From the handsome waterfront promenade at Bregenz, it is infinitely rewarding on a clear day to gaze out across Lake Constance, tracing the north shore of the lake from the nearby border with Germany on to the island town of Lindau, and then on beyond the Tettnanger Forest to the hills above Friedrichshafen. Away to the left Austria slips into Switzerland, where the south bank of the lake can be followed along to the castle at Arbon where in the 19th century scores of weavers were busily employed producing silk ribbons.
Our mission is a journey designed for those who, like us, have not fallen hook, line and sinker for the post-Romantic piety that gives almost unqualified credit to rugged mountains (see our perspective piece on pages 10–11). Here we explore a rail journey which is pre-Alpine rather than truly Alpine. It’s a route which offers rewarding views of the mountains without being hemmed in by them. The emphasis is on expansive vistas, especially in the first half of the journey, but in the final stretch there is subtle change in perspective, swapping wider horizons for more intimate views of pastoral landscapes in the Alpine foothills.
It’s a route that suits our personal landscape aesthetics. It may not suit yours. Ruskin had the notion of a hierarchy of beauty, noting that the great artists “reserved their highest powers to paint Alpine peaks.” He also suggested that artists who favoured pollards and flat land as their subjects “are always men of third-rate order.” To the modern mind, Ruskin’s perspective is easily dismissed as a fine piece of 19th-century nonsense, but yet there still persists the notion that, the higher or more precipitous a peak, the more deserving it is of attention.
So let’s take what Ruskin, who couldn’t abide trains, would surely have judged to be a third-rate journey. We shall travel from Bregenz to St Gallen in Switzerland, then on via Lucerne to Berne. In a perfect world, and we do strive for perfection in journey planning, one might start by taking one of the thrice-daily Eurocity trains for the short journey to St Gallen — merely because they are exceptionally comfortable Swiss trains and usually include a first-class panorama carriage which is perfectly suited to this kind of rail-based sightseeing. If the timings of the Eurocity trains don’t suit, there are half-hourly local trains which follow exactly the same route and take no longer that the Eurocity service. But on the local services, you do need to change trains at St Margrethen, which is the first stop after crossing the border from Austria into Switzerland.
Rattling south from Bregenz, our train crosses the Bregenzerach where to the left there’s a fine view of the heavily eroded sandstones, rising up like a wave above the waters of the fast-flowing river. Then the train to the Swiss border swings off to the right, affording a remarkable view up the great trough carved by the River Rhine. It’s a vista that takes in a good part of Liechtenstein’s territory away to the south, with views of the Kuhgrat and other peaks which mark the eastern border of the principality.