Larry and family hone their skills at missing trains and discover central Switzerland.


Read the previous story, “Swiss Family Habegger: At the ‘Top of Europe.'”

The only Swiss train in the last decade to run late was the one we were on, the cogwheel from Grindelwald to Interlaken Ost. Our connection gave us exactly five minutes to catch our train to Luzern, and my watch showed we were five minutes late as we pulled into the station. Worse, everyone had fallen asleep and I had to wake them, try to collect all our bags both large and small, and make sure we got everything off the train. Luckily we knew that our train was on the adjacent platform so all we had to do was cross the short distance between tracks. I expected we’d have a minute or less to catch it; maybe we’d miss it altogether.

With Érne still asleep I had to get the stroller off the train first, set it up so we could put her in it, then jump back aboard to get the rest of the bags. The first part was easy, but then I had to push my way through the disembarking passengers to get to our luggage. After that I had to wait for the car to empty, and the hordes clustering to board jostled like horses in the starting gates. My only recourse was to force the largest suitcase onto the step to block everyone’s path, then yank the other two bags toward them, causing the crowd to shift enough to let me out before they pushed on. I flung the bags onto the platform, leapt off the train, grabbed the bags and, overburdened, crabbed toward my family now standing by our train across the platform. We did a quick count of parcels as we were climbing aboard, and miraculously got everything on a few seconds before the doors closed.

I collapsed in a seat, not really believing that we’d made it. When I looked at my watch I realized that the train had departed a few minutes late. Incredibly, the train had waited for the delayed cogwheel so we all could make our connection.

We settled in for the two-hour journey that skirted lakes and wound between mountains, passing fairy-tale villages tucked into the folds of hills. Green forests, silver lakes, lush pastures, towns with steeples poking toward the skies: the landscape mimicked every cliché of quaint Swiss scenery, but was more beautiful because it was real. The kids alternated between pressing their noses against the window to watch the lakes for swans, coloring in their books, or asking us to read to them.

Dark clouds rolled in over the mountains and rain spattered the windows. We pulled into Meiringen station just as the heavens opened. Passengers waiting on the platform were dry one moment and soaked the next. They scrambled aboard, laughing at their bad luck. Within seconds, hail the size of marbles rattled down in sheets, clattering on the train and bouncing off the ground like sprites. The girls had never seen hail and pressed their faces against the glass to ooh and ahh at another Swiss wonder.

The train waited a few minutes before departing, whether as scheduled or because of the hail we didn’t know. But the rest of the journey we sped through changing weather, skies dark and threatening, then bright with sunlight breaking through. As we rolled into Luzern the rain had diminished to a mist and by the time we stepped off the train great shafts of sunlight lit up the station.

When we got to our hotel, a highly recommended B&B called, simply, The Bed + Breakfast, it was raining again. Inside, the proprietor, 25-year-old Isabelle Holdener, welcomed us with a big smile and a cheerful friendliness that made us feel right at home. And that was appropriate, because her place felt like a home, a place that had seen generations come and go before it was converted into a B&B. It was an elegant old mansion, but not as old as it seemed, I was later to learn from Isabelle. The place had been built in 1923 and had belonged to her grandmother.

“I remember as a five-year-old,” she said, speaking to me but smiling at my five-year-old Alanna, “sliding down the stairs on my bottom. I played in this house all the time.”

Her grandmother had five daughters, and when she died, none of them wanted the house. But Isabelle had too many childhood memories caught up in it to let it go so easily, so she pushed her parents to buy it, vowing to turn it into a successful business. They agreed, and she’s now in her second season, open for the main tourist season from March through October.

The Bed + Breakfast nestles on a leafy lane just a block off the #1 bus line, a five-minute ride from the heart of the city or an easy, 15-minute walk. Isabelle and friends remodeled the place retaining its character but adding modern amenities and minimalist furnishings. The seven rooms, including a spacious attic, have high ceilings and polished parquet floors, and of course the house still has that broad staircase that Isabelle burnished with her behind as a child. We were happy to spread out in the attic with skylights and two big beds while grandfather Eugene had a single room downstairs.

Despite the wet weather we caught the bus into town for dinner, deciding on an Italian restaurant Isabelle had recommended in the old town on the river. All the outdoor tables were wet so we dined inside, in a back room that felt like a wine cellar, and I felt cheated that we couldn’t be outdoors with the river and the evening sky. By the time we were finished the clouds had broken up and the city was bathed in pinks and purples. We strolled along the river, the girls shouting when they spotted swans, and then we came upon a man on a bicycle whose trousers were soaked and sandals dripped. He’d been feeding the ducks, and when kicking an errant piece of bread into the river his sandal flew off, through the railing and into the water. Over the side he went to retrieve it, soaking himself to his thighs. The girls thought this was the most hilarious story they’d ever heard and laughed and laughed. He smiled, shook his head in wonder at his own stupidity, said good-bye and pedaled away.

The next day the rain was back, so instead of taking an excursion to the top of Mount Pilatus we took a bus to the Swiss Museum of Transport because we’d been told that it was great for all ages. It turned out to be much more than a transportation museum. It has a wing on the history of communications as well as a planetarium, IMAX theater, art gallery, remote control boats and trucks to operate, and a tethered balloon that rises almost 400 feet for views of the surrounding area.

We spent much of our time in the communications exhibit because Alanna was fascinated with the notion of secret codes. Just learning her alphabet, she saw in the exhibit that there are many ways to write the same word if you create codes, so she spent lots of time devising her own so she could write her name in secret.

The kids tried driving the remote-controlled trucks and were good at crashing them into walls, but they enjoyed it anyway. Later, when I had to do some work that required finding an email connection, the others stopped at the Picasso Museum in part because Alanna has been learning about the master artist and wanted to see his paintings.

I couldn’t access my email from the Bed + Breakfast because it has an ISDN system for all its phones. I couldn’t dial in through my computer, and I needed files that were on it. I called a contact at Luzern Tourism to see if they would let me use their phone lines and they said yes, so I stopped at the office near the train station where the middle-aged woman to whom I handed my card said, “Habegger. It’s a German name, isn’t it?”

I was surprised, somehow not expecting anyone to comment on my name even though occasionally I’d been thinking about it. “I’m hoping to find out,” I said. “I’m told that it’s a common name in Switzerland and I think it might be Swiss.”

We chatted a bit more, getting no closer to any real knowledge about my name, then she pointed me in the right direction to get my business done.

That evening the sun came out and we dined outdoors on the river. The girls would rather watch the swans than just about anything else, so they were happy even if they weren’t paying attention to their food. For Paula and me, it was the experience we were hoping for: a nice meal outside, with lots of people coming and going, beautiful evening, no stress, swans on the river, sunlight illuminating everything. It was moments like these that made all journeying worthwhile, quiet times of conviviality with loved ones in romantic, beautiful settings. It could be Paris, New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong, but it was Luzern and I felt happy and completely at home.

We fed the swans and coots, crossed the famous covered Chapel Bridge with its octagonal water tower, and admired the panels of 17th century paintings under the eaves. The bridge dates from about 1300 and is considered to be Europe’s oldest preserved wooden bridge. Along with the water tower, the bridge was part of the inner city fortifications for centuries.

We had only one more day in Luzern and we wanted to take the excursion up 7,000-foot Mount Pilatus, which begins with a 90-minute steamer ride across Lake Luzern, then a 40-minute cogwheel railway trip up the steepest railroad grade in the world (48 percent) to the summit, where there are two hotels, restaurants and cafes, numerous hiking trails, and, of course, stupendous views. To return you can do a circuit by taking a 30-minute cable-car down the back side of the mountain and catching a bus into the city.

The sky was cloudless when we woke. We checked out but left our bags to pick up later, and when we were settling our bill Isabelle said, “Your name, Habegger, is it German?”

The second time in as many days. I wondered if it wasn’t German after all.

“I don’t know, it’s either German or Swiss.”

“Hmm, I think it’s German.”

We both shrugged and smiled, and Isabelle came out from behind the counter to say good-bye to the girls, and then we were on our way. We had a pretty tight schedule, needing to catch a train that afternoon for Appenzell, the next stop on our Swiss tour, but it appeared we would have about an hour on the summit.

When we boarded the boat we discovered that the engine poked right through the floor in the middle of the deck for all to see, its chrome shafts and pistons gleaming as if polished at the end of every run. Alanna loved watching them push and turn. She alternated between sitting outside in the sunshine and running back in to watch the engine run. I find boat travel almost as appealing as train travel. Moving effortlessly across the water on a sunny day as villages pass and the sun reflects off the surface is as soothing to me as rolling through picturesque villages on a train. On a brilliant, sunny day, nothing is more enticing than water, and today was like that: perfect weather, calm water.

Paula is prone to seasickness so she usually sits quietly on trips like this, but she was fine today. We discovered, however, that Érne may be susceptible as well. She seemed out of sorts, quiet and not wanting to move from Paula’s arms for much of the crossing.

The boat acted as a ferry as well as an excursion ship. We put in to several villages along the way, the ticket seller leaving his kiosk every time we did to man the ropes and gangways, then dash back to sell tickets as soon as we pushed off, doing double duty. Eugene thought this was extraordinary.

“If this were Ireland there would be three people doing his job, and not doing it nearly as well.”

Most of the passengers were going with us to Pilatus and when we arrived Alpnachstad, where we’d catch the train, there was quite a crowd. But we all got aboard and sat back to be hoisted up the mountain.

And that’s what it felt like, climbing such a steep gradient. The cogwheel train chugged on, quickly leaving the lake behind and before long poking out of the forest above tree line to reveal alpine meadows and rugged mountainscapes. Burrowing through several tunnels we arrived too quickly at the top to discover that misty clouds were settling on the summit, and by the time we got out the views were obscured.

But that didn’t really matter. We wandered around in the cool mist, took pictures with a man blowing his 12-foot horn, ate sausages, and looked back down the mountain to the gorge up which we’d come.

The cable-car carried us back down the mountain into the sunshine, and after a five-minute stroll to the bus stop we were on our way to Appenzell. Eugene and I got off the bus at Eichoff Platz to pick up our luggage at the Bed + Breakfast while Paula and the girls continued on to the train station. Paula said she’d pick up some snacks for the journey at a shop across the street, and as Eugene and I were hurrying to get back and catch the next bus we realized that our time was tight. We saw the bus coming and had to run, dragging our luggage with us, but we caught it. We arrived at the train station with five minutes to spare, but Paula and the girls were nowhere in sight. When they finally arrived our five minutes were up, and as we dashed to the platform we found it empty. A worker told us that this was indeed the right platform for the train to Appenzell, “but it left one minute ago.”

That figured. The trains were on time and we weren’t. We had to wait an hour for the next one. When it finally came we were tired, but relieved to be on our way. The two-hour journey to Herisau took us through more of that picturesque landscape. The girls made up games to play, pretending the space between our facing seats was a river and our shoes were fish, and we arrived, as usual, with five minutes to catch our next train.

When we got off we followed the signs to what seemed to be the platform, with a small train waiting, but I got confused when none of the signs read “Appenzell.” Eugene was about to board when I said, “I don’t think this is our train.” I pointed to the signs, we all hesitated, and a moment later the train pulled out. Only then did I see “Appenzeller Bahnen” in huge letters on the side of the train, and my heart sank. I’d caused us to miss another train, two in the same day! Luckily the next one was scheduled to depart in 30 minutes.

More to come…

About Larry’s Corner:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on and on As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.