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In Switzerland, the Railroad Taken

By Susan Morse
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 28, 1999



Europe '99:
  • Around the Continent
  • Berlin's Middle Age
  • Driving Tour of Spain
  • Dublin's Temple Bar
  • Swiss Rail Adventure

  • We came across the funicular not far from Montreux, Switzerland, along the side of Lake Geneva that's known as the Swiss Riviera. We were tired and dirty, laden with bicycles and packs and still hours away from our day's scheduled destination. The damp, chill afternoon flirted with night.

    But there sat the little mountain railroad car, empty and unattended, doors open in invitation. Its narrow track headed up at a crazy 60-degree pitch. The sole source of information about the train was a box on a wall, one of those infernal self-service Swiss ticket dispensers. "Montreux-Territet--Glion," it read. The ride to Glion--wherever, whatever that was--appeared short. The funicular ran every 15 minutes on the quarter-hour.

    Some children ran by, laughing, into the open car, where they bounced from one side to the other. Seeing me, they were all grins and waves. They hadn't stopped to buy tickets and no one asked them to produce any. Then the doors closed and up the tracks they went, still laughing. That clinched it.

    Persuading my companion to change plans was easier than expected. One look at the funicular did the trick. But being a pragmatic sort, she had to quiz the clump of smart suits hurrying from the car that had just descended. "Glion . . . is it pretty?" she asked them in French. They exchanged quizzical looks.

    The issue, I suddenly grasped, wasn't language, but frame of mind. We were tourists. They were commuters. For them, the funicular was transportation.

    Is there a good view?" my friend persisted.

    "Yes," replied one of the women with a shrug. "The view is pretty."

    We bought two tickets (roughly $4 each) and boarded the little car. In a funicular, two cars operate in tandem, counterbalancing each other. At the top and bottom they share a common track, bypassing one another in a middle rotary.

    Today the 2 1/2-foot-wide rail is electrically powered, but when it was built in 1883 (I later learned), the funicular to Glion was a world wonder. The first mountain rail in French-speaking Switzerland, it was also the first in the world to climb so steeply. It was powered ingeniously by water tanks under its two cars. A worker at the base would phone the station above to say how many passengers were ascending. A worker would fill the top car's tank high enough to offset their weight. Once the heavier car reached the base, its tank was emptied.

    We quickly reached the top and discovered that, if the commuters had misled us, it was by understatement. Immediately to the left of the station we found the terraced gardens of the Hotel Righi Vaudois, offering a spectacular look at Lake Geneva and the majestic French and Swiss Alps. Marveling in our discovery, we wandered the landscaped clifftop grounds, pausing by scarlet blooms and centuries-old trees to gawk at the snowcapped peaks across the lake. As if on cue, the clouds broke, admitting the first blue sky and sunshine of the day.

    Every direction held magic. On the lakeshore below us to our left squatted the brooding 11th-century Chateau de Chillon, immortalized by Lord Byron. To our right was Vevey, where Charlie Chaplin spent the last 25 years of his life and novelist Anita Brookner set "Hotel du Lac." They weren't the only ones to find inspiration here: Henry James sailed Daisy Miller to these shores. Stravinsky composed the "Rites of Spring" from his home nearby. It wasn't hard to see why.

    The train, a bath, dinner--all could all wait. We chose a bench, and from our other-worldly perch, drank in the view, our reward for following a hunch, not a plan.

    From Geneva or Lausanne, take the train to Montreux. Change from an express to a local in either Lausanne or Montreux. Get off at Territet, the first stop after Montreux. Cross the street to the funicular station. For more info about Glion, contact the Swiss National Tourist Office, 212-757-5944, or check out

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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