|SWITZERLAND- July 2002|
Our trip to Switzerland in July 2002 was to join a Caravan Club Rally organised by the Buckinghamshire Centre.
The site chosen for this event was Camping Lazy Rancho, Unterseen, Interlaken where
we stayed for 13 nights. Prior to booking this trip we researched the
area and its attractions with regard to facilities for wheelchair users. Using the Internet, we contacted the
Interlaken Tourist Office and some of
the key operators of trips we wanted to undertake. Highlighted text on this page will take you to some of these. The Tourist office sent us a
number of standard brochures and a guide for the handicapped.
Unfortunately the guide is only available in German but with the help of a dictionary and responses from operators, wheelchair facilities looked
promising and we went ahead with the booking. We were not disappointed and thoroughly enjoyed our visit to this stunningly beautiful area
Although Interlaken is only 542 miles from Calais we took our time over the journey and stopped 3 nights on the way down through France and Germany. We returned by roughly the same route taking 5 nights and spending time to travel most of the Route du Vin in Alsace and to visit two of the great battlefields of World War 1, the Somme and Vimy Ridge near Arras. Our views regarding these visits can be found on our web pages about France.
Switzerland can be an expensive country to visit, we estimated the cost of living to be about one third higher than in the U.K. Public transport, especially cable car rides to mountain tops, is extraordinary expensive and there are no fare concessions for wheelchair users. Fortunately a variety of passes are available which entitle the bearer to significant reductions. On the recommendation of the Rally Organisers we opted to buy a 15 day Berner Oberland Regional Pass at a cost of £90 each. Even for a wheelchair user this was well worth it because, within the 15 days, it gave 5 free days unlimited travel on the majority of routes on days of your choice and 50 percent discount on the other 10 days. Interlaken is a major hub on the Swiss integrated transport system and we used public transport nearly every day for touring and the cost of the passes was easily recovered in just two of the days.
We undertook trips up to the Jungfraujoch, Schilthorn, and Rothorn, and even managed a mountain walk which was overlooked by the north face of the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau. Yes, it is possible to do such walks with a wheelchair, albeit with caution and, on a beautiful clear sunny day, it was one of the highlights of our visit. We also visited Bern, Thun, Brienz, Ballenberg open-air museum, Spiez, and Faulensee and joined an organised day trip by coach over three of Switzerland's highest passes.
We spent the first two days familiarising ourselves with the local area. We walked into Interlaken, a journey of about 25 minutes and also to Neuhaus on the Thunersee, which was a similar distance and from where, like in Interlaken, there is the opportunity to catch a lake steamer. As with later walks, we found good pathways, sometimes of hard gravel, and plenty of dropped curbs. A low floor bus, route 4, is available into Interlaken every half hour in peak season from near the Lazy Rancho camp site and this was wheelchair accessible with just a single step up into the bus. We found all buses to have wide doors and space for a wheelchair but not all were low floor and in most cases there were three steps into the bus.
The third day was to be our real test of the Swiss transport system. A 'follow me' day trip to Bern was on offer. We walked to Interlaken West, took a two and a half hour steamer trip on the Thunersee to Thun, changed to a train for a half hour trip to Bern and returned at leisure direct to Interlaken West by train. We had absolutely no problems using the lake steamers on this or any other day. Boarding and alighting is via a ramp, crews are eager to help with wheelchairs and most but not all have wheelchair accessible toilets aboard. Our first trip by Swiss rail was a learning curve, we singled out the carriage marked with the wheelchair symbol only to find three steep steps into the carriage. One of the advantages of being on a rally is there is plenty of help around and friends soon manhandled the chair and Wendy aboard. Alighting at Bern, we did a controlled Niagara falls descent onto the platform. This, I was to quickly learn, is not the Swiss way to do it! It is also probably impossible with a heavy electric chair. In Bern, we went our independent ways and for the return journey we were on our own. Faced with the prospect of manhandling Wendy aboard alone, I searched out a station official, explained our needs and hey presto a wheelchair lift appeared (there is one on each Bern station platform). We were then directed to the position on the platform where the wheelchair accessible carriage was expected to stop. The train's guard enquired as to our destination and we were met by a similar wheelchair lift on arrival. This is the way we did it for every subsequent rail journey we made, sometimes actively seeking out the guard to tell him where we wanted to get off. All trains appeared to be wheelchair accessible and all the stations we used had wheelchair lifts although the rail staff did not always use them and would sometimes resort to manually lifting the wheelchair and occupant on and off the train. Not all trains have dedicated wheelchair spaces within carriages. Intercity trains appeared to have the best facilities, but on local trains we travelled in the guards van and on the narrow gauge mountain cog railways there were multifunction compartments which doubled as passenger or luggage/wheelchair compartments. Some of the funiculars and mountain cable ways are not wheelchair accessible so plan your trips with care and whilst out and about check any facilities which you may want to use later in the holiday because we found the tourist offices were not always fully 'wheelchair aware'. We encountered no access or language problems at stations. English is widely spoken and rail staff were always on hand to help.
Bern, We picked up a tourist plan of old Bern at the station's tourist office and after finding a quiet spot to picnic we set about following the indicated tourist trail. Bern's old town has cobbled streets but the arcades on the sides of the streets are quite level and smooth and as a result it was far easier to get about than expected. We encountered steps in places and had to move onto the cobbled roads to bypass these but we succeeded in visiting nearly all the places of interest in about 2-1/2 hours. The walk to the bear pits is down hill. Here there are good facilities for wheelchair users and if you cannot face the push back up the hill, Bern's buses back to the station are wheelchair friendly.
Spiez and Faulensee - We walked to Neuhaus on the Thunersee and caught the ferry to Spiez from where we took a wheelchair friendly lakeside path the 3.5Km to Faulensee where we caught a return ferry back to Neuhaus. We only visited the lakeside areas of these two villages because our main aim was to enjoy the excellent level walk with its fine views across the lake. Further access into Spiez and Faulensee involved ascending the lake hillsides.
Jungfraujoch - The first really clear day dawned and the tops of the Eiger, Moch and Jungfrau were clearly visible from our campsite pitch. As this was number one on our priority list of trips to do we made an early start helped by a lift in a car to Interlaken Ost station where we set off on the 2-1/2 hour journey to the 'Top of Europe'. We used the first of our free travel days to take the local train to Lauterbrunnen where we changed to the mountain cog railway to take us to the bottom of the north face of the Eiger at Kleine Scheidegg. Here we again changed to the final cog railway, which climbed steeply mostly through tunnels cut into the mountains of the Eiger and Monch to emerge in the underground station of the Jungfraujoch. On route, this final train stops twice for the able bodied to alight and admire the views from windows cut into the mountainside. It first stops about 1/3 of the way up the north face of the Eiger and then at the top of a glacier between the Eiger and Monch. The Jungfraujoch is a multi-story mountain complex built at 3454 meters (11332ft) on a saddle between the Jungfrau and Monch mountains. There are good wheelchair accessible toilets available and all internal facilities are accessible via passageways and lifts but I considered it too slippery and dangerous to take the wheelchair outside onto the uneven melting snow and ice. Some of the passageways slope gently, not a problem normally but at such a high altitude there is a noticeable lack of oxygen. You will quickly become l ight headed and possibly pass out if you do not slow your pace. At various points there are call buttons where you can summon help to operate lifts for the disabled but we found these not to be working. Wendy being more observant than I, noticed that the lifts were operated by a 'Euro key'. The one we had brought some years ago in Germany fitted but I could still not get the 'Ice Palace' stair lift to work. Ignorance on my part and I had to go to the information desk for help whilst Wendy waited shivering in the cold (only the ice palace was really cold). In hind sight, I should have done this on arrival and I recommend that even if you have a 'Euro key' your first point of call is the information desk. I was shown how to work the lift (an interlock had not engaged) and received advice about the use of the key in other areas of the complex. To prevent the general public monopolising the lifts, some of the lifts cannot be stopped on, or summoned to, intermediate floors unless you have a 'Euro key'. Staff offered to operate these unmanned lifts for us but for greater freedom we declined and had no trouble working them ourselves. We spent nearly 2-1/2 hours in the complex, but unfortunately as time went by the south side became obscured in cloud and by the time we returned to Kleine Scheidegg, all three mountain tops and the greater part of the north face of the Eiger were covered by cloud. After a brief look around Kleine Scheidegg, and under increasingly heavy skies, we descended via an alternate cog railway route to Grindelwald to be greeted by a heavy shower on our arrival. The visibility now bad, we decided to catch the next local service train back to Interlaken Ost from where we caught the number 4 bus back to our campsite. A great day out, but I was later to relegate this trip to not the best value for money of our visit. This was largely due to the cost of the final leg (we had to pay 50 percent of the fare, SFr90) and the journey through the tunnels is not the most beautiful of sights. A couple of final comments, you need warm clothing, sun screen cream and a hat at the top. You may think you are not being burnt but we found the sun very strong in the mountain air. With the Regional Pass you can elect to make a free trip to Kleine Scheidegg. Pause here a while to admire the view and the weather. If it is not totally clear I would not waste SFr90. for two returns to the top.
Ballenberg Open-air museum - The following day dawned a little murky, mist resulting from overnight rain hung eerily low on the mountainsides and we decided with friends to visit Brienz and the Ballenberg museum. We caught the steamer from Interlaken Ost for the return trip to Brienz. The weather had cleared considerably on arrival at Brienz 1-1/2 hours later. Brienz is the home of wood carving and the more interesting parts of the town and its art are on level ground close to the lakeside. Therefore, wheelchair access is not difficult. We chose to go straight to Ballenberg intending to visit Brienz on our return. We caught the bus, which had three not too difficult steps up into it, to the west gate of the museum. The person in the wheelchair is charged for entry but the carer is free. This outdoor working museum of Swiss culture houses a collection of all types of old buildings from all over Switzerland. It is a vast site located in hilly terrain and you cannot possibly see it all in one day. The plots are served by all weather paths and we chose a route listed as taking 2 hours and took 2-1/2 hours to complete it. Not every building is wheelchair accessible and even then only the ground floors can be accessed, some with considerable difficulty. Nevertheless it was an interesting and enjoyable visit if somewhat strenuous in parts for a carer with a manual wheelchair. By the time we returned to Brienz we had no time to visit the town because we had to be back in Interlaken in time to go to the William Tell Theatre. The story of William Tell is performed in German at an outdoor theatre. A hand out gives a brief overview of the story in English and we had no problems following the plot. Seating for the audience is undercover with a dedicated area for wheelchair users but wrap up warm as it can get very cold. Live animals are used in the performance, particularly horses, which enhance the drama.
Mannlichen - The following day dawned with not a cloud in the sky and visibility excellent and we decided to use another free days travel to take a recommended mountain walk of 4.5Kms from Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegg. We caught the local train to Lauterbrunnen where we changed to the same mountain cog railway that we had taken 2 days previously to ascend the Junfraujoch. This time we got off at Wengen and walked the short distance to the Mannlichen Luftseilbahn (cable car) There is a slight uphill push from the station with level access into the cable car. The large cable car whisked us up the mountainside to the top at 2227 metres where the views were absolutely gorgeous. Tarmac paths with slight gradients lead to viewpoints and to the longest cable way in Europe, the Gondelbahn down to Grund. This Gondelbahn is wheelchair accessible with advanced notice. We notified the operator of our desire to ride it for a return trip and admired the views and had a drink while we waited the 35mins for the special 'gondel' to arrive from the bottom of the lift from where we assumed it was stored. The 'gondel' would take the wheelchair and two others and the return trip took an hour. Having the 'gondel' to ourselves, we ate our picnic as we soared past the north face of the Eiger, over grassy slopes and grazing cattle with the tinkle of the cowbells and the rush of the snow fed streams below clearly audible. The dots of the buildings of the town of Grindelwald loomed larger as we approached the Grund terminal to then be whisked silently back up the way we came. Once back at Mannlichen we set off down the hard gravel track, along the mountainside with the north face of the Eiger and other snowcapped mountain tops in full view, to Kleine Scheidegg, 4.5Kms away and 166 meters below. Although the track slopes gently, predominately downhill, there are some short uphill sections and three short, very steep, downhill sections requiring considerable caution. I was glad I was wearing hiking boots for the better grip and that the friend with us could provide a safety net on these slopes. Overall the state of the track was fairly good but a winter landslide had damaged it in one place leaving it very rough. On a beautiful sunny warm day, the beer at the end of the track at Kleine Scheidegg before catching the train down to Grindelwald was most welcome. At Grindelwald we changed to the local service train for the journey back to Interlaken Ost. An altogether brilliant day with brilliant views.
Schilthorn -After a day of rain we awoke to find the mountain
tops clear but cloud welling up and hanging low in the valleys.
We listened eagerly to the morning's English language radio broadcast, which announced it had been snowing at the top of the Schilthorn
but the weather was expected to improve as the day progressed. With high hopes we marked our passes for our third day of free travel and
set out for the top of the Schilthorn where the dramatic snow and ski scenes in the James Bond film 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' were filmed.
We had wanted to use public transport all the way but we were told this was not possible with a wheelchair and the Interlaken
Tourist office had recommended driving to Stechelberg where the bottom of the Schilthorn cable way is located. Here there is a large car park
and friends who accompanied us, drove us there. There are parking places dedicated to the disabled close to the lift which the handicapped
can use to gain access to the cable station platform but as far as we could ascertain a car parking fee dependant on length of stay was still payable.
Three Passes Tour, Susten, Furka and Grimsel - Two coaches had been organised for this day trip, neither were wheelchair friendly and I selected the coach with the best entrance for carrying Wendy on and off. The wheelchair went in the baggage compartment. The weather was at its best all day and the views were stunning. We stopped at the top of the Susten pass, Devil's Bridge and then Andermatt for lunch before climbing the Furka pass and stopping at the Rhone Glacier. We then stopped at the top of the Grimsel pass, before descending and stopping to walk through the Aareschlucht Gorge. Here Wendy stayed on the bus which picked us up again at the bottom end of the gorge. It is not possible to take a wheelchair the full length of the gorge's wooden and concrete walkway due to the initial slope, two narrow points and two flights of steps. However it is possible to enter from the bottom end and walk as far as the first flight of steps and return and probably see the most dramatic sections of the route. From the gorge we returned to the campsite. On this tour we found wheelchair accessible toilets at Andermatt railway station but although the other stops were well served by cafes and souvenir shops, accessible toilets could not be found at these. Although this was a private tour, it is run twice weekly by 'Die Post' and you can book a trip at any Post Office and it maybe that they employ more wheelchair friendly buses?
Rothorn - Our fourth free day of travel was used to ascend the Rothorn, via a steam driven cog railway train. Wheelchairs user must give 24 hours notice to travel. We caught an intercity train service from Interlaken Ost for the 1/2 hour journey to Brienz. Here we changed to the little steam mountain train whose bottom station is opposite the main line steamer and train station. Wheelchairs are usually lifted on and off this train. On a fine day this is a stunningly beautiful trip as the engine puffs its way almost at walking pace to the top. The journey takes an hour and it is well worth spending sometime at the top. Unfortunately for the wheelchair user, immediately you are disembarked a steep slope is encountered and if you want to go anywhere you must at least travel about 50 yards up it to get to the cafe/restaurant. There are no wheelchair accessible toilets at the top and we had booked to stay 2-1/2 hours here before we could descend back to Brienz. An hour less would have been enough. Wendy remained at the cafe in the sunshine while I hiked to the very top, passing another cafe and cable car station on the way up. This went down the other side of the mountain and left me wondering about other trip options. Oh well next time? Once back in Brienz we caught a steamer for the 1-1/2 hour journey back to Interlaken Ost.
Thun - For our last free day of travel we decided to take the steamer to Thun, look around and return by whatever means we fancied. The steamer trip took 2-1/2 hours from Interlaken West but unfortunately it started to pour with rain half an hour before our arrival. We nevertheless donned our wet weather clothing and plodded around Thun for an hour. Again the pathways were good and there were plenty of dropped kerbs. We found Thun larger and more interesting than Interlaken but in the end the rain defeated us and we decided for variety to catch the bus for the one hour journey back to Interlaken. Three steps up into the bus and we were on our way and then it stopped raining! Unperturbed, we arrived back at Interlaken West to meet our friends who gave us a lift back to the campsite.
The following day we caught the bus into Interlaken for some shopping and lunch and that evening walked to Neuhaus where, at a fully accessible lakeside hotel/golf club, complete with wheelchair accessible toilets, we had an excellent farewell dinner orgainised by the rally officiers. In the morning we said our farewells and set out alone for France, the Alsace and home.