SWITZERLAND, July 15, 2017 — What do you get when you combine the convenience of a train with the aerial prowess of a cable car when wanting to climb seemingly inaccessible heights? The
The answer is a funicular which may just be the best-kept transportation secret in the world.
Not that funiculars are uncommon mind you. In fact they’re everywhere. Quebec City in Canada has a famous one. It’s just that many people get a blank expression on their face when you mention this unique form of travel. In a sense, funiculars are like mountain climbing on tracks.
In a sense, funiculars are like mountain climbing on tracks.
Historically, funiculars have been around since 1515 when Cardinal Mattaus Lang, the Archbishop of Salzburg, used the system to haul construction materials to access the Hohensalzburg Castle in Austria.
It wasn’t until the 1860s that modern funiculars began operating commercially with the opening of the Funiculars of Lyon in 1862.
Obviously, funiculars are most practical in mountainous destinations or places where the gradient for access is too steep for normal rail transportation. All of which makes Switzerland an ideal location for these odd looking machines to ascend and descend to new heights.
There is even a song dedicated to the opening of the first funicular on Mount Vesuvius in Naples, Italy.
Though you may not recognize the tune by its name, “Funiculi, Funicula,” it’s practically guaranteed that once you hear the music and the words you will immediately recall the 1880 tune written by Luigi Denza to commemorate the opening of the first funicular cable car on Mount Vesuvius. The song’s chorus translates to:
Let’s go, let’s go! To the top we’ll go!Let’s go, let’s go! To the top we’ll go!Funiculi, funicula, funiculi, funicula!To the top we’ll go, funiculi, funicula!
The key to funiculars lies in the first three letters of its name; “fun.” They come in all sizes and lengths and Switzerland has an abundance of these odd-shaped little vehicles to enjoy.
For starters, lets begin with the rollercoaster-esque Gelmarbahn in the canton (state) of Bern. the Gelmar funicular has the distinction of being the steepest funicular in Europe with a gradient of 106 percent. You read that right, 106 percent.
Constructed to carry heavy construction materials for the building of the Gelmar Dam, it seemed unwise to demolish the rail system upon completion of the project. Not to be deterred, the clever Swiss opened the line to tourists, and the rest is history.
Be warned, however, to reach the funicular, which runs for more than 3/5ths of a mile to a height of 6,102 feet above sea level, you must cross the Handeck suspension bridge which hangs some 230 feet above the Handeck Gorge.
In the case of the Gelmarbahn however, less adventurous travelers can reach the upper terminus at Handegg by car.
The Ritom funicular in the Ticino region of Switzerland is slightly less imposing to travelers with a gradient of 87.8 percent. Best of all the ride takes visitors to the breathtaking Piora Valley, one of the most untouched destinations in the canton.
Ideal for hiking and biking excursions, the Piora Valley funicular also showcases lush vegetation including a large variety of alpine wildflowers nestled within vast meadows and grazing cows and horses.
Funiculars are not always located in rural regions. They do have practical applications in cities as well. Take the short funicular to the top of the Zurichberg Hill for example. Back in the day, it was difficult for students to reach the polytechnic school, especially laden with books and papers.
The answer? A short funicular, of course, which was built in 1889 between the River Limmat and the school in Zurich. Today the funicular transports about 50 students every two minutes in both directions.
The city of Lausanne, which in itself is a rather vertical destination overlooking the Lake of Geneva, renovated their metro system to operate from the cathedral to the lake. Though technically not a true funicular, the system does scale the hillside in a way that allows travelers to avoid the serpentine routes to the top.
The smallest funicular in Switzerland may be reserved for the largest appetites. Traveling slightly less than 300 feet, the funicular runs from the promenade on the Lake of Lucerne to the 100-year old Hotel Montana and its excellent restaurant overlooking the lake.
In Lugano, the fastest most convenient method of getting to the city center is by riding the funicular that runs from the railway station to the heart of town in mere minutes.
Just look around. If you spot a place that seems out of reach, chances are the Swiss have figured out a way to get you there efficiently and in comfort. Overcoming the initial apprehension is up to you, of course, but it only takes one funicular adventure to make you a veteran.
All you really need is having the “inclination” to visit some of the most mesmerizing sites you can imagine.
In Switzerland that’s known as “basic training.”
About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.