It’s official: Switzerland is the world’s happiest country. Deservedly smug, the country has just topped the well-regarded World Happiness Report. I’m curious to find out why, taking a scenic rail route around some of the crassest cliches.
Switzerland is the perfect shunting-shed for jaded urbanites. My whistle-stop rail tour takes in Lake Maggiore, Interlaken and the lofty Jungfrau peak, `the top of Europe.’ I hanker after cowbells and cogwheel railways, chocolate mountains and cloying fondue. I don’t want trains that run like clockwork. I want the full model railway - with kitsch cowbells coated in Lindt chocolate.
Swiss trains promise slick service, chocolate-box scenery – and a high happiness quotient. With the shortest working week in Europe, the Swiss have plenty of time to indulge in scenic rail journeys like mine. Local lore has it that the pursuit of happiness flourishes at high altitude, where the peaks are tamed by clean-living Swiss skiers and hikers. Resolutely trim, the Swiss have the lowest obesity rate in Europe, despite the tempting cheese and chocolate mountains. Presumably, the Swiss are also masters of restraint. The Swiss model is moneyed, multilingual, democratic and localised, supported by superb healthcare and education. As a recipe for happiness, that’s far too formulaic.
I love the romance of Swiss trains, the sense of time hurtling backwards into a lost era. No country feels more like a lost childhood than Switzerland. It’s Thomas the Tank Engine for grown-ups. It’s full steam back to a kinder age. Welcome to folksy conductors, friendly officialdom and funky chocolate. That’s unless you’re caught currency-smuggling at the Swiss-Italian border - in which case, forget hot chocolate for tea, though that’s probably served in Swiss prison cells too.
Unburdened by illicit loot, I’m on a mission to regress - to steam back to the happy Swiss childhood I never had. It’s farewell to London’s hot lists and hit lists. From now on, it’s kitsch lists and cute lists. My Turin train sweeps past Lake Maggiore, passing sluggish steamers and snow-clad peaks. Steep valleys signal Domodossola, the gateway to Switzerland. Beyond is an Alpine montage straight out of Heidi. Cosy chalets, neat woodpiles and turquoise lakes – only the doe-eyed cows are missing. I suspect they’re indoors, munching the Lindt they made earlier. Heidi herself I meet in Interlaken. Repeatedly. Heidi clones come with the territory – an Alpine milkmaid even checks me into my hotel.
I love the romance of Swiss trains, the sense of time hurtling backwards into a lost era. No country feels more like a lost childhood than Switzerland.
Interlaken is a sedate resort that’s been sedately fashionable since bustle dresses were first in vogue. On these shores, the uptight Victorians loosened a few buttons and launched a Grand Tour that still colours our expectations of Switzerland. Tucked between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, the resort is dominated by the snow-clad Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau peaks. Victorian-style promenading lives on in the Swiss Riviera, from stirring Lake Brienz to the vineyards and palm trees around Lake Thun.
The Dopamine Barometer
There’s no escaping chocolate as a barometer of Swiss happiness. A messy chocolate-making session in the Funky Chocolate Club is an initiation into Swiss pleasure. As we drip our designs into shape, dollops of banana-scented sludge are spilt over our partners in crime. “Chocolate feeds the dopamine in your brain – it literally makes you feel happier,” enthuses our chocolate-master.
Time for some funky chocolate facts. The Swiss live in the world’s wealthiest country and are the world's largest consumers of chocolate. Does chocolate make for wealth and well-being? Or does it just make you fat? That might depend on your nationality. The British are second only to the Swiss in their chocolate consumption. That’s twelve kilos a year. Look at us. I rest my case.
But does funky chocolate make you fat? Not if you live like the Swiss. Clean-living Remo Käser of Interlaken tourism is a model of Swiss rectitude: “I usually don’t go out in the evenings as I have to cycle home and get up so early.” What about that sweet farmyard odour that wafts over town? The farmer spreads manure over the parks most mornings. “Yes,” admits Remo, with a sheepish grin, “when I leave Interlaken, people do say I smell of manure a bit.” After a while, you barely notice it. Along with the chocolate and the fondue, it’s all part of the rich tapestry of Alpine life. Something clearly works. Swiss citizens have the second-highest life expectancy in the world.
‘The Top of Europe’
Like chocolate, Swiss rail trips are best devoured in bite-sized chunks. But I make an exception for Jungfraujoch, that once-in-a-lifetime trip to the highest railway station in Europe. It’s a day-long, six-train marathon but feels more like a gentle chug around a geriatric model railway.
Kleine Scheidegg is classic Switzerland-for-beginners, with cable-cars criss-crossing the valleys. Set at the foot of the Eiger north wall, the resort is the watershed between two valleys. Dodging chatty skiers, we clamber onto the quaint cogwheel railway to reach the `Top of Europe.’ We tunnel through the Eiger and Mönch mountains to Jungfraujoch, Europe's highest-altitude railway station. Created in 1912, this engineering marvel surmounts steep gradients and traverses long tunnels to reach an altitude of 3,454 metres. En route, we stop briefly at the stations of Eigerwand (Eiger Wall) and Eismeer (Sea of Ice) to marvel at the mountain glacier.
We are unleashed, blinking, into the mountaintop white-out on a glittering winter’s day. On the panoramic terrace above the cloud line, a sea of selfie-snappers crunches over the snow. Although romantic solitude has been sacrificed to accessibility, Jungfraujoch is no Disneyland. From the top unfurls an unimpeded view of the 22-kilometre Aletsch glacier, billed as Europe’s longest. The icy scenery is real, with the pristine peak undiminished by the trappings of tourism. The mountaintop is also home to a scientific research station which is investigating glaciation and global warming.
On the way home, it’s free chocolate all round, courtesy of our chatty ticket-inspector. The rail route back to Interlaken takes in sunny Grindelwald and views of the Eiger north face. I gaze out of the window, lulled by the soporific scenery. Regimented Swiss lives stretch out like railway tracks. The sense of natural order feels preordained. Pensioners pass their time stacking perfectly-formed woodpiles. Clean-cut citizens whizz down ski slopes to the closest cheese-refuelling station. It must be a civic duty to refuel on cholesterol-rich cheese-fests of fondue, rosti or raclette.
Then, presumably, it’s early bedtimes all round and back to banking or rebuilding the woodpile. In a world of uncertainty, we should give thanks for Swiss precision. They take their happiness seriously.
Not that they are mere cogs in the machine. I drift off, safe in the knowledge that a kind stranger will wake me somewhere – and that no one will steal my chocolate while I sleep. That’s far more than you could hope for in London. Surely that sense of safety is worth something on the Happiness Index?
After so much dopamine, I feel duty-bound to look at the downsides of the Swiss model. A bohemian artist I meet admits that Swiss society can be prescriptive, bureaucratic and boring, with military service in the wings and covert racism in rural areas. But a sense of ease still underpins life.
Albert Schweizer was wrong when he said: “Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” My bespoke Swiss rail trip has been a pleasurable ride back in time. As I head home, back to adulthood, the folksy memories may be fading but my childish delight in Switzerland remains. As Tom Waits sings: “Memory's like a train - you can see it getting smaller as it pulls away.”
An East End food safari turns into a story of London immigration, a tale mostly told through street food. If this is `hanging out in the hood’, I’m all for it. Faux gangsterism aside, the journey from East End boozers to bagels and baltis is compelling food history.
How Swiss is Geneva? This sophisticated, French-speaking city seems at odds with much of Swiss-German Switzerland. Geneva has French brasseries aplenty and shuns country bumpkins. Is the city too earnest for its own good or is there a subversive streak in there somewhere?