Rigi: Heart of Switzerland

Emily Mawson, 12 December, 2017
Emily Mawson follows in some very royal footsteps as she journeys up the 'Queen of the Mountains'.

The train snakes skywards along rails flanked by sweeping mountain vistas. I say rails, but the iron tracks have almost disappeared beneath snow as voluptuous as white sauce on Christmas pudding, so it looks like the carriages are floating. Beyond the heaped mounds on either side, stooping frosty firs resemble Lowry figures.

It’s early December and I’m in central Switzerland journeying up Mount Rigi, an iconic hulk of rock 1,798 metres tall. There’s been a recent dump of snow. But whatever the weather the setting is unfailingly beautiful. It conjures up cosy Alpine scenes from Christmas cards: watery blue summits soaring above sleepy hamlets.

Early this morning I left central Lucerne by paddle steamer and glided across the city’s eponymous lake to Vitznau on the eastern shore at the foot of Rigi. There, I boarded Europe’s oldest cogwheel mountain railway for the thirty-minute journey up to the summit at Rigi-Kulm.

The railway opened in 1871, when the so-called ‘Queen of the Mountains’ was a must-see for the Grand Tour-going Victorians. They would ascend, sleep at the summit hotel and wake to watch the sunrise. Not that a lack of railway stopped them getting up Rigi earlier in the century, however.

In 1868, Queen Victoria was carried to the summit in a Sedan chair. Yorkshire lass Jemima Morrell summited the mountain even earlier, when she was on one of Thomas Cook’s first tours to Switzerland in 1863. She ascended on foot, but I’m rather glad of the railway – the mountain is steep, with the rail tracks at a maximum gradient of 25 per cent.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so: the train is full, and I’m bundled between folk wrapped in layers of cold-weather gear and chattering excitedly as the landscape rattles past. There’s a sense of anticipation in the air, and every time the trees permit a glimpse of the scenery a collective gasp goes up.

As far as pre-Christmas weekends go, this one ticks a lot of boxes. I’d hoped it would get me into the festive spirit – and it’s more than working. Yesterday evening, Lucerne’s Christmas Market featured lamplit wooden stalls illuminated between Renaissance façades. I warmed up with Chügelipastete, a local speciality comprising puffed pastry, veal, mushrooms and cream, washed down with mulled wine. Later, I came across a stall selling freshly made pear bread, and couldn’t resist. Perhaps I should have walked up Rigi after all…

Now the train is on the final approach, and I lean to peer out of the window, eager for my first glimpses of the 360-degree views that the promotional literature promised. The train doors open and its passengers pile out, our breath immediately collecting on the air.

It’s easy to see why the Victorians loved it up here so much. I can’t think of a view to better it. From the Alpine bulk on the horizon, where jagged spires rise and fall like the spines of a hedgehog, the altitude tumbles away, unravelling far below into the Swiss lowlands, an icy collage of lakes, meadows and hamlets.

Contrasting the serenity of the scenery, it’s all go at the summit. There are myriad activities on offer – from snowshoe trekking to sledging – and I watch as a party from the train position their sledges at the top of one of the runs and push off, squealing excitedly.

It looks like fun, but I can’t think of anything I’d like to do more than just be. I’ve heard that sunbathing is the winter activity on Rigi, and that sounds like just the thing. As the train trundles back into the woods to start its descent, I take a deckchair, lie back and look up. Birds are ducking and diving on the current, there isn’t a cloud in the sky. Who knew winter could be this good?

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