Graeme Hogg last week visited Interlaken to sample pleasure cruising on Lakes Thun and Brienz. Despite his allegiance to Waverley and Maid of the Loch, he came back much impressed by two of the lesser known Swiss paddle steamers.
While on a group visit to Lucerne in early 2016 I discovered that CalMac Chief Engineer Alex Forrest (a fellow member of CRSC) shared my desire to visit St Kilda. We decided to do something about it and had a most enjoyable trip to Harris and St Kilda in May that year. A wish to try something else led to an equally successful trip to Lake Geneva in August 2017, and the pressure was then on to identify a venue for this year’s trip.
We were looking to Europe once again. We had “done” Lucerne and Geneva, which are the first places most UK enthusiasts think of for continental sailing, so we looked elsewhere. The objective was to visit for two or three days and enjoy as many sailing and other opportunities as possible in that short stay. Places like the Bodensee (Lake Constance) and Dresden were considered but rejected meantime, on the basis that travelling there from Scotland is a lengthy and fairly expensive business for such a short stay. We settled on a visit to Interlaken to sail on Lakes Thun and Brienz. Once Alex’s leave dates were known, I set about planning our trip, which took place between 23 and 26 August. This was the last weekend of Waverley’s summer on the Clyde, but we decided to travel anyway.
The lakes in question, in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland, have been significant tourist attractions for a long time, not least with the British, sitting as they do in the Jungfrau area and boasting some very attractive mountain scenery. As a sign of changing times, we saw enormous numbers of Middle Eastern and Chinese tourists. The two lakes are much smaller than even Lucerne, far less Geneva: Lake Brienz takes only about an hour and 20 minutes’ sailing from one end to the other, in spite of a couple of criss-crosses en route. Each lake boasts one historic paddle steamer and a fleet of motor ships, maintaining a very good service for such relatively small expanses of water.
We flew on the Thursday via Amsterdam to Basel, from where we caught the train to Interlaken, checking into our hotel about 21.00 local time. We planned to spend Friday on Lake Thun, the centre of operations of which is the town of Thun itself rather than Interlaken, so we had to wait until 11.10 for the first sailing from our end of the lake. This was performed by MV Beatus, built at Linz in Austria in 1963 and typical of many motor ships on German and Swiss lakes and rivers, both in terms of appearance and the comfortable interior appointments.
She is one of the workhorses of the fleet, seeing service throughout the year and capable of carrying some 700 passengers. Our Travel Passes were 1st Class, which gave us the run of the ship. As the weather was bright and warm, we stayed outside on the aft upper deck.
The Interlaken West terminus, adjacent to the railway station, lies about two miles from Lake Thun, to which it is connected by a canal. There is no basin to permit turning, so the ships sail up the canal and go astern back to the lake. We set off, right on time as is the norm in Switzerland, and headed down the canal at a decent speed, considering we were going astern. The ship was wonderfully vibration-free and quiet, the engines being well insulated. On reaching the lake Beatus set off for Thun, stopping at all piers en route.
Anyone unfamiliar with these ships but familiar with Waverley or even Maid of the Loch in her CSP/CalMac days would be amazed at how simple and straightforward the act of berthing and transferring passengers can be on a Swiss freshwater lake. There are no tides and few currents. The operating crew of these ships typically consists of the skipper, a mate, a purser and one deck hand/assistant purser.
Coming alongside a pier, which usually consists of a row of large metal posts arrayed in front of the pier itself and cushioned in some way to absorb bumps, the ship will be brought more or less to a halt aligning the gangway doors with the gangways ashore. Standing either side of these doors, two of the crew will each lasso one of these posts, or sometimes a bollard on the pier itself, and make fast, securing the ship in position. The gangways are short, wide aluminium platforms, which can be pulled aboard easily by one of the crew leaning out and grabbing it at the edge of the pier, which is pretty much level with the ship’s deck. There is room for two of these gangways if the ship is busy. There are seldom any pier hands to assist, as they are unnecessary. The gangways hook on the edge of the deck, so there is no need to lash them in position. With a ramp at each end, prams, wheelchairs etc can be easily disembarked or embarked and, since all tickets are checked aboard, there is no ticket collection.
A pier call for a few people can be accomplished in about 90 seconds and even big crowds can be shifted remarkably quickly. With a toot on the ship’s horn or whistle, the gangway is pushed back ashore, the ropes are untied aboard and looped back off the posts or bollards and the ship is off again. Such simplicity is not feasible for a sea-going ship, but it will be interesting to see whether Maid of the Loch is able to replicate some or all of these practices when she returns to service.
Our main objective was to spend time on the paddle steamers, so we sailed up the lake, which is like Loch Lomond in reverse as it changes from steep, mountainous shores at the Interlaken end to gentler, more open terrain towards the Thun end, until we reached Oberhofen, which is dominated by its castle on the shore. Beatus called six minutes before PS Blümlisalp on her main run of the day from Thun. We went ashore and awaited her arrival and, right on time, she swept in at great speed and came alongside. We went aboard and settled ourselves at a table on the open top deck behind the 1st class dining saloon. Blümlisalp is a beautiful ship. Built in 1906 by Escher, Wyss and Company of Zurich, she conforms in appearance and layout to the norms of Swiss lake steamers, especially the majority of those on Lake Lucerne. She is actually longer than all the Lucerne steamers, but seems smaller and daintier, possibly because her solid bulwarks are partly cut away. She is a contemporary of Schiller on Lake Lucerne and like her has a beautiful Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) main saloon, although not quite so striking. She sailed the lake originally until 1975, when she was withdrawn and laid up.
Fortunately local enthusiasts took her in hand and she was never allowed to fall into bad condition. Eventually, as with Maid of the Loch, the funding was raised to restore her and bring her back into service. The work was done between 1990 and 1992 and she would have been among the first rebuilds of the modern era, where the objective was to preserve the historic features but provide modern amenities where possible, all carried out to the highest standard.
I first sailed on her in 1993 and was amazed and delighted at the quality of workmanship and the wonderful ambience on board. She has changed little since then. Her name is now picked out in gold against a black background on the paddle box, whereas previously it was the same pale blue colour as the rest of the upper hull. As with PS Lötschberg on Lake Brienz, all passengers on Blümlisalp have access to the main saloon but the top deck is reserved for 1st Class. Her 1st Class saloon has been upgraded in recent years and is beautifully laid out with dark wooden tables and Lloyd Loom chairs.
We were to sail back to Interlaken and then all the way to Thun. We had also booked a table for dinner on the ‘After Work Cruise’ which sailed at 18.40, so traversed much of the lake again. At lunchtime, we decided a beer and a sandwich would suffice as we’d be having a bigger meal later in the day. We were able to enjoy this at the table on the open deck in the sunshine as the weather was proving to be much better than forecast. We managed some coffee and cake later in the afternoon and the standard was high, on a par with the bigger lakes.
We arrived at the mouth of the Interlaken Canal just as MV Berner Oberland was emerging from it. She is the newest member of the fleet, dating from 1996, and is enormous for such a small lake. We were not to sail on her this time but I had a short trip on her in 2015 and she is equipped to an exceptionally high standard. Owing to her size, she has a secondary bridge aft for coping with the canals on the lake, although I am not sure it is used much.
We paddled up the canal to Interlaken. Blümlisalp has to fold her mast to sail under the low bridges. This is done hydraulically at the push of a button. After a short stop we were off again, astern down the canal. Knowing Waverley’s waywardness astern, it is amazing to be aboard a paddle steamer which can run astern in a confined channel for two miles with complete confidence. The canal is not significantly wider than the Narrows in the Kyles of Bute. Imagine going through the Narrows astern for two miles. Blümlisalp’s main rudder is much larger than Waverley’s and, in common with all the ships on both lakes, she also has a bow rudder controlled from the bridge.
The two paddlers on Lakes Thun and Brienz differ from almost all their Swiss counterparts in having a single large ventilator in front of the funnel. The others have two in this position, but that would block the view astern for these manoeuvres. Another traditional feature they have retained is the speaking tube to the engine room. There are no telegraphs, so the skipper shouts commands down the tube to the engineer at the controls. It was noticeable there is no speaking tube in the engine room, so the engineer could not answer back.
The sailing up Lake Thun was most enjoyable. At Thun there is another canal branching off the River Aare through the town, leading to the terminus adjacent to the railway and bus stations. Blümlisalp and her consorts run astern up this canal and sail down.
We explored Thun for an hour or so before reboarding Blümlisalp for her evening cruise. We took our seats at a pre-booked table. The ship was very busy with parties and work groups, but it was all well behaved. We enjoyed an excellent meal as the scenery slid by and darkness fell eventually. The set menu was 60 Swiss francs, equivalent to £50, which is not untypical of the price of a good meal in Switzerland.
The quality was way ahead of anything likely to be available on a CalMac ferry or Waverley, but then so are the prices. Sailing tickets are also considerably more expensive. A 1st Class return from Thun to Interlaken, a sailing of less than 5 hours’ duration, is 126 Swiss francs, or just over £100, although most locals would have an abonnement entitling them to half price tickets.
We returned to Thun at 21.20 and had to make our way back to Interlaken by train and bus. Everything is co-ordinated, so we were back at our hotel not long after 22.30.
Saturday started overcast. We decided to wait for the first sailing of Lötschberg at 11.07 from the terminus at Interlaken Ost, at the other end of the town. Our plan was to take the ship to Brienz and go on the Brienzer-Rothorn cog railway, which departs by the pier to Rothorn some 7.6 km away.
Lötschberg is a delightful little ship. She was built, also by Escher, Wyss, in 1914 and was almost immediately laid up owing to World War I. She is a good 25 feet shorter than Blümlisalp and her fittings are less luxurious.
On my 1993 trip she was the first of the two ships I sailed on and she seemed quite down at heel at that time. She was rebuilt around the same time as Waverley and is much improved as a result, with a most unusual green colour scheme in place of the original white. The water in both lakes, but especially Brienz, is a strange green shade as a result of glacial deposits, which may explain the colour scheme. Lötschberg’s basic layout is the same as Blümlisalp but instead of Lloyd Loom chairs in 1st Class, she makes do with sparred bench seats and cushions, partly to save space. She lacks the catering facilities of Blümlisalp, but still offers a full meal service, using dishes which can be partially or wholly prepared ashore. As she offers an evening cruise on a Saturday only, we had booked to dine on her later in the day.
Lake Brienz is more mountainous than Lake Thun and offers spectacular mountain views into the distance. Unfortunately the cloud cover meant we were not seeing them to advantage. However, it remained dry as we headed up the Lake and disembarked at Brienz. We had time to watch Lötschberg’s departure before we headed for the cog railway.
This was quite an experience. The train does not move very fast, so a journey of about five miles takes an hour or so. The steam locomotive has to be built on an angle to keep the boiler level on the kinds of gradients encountered. The brochure talks about 350kg of coal being consumed on the journey. However, the locomotive pushing our train up the mountain carried only a driver and there was no sign at any stage of stoking activity or of smoke from the chimney. The locomotive is undoubtedly steam powered, and the noise it made was like nothing either of us had heard from a steam engine before, but the fuel must be oil. There are some older looking locomotives depicted in the brochure, which may still be coal burners, and I have since read about some newer locomotives having been built with revolutionary steam engines. As we reached Rothorn, which is really only a hotel at 7,500 feet, the weather closed in and visibility was negligible. This was a pity as the views in the photographs look spectacular on a clear day. The coaches were also pretty basic to minimise the weight to be pushed up the hill, so we were ready for some hot food and drinks at the top.
The journey back down the mountain took as long, as the locomotive had to use the cog brakes the whole way, and we would wait for the trains coming up at the passing places. When we reached Brienz again, MV Brienz was waiting to carry us back to Interlaken. By this time it was raining heavily and we were glad to sit in the saloon and watch the passing scene.
Brienz is typical of the large motor passenger ships on Swiss lakes, with three decks this time and capable of carrying 900 passengers. She was built on the Bodensee in 1981 and is the largest of the motor ships on Lake Brienz. She sails year round with either Lötschberg or the other large motor ship, Jungfrau. The latter has an interesting history, having been built on the Bodensee in 1954 for Lake Thun, but transferred to Lake Brienz in 1999. Given her size and the low bridges spanning the river between the lakes, she must have been dismantled or had her superstructure removed for the transfer. She also has a rather bizarre colour scheme, which probably reflects a win for the marketing department over the operations people.
When we got back to Interlaken, we nipped back to the hotel to don an extra layer — the rain had brought a drop in temperature — before going on our evening cruise on Lötschberg. Once on board we settled at our table for dinner. Given the more limited facilities on board, this offered less ambitious fare than the night before and was priced accordingly. However, the meal was excellent and our waitresses were friendly. It shows what high standards can be reached in spite of on board restrictions.
The sail itself was a repeat of the earlier ones, minus one or two calls. The sun came out for a while, but back in Interlaken the rain returned with a vengeance, so we caught the train back to Interlaken West, which was nearer our hotel. Needless to say, the connecting train was there waiting for us.
Sunday dawned bright and sunny. We had to be back in Basel for an evening flight home, so our options were limited. We sailed on Lake Brienz again, leaving on the 10.07, which is a Brunch Cruise running on Sundays only. We had had breakfast so simply enjoyed the cruise on Brienz in glorious sunshine and clear visibility. The boat itself was pretty busy with family groups enjoying brunch and what looked like a sports club reunion. The tops of the mountains appeared to have a fresh dusting of snow.
Going ashore at the town of Brienz, we had a stroll down the main street, which was very quiet after the bustle of Interlaken. We returned along the promenade and were rewarded with wonderful views of Lötschberg’s arrival. Like Blümlisalp she approaches piers at considerable speed, but her skipper seems better able to judge his stopping distance and she generally comes to a halt pretty much where he wants her.
We went aboard at 12.40 and enjoyed one last run down what is a beautiful lake on such a sunny day, having a bite to eat en route and arriving at Interlaken at 13.53 in time for the 14.00 train to the airport. It was a double decker and I have never enjoyed a smoother or quieter rail journey, watching the passing Swiss countryside basking in the sunshine. Our flight connections worked fairly well, and we reached a rainy Glasgow shortly after 22.00. That was that for another year.
There may be less for the steamer enthusiast to see and experience on an Interlaken-based holiday than on the bigger lakes, but the quality of the ships, the crews, the facilities on board and the catering is a match for the more usual suspects and, if your wallet can stand it, Alex and I would strongly recommend time spent on Lakes Thun and Brienz. Now we need to start thinking about what we get up to next year.
Published on 31 August 2018. All photographs are copyright CRSC/Graeme Hogg and Alex Forrest
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