Find both beauty and precision when journeying across the Alps by train.

From the first footsteps on Swiss soil you notice it – in the wheels of the airport luggage carts, in the baggage carousels, in the tailoring of the porters’ jackets, and in the movement of the wrist-watches advertised all around. Precision. It is everywhere.

From the first footsteps on Swiss soil you notice it - in the wheels of the airport luggage carts, in the baggage carousels, in the tailoring of the porters' jackets, and in the movement of the wrist-watches advertised all around. Precision. It is everywhere.

At the travel office in Zurich Airport's arrivals zone, a neatly dressed clerk invites me forward with a smile. Slim with small green eyes, he has three clocks on his desk. I ask about getting to the small town of Appenzell, in the heart of alpine country. "There is a train leaving in three minutes, 45 seconds," the clerk says without blinking. "Well, er, I'll never make that," I say. His green eyes narrowing, he mutters, "Of course you will, this is Switzerland."

Two minutes later, I board a train so silent that, when it leaves the station, I can only tell it is actually moving by looking out the window. It doesn't grate along the tracks so much as glide. Perhaps it is to be expected in the country that invented high-altitude rail travel. With its elaborate system of narrow passes, viaducts and rock-hewn tunnels, the Swiss rail network has set the standard for more than a century, since its engineers first laid tracks up and down the steepest slopes and seemingly defied the impossible.

Lulled by the silence of the carriage and the prospect of alpine rail travel, I fall into a deep, childlike sleep. When I awake, hillsides roll like waves outside the train. Overlaid with fields, their grass is the colour of crushed emeralds. There are mountains, too, grey crags looming down like broken teeth, some tinged with snow.

Alighting at Appenzell, I find myself in the backdrop for an Alpen commercial. Nudged up in the northeast of Switzerland, walled by mountains, the town and the surrounding hamlets abound with prim chalets, their window boxes overflowing in riotous reds and pinks. There are exquisitely painted stone buildings, cuckoo clocks, cow bells and perfectly squared stacks of firewood awaiting the winter freeze. With the smallest population of any canton (a touch over 15,000), its people are outnumbered by cows.

In the dazzling light of late afternoon, in the nearby village of Weissbad, a smiling farmer named Johan shows me his herd. Johan's grin never leaves his lips, and he's not the only one who is happy. His wife is happy and, as for his cows, they are simply beaming with delight.

If the village surroundings are out of an Alpen commercial, the cows are from a Milka ad. They are spotless, pale brown, pretty, and have oversized bells fastened on leather collars around their necks. As they roam the lush pastures ruminating, they make a delicious music of their own.

Johan tells me that happy cows make lots of good milk, and that good milk makes great cheese. He says he thought hard before naming them, and that they are his girls. "This one is Lisa," he says, lovingly cupping a huge bovine head in his arms as she licks him. "And this is Carmen. She can be quite naughty sometimes."

After much talk of cows, we share a bottle of the local weissbier, drops of condensation running down the side of the glass. With an edge of sweetness, it tastes of ripe malted barley, and is made with water so pure it shines.

Johan thumps down his beer and says he has something to show me. His eyes wide and excited, he leads me through into the barn. Hanging there, waist-high on a wall, are a clutch of trophies and wreathes, all won for scything grass. It turns out that Johan is a champion. When I praise this little-appreciated Swiss skill, the farmer grins until his cheeks dimple. He mumbles modesties, then, as a way of changing the subject, shows me to my room.

In fact it is not so much a room as a barn. Instead of beds there are stalls filled high with fresh straw. Johan demonstrates how Grinning, he slips out to check on the girls before turning in himself.

Lying in pitch-black darkness, I listen to the animals moving restlessly, and feel more content than I have in a long while.

Johan is up at dawn for the first milking, and coos over the herd like a mother hen. The hillsides are glazed in dew, cool morning shadows streaming over them like giants' cloaks. We take breakfast together - rough mountain bread, cured ham and tangy Appenzeller cheese - and talk about scything grass and about cows some more. We are joined by another farmer, Willi. Much of his creased face is obscured by an ample white beard. His hands are the roughest I can remember ever shaking. He speaks of the past, of his 18 grandchildren and about his own herd. I ask him about change. Willi blinks and his eyes seem to water. "There has been change," he says with a grunt. "Look over there." He motions down to a village in the dip between two hills. "The village?" I ask. Willi nods slowly. "I remember when there was a single farmhouse," he says.

The next day, the wheels beneath me are moving again. At Chur I boarded the fabled Glacier Express, which bills itself as "the world's slowest express train". The sleek carriages gleam grey and fire-engine red; inside, they are washed in blinding light. Through the windows, nature's canvas rolls by, silent beneath boiling cumulus clouds and peppered with pretty villages. The rivers are swollen from weeks of rain, their waters the hue of aquamarines.

If Switzerland is a showcase for extraordinary railway achievement, the Glacier Express is the jewel in its crown. With no fewer than 291 bridges and 91 tunnels, it reaches a height of more than 2,000m at the Oberalp Pass, and takes seven and a half hours to carve the route from St Moritz to Zermatt. Gliding forward mile after mile, it is easy to forget the challenge, and the loss of life in creating such a wonder of engineering.

Noticing my amazement at it all, the elderly lady seated opposite me stoops across the table. "My grandfather worked as a labourer on the famous Landwasser Viaduct back in 1901,"she whispers. "Everyone said the chief designer was a lunatic. But history has judged him for what he really was - a genius."

The train's dining car is also a throwback to the early 20th Century, to the 1930s, when it was built. Compact and wood-panelled, with floral velvet seats, brass fittings, starched tablecloths and flower posies arranged at each place, it has the ambience of a well-loved gentlemen's club.

The waitress, Elvira, energetically polishes the silver. She seems a little flustered at seeing me arrive for a late lunch. "We have already catered for 120," she says apologetically, as she hands me the menu. "The kitchen may be tiny but we prepare everything from scratch."

Uncertain of what to order, I ask Elvira to do so for me, and am rewarded with one of the most memorable meals of my life. There is Salsiz sausage and veal paillard (a flattened scallop), bouillon aux crepe en lamelles (a kind of broth with pancake strips), platters of alpine cheese, and a wine list that would make the most pedantic sommelier proud. Leaving the Glacier Express at Brig, I have a lump in my throat. All I can think of is clawing my way back to the dining car, for another meal under Elvira's conscientious watch.

In most countries, changing trains tends to be a sordid ordeal of waiting and of discomfort. But, as I prepare to board my onward train, I am reminded again that Switzerland is different. This is a land in which rail travel is still a genteel pursuit, one of enjoyment rather than endurance. The station masters are well dressed and courteous, the platforms clean, the efficiency of the system as reliable as a Rolex Oyster Perpetual.

I reach my destination of Kandersteg on time, of course. The alpine village has been a favourite with the British since Victorian times. For them, the bracing mountain air was regarded as a tonic more potent than almost any other. They would hike in the summer months and, in winter, pioneer the new sport of downhill or alpine skiing. Set in a monumental amphitheatre of peaks, ridges and jagged stone bluffs, it's far more rugged than the sweeping farmlands at Appenzell.

In the days I spend at Kandersteg, I find myself reflecting on the courtesy of the people I encounter. However rushed or busy, there is always time for good manners. As seems to be so in most Swiss villages, complete strangers in Kandersteg greet each other as they walk past. Men still tip their hats, in a well-honed system with "do-as-you-would-be-done-by" at its core.

A cable car connects the village with the magnificent Lake Oeschinen, whose azure waters mirror the sky. The slopes are abundant with wild flowers and lizard green ferns, with soft moss and lichens. The air is thick with bumblebees and marbled white butterflies. At the water's edge I meet an American woman in a wide-brimmed hat, searching for tiny wild orchids. She has one of those smiles that sticks in the mind and tells me that she's been coming to Kandersteg every year on the same day for four decades. "My fiancé proposed where we're standing," she says. When I ask if he is with her, the woman's smile fades. "He died in Vietnam," she says.

The journey northwest to Lake Lucerne involves three trains and a paddle steamer in a single afternoon, each one running on a schedule as precise as Swiss clockwork. Set on the western edge of the lake, the town of Lucerne is as placid as the waters in which its medieval buildings are reflected. Rust-brown tiled rooftops, church spires and onion domes: its skyline is a credit to Swiss understatement. Switzerland seems set on quality over quantity. As a visitor you feel fortunate at being allowed in at all. It is rather like peeking under the curtain to see a play for which all the tickets were long since sold.

Gliding across the lake like princesses dancing at a ball are the steamers. Although built in 1901, the one I climb aboard looks spanking new, and was christened after the Swiss folk-hero Wilhelm Tell. One of five such vessels plying Lake Lucerne's gleaming waters for more than a century, its mechanism was a marvel of the late Victorian age. Pistons heaving up and down, it ushers me gracefully past swans and pedalos, around the zigzag margins of the lake. As we move forward, I glimpse a handful of fabulous chateaux poking out from between the trees high above the waterline.

The steamer pulls up at Weggis, little more than a hamlet. As the sun sets, long shadows waning into night, I take a meal in the Weggiser Stübli. A fragment of Swiss life from antiquity, the wood-panelled salon has escaped the ever-threatening need to renovate. As elsewhere in a land where tradition dies hard, the Stübli at Weggis remains an important hub for the local community. It is a restaurant, bar and meeting room all rolled into one. With portraits of the hamlet's leaders looming down, I dine on bratwurst and bauernrösti (a ham, cheese and potato dish), washed down with a glass of Les Murailles wine.

Seated at the next table is a wizened old man who looks as Swiss as Toblerone. I half think he might break out yodelling any moment. Raising his glass of reisling, he catches my eye.

"We ought to keep it secret," he smiles.

"Do you mean the food, or the wine... or the Stübli itself?"

The man sips his drink, thinks for a moment. He frowns. "All of it," he says. "Let's keep it all to ourselves."

Swiss Rail Journeys
1. The Glacier Express starts in Zermatt, in the shadow of the instantly recognisable Matterhorn, and takes 7½ hours to cover the 180 miles to St Moritz. The route takes in the lion's share of Switzerland's high-alpine scenery, climbing as high as 2,033 metres at the Oberalp Pass.

2. Train names don't get much more patriotic than the Wilhelm Tell Express. The trip starts in Lucerne with a three-hour cruise across Lake Lucerne, the cradle of the Swiss Confederation, before boarding a train in Flüelen. From there, the line wends its way to Locarno, in the country's Italian-speaking south, on the shores of Lake Maggiore.

3. Sharing part of the same route as the Glacier Express (between Chur and St Moritz), the Bernina Express runs along the World Heritage-listed Rhaetian Railway. In the Albula Valley the track spirals to gain height, and around the austere grandeur of the Bernina Pass becomes one of the world's steepest narrow-gauge railways. The line ends at Tirano in Italy, where there's the option of a bus to Lugano in southern Switzerland.

 

The article 'Swiss movement' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.