Superlative sights of Switzerland by train
Hailed as a great feat of engineering, the new Gotthard Base Tunnel is the world's longest and deepest rail tunnel. Danya Bazaraa looks at the possibilities it opens up for train travel in the Swiss Alps
WANDERING past a stall at the opening festival for the Gotthard Base Tunnel, I grin at different slogans emblazoned on merchandise for sale.
'We love shortcuts', reads one T-shirt, a reference to the reduced travel time the new rail route through the Alpine Gotthard massif will afford both local residents and visitors.
The journey from Zurich to Milan, I'm told by an enthusiastic stall holder, will now take less than three hours.
I'm visiting during a two-day festival to mark the grand opening of the 57km tunnel, which is set to begin a full service at the end of the year.
A brass band plays at one of the celebration sites in Rynacht as part of the entertainment, interactive games help visitors learn about the tunnel, and there are food stalls aplenty selling Swiss cheese and meats.
Seventeen years in the making, the world's longest and deepest railway tunnel is clearly a cause for celebration and the patriotic Swiss are relishing the opportunity to honour the 1,800 Swiss workers, whose blood, sweat and tears went into its creation.
Dining solo in a cosy wooden restaurant on my first night in Alpine village Andermatt, which lies on one side of the Gotthard Pass, I get talking to one of those workers.
"I helped build that tunnel," says 26-year-old Patrick. "I worked on the skeleton four years ago. For six months, I would start at 6am and finish at 8pm every day. I wouldn't see daylight and it would be 35 degrees down there."
The next morning, I ride through the tunnel from Rynacht to the quaint village of Pollegio, and try to picture what it might have been like to work down there.
I feel a surge of adrenalin as we zip along at 250km per hour and spend the rest of my 20-minute journey feeling dreamy as lights illuminating the route merge into one.
In the darkness, I almost forget where I am.
Yet, as I hurtle back into daylight and a magnificent mountainous landscape, the realisation of being engulfed in nature exhilarates me.
The flat, high-tech Gotthard Base Tunnel may lack the same scenic appeal, but by being more energy efficient and also alleviating the burden of traffic from the Alpine area, it's helping to preserve the environment and fresh Swiss air.
Besides, travellers still have the option to make a return trip on the original Gotthard train line, which links Immensee in the north to Chiasso in the canton of Ticino.
Completed in 1882, it's one of Switzerland's most historic tourist rail routes, climbing 1,100m and meandering across 205 bridges.
I hop on to sample part of the route from Zurich to Goeschenen, and sit next to a beautiful, fresh-faced grandmother for most of the one-hour and 40-minute journey.
She tells me how there's nowhere else you switch so frequently between hills, lakes, mountains and greenery when travelling. She lived in Paris for six years but used to dream about the green grass of Switzerland.
I agree wholeheartedly, as we pass hills dotted with colourful houses, seemingly belonging to a fairy-tale world.
I'm told to look out for the Baroque church in Wassen, which can be seen three times from different angles along our way, demonstrating how curving the rail routes are.
Usually, I associate transport with rush and stress, but in Switzerland, train journeys are calming and the engines barely make a sound. Travel isn't just about getting from A to B here; it's part of the adventure and an experience in itself.
Luckily I have my Swiss Travel Pass (from £154 for three days) which allows me unlimited travel on trains, boats and most buses across 75 towns and cities all over the country.
I take the opportunity to explore different routes from my base in Andermatt, quickly realising I don't need to be so stringent with my planning, as services are conveniently regular.
Traditionally a ski village, Andermatt is sleepy and quiet in the spring – although in July and August, it's full of mountain bikers, hikers and rock climbers.
Wanting to give my legs a stretch, I tackle the hour-long Shollenen circular hiking trail. I'm out of breath as I meander up and down the rocky path, and my head spins as I peer over the edge of a deep gorge with water rushing exuberantly below.
Later in the afternoon, I check out the dandelion-filled golf course walk, new for this season. The 8.4km stretch takes me around Andermatt's golf club, opened just a few weeks ago and bringing new interest to the village for locals and tourists alike.
There's lots of development taking place here - the new Chedi hotel is a high-end chalet-style block of apartments located next to the train station, which I find a good balance between modern and quaint.
But I get the impression local residents don't want to attract too many crowds. Right now, there's a real sense of community with inhabitants congregating nightly at their favourite pubs and bars.
On my final morning, while tucking into delicious cheese from the region, I share reflections from my weekend with a waitress at the Hotel Monopol-Metropol, where I've spent a relaxing three nights.
She tells me she loves how restful Andermatt is, but at some point, she will move back to a city because she "misses the sparkle" of city life.
I understand what she means, but as I gaze at the dusting of snow high on rocky peaks, I draw a different conclusion.
The mountains, lakes and valleys have their own special sparkle, which could easily keep me here for a few more days.
:: Danya Bazaraa was a guest of Ffestiniog Travel (www.ffestiniogtravel.com) who offer tailor-made holidays and escorted tours by rail to Switzerland, including Swiss Alps & Lakes. A nine-night escorted trip with B&B accommodation, all rail travel and first class Swiss Travel Pass costs from £1,655pp (two sharing), based on an October 5 departure.
:: For SWISS flight reservations, visit www.swiss.com.
:: For more information on Switzerland, visit www.MySwitzerland.com