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Wilhelm Tell Express

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The Wilhelm Tell Express itinerary starts in Lucerne or in Locarno, depending on whether you've chosen a southbound or northbound departure. In this article, we'll begin at Lucerne with a morning departure on a vintage paddlewheel steamer of the Schifffahrtsgesellschaft Vierwaldstättersee or SGV, a.k.a. the Lake Lucerne Navigation Company.

The boat's landing stage is just outside the Lucerne railroad station, which faces the Vierwaldstättersee (Lake of the Four Forest Cantons, also known as Lake Lucerne). This is the same place where boats leave for Mt. Pilatus and other points along the lake, so make sure you're boarding the correct boat.


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As the boat departs Lucerne, you'll get a panoramic view of the city's waterfront--including the twin steeples of the Hofkirche, a church with a fine organ of 5,945 pipes that has registers dating back to 1648.


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After a quick stop at the Lido (next to the Swiss Transportation Museum), the boat heads out into the dramatic Vierwaldst├Ąttersee, with views of mountains, green fields, and villages in all directions.


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The boat heads toward the looming Alps in the east, where you'll transfer to the Gotthard train at Flüelen. (The lake portion of the Wilhelm Tell Express route takes just under three hours.)


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In good weather, you can sit on the open deck to enjoy the views. (Your Wilhelm Tell Express ticket includes first-class transportation on the boat, so take the interior staircase to the upper deck after boarding.)


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photoThe Wilhelm Tell Express has two departures daily in each direction. We took the morning. departure from Lucerne, which included transportation aboard a restored steam paddleboat, the Stadt Luzern. (The Stadt Luzern is the youngest and largest of the SGV's five paddlewheelers; it's also the line's flagship.)


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Brunnen is the last stop on the Lake of the Four Forest Cantons; in a few minutes, the boat will turn and head south into Lake Uri, a narrow fjord-like lake that's hemmed in by mountains and cliffs.


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One of the more dramatic sights along this stretch of water is the Schiller Stone, across from Brunnen on the Lake Uri (just around the corner after the boat has turned south and entered the Urisee from the Vierwaldstättersee).

The monolith is dedicated to Friedrich von Schiller. The German poet and playwright wrote a play about Wilhelm Tell, Switzerland's national hero, that has helped to perpetuate the legend of the man who shot an apple off his son's head and later killed the Austrian tyrant who had ordered him to perform the deed.

The inscription on the Schiller Stone reads (in German):

To him who sang Tell's glory, F. Schiller.
        -- The Original Cantons 1859


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After leaving the Schiller Stone behind, the paddlewheeler heads south into Lake Uri toward Fl├╝elen.


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Flüelen, near the southern tip of Lake Uri, is the end of the line for the vintage steamer. Here, you leave the boat and walk a short distance from the landing stage to the railway station.


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The Wilhelm Tell Express train waits in the Flüelen SBB station. The train has both "Panorama" cars with curved windows for better views and the new, state-of-the-art "Pangottardo" cars (see next page).


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The Pangottardo cars are either wonderful or weird, depending on your fondness for technological whimsy. As the train wends its way through the Gotthard Pass, the servo-controlled seats automatically pivot to face south at every curve.

If you get tired of rotating with the compass, you can disable the automatic pivot mechanism. This works best on the single-seat side of the aisle; if you're in a double seat, you and your seatmate will need to discuss the question of whether to pivot or stay put.


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Other features of the Pangottardo cars include a multilingual audioguide at each seat and flat-screen monitors (shown cropped in the second photo above) that show historic video clips and other information.


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From any seat in the train, you'll get plenty of scenic views on the way from Lake Uri to the end of the line in the Italian-speaking canton on Ticino. Here, the train has left the Gotthard Tunnel on the southern side of the Alps and is on its way to Bellinzona.


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The train stops in Bellinzona before continuing on to Locarno, on Lake Maggiore. Passengers bound for Ticino's largest city, Lugano, change trains in Bellinzona.

Bellinzona, the capital of Ticino, is a town with 18,000 inhabitants, three castles, a thousand-year history, and a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Note: If you're riding the train all the way to Locarno, be sure to read our article on Locarno's spectacular Cardada cable car.

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