The number 61 bus from Annemasse Gare to Geneve Cornavin seems to pass as one of the longest short journeys around. I don’t know what it is about it…perhaps the trundle through France, with its oil-stained Renault workshops and flashing green pharmacie signs? Or maybe the sombreness of being beneath a Leman gloom cloud, omnipresent in early November? Though a seamless (at least then) border crossing sweeps you into a more sanitised array of Swiss shops and streets, the rattling and bending and last-gasp stopping continues apace. Stylishness and affluence glides in, bag ladies and yoof dribble out. No-one, ever, stands up for anybody else, achieved (for those rare species without tablets and phones) through an accomplished display of middle-distance gazing, looking at nothing or no-one in particular.
The journey only takes forty minutes or so, which is considerably longer than the one hour, thirty six minutes and forty nine seconds it took me to travel almost all of the Piccadilly line (from Oakwood) to Heathrow, which in itself was longer than the flight duration from London to Geneva. But this bus feels the longest trip of the lot, and it is with relief and excitement that you find yourself at the virtual terminus of the Swiss railway network (not to mention round the corner from Manor).
Looking for something to do – for lake cloud to escape and bendy buses to flee – I availed myself of a Lake Geneva – Alps Regional Pass. It took some finding, for there is nothing the Swiss seem to like more (well, apart from chocolate, cheese, and referenda) than a convoluted array of rail passes, network zones and travel conditions, all in French, German, English and occasional Italian. I could get a Swiss Card for a half-priced fare, or a one-day whole-of-SBBCFFFFS roamer, or a Zug Snausserhorn Goldenpass or maybe a Cloud Cuckooclockland permit, with 70% discount on VIP chocolate train seats instead? What is certain is that no Swiss person will ever pay a full fare and that – despite such ticketing intricacies – the trains will still run like a well-worn cliché involving clock mechanisms.
It’s not just the timeliness of the trains, but the efficiency of connections, something which never fails to evoke wonder amongst travellers bred on a discombobulated British rail system or faced with a practically non-existent Australian one. Connections to other cantons and cities and major towns, but also to tiny villages, hay sheds and pieces of rock in the middle of nowhere. Like Montreux – upon glittering Leman shores – to Rochers de Naye, some two thousand metres in the sky.
Lake cloud which started to fragment in Lausanne had virtually evaporated by the time I reached Montreux, for my seven minute transfer to platform 10 and the Rochers de Naye train. Departing exactly at 09:47 as planned, the two cogwheel carriages made no bones about it and immediately veered sharply upwards, through a tunnel and out onto sun-filled plateaus coated with luminous autumn foliage and expensive views.
Riviera homes for bankers, third rate Swiss pop stars and dairy farmers alike slowly passed by, and occasional stops in the middle of nowhere allowed regulars to jump off to reach their hidden retreat in the woods. While some stations resembled the genuine thing sited in proper villages, other stops were little more than a plank of wood or a metal gate. Here, the train would briefly pause on a 50% gradient, before rolling a tad backwards in a disconcerting motion accompanied by a grinding shriek of metal on metal. You could almost smell the sparks as Sepp hopped off and waved a cheery goodbye to Michel, brown envelope in hand, as though this was the most normal thing in the world.
With altitude the ‘suburban’ stops fade and only walkers and the curious remain at this time of the year. Many of the walkers disembark at the Col de Jaman to walk up the nearby bulbous lump that is the Dent de Jaman. The curious – such as I – stay seated, dedicated to reaching their highs the easier way.
One final climb through a pitch black tunnel makes the dazzle of reasonably fresh snow all the more blinding. Such is the drama of the journey, the top station is a touch underwhelming. A few views are spoiled by ski infrastructure, while building work distracts from an overpriced and bitter coffee in the cafe. A couple of goats offer mild amusement but the jardin alpin is closed for the season. Fortunately there is a higher viewpoint from here, up a short series of switchbacks, from which Switzerland – and France – is on view.
And what a view. A long way down, Lake Geneva cuts a swathe like a bloated boomerang westwards. Beyond lumpy outcrops and hills forested dark green and charred red, the lakeside towns – Montreux, Vevey, Lausanne and others – portray one elongated urban jungle. Occasional tower blocks, cranes, churches, chateaus can be picked out, while the curvature of the rail line up from there resembles some kind of herculean bobsleigh run. The alternate side of the lake sits hazily desolate, hemmed in by the pile of Haute Savoie dents, cols and monts. On the horizon, the thin line of the Jura hovers above the remaining cloud, still seemingly enveloping Geneva.
And that is just the westward view. In all other directions, a sweeping panorama of snow-capped peaks and plunging valleys reaches out into the distance. The behemoths of the Bernese Oberland pierce the sky, pointed and rutted and sharpened and sculpted. Pillars of rock – too precipitous to catch the snow – endure; like resistant teeth in a seven year old’s mouth. This raggedy snowline fades into darkly forested slopes and meadows tinged brown by the passing summer.
There is still warmth in those upland valleys, a sun-trap that allows for wearing of T-shirts, particularly when walking uphill. Keen to take advantage of this unexpected vestige of a rapidly fading summer, I embarked on a circular walk pieced together with my Rochers de Naye leaflet and snatches of online maps for crucial moments of decision and misdirection.
Following a ridge gradually down from the viewpoint, I reached a junction: one way back through a small valley to the top station, or another down alongside a rock face to the Col de Jaman. Somewhere within this hulk of rock the train burrows through, while humans have to inch their way around on slate ledges and avalanche rubble. The route understandably prefaced with warnings involving sturdy footwear, slipperiness, and crumbling pieces of mountain made it an easy decision: lunch on a sunny patch of grass with a spectacular view, before heading back up the valley.
Thus it was that I found myself down to a T-shirt (and trousers!) while walking through snow. The snow had obviously thinned as the day had progressed, but remained thick enough to obscure the last part of the trail up to the top station. Warm, slightly breathless, low on water…I could see the appeal of taking the train now, which again emerged out of its tunnel to taunt me. It was heading down, and – after safely completing my walk – I was to join it.
I could have plunged all the way back down to lake level but – determined to make the most of this wonderful weather (not to mention my expertly discovered rail pass) – I paused at the Col de Jaman station. Walkers were still setting off to conquer the lump nearby and close up it didn’t seem too bad. Switchbacks yes, but nothing that would cause undue alarm for someone with sturdy footwear and good heart. Maybe on another day, but today I was content to bathe in the sunshine accompanied by the remainder of my giant Raclette pretzel bought from the kings of Cornavin.
My final stop on the way down was somewhat spontaneous and turned rather fortuitous. I had made a note of Glion on the way up, purely because of the splendid views down to the lake and across to surrounding mountains, sweeping their way into the Valais. The foliage too – on this lower south facing terrace – was something to cherish in the eruption of autumn. Through the leaves and branches, glimpses of glassy water would emerge, encircled by the mountains rising upwards through the valley haze.
The outlook was so alluring, the late afternoon light so enchanting, that I set off walking and carried on without really knowing where I was going. I assumed – given the gentle downward gradient of the lane I followed – that I would end up somewhere by the lake, from which an efficient and comfortable Swiss train would be waiting. Few cars bothered me, while occasional grand houses and health retreats sprung up on the slopes between the trees. At a kink in the road, passing two farmhouses, the view again opened out to reveal the colourful wooded hillsides tumbling down towards the lake, with a hint of winter looming upon the distant Dents du Midi.
For all the fun of the train I was glad to complete this final part of the descent on foot, each turn revealing a looming mountain, glimpse of water or avenue of bronze. Merrily marching, time whizzed by and before long I did indeed reach the outskirts of Montreux, a feat achieved more through instinct than design. A long straight balcony of a road continued to descend, each house and villa passed with a tinge of envy and click of a camera. A churchyard offered one final panorama as the sun started to graze the tops of the peaks to the southwest before dipping beyond. In such a setting, even I might be tempted to attend Sunday service here.
No doubt if I had stayed on the train descending all the way to Montreux I would have had such a simple and effective connection that I would be back in Geneva by now. Instead, arriving at the station on foot I managed to miss a train by a matter of minutes. The next was a whopping forty-five minutes away, an incredulous amount of time given Swiss standards. However, despite gathering weariness that comes with a 5:30am start and a ride on the 61 bus, I inched on down to the lake shore, feeling fortunate in the end to have missed that train…
Such was the beauty of the day, the charm of the late afternoon, the ambience of the evening as the last light faded I was tempted to stay for some dinner and catch a late train back. Perhaps if I did I would not have had to – shockingly –stand in the vestibule of a railway carriage, at least until Vevey. It turns out (relative) congestion sometimes exists in Switzerland too.*
No such problems back in Geneva, with a seat on the 61 to push through the darkness and over into France, eventually. Some of the people – enduring a long, hard day of low-taxing money making – were quite probably on the same bus as me this morning, staring absently into the middle distance. Their laborious daily commute was my stroke of fortune, a crucial cog taking me to the top of a mountain and back. An unappreciated, maligned link in a great continental railway – and now bus – journey.
* I should add, trains can run late as well. On another journey of mine the train was once running four minutes late departing Lausanne. The conductor was beside himself with contrition and pleaded to the gods that this had not caused any inconvenience to anyone whatsoever.