Sunday 17th October was the last day in service for the season of Stadt Luzern and Uri on Lake Lucerne and it was a busy day with fine weather bringing out the crowds.
By the following day most of the Swiss paddle steamers had finished their summer and autumn sailings and were laid up for the winter. Here we are in the shipyard at Lucerne enjoying a little slice of Paddle Steamer Heaven in company with the now silent Unterwalden and Uri in the foreground and Gallia and Stadt Luzern beyond. By then paddle steamer rides on Lakes Brienz, Thun and Neuchatel had also ended but there were still some sailings to be had on Lakes Zurich and Geneva.
On Lake Geneva advertised paddle steamer trips continued up to Sunday 24th October with Italie starting and finishing her days at Le Bouveret and running four two hour circuits of the upper lake leaving Vevey at 10.05, 12.05, 14.05 and 16.05 calling at Vevey La Tour, Clarens, Montreux, Territet, Chateau de Chillon, Villeneuve, Le Bouveret and St Gingolph along the way.
Simplon, standing in for La Suisse, was rostered for two three and three quarter hour circuits of the Upper Lake from Lausanne at 11.40 and 15.30 calling at all piers along the way except Territet en route for Chateau Chillon. Savoie was scheduled for two round trips from Geneva to Yvoire at 12.25 and 15.15 on Saturdays and Sundays and on weekdays one afternoon trip leaving Geneva at 14.30 giving an hour ashore at Yvoire back at 18.30.
A day card giving freedom of the lake to hop on and off the steamers and other vessels as and when costs 90 Swiss Francs (£72) first class. Catering is to a high standard and lunch or dinner can be had for anything between 25 Swiss Francs (£20) and 70 Swiss Francs (£56). So for a couple travelling first class, which gives access to the upper deck, and dining with one high end meal each in the saloon the cost would come in at £128 each or £256 the pair not including drinks. For those who visit Switzerland often there is the option to buy a travel card which gives half price on all the fares.
The standard of handling on and off the piers in Switzerland is impeccable with the captains, engineers and rope handlers all working as a team with each understanding what they have to do, why what they are doing is important and delivering it all faultlessly. And that should be no real surprise as the training regime is detailed and long. It takes more than a decade to be passed out as a captain on the Swiss lake steamers by which time they have handled every ship in the fleet in every conceivable weather condition many times over everywhere within their area of operation.
Part of the success with paddle steamer handling in Switzerland is that all the engineers know how to handle the engines and stop them in just the right place for starting again. This is particularly important when coming into piers fast. To the casual observer this may be unnoticeable but it makes all the difference to the captain getting full astern to stop the ship exactly when he wants it and not five or ten seconds later. Of course all steam engines have their own little idiosyncrasies and some are a tiny tad harder to stop in just the right place than others. In this picture of Unterwalden’s starboard paddle wheel you can see a bomb shaped weight which has been fitted to help the paddle wheel, and therefore the engine, to settle in just the right position.
Like in the UK the Swiss paddle steamer engines have condensers to cool the used steam back into water. But unlike in the UK where that condensate is pumped back into the boiler, on these Swiss steamers it is discharged overboard with the fresh lake cooling water which has been sucked into the condenser to cool the steam being routed into the boiler instead of the condensate. This means that the Swiss paddle steamer engines have one extra lever compared with those in the UK to shut off this overboard discharge of condensate every time the engine is stopped and be opened up when the engine is going once again.
Paddle steamer captains try to avoid landing heavily alongside piers if they can but sometimes it happens. It is sort of in the nature of the beast in some circumstances. The Swiss understand this and so all their piers have a sort of inbuilt bounciness with piles with give in them fitted outside, and not connected to, the main structure of each pier to absorb any shock from heavy landings and so minimise damage both to the piers and to the ships themselves.
Even though it was mid October the steamers were still carrying reasonable to good numbers when I was there. And where many people in the UK have been rather put off international travel by complex and ever changing UK Government restrictions plus rules on testing for Covid and the costs associated with them, in Europe movement between nation states is much easier so long as people are doubly vaccinated and/or have recovered from Covid and so have either the EU or Swiss Covid Vaccine Certificate to prove it.
Currently UK citizens are welcome to travel to Switzerland so long as we can show that we have been doubly jabbed and have completed an Entry Form. There is no requirement for any Covid testing before or during the stay. I took with me the paper document I obtained from the NHS showing my vaccination status. That was inspected and accepted by the immigration officer at Geneva Airport.
However there is now one major difference entering Switzerland post Brexit. At immigration in Geneva Airport there were two queues. One was for EU and Swiss citizens. The other was for everybody else. So now we have no special status and are lumped in as “proper foreigners” along with the denizens from other more far flung places. And just to make the point my passport was stamped both going in and out of Switzerland. In all my many years of travelling to Switzerland that never happened before.
Having the EU and/or Swiss Covid Certificate is also a must if you want to eat or drink inside at a restaurant or bar in Switzerland. You don’t need one if you eat or drink outside. And like in the UK many cafes and restaurants have tables outside now. The UK paper based NHS Vaccine Certificates were in theory accepted instead up to 24th October but I found it a bit hit and miss with some smaller outlets denying all knowledge of this system and larger establishments sometimes requiring some prodding and digging through their files to check first.
On Lake Geneva, and here on Simplon, showing the Swiss Covid Certificate was necessary if you wanted to eat in the main dining saloon or on the port side of the upper deck (right in the picture) which had been cordoned off for diners. You didn’t need the certificate if you were sitting on the starboard side (left in the picture). But no eating or drinking there.
UK citizens can now apply online for this certificate. You have to show and upload details of your vaccination status, your passport and your travel plans as well as giving other details. I did this and within a day my Swiss Certificate had been approved with the appropriate QR code downloaded onto the special App which I had already installed on my ‘phone. So it is pretty straightforward.
Also welcome to help free up international travel is that the costly PCR Covid test required by the UK Government to be taken within two days of your return has now been changed to the more affordable lateral flow test. However maintaining this testing requirement in the UK does rather beg the question as to why as UK citizens we have to have a Covid test for re-entry into our own country when there is no requirement for us to be tested for Covid at all for entering that most efficient, well run and sensible land which is Switzerland.
You may have noticed that I love Switzerland. I love the Swiss people. I love their attention to detail. I love the overall ambiance of the place. Thanks to easyJet’s sometimes ridiculously low and affordable fares I go there often. I find it such a wonderland. Take these flowers on the pier at Vevey as an example. The pier doesn’t have to have flowers. The paddle steamers would come and go quite as well without them. They are completely inessential. But they are there and their bright red colour sort of lifts the spirits and turns a pleasant enough experience into a great one.
If I had money I would love to live in Switzerland. And if I had real money I would love to live in a house just like this overlooking Lake Geneva at Rivaz with paddle steamers calling at the bottom of my garden every day through the spring, summer and on through the autumn too. Pull back the curtains in the morning and a whole day of paddle steamer gawping to be had until the evening sunset over the lake draws in. I think that I could settle for a life in a Paddle Steamer Heaven like that until all my leaves eventually fall to the ground.
So overall it has not been a bad summer for the Swiss paddle steamers although it has not been as good it it can be in more buoyant times. The citizens of Europe can travel around pretty freely without any onerous testing and many have found their way to Switzerland to join the locals on the steamers but folk from long distance destinations have not come at least not in any numbers. No Americans. No Japanese. Few British. And whilst most of the paddle steamers have been out and about some haven’t. For example Lake Lucerne operated only four paddle steamers in 2021. Schiller spent the summer tied up alongside in the shipyard.
But let’s keep positive. Onwards and upwards. Although the autumn timetable on Lake Geneva finished on 24th October, Simplon is still in steam and is rostered for the lunch cruise from Geneva on Sunday 31st October at 12.20 back 14.55 followed by two one hour cruises at 15.15 and 16.15. I wonder if I have time to book another easyJet flight to catch that?