By Rick Sallinger
You know the story, the country is under siege by a cruel outside ruler who puts a man to a test that no reality show has ever tried to top: shoot an apple off the head of your son or face the consequences. Whether the story of William Tell is pure legend or fact is still debated, but the spectacular countryside for this story is explorable by a ticket named after guess who?
The Tell Pass comes in different lengths and allows unlimited or half fare travel for a specific number of days. I decided to see if I could get the most for my money even if it drove me to the point of exhilarating exhaustion.
So here goes … for about $200 I purchased the pass allowing two days of unlimited train, boat, bus, cog railway, and gondola traffic through central Switzerland. I arrived with in the afternoon so started by using it for a half fare trip. Arriving at Zurich airport I plunked down my francs (worth around $1 each)to buy the pass at the train station downstairs. First task to get to Lucerne. The Tell pass is valid begining at Baar so I bought a full fare ticket to there then half price for the beautiful ride to Lucerne, my base.
Ok..where to go with just half a day? The answer, Engelberg. With a SBB (Swiss rail) app on my phone schedules were just a click a way. The train ride was a jaw dropping 50 minutes through classic Swiss meadowed mountain scenery. The half price fare was about $7 each way. Instead of grabbing a cable car to the top of one of the mountains I chose to hike along a glacial stream, visit an old abbey and pick up a brat after stumbling upon the celebration of Switizerland’s version of the Fourth of July.
Day two…with so much to cover in so little time I decided to divide my trip into south of Lucerne for this day..tomorrow to the north. How far can I go? Well, Interlaken is the most distant point the pass is valid, but I wanted to go just beyond into the Bernese Oberland to visit Lauterbrunnen. I had been there before and wanted badly to return to do what has got to be one of the most spectacular easy hikes in the world. No problem, just $14 extra. The air conditioned ride from Lucerne took me past Lungren, a town that had me glued to the window. The air conditioned second class car felt like first class with soft seats and huge picture windows. Switching to a narrow gauge train at Interlaken it took me to the place that was even more beautiful than I had remembered. I walked past several of the thundering waterfalls that frame the valley. The snowcapped Jungfrau and Eiger mountain peaks loomed just ahead as the finale of this picture postcard view.
The day was not over and there was more territory to conquer. I hopped back on the trains for the two hour ride towards Lucerne, but stopped just short at Alpnachstad. There it was just a matter of steps to the world’s steepest cog railway trip to the top of Mount Pilatus. The skies were clear blue and view unlimited as the little red cars slowly climbed the mountainside. At the top are two hotels and viewpoints that provide a stunning view of Lake Lucerne and beyond. Perched just below me was a tiny church which seemed to be hanging on the side of the cliff. Off to one side a man with a bright yellow hang glider ran, caught a breeze and flew off into a maze of cliffs took my breath away, if not his. It was just about sunset as I grabbed the last train down and back to Lucerne. I figure my day’s tickets were would have cost about $164 at full fare, but all I had to do was show my Tell pass.
The next day began on the water. Now this was not just any ship I boarded on the trip across Lake Lucerne, it was on a paddle steamer. Like riding the trains, not all people are equal. Upstairs is first class, downstairs for the rest. Separate dining rooms also add to the distinction. My first destination was Weggis, a stately old town with palm trees along the shore. Here I walked uphill to the cable car. It’s one of those where you’re jammed standing in a large gondola as it whisks you to the top. In this case it was actually the midpoint of Mt. Rigi. I got off at Rigi Kaltbad which features a mineral bath and spa. There are nice hikes with fantastic views of the lake below. Somewhere along one of those trails you may find my glasses that I lost. I put them down to take a photo of the cows with their large but melodic bells.
The cog railway from Vitznau provided the next leg to the summit of Rigi. This was the first mountain rack railway in Europe. The view along the steep climb gets better with the elevation, but then what do you do at the top? The summit was packed with tourists and there are a number of ways to get away from them. One way down takes you to Arth-Goldau, the other back to the lake and Vitznau. With one more stop in Kaltbad to search for my glasses I was back at sea level waiting for the next paddle steamer. I flashed my Tell pass and I was off on a wonderful cruise of the lake. The mountains with their meadows provide a strong temptation to abandon ship and explore with each stop, but it seems there’s never enough time for everything. On this mini voyage the story of William Tell seemed to come to life. There was the Rutli, the meadow where the Swiss Confederation was formed, on the left Tellskappel, a chapel noting the spot where Tell is said to have jumped from the boat to escape his captors. The final stop is actually on Lake Uri at Fluelen. Here a bus provides the short hop to Altdorf where the legend’s key moment is marked. There is a giant memorial to William Tell with crossbow in hand standing by his son. As the story goes he pulled two arrows from his quiver on that fateful day. When Gessler, the tyrant of Hapsburg Austria asked why two arrows Tell replied, “One to shoot the apple off my son’s head, the other, if I missed was for you!”
The Tell Pass is one of many passes that provide for reduced fare transportation in Switzerland. It is available for about $200 for two days free travel with five more days at half fare in second class. A 15 day pass which includes five days of free travel with the rest at half fare is around $250 for second class. Both are available at train stations, ship docks, and tourist information offices in Switzerland.