Trains, boats and history unite on Switzerland’s William Tell Express

The William Tell Express, one of five classic rail journeys in Switzerland, is unique because it combines a cruise on Lake of Lucerne with rail travel through the Gotthard Pass.

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Castelgrande is one of three castles in Bellinzona on Switzerland's William Tell Express route. (Image via Wikipedia)

SWITZERLAND, July 11, 2015 – For more than six centuries the St. Gotthard Pass has been a primary link between northern and southern Europe connecting Switzerland with Italy. Initially used for commerce and trade, today the pass is also a major route for tourism.

The William Tell Express, one of five classic rail journeys in Switzerland, is unique because it combines a cruise on Lake of Lucerne with rail travel through the Gotthard Pass. The excursion through Swiss history now operates year-round between Lucerne and Bellinzona in the Ticino region of the country. From Bellinzona travelers usually go to the resort villages of Lugano or Locarno.

A three hour boat ride on the Lake of Lucerne is part of the William Tell Express experience  (wikipedia)
A three hour boat ride on the Lake of Lucerne is part of the William Tell Express experience (wikipedia)

Snuggled in a bowl guarded by majestic alpine peaks, Lucerne has long been a favorite destination for visitors. Every major city or village in Switzerland is located on a river or a lake or both, and Lucerne had the benefit of claiming both.

Lucerne’s frescoe covered buildings surround cobblestoned squares filled with quaint, elegant shops tucked behind the shores of the River Reuss. It is also a gateway to several mountaintop excursions such as the Rigi, Pilatus and Titlis, and it is the cradle of the Swiss Confederation where the legendary William Tell unified the country.


As a result, this historic region, where boats and delightful old-fashioned paddle steamers ply the waters of the lake, is as popular for the Swiss as it is for visitors. Lake Lucerne gently laps upon the shores of several other villages that are as historic as they are picturesque; Vitznau, Weggis, Gersau, Brunnen, Altdorf and Burgenstock to name a few.

Many Swiss travelers disembark at Rutli Meadow where the three original Swiss cantons (states) of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden took an oath of unification that formed the country over 720 years ago.

The boat docks at Rutli Meadow where Switzerland was founded  (myswitzerland.com)
The boat docks at Rutli Meadow where Switzerland was founded (myswitzerland.com)

The two and a half hour boat ride, which comprises the first portion of the William Tell Express, offers a delicious traditional Swiss meal as you sail past lush pastures, romantic chalets, forested hills and breathtaking mountain peaks. Commentary in several languages explains important Swiss landmarks as well as the story of William Tell and how he became the Swiss national hero.

When the boat docks at Fluelen, the rail journey begins. Trains and boats are synchronized so there is virtually no waiting during the transition from water to rail. The paddle steamer pier is only 75 to 100 yards from the tracks where a panoramic train follows the River Reuss through mountains, cliffs, ravines and tunnels over the Alps toward the perpetual sunshine of the south.

Regardless of the weather in Lucerne, which is frequently cloudy and rainy, there’s always the promise of sun and warmer weather when the train emerges from the Gotthard in Ticino.

The St Gotthard Pass used to be difficult to navigate  (wikipedia)
The St Gotthard Pass used to be difficult to navigate (wikipedia)

An engineering masterpiece, the ride through the pass offers a series of spiral and horseshoe tunnels, switchbacks and impressive galleries concluding in Goschenen. Here the train bursts forth into the Leventina Valley filled with impressive waterfalls, cantilevered bridges and rural countryside.

The train stops in Bellinzona where passengers can opt for travel onward to Lugano on the Lake of Lugano or Locarno on Lake Maggiore. Time permitting however, Bellinzona is worth a visit with three levels of castles that are linked by a massive connecting wall.

One of the highlights of the rail journey occurs shortly after the train leaves Fluelen. As it gradually rises high into the Gotthard passengers get a view of the Chapel of Wassen which has been a landmark since the opening of the railway.

William Tell mosaic in Zurich tells about the founding of Switzerland  (myswitzerland.com)
William Tell mosaic in Zurich tells about the founding of Switzerland (myswitzerland.com)

What makes the chapel so famous today is how it is viewed from the railway. The train bores through two helical tunnels along a serpentine path through mountainous rock that conquers the dramatic rise in elevation without the need for racks or cogs. For passengers, the church serves as a guides as the train alternates periodically between light and dark.

From Fluelen, riders first see the chapel from below. Dwarfed by the vertical magnitude of the surrounding mountains, the church and village appear miniaturized as if they are nestled in some elaborate model railroad layout.

Soon, the train emerges from a tunnel of darkness to an eye-level scene of Wassen and its chapel that have been magically transformed into a life-size village. Located upon a plateau that appears to be wedged between the mountains, Wassen was an important staging area for centuries for travelers going through the pass.

The final sighting of the Chapel of Wassen comes from above where it reappears in a smaller form. Three views from three different elevations. The tiny church in Wassen is a testament to the civil engineering miracle of the railway through the St. Gotthard Pass.

For those who don’t wish to use the William Tell’s panoramic rail cars and paddle wheel steamer, the Swiss Federal Railways have regular rail and boat services along the entire route which can be used at no additional cost with a Swiss Rail Pass.

The three castles of Bellinzona are all connected  (swissimage.ch)
The three castles of Bellinzona are all connected (swissimage.ch)

Ticket prices vary according to season, but a one-way adult fare in Comfort Class has a top price of about $160 while Economy Class is under $110. Tickets can be purchased on-line prior to departure at MySwitzerland.com or RailEurope.com. Or, if you are a more serendipitous traveler, you can buy tickets at any railway station in Switzerland or at the boat pier in Lucerne.

It’s all part of the Swiss Travel System where travelers make the scene while Mother Nature creates the scenery.

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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.

Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

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