By Athena Lucero
The Alps — Europe's highest and longest mountain range — stretch over Italy, France, Monaco, Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Slovenia and Switzerland. The highest peaks — more than 13,000 feet above sea level — cover most of Switzerland, a small country in the heart of the continent, rendering its landscapes among the world's most magical. Early tourists in the mid-19th century came to witness this splendor aboard the first adventurous mountain steam trains that huffed and puffed their way to the summits.
As train navigation improved up through and around treacherous heights and terrain, the legendary mountain range never lost its allure. From the pioneering cogwheel trains of the Industrial Revolution-turned tourist railways to electric trains of the 21st century, travelers still come to romance the Alps.
Count me in. And the lovely selfie-stick-toting Mexican woman I met in the wood-carving village of Brienz in central Switzerland as we waited for the next departure of the Brienz Rothorn steam train, one of Europe's most nostalgic steam train journeys, which climbs to the top of Brienzer Mountain 7,713 feet above sea level.
But when we learned that an avalanche watch at the top would shorten our ride to "Mittelstation," just above the halfway point, our disappointment lasted — about a minute. Not even rain dampened the excitement of adults and kids biting at the bit as the whistle blew and steam spewed from the locomotive.
We missed panoramic views from the top, but the scenery going up was straight from a picture book. See-through dome-shaped tops protected us from the rain and offered unobstructed views of the forest, Lake Brienz and flower-decked 18th-century wooden chalets, their occupants waving as we rolled through the woods.
At mid-station some guests dispersed to the tranquil meadows to take photos and videos of grazing cows and dreamy clouds rolling over Lake Brienz. Others hiked to the restaurant for lunch. I opted for the next return to the village to visit the renowned Swiss Woodcarving Museum - also the only woodcarving school in Switzerland.
My train travel back in time didn't stop in Brienz. By way of the regular train and the famous yellow postal bus that delivers mail, residents and tourists to remote locations, I took a rare mountainous journey to Oberwald, a small village in canton Valais — 4,518 feet above sea level — where I would board the famous Furka Steam Rail that first operated in 1925 as an important east-west axis through the Furka Pass, connecting to the village of Realp in canton Uri. At 7,087 feet above sea level, it is one of the highest passes in the Alps.
In 1981 this gloriously scenic but operationally expensive line closed, and the tracks faced dismantling. But an international group of passionate volunteers succeeded at preserving the historic route by reviving the line and repatriating the steam locomotives from Vietnam, where they had been exported.
In 1992, the shiny blue Furka steam train breathed life back onto the abandoned narrow-gauge tracks, complete with staff dressed in crisp period uniforms and original carriages meticulously restored - welcoming the curious to enjoy a taste of 1920s rail travel.
Waving to hikers through open windows was as nostalgic as it gets, not to mention the adrenaline rush we felt as two locos pushed and pulled four carriages through the steep mountain valley passing the road made famous by the car chase scene in James Bond's "Goldfinger" and remnants of the great Rhone Glacier, the source of the Rhone River.
Back to the future — in the middle of nowhere - we rolled to a stop at a pop-up cafe where steaming hot coffee and "zopf," a delightful braided bread, made for a timely refreshment break.
Roving Switzerland by rail came full circle at the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne that opened in 1959. Here I got the fun, eye-opening lowdown on Switzerland's rail history and its impact on European commerce, including the fantastic Gotthard Railway Model, a mesmerizing small-scale replica of the historic St. Gotthard Pass (6,909 feet above sea level) with miniature trains choo-chooing through this all-important north-south axis that connected northern and southern Switzerland.
I couldn't leave without one more ride on the rails - this time the Gotthard Panorama Express, a vintage paddle-steamer and modern train excursion in one package. This extraordinary five-hour experience started with a romantic three-hour lunch boat cruise on picturesque Lake Lucerne in German-speaking central Switzerland, then from the village of Fluelen, a swift-moving two-hour train journey south to Lugano in Ticino, the Italian-speaking Mediterranean canton bordering Italy.
From the comfort of cushy seats in first class panoramic viewing cars with a friendly and informative attendant (and refreshments on offer) we rolled through quintessential Swiss landscapes of the Reuss Valley and the land of William Tell, Switzerland's legendary marksman and national hero.
Near the village of Wassen, Ingrid Amado, our attendant, tipped us off about our approaching entry into the mountain's famous loop tunnels that spiral up to gain altitude. "If you miss capturing a photo of the church," she said, "don't worry, you'll have two more chances!"
By the time we reached the Gotthard Tunnel (opened in 1882), I felt privileged traveling the first rail line to cross the massif that had before separated Switzerland's north and south. On the other side, swaying palm trees seemed so out of context. An ecstatic passenger said it all.
"It's another world here!"
This is the magic of the Swiss Alps.
WHEN YOU GO:
Brienzer Rothorn Railway: www.mystsnet.com/brienzerrothorn
Furka Steam Railway: www.mystsnet.com/furka
Gotthard Panorama Express: www.myswissalps.com (search "Gotthard Panorama Express")
My accommodations were in Oberwald, Valais, at Hotel Ahorni: www.ahorni.ch
Athena Lucero is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.