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Holidays to Switzerland Travel Podcast Episode 30 Transcript

May 10, 2024 Last Updated on May 10, 2024

Visiting Mt. Rigi – The Queen of the Mountains

You can see the full show notes and listen to this episode > here.

Hi there, and welcome to episode 30 of the podcast. No one who visits Switzerland can fail to be impressed by the stunning scenery. The combination of mountains, lakes, and lush green pastures is the true description of paradise. One of the many things I love about Switzerland is that wherever there’s a mountain, regardless of how high it is, there’s usually a mountain railway or a cable car to take you to the top. The ingenuity and engineering skills required to actually build some of those cable cars and mountain mountain railways is astounding.

And what’s even more impressive is that it’s not just a new thing. The Swiss have been finding ways to transport tourists up to mountaintops for more than a century. In fact, Switzerland is home to Europe’s oldest mountain railway, the Rigi Bahn. And in 2021, the railway is celebrating its 150th anniversary. It’s incredible to think how many tourists must have taken the journey to the summit of Mount Rigi in a century and a half. A lot has changed in 150 years, but one thing has remained the same, the breathtaking 360-degree views that you get from the top of Mount Rigi. In today’s episode, I’m joined by Frederic Fussenich, the CEO of Rigi Railways.

Frederic is going to chat about the history of the railway and tell us all the reasons a visit to Mount Rigi should be top of your list when you are in central Switzerland.

Hi, Frederic. Welcome to the podcast. It’s great to have you here with us today.

Thank you for the invitation. I’m looking forward for the next hour or so.

Excellent. Now, can you start by just sharing a bit about your background with us and how you came to be working for Mount Rigi Railways?

Yes. Well, I work in the best industry in the world, which is the travel industry. My background, went to the university, did a hotel business school in Lucerne, and then I worked a couple of years for Engelberg in the sales department. After that, I made bachelor’s studies in economic and science, and then I became a tourist director in the Grisons for a destination called Disentis Sedrun, close to Andermatt. And then my background, my mum is from Engelberg and then I became the tourist director of Engelburg for 10 years. And then I got a phone call and a headhunter asked me if I want to become I’m the CEO of Mount Rigi. And I said, Well, yeah, well, in your mid-forties, that might be a great opportunity. But I had no clue whether they want to take me or not. But all of a sudden, they said, You can have the job. Well, I had a bit of a rough start. I started on the 16th of March, which was the day of the first lockdown.

So you weren’t welcoming too many guests.

Yeah, well, not really. But I had plenty of time to understand the business and it’s a fantastic company, which is really good people, very special.

A lot of uniques. The whole set up, the whole business model with our cogwheel trains and the support for the region and overall. No, I haven’t regret the day, even so, it was a bit of a rough start. I’m married and have two kids, 10 and 12. That’s the most important part, I guess, and a lovely wife.

You said your mom’s from Engelberg. You were born in the same area, were you? Around Lucerne?

No, no, no. Actually, I’m born and brought up in Germany. Okay. My dad was here for a holiday and took her with him. And then my grandmother and my uncle took over a hotel here. We have strong roots in in Engelberg. So that’s always been like home. So, yeah, which is a great destination as well. So now I’m living in Vitznau, close to the lake or very close to the lake, and family is still living in Engelberg. So two great places to live right now.

Excellent. Good. Well, I’m looking forward to hearing much more about Mount Rigi and the railways. Now, it’s the 150th anniversary of the railways this year. Can you tell us a bit about the history and how the railway actually came into being?

Yeah, it’s the oldest railway or mountain railway in Europe. There was Mount Washington two, three years before, so 150 years of history. And of course, were some pioneers, the big pioneer, which is still the Pope for our company in a way. The guru is Mr. Rickenbach. He invented the system which we’re still using. The thing is, when you have this anniversary, of course, you can see on all pictures, then the story is hard to build it. But for example, we still have our railway, which is called Lok Sieben, which was built in 1874. We took that out of a museum. It was in the museum of transportation, shipped it over the lake, and then we made it running again.

The amazing thing is that knowledge was within our company. It was our employees who made it running again. There you can see we have two steam trains running. Now we have the third one, and this is so new, unique. You can really now experience how they came up or conquered the mountain 150 years ago. I mean, that was for sure a special time when the gutter tunnel has been built. It was a lot of…

Electricity came and so on and so forth. That spirit is very inspiring. It was all the challenge that now occurs when you look how they managed back in the days and whether they really were thinking forward. You can’t imagine how sometimes hard it was. There are not that many companies who can look back to a 150 years history. Of course, there were ups and downs, and there was the first World War, the second World War, but we’re still up and running, and we get a lot of energy from the past. So I say, when you know your roots, then you know where you should go. And the magic is still the same. I mean, it’s this unique combination of lake and mountain, the scenery, the 360 degree view. And there’s a reason why they built the first railway or mountain railway on Mount Rigi in Europe because it’s a magic place to give some hope for the future as well.

It was built for tourism, was it?

It was totally built for tourism. Mount Rigi was, even before, a very famous mountain, it was like Alpine tourism started on Mount Rigi. All the rich aristocrats, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, came several times, and Victor Hugo, Goethe, all the rich and famous big influencers back in that days, they’ve been up to Mount Rigi. They’ve been sometimes by a horse or have been carried or sometimes walked. And the first Alpine guesthouse was on Mount Rigi. That’s like 205 or six years ago. There was a prospering tourism on Mount Rigi before. That’s the right place to build the first mountain railway.

Wonderful. For those listeners that don’t exactly know where where Mount Rigi is, can you give us a bit more of a geography lesson to tell us exactly where in Switzerland we can find Mount Rigi?

Sure. Well, when you look up, probably most people know where Zurich is or Lucerne, I guess, like the airport in Zurich. Well, it’s right in the heart of central Switzerland. It’s about 45 minutes drive from the airport from Zurich. Most scenic way is, of course, by boat from Lucerne to go to Mount Ripi. It’s a little bit of a Peninsula. It’s also very nice located when you go through Italy, through Switzerland, then you automatically pass by at Mount Rigi when you head towards Paris or Germany. It’s located on the Lake Lucerne.

What is also quite unique is that on a clear day, you can see all cantons of Switzerland except Geneva. You can see 19 lakes. This is the real magic. I mean, it’s not the highest mountain. It’s only 1800 metres high, but you can see the whole Alp scenery with Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau, up to Mont Blanc on a clear day. On the other hand, you can see the Black Forest, the 19 Lakes, all of Switzerland, and that on a 360-degree view. So that makes it really, really special. When I compare it to Engelburg, we have the glacier, and it’s rough terrain, and it’s steep, and it’s more like meadows.

I mean, there are bits and pieces where you shouldn’t fall down, but it’s not as frightening, so to speak. It’s more beautiful scenery, a lot of green. But yeah, I think the view is exceptional. And back in the days, people came out, especially for the sunset and for when the sun is getting up or then when sometimes the lightning over the lake or even when there’s a thunderstorm, it’s dramatic. You don’t need to television up there.

Yeah. It sounds like you can keep an eye on all of Switzerland if you can see all bar one canton from up there.

Yeah, and you’ve seen it all.

That’s it. Are there various ways that we can reach the summit of Mount Rigi?

Yeah. We have two railways run from Goldau, which is in the canton of Schwyz. Then we have one in Vitznau, which is a tiny little village just at the lake. We have another cable car, which is going up halfway to Mount Rigi, and then you can jump onto the train. Then we have, which is called… I mean, there is the top of the peak, but it’s like a mountain range. They’re fantastic hikes just on the edge on that range. You always look on both sides. You can start at Scheidegg, it’s called, and then you can go up to the top, which is Rigi Kulm. That’s like a two and a half hour, three hours hike.

There we also have a tiny little cable car. Or tiny, it’s like 10 people can go in. Then the various little farmers cable cars. Overall, Rigi has plenty of accesses, but not up to the very top, but then you can start and go on. But that’s more for the… I guess the first time visitors, go to Goldau, go to the top, and then go down to Vitznau, and then you have a really nice overview for the ones who come on, want to come more or more into hiking.

There are enormous ways to go up and to explore the whole range. That makes it special when you compare it to other top of mountains. Then you got the top, and this is it. Here it’s wider.

You get to go up one way and down a different way. You see a whole different perspective as well.

Absolutely.

What are some of the things that people can do when they get to Rigi Kulm?

As we’re talking, I just signed yesterday the contract. We will re-do the whole experience on the top of the mountain. Will all the passes do fresh, we will have a little bit of a hiking session part as well, where you have a scenic view with the special fence on the side. What we will establish until next June is as well an audio guide where you can go from spot to spot and then you scan a QR code, but then you can choose what information you want to have. You got the geological information, you got the history, you got the train history, you got the old culture that we have there very strongly, the fauna, what animals are living there.

We’re planning to have a 45 minutes experience based on an audio or a podcast, so to say, and so that you really get to know the magic of Mount Rigi, what makes it such a special mountain. When you arrive at Rigi Kum, that’s a nice little hike. If you go fast and 10 minutes, you’re on top or even five minutes.

But if you take it from the outside and take your time and have a view on the top, that will make the hiking pass in the end. That’s about a 45 minutes experience. Then there’s a really nice restaurant and hotel up there, and you can have a drink there and then enjoy it. If you’re eager, there’s a station underneath. If you want to do some workout, you could get out there and then walk up to the very top, or you can walk down to Rigi Staffel as well. Like I said, you will see a lot of cows and the agriculture. That’s the main attraction.

Okay, lovely. You mentioned that there’s a hotel there. I guess people can come and stay the night and see those spectacular sunsets and sun rises that you talked about before.

Actually, it’s the oldest Alpine guest house, I guess, in the world, so to speak, since the tourism was invented, like I mentioned before. I mean, it’s not the original building. There was no heating and no water back in the day. No plumbing. But it’s a really, really super nice three-star plus hotel. The nice thing is they still have a lot of the interior is back from the decades. I mean, there is, for example, some plates from the King of Bavaria who came there on several times. You see this fantastic pictures from back in the day. If you want to get the Rigi spirit, that’s for sure a super nice place to stay.

Another nice place to stay, we have a really nice spa facilities on Rigi Kaltbad. That’s like, what is it, five years ago. Huge investment. There are some outdoor pools, jacuzzis, where you can overlook the whole mountain range. And there is a hotel, Rigi Kaltbad included, which is also a nice 3 star plus hotel. On the other hand, for the more culinary people we have the Herbs Hotel, the Krauter Hotel, and they have a Michelin star, and they’re really, really dedicated to local food.

So whatever you get on the plate has been grown or has been slaughtered not more than four kilometres around that hotel. He’s a bit crazy, but he really loves what he’s doing. It’s an adventure when you go there for dinner. So you get so many different tastes and what he’s doing with all that local food is just astonishing.

Then you got this tiny little, for example, we have a Lok 7 restaurant, which is our famous Lok 7, the famous train, which is so old. For that one, where you get traditional Swiss food like Cordon Bleu or Älplermagronen or Fondue. Or then you have the Chalet, which is also traditional food, but very open-minded, Stefan. Culinary-wise and overnight-wise, it’s definitely worth staying one or two nights more. We even offer a Airbnb apartment on the top of a station on Kulm.

And that’s also special because at night, then you have the whole mountain for yourself. And you’re staying in the station house like back in the days, obviously, the people stayed, our employees stayed there for good.

Something very different. So given that there’s hotels and restaurants up there, do the railways operate all year round? Yeah. There is a tiny little village in Rigi Kaltbad. There are around 100 people living there all year round.

Of course, they have to go to work. We work the whole or we operate the whole year round. The peak season for us is, obviously, the summertime. Autumn is super, super popular when the air is clear and they get the great view and the hiking season. We have a tiny little ski resort, which is perfect for beginners.

So the winter is as well, sledging, cross country skiing. Snowshoe hiking is very popular on Mount Rigi as well. Winter hiking itself, all the beautiful rich hikes, which I mentioned, you can do that as well in the wintertime. And then a little bit of a slow season is May, when spring is already down in the valley and still a little bit of winter up there.But that’s the slowest month of the year. But we operate all year round.

Okay. You mentioned earlier that the day you started was the day that the first lockdown happened in Switzerland back in March 2020. How was this summer for you from a tourist point of view? I guess it’s not back to full capacity, but was it as good as you expected?

I mean, the summer ’20 worked out pretty well as well as soon as we were able to operate. Of course, there were no international guests, but I guess it was the same all over the world, like locals or the inhabitants of Switzerland, rediscovered again, what a beautiful country that they have. We had a lot of guests from the French part and from the Italian part. That was pretty much the same.

A lot of people from the German part of Switzerland also went to the French and to the Italian part. And that is what kept on going even this year. We were a little bit unlucky with the weather this year. August was fantastic. Even yesterday, like the first of September, we have had really nice figures, but July was terrible. It was raining a lot. It had a lot of rain. We were even afraid that there were some flooding in our region. It was a bit of a bizarre summer. August was fine. Now we hope for a great autumn and a good winter.

But we’ll be doing fine. What can you do? You have to just accept how it is.

For sure, there will be better times when everybody can travel freely, but so far, we shouldn’t complain.

Obviously, the 150 years anniversary, we did a lot of steam train and special activities, and that helped as well. The knowledge, the image of the whole mountain improved.

That was probably a good timing. We’re happy.

Oh, good. If someone is coming to Lucerne, they’re staying in Lucerne for a couple of days and they want to go and visit Mount Rigi, what should they do to prepare for their visit? Is there any tips you’d give them about going on a mountain excursion, for instance?

Well, I mean, depending. If you’re into hiking a bit, but anyhow, you should have proper footwear. Don’t take high heels when you go on a mountain. The scenic way, obviously, is jump into a steamboat in Lucerne, which is just in the centre. It’s a train station. Then you have a 45 minutes boat ride to Vitznau station. When you get out of the boat, you can directly jump into the train, because obviously we always wait for the boat to come, and then there’s no standing in line or so. If you come on a Wednesday, we call it the Rigi history day. We take all our old trains out, and then there’s a good chance that you go up with a train which is like 80, 90 years old and some of the wagons, they’re really back from 1874.

Then if you’re first time visitors, you have to go to the peak for sure.Take your time. Then, like I said, if you’re eager to hike up and stay there or you make the top excursion, and then you can easily walk down, have a nice lunch, for example, in Lok Sieben with some traditional Swiss food. Some of them, you can go to the spa, which is like you can do a daily spa as well. Then you can even take the gondola down to Weggis and jump on the train there rn the boat again to go back to Lucerne that side. You get this two experiences with the train. The scenery when you go down with our gondola is also exceptional.

If you’re more into hiking, like I said, there are several endless hiking paths going up and down and back and forth on Mount Rigi. As soon as you’re on a hiking trail, then you’re not in the cloud anymore. This is like some of us are super remote. Even on a busy day, there are many many hiking paths where you won’t see a person all day long. What I always do when visitors come is go over to Scheidegg, I mentioned it before, then you have to go around the mountain to Goldau and then make that ridge hike which is like a three and a half, four hours.

This is also… There we have like fireplaces, public fireplaces with little houses, even when it rains, so you get some shelter. There is free wood. Even if you want, we rent out rucksacks with some sausages and the whole set up. But of course, you can go to a supermarket and buy it yourself and make a nice barbecue there. That’s also a nice way to spend the day.

Yeah, lovely. Is it generally much cooler on Mount Rigie than it is down in Lucerne?

Yeah, of course. You can say for every 500 metres altitude, it’s about five degrees. When it’s 25 degrees in Lucerne, then on the very top, you got maybe 17, 16 degrees. But depending on my… when the sun is shining, it’s fine, but sometimes it’s windy up there. So take a jacket with you. I mean, even if it is warm down when you start, you’re going up to a mountain.So it can be a bit chilly. So be prepared and take a jacket.

Yeah, sure. Have you got any fun facts about Mount Rigi that you’d like to share with us? You mentioned before that you can see almost all the cantons from the top. Is there anything else interesting that we should know?

There’s a really nice story. Mark Twain went to Mount Rigi, and he went to Mount Rigi really in the first days when the new railway was built. He made a novel out of it, a visit of Mount Rigi. Funny thing is, he went up with his friends. On the hiking path, there were some from locals who were yodelling and playing the Alphorn. So he gave them a little donation and then he kept on going. And then the second one was there and he gave them a little donation and then the third one. They were coming in, there was a little donation. And then first he gave him a donation that they play. Then after an hour or so, he gave them a donation to stop because he couldn’t listen anymore to it. It’s a hilarious novel or travel experience.

And then, of course, he wanted to see the sunrise on top, and then he went to bed, but he was so exhausted that he slept through. Then he saw the sunset instead of the sunrise when he looked out of the window. But he didn’t realise what’s wrong in Switzerland because he thought that it was going to be a sunrise, but then the sun was going down. There are many stories. You should read it before you go to Mount Rigi. It’s so freshly written as well. It doesn’t feel like it’s 150 years old. It’s It’s really a lot of fun.

We definitely have to look that one up. You said just before that when you have visitors come, that you always like to do the Scheidegg Ridge walk. If I asked you, how would you spend the perfect day on Mount Rigi, would it include that or would you spend it some different way?

Depending a little bit on the season. I love skiing a lot. It’s a tiny little ski area, but when there is enough snow, you can really go down a little bit through the Last winter was fantastic. It was like short skiing. You can nearly ski down towards the lake. The combination of snow and lake, I’ve been to Norway and Spitzbergen, and I think that’s just magic. And that just around the corner here in Switzerland is fantastic.

But in the summertime with the kids, we do the ridge hike and then we go down, and then we jump into the into the lake and take a swim down there. So that’s a super nice combination. Like I said, depending a little bit on the culinary side, when you pass by at Chalet Schild and have a nice lunch there with some local food, there’s a creperie in Kaltbad, where we always have to stop with the kids. There’s a mini golf and a little bit of a playground there as well.

Especially from Kaltbad, that’s what we do as well when we don’t have so much time. This is the mid station where the little village and then you walk flat out and there is, it’s called the Kätzeli. And there you got an astonishing view already. And then you walk up to the top and that’s like maybe an hour and a half.

But it’s a nice walk to calm down. And then again, it’s getting down to the lake and the combination of lake and mountain that’s always calms the whole family down. So that’s a nice day.

Sounds wonderful. And there’s plenty of options. I can see why you love working at Mount Rigi so much.

Yeah. And it’s like the journey itself. I mean, it’s not fast, obviously, but it’s rumbling and bumbling a little bit. But you really, as soon as you get into the train, then you see the view. It’s very relaxing way to go up a mountain instead of having a super high professional gondola, which boosts you up. It’s more… Yeah. And then when you slow down, and then when you’re in one of the historic wagons, that’s also…

Some of them are cabrios, like open air. And then you can really smell it, see it, see the cows, smell the cows. So that’s very close to the nature.

Wonderful. Where can people find you online if they need more information, what’s the web address for Mount Rigi?

Simple as Rigi.ch.

Perfect. R-i-g-i.ch. Excellent. All right. Well, thank you so much. I’ll put that link in the show notes for this episode. I’ll also list some of the restaurants and hotels and things that you’ve talked about so that when people are planning their visit, they can quickly access the information. I’m sure that, yes, you’ve inspired our listeners to make sure they visit Mount Rigi when they head to Switzerland.

Yeah, that’s mandatory. If you go to Switzerland, you have to go to Mount Rigi!

Right. Everyone, put it on your list. But yeah. Frederic said it’s mandatory. You’ve got to do it. Wonderful. Thank you so much for joining us. All right.

Thank you, Carolyn. And all the best.

If you would like more information about anything mentioned on today’s video, take a look at the show notes, which you’ll find at holidaystoswitzerland.com/episode30. I’ll include a link to the Mount Rigi website, plus details on how to purchase your tickets and additional resources resources that will help you to plan the perfect visit.

You can see the full show notes and listen to this episode > here.