You can see mountain tops, sweeping valleys and sparkling, ancient lakes. From Brienz to the top of Rothorn Kulm is a choof, a chug and a cogwheel climb onwards and upwards.
And it had been another beautiful day in Switzerland, my Grand Journey travelling mostly on a diverse selection of trains. Today after a lingering lunch in Lucerne I caught the 16.05 Luzern-Interlaken Express to Brienz, arriving at the station at 17.33 (precise to the minute). Don’t even try to catch a Swiss train out on a timetable – the only time it’s late is if an avalanche has hit the tracks!
An hour and a half in the train had prepared me for what was to come in the extraordinary Berne region of mountains and lakes. We passed steep, lush lawns, neat farm houses and cottages that were still festooned with flowers from the Indian summer the region was enjoying. The looming mountains were demanding attention with their snow-covered peaks.
The train hugged the lakeside as we cruised into the little village of Brienz, on Lake Brienz.
The lake is a startling turquoise and it floats between impressive mountainsides.
Off the train and a jump to the left and a hop to the right and I was on the classic steamer. There has been a boat service on Lake Brienz since 1839. There are five boats in the local fleet today and they take trips around the lake in the season and provide transport to drop off passengers from point to point around the lake.
My short journey was less than 15 minutes across the lake to Geissbach Falls. Stepping off the boat, from the landing stage straight to the funicular was like stepping into a bygone, gracious time. I could hear the thundering waterfall.
The next transport was the famous, and ever-so darling Geissbach funicular – Europe’s oldest mountain cable railway, built in 1879. Into the Geissbachbahn and a couple of minutes later I had been hauled up and deposited outside a fairytale castle, the Grandhotel Geissbach. The turreted and confectionery building pokes out through the forest overlooking, far below, the glory of Lake Brienz.
A warm welcome here and I’m in my room, standing on the balcony with the waterfall roaring down in front of me. Being a Sherlock Holmes fan I recognised this waterfall as the one that was sketched on the front of early book covers – the same location that Moriarty and Sherlock fell to their… did they or did they not?
There are 14 waterfalls surrounding the hotel but my personal one was here, and lit up at night, it was truly magnificent. With the doors closed I slept to the muted hum of water falling from a great height!
This area has always – well, since the late 1770s – been a popular nature spot for the agile Swiss (see old images of the walkers and climbers, all lithe and fit, even in cumbersome clothes). When the hotel opened there were probably more visitors like me – guests who preferred to sit on a terrace with a coffee and watch the hikers stride through the forest or to clamber and climb beside the waterfalls.
The following day I had to leave, which was a great pity as Geissbach and I were getting pretty cosy.
The same drill back to Brienz where I crossed the road from the boat mooring to a gingerbread railway station to hop on another classic train that joins the dots on a Swiss Grand Journey.
Time to experience the Brienz Rothorn Railway and to chug to a mighty height of 2400m travelling on Switzerland’s only surviving steam-driven cogwheel railway – and what a beauty it is.
Into the carriage with open-air ‘windows’, and so begins one of the great panoramic mountain train trips.
Since 1892 this train has treated other passengers to as much wonder as I took in. It takes an hour to choof up the 1678m in height and the 7.6km in length between Brienz station and the summit station Rothorn Kulm. It passes through thick, forested slopes, and almost urban pastures, then we see scattered cottages and alpine huts. There’s a stop at Planalp Station for water (at 1346m) and there’s a man yodelling to us and the sky!
We climb again and the land spreads vast and wide and only a few tree stumps and miniature ferns scattered across the flat grass are to be seen. Heavy cut granite pieces make a face in the landscape with shiny moss dotted on the rock surface. Scree slopes glisten and walkers’ paths have been methodically cut into the gentle pastures.
There were still a few cows up here catching the last few rays before they had to head down to their winter digs.
Then through the Fluhtunnel where the view of the lake below is heart-stopping. After smoking and steaming our way to the top of Brienzer Rothorn Mountain, as the train did 125 years ago, we stepped out to a sunny day and walked those few extra metres to the restaurant – for delicious, traditional rosti and bratwurst – naturally.
On a day such as this, on an outdoor terrace on top of the world, one can only bless the blokes who built that railway!