September 21-24, 2015: Switzerland’s scenic mountain railways are a major tourist draw. I rode one of them, from Montreux to Interlaken (although part of the journey was on a bus) on my ill-fated 2005 trip. That ride I went first class, paying extra for a front row seat in the dome car, sitting above the driver. But just as there are multiple scenic routes (the most famous – or most promoted – are the Glacier Express, the Bernina, the Golden Pass and the William Tell) there are different ways to experience them. The tourist trains offer options at different price points, you don’t have to take the most expensive, as I did in 2005, but regular passenger trains also run those routes. True, you don’t get a dome car, but you get a pretty good view anyway, at potentially much lower cost.
I planned a variation of the William Tell route, which starts with a slow boat trip down Lake Lucerne, before passing through the Gotthard tunnel and finishing at Locarno or Lugano (change at Bellinzona). My train from Zurich would also go through the Gotthard tunnel, but instead of changing trains at Bellinzona I would ride all the way to Como, where I would take the ferry up the lake to Varenna. Only one train a day would stop at Como and not require me to change trains, and by booking ahead I paid a mere 10 CHF for it (10.39 USD at today’s exchange rate). The base price for the William Tell route (which admittedly included the boat ride), without any kind of pass, was 197 CHF, or 123 CHF with a half-fare travel card, and that wouldn’t get me to Como.
My cheapskate train ride was a great success. Lake and mountain views alike were excellent. The Swiss railway website had said that second class would be packed the whole way, but at the back end of the last second class coach, where I was sitting, there was space to change sides when the sun started hitting my reserved seat. Yes, I arrived in Como on a hot, sunny day, the first in what felt like forever. I hefted my case down the steps in front of the station, and then rolled it easily through town to the ferry dock, where I found a mob of day trippers. Since they all wanted to sit outside in the sun, and I chose to sit just inside in the shade, they were not a problem. Although I abandoned my nighttime cough medicine in Zurich (I had been waking up groggy) I was still feeling fragile, and just sat and admired the beautiful lake views instead of taking photographs.
I had had some difficulty with reservations for the Italian Lakes, even at the end of the season, and was sleeping rather more expensively than usual at the Villa Cipressi, although they had put me in the annex above the breakfast room instead of in the more impressive main building. I still had a pretty good lake view, which I appreciated, and a big room with a comfortable bed, but wifi was so bad as to be essentially useless. This would have been less of an annoyance if the weather had stayed fine, but I should have taken photographs on the lake trip, as my first full day was grey and cloudy, and the second featured driving rain and wind so strong it blew my supposedly sturdy Norwegian umbrella inside out.
I did make it to Bellagio the first day, finding it, as I had expected, well provided with expensive shops and restaurants, but also with with good views. I found a neat little place, Art in Flower, near the top of the main drag, for a quite reasonable lunch, wandered back down through a quiet park, and then around the point that divides Lake Lecco from Lake Como. I caught the boat back as rain started. Given the horrible weather, and my lack of energy, meals occupied more of my attention than the mostly non-existent views. I enjoyed one excellent dinner in the Villa Cipressi’s dining room – although a big group of women from Missouri (or was it Michigan) kept the noise level high. I highly recommend the delicious veal. I can also recommend the pizzas at the Royal Victoria Grill, just a short walk away, and the friendly service at the Albergo del Sole, also nearby, although the food was just average.
What I can’t do is recommend the Osteria Quatro Pass, since they did not honor my reservation. They claimed to have mixed up the names, but not only is mine unusual, but I had a reservation for one, and all the tables held at least two people. Their offer of an aperitif and a suggestion that the wait might only be twenty minutes did not impress me. I rarely drink aperitifs, I would have had to drink this one standing out in the alley, and I had no faith at all in the estimate of the wait time. I went back to Albergo del Sole, where I was comped a much more welcome limoncello at the end of the meal.
Of course, the morning I left the sun was out, but I took a taxi to the station anyway (it was uphill). Although I was early I found Platform One already packed with people, several with huge suitcases, and few of whom had apparently bothered to look for the departure board (hidden in the waiting room), which said that the train we were all waiting for would leave from Platform Two (there were only two). True, we didn’t need to cross the tracks until shortly before the train was due, but even after a few of us led the way, there were still die hards on Platform One when the train to Milan pulled in.