart, not only geographically but also culturally and spiritually. We cruise past the meadow of Rütli, cradle of Swiss democracy and birthplace of the nation, where the Oath of Eternal Allegiance was signed in 1291. Close by is Tell’s Chapel, enshrined in myth for its role in the legend of William Tell, that apple-shooting, rebel-yelling folk hero who, lore has it, leapt from the boat of his Habsburg captors to safety here more than 700 years ago.

A paddle steamer forms the first leg of the 113-mile journey on the Gotthard Panorama Express from Lucerne to Lugano.

Photograph by Gotthard Panorama Express

The boat docks in Flüelen, where I board the Gotthard Panorama Express train, sleek, spacious and with vast picture windows revealing Heidi-like dreamscapes on repeat. Only first-class seats are available, meaning that each carriage has dress-circle views of the milky green Reuss River, which flows through an intricate tapestry of meadows bursting into new life, forested crags and glacier-streaked peaks that punch way above the 9,850ft mark.

I am distracted from my lunch of Ticinese cured meats and cheeses by a sudden urge to head to the photo carriage, where windows open to let in the scent of fresh hay and wildflowers, and the clang of cowbells that are the country’s unofficial national anthem. With their gabled chalets, the villages appear toytown tiny against the hulking mountain backdrop, and never more so than in Wassen, where the train climbs in a tight double loop to reveal its onion-domed baroque church three times.

If the nine-mile journey through the Gotthard Tunnel from Göschenen to Airolo seems a breeze today, it wasn’t always that way. In the Middle Ages, the Gotthard had a fierce reputation for its wild, harsh terrain, notoriously tough to negotiate on foot and with pack animals. When the tunnel opened in 1882, it was the world’s longest, a widely fêted engineering marvel that provided the missing link between German-speaking Uri and Italian-speaking Ticino. 

As the train unzips the Leventina Valley, there are flickers of southern living. The air is richer and milder, the densely forested mountains impenetrable; vines march up emerald green hillsides, and the wooden chalets that define the central Alps are replaced by rustic-stone houses and campaniles — a sign that Italy is but a whisper away. Between Rodi-Fiesso and Biasca, the train performs a vertical loop as it drops from an elevation of 3,090ft to 960ft in the space of half an hour.

Arriving at Lake Lugano just in time for sunset, I wander through the town's hilly, alley-woven historic centre to the lakefront promenade, where botanical gardens flushed pink with azaleas, palm trees and singsong Italian voices show a Switzerland I hadn’t realised existed. I watch the lake fade into hazy watercolour distance and wonder if Turner made it this far south. He would have found the light here pretty special, I imagine.

Lugano’s hilly, alley-woven historic centre lead to the lakefront promenade, where botanical gardens are flushed pink with azaleas, palm trees and singsong Italian voices. 

Photograph by Getty Images

More highlights from the Gotthard Panorama Express

1. Lucerne
Factor in at least an extra day to explore the remarkable city of Lucerne, rimmed by mountains of myth and famous for its spring-summer classical music festival held in Jean Nouvel’s postmodern KKL cultural centre. A historic romp around town should involve a stop at the private Rosengart Collection, displaying works by Picasso and contemporaries.

2. Rigi
Extend your journey to Vitznau to ride Europe’s oldest cogwheel mountain railway to 5,898ft Rigi, where abundant hiking trails await and clear-day views reach to the Black Forest and Vosges.

3. Giornico
Skirted by vineyards and wooded mountains, this ludicrously pretty village sits astride the River Ticino and was once an important stop-off point for wayfarers and pilgrims on the Gotthard Pass. Old vintners’ houses and churches line its narrow stone lanes.

4. Bellinzona
Capped off by a trio of medieval castles waving the World Heritage flag, the bijou Ticinese capital beguiles with rampart strolls, piazza life and trattorias for sampling Ticinese flavours like creamy polenta with brasato al vino rosso (beef braised in red wine).

5. Lugano
Nudging up against Italy, Lugano is delightful, with a mazy historic centre, a flowery lakefront promenade with knockout mountain views, and a cultural big-hitter in the form of the MASI, with its outstanding collection of more than 14,000 artworks from the late-15th century to the modern day.

Plan your trip

Getting there and around
Several airlines fly direct to Zürich and Geneva from London, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Dublin. Once there, organise a rail pass through Switzerland Travel Centre who offer many passes to suit every type of traveller. 

When to go
Switzerland’s is beautiful year-round, from winter when snow carpets the ground, to the summer months when alpine meadows are alive with wildflowers.

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