The legibility of my scribbles has always left much to be desired. From primary school, my handwriting could best be described with a Russian idiom kak kuristsa lapoi – literally, ‘he writes like a hen with her paw (sic)’. More often than not, I have little problem deciphering my own notes. This time, however, the scrawls in my notebooks were particularly bouncy and uneven, reflecting the curves and gradients of the steep and winding Swiss mountain roads on which they were written. They resembled an ECG of a person on the brink of a heart attack.
My aim was to criss-cross a chunk of Switzerland, using nothing but the yellow postbuses – or ‘post autos’ – the country’s iconic public transport vehicles. While in Switzerland, so attached did I become to those agile and ubiquitous vehicles that I started personalising them in the same way travellers personalise countries and cities. It was hard not to, for the postbuses’ role in the life of Swiss towns and villages has always been much more significant than merely being a reliable means of taking citizens from one place to another.
The Swiss PostBus Limited is the largest of the country’s 78 coach companies. Administered by the Motor Services Department of the Post Office, it carries over 120 million passengers each year and is carefully integrated with other public transport services: trains, boats and mountain cableways. According to Fritz Jenni, a former operations manager for the Postbuses, the Swiss transportation system resembles a tree, with the larger branches representing federal and private railways, smaller branches being the coaches, and the twigs being the urban transit operators running trams, city buses, boats, chairlifts and so on. But the trunk that holds the tree together is the vast post auto network which also operates in Liechtenstein and the South of France.
There isn’t an inhabited place in Switzerland that cannot be reached by some sort of public transport. The federal law and the Swiss Constitution stipulate that every village with a population greater than 40 is entitled to regular bus services. The frequency of these services is in direct proportion to the population density. Timetables are put together four years in advance. They tend to be rather conservative and seldom change. If a new route is to be introduced, the population of the area affected is invited to have a referendum.
At times, postbuses are the main – sometimes the only – links between settlements. Bright yellow coaches, often with a small mail van in tow (for post autos still carry post), are a common sight in high-altitude regions and their signature sound – the first movement of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, played by the drivers on three-tone post horns with electrical compressors at every road turn, is perhaps one of most familiar Swiss ‘voices’ – melodious, if somewhat ear-grating.
A little-known – and fairly ‘human’ – fact of the three-note horns is that they can still be used to ‘talk’ to post offices (and each other) from a distance. By altering the combination of the tones, a driver can announce ‘departure of post’, ‘arrival of post’, ‘arrival of special post’, ‘bus swerving out’ and so on – so much more romantic and often more reliable than radio or mobile phones. This musical ‘language’ started in the mid-19th century, when the coach drivers could also blow their horns a certain number of times on approaching the station to indicate the quantity of horses needing to be fed, giving the station master time to prepare the fodder.
The postbus history goes back to 1849 when the Swiss postal service was made a monopoly of the young Confederation. The role of today’s modern yellow buses was, back then, played by horse-drawn carriages (or in winter by sleighs), also coloured yellow. By the First World War, well after the first motor coaches were introduced on the 11-mile stretch between Bern and Detlingen in 1906 (a line still in operation today), there were 2,500 horses, 2,231 coaches (or carriages) and 1,059 sleighs in service.
After the war, Swiss Post bought a fleet of decommissioned military trucks which were converted into postbuses, but it was not until 1961 that the last horse-drawn coach was replaced with a motorised version on the high-altitude route from Cresta to Juf.
Today, the Swiss Post Office boasts one of the world’s most advanced coach fleets, including fuel-cell models and the world’s first driverless bus, launched in 2015 in the town of Sion, the capital of the canton of Valais.
Mountain tourism in Switzerland began in the early 19th century, when the first British mountaineers climbed two main peaks of the Bernese Alps: Jungfrau in 1811 and Finsteraarhorn in 1812. It was not long before the horse-drawn postal coaches started climbing the mountains too, yet it took motorised buses to conquer some truly serious heights.
Having stocked up on altitude sickness pills, I travelled up the steepest bus route in Europe (average gradient 28 per cent) – from Reichenbach to Pochtenalp, at 3,660m above sea level, along the Kiental-Griesalp line. The pills remained unused, for despite countless sharp turns, with a nearly uninterrupted post horn symphony played by Manfred Mettier, the driver of our compact Mercedes-Benz postbus, the journey was surprisingly smooth. At times, the bus would come to a sharp halt to give way to a descending lorry (descending traffic gets priority in the Alps). The driver would change gears, and the passengers would gasp involuntarily as the vehicle slipped back several inches. Our bus had a mail trailer in tow and, looking back, I could often see it folding into a particularly sharp turn of the narrow road, like a dagger in a sheath, and getting almost parallel to the bus itself.
This climb to Griesalp was first completed in 1860 by British mountaineer and historian Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), father of Virginia Woolf , who branded the Swiss Alps ‘the playground of Europe’. Twelve years later, the first postal diligences (the name given in French to a solidly-built coach with four or more horses) were introduced to parts of the route.
THE TOUR GUIDE
Postbuses often go to places that other means of transport cannot reach. Most of the drivers therefore see themselves as educators and tour guides. Although it’s not their direct duty, they never miss a chance to point out the sights – waterfalls, gorges, peculiar bridges – and are always ready to pull over for a photo opportunity (such ‘unofficial’ scenic stops are tentatively included on the timetables). ‘Without them [post autos], the Alps would have remained an unknown land to thousands of travellers,’ John Withers, President of the English Alpine Club, wrote to the Swiss Postmaster General in 1932.
I realised the validity of these words while on Switzerland’s longest (and one of the highest) postbus journeys: across four Central Alpine mountain passes on the Grimsel-Nufenen-Gotthard-Susten Pass route – an eight-hour trip undertaken by a single Setra 415H postbus. The journey took me through several cantons; two languages (German and Italian); all four seasons – from burning sunshine to showers and heavy snowfalls; and countless ‘places of interest’.
Ostap Bender, the protagonist of The Twelve Chairs, a satirical novel by Soviet writers Ilf and Petrov, dismissed mountains as ‘useless thing[s]… too much luxury… idiot’s imagination...’ I was ready to agree with him after the first several hours of the journey, when the mountain views behind the windows of our postbus became overwhelming and somewhat oppressive, with swollen rivers and mountain streams in the gorges resembling muscled sinewy torsos of giant bodybuilders.
At 2,120m, altitude sickness kicked in making my head feel heavy and alien. It was then that Adolf von Bergen, our driver, announced a scenic stop. As the passengers were admiring the views, he told the story of the Gotthard Pass, often described as ‘the People’s Road’, probably because it connected the German-speaking canton of Uri with Italian-speaking Ticino. In June 2016, the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world’s deepest and longest, at a length of over 57km, was completed under the pass. The tunnel opened on 11 December 2016 slashing by a good hour the journey time between Zurich and Milan.
One word in the driver’s monologue was particularly familiar. ‘Suvorov,’ he kept repeating, pointing at a distant mountain peak. I recalled my Soviet school history manual which featured the painting by Surikov, a late-19th-century Russian artist, Suvorov Crossing the Alps. It was a scene from Russia’s successful military campaign to expel the French from Italy (Russia was then part of the anti-French coalition) led by a renowned military commander, Count Alexander Vassilyevich Suvorov, in 1799. Upon reaching central Switzerland, Suvorov’s army was all but surrounded by the French. After ferocious fighting across ‘St Gotthard Pass’, Suvorov managed to escape the entrapment by leading his army of 18,000 exhausted and hungry soldiers over three Alpine passes in just ten days. The painting showed Suvorov’s troops sliding down a snow-covered mountain on their bottoms, laughing. Looking at the peak, semi-hidden under a fluffy fur hat of clouds, I could almost discern the spectres of bearded Russian soldiers, their long Cossack-style tunics being used as sledges to whoosh themselves down the mountain. There were neither trains nor postbuses to catch here in 1799.
Shortly after a 2,150m altitude marker had flashed past, we crossed into the canton of Ticino – and the automated intercom announcements, all in German only minutes ago, switched over to Italian. Like Switzerland itself, postbuses ‘speak’ all four state languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh (in the canton of Grisons) – and, by law, each bus starts ‘speaking’ the language of whichever canton it is currently passing through.
Ticino is like a different country within Switzerland. Its Alpine areas were much less densely populated than those of the German-speaking canton of Uri. The driver announced (in Italian) that the villages we had driven past had only 75 residents across all three of them.
We had an hour-long lunch stop in the village of Airolo where I sat next to our driver. Adolf is 61 and has worked as a driver for 41 years without a single accident. Prior to being hired by PostBus, he was in the army driving heavy lorries. ‘Being a postbus driver is like belonging to the elite,’ he said and explained that, irrespective of his vast previous experience, he had to undergo lots of training. During the first year, he was not allowed to drive post autos on his own, only under supervision of a more experienced driver. It was only after two years of safe driving in the valleys that he was pronounced ‘ready’ for a mountain bus.
The training of postbus drivers includes psychology and communication skills. ‘A city bus driver can stay inside his cabin, but a postbus driver has to be among the passengers,’ smiled Adolf, dipping his fork deep into a hillock of spaghetti strings.
The village of Saxeten in the canton of Bern has a population of 96, and its only connection to the world is a Mercedes ‘mini’ postbus, which shuttles between the village and the town of Wilderswil six times a day.
Apart from being the scene of the Saxetenbach Gorge flooding disaster, in which 21 people, mostly tourists from Australia, New Zealand, England, South Africa and Switzerland, perished in July 1999, the village is unremarkable. It lies at the entrance to the nearby mountain valleys that containing the Lütschine river. The route is not at all busy, with the bus often carrying just two or three passengers at a time. But for people of Saxeten, still living off cattle-breeding and farming, it is of the utmost importance.
The small postbus not only carries the villagers to town and back, it takes village kids to and from school, delivers mail, transports milk from the village farm down to the valley, collects rubbish from the village taking it down for recycling (Swiss laws do not allow dumping anywhere in the mountains), and brings building materials to households. It takes elderly villagers to Wilderswil shops and helps them ‘carry’ the shopping up the hill to their homes. More a friend than just a means of transportation, for the dwellers of Saxeten the postbus epitomises their constitutional right to freedom of movement.
It was on the morning postbus service that I met Erika Seemater on her fortnightly trip to bring food to her 92-year-old father Gotlib, who lives in the village on his own. Saxeten-born Erika, who had herself moved to the valley a while ago, told me how her life in the village had been inseparable from postbuses, which used to take her to shops, hairdressers and cooking classes in the valley. Gotlib was waiting on the porch of his large wooden chalet as the bus drove up. He looked much younger than his age, as many highlanders do.
I had a couple of hours to spare before the return trip – ample time to talk to Carolyn Lansdell, the driver of the Saxeten service, over a cup of coffee in the village restaurant. Married to an Englishman, Carolyn has been a postbus driver for just a couple of years. She was also a well-known paraglider pilot, a member of the Swiss national paragliding team, and only drives the Saxeten bus when there is ‘not a lot of flying or snow-boarding on offer’. Carolyn lives in the valley, and drives her own car to Saxeten every morning to rejoin the postbus, which she leaves in the village overnight.
‘I know all the villagers by name, and most of them are heavily dependent on my postbus,’ she said ‘One couple in their eighties sometimes ask me to pick them up from their house, and I do, although the rules do not allow it. My bosses know and do not mind.’ Always being on time is not obligatory here, for there is just the one bus line and no train connections to make.
‘There are mostly older folks left in the village – and at times I feel more like a community liaison officer than a bus driver,’ she confessed. ‘Once I was asked to bring up the tiles to repair the roof of an old couple’s house. There is a 90-year-old lady suffering from dementia who always tells the same story while on the bus, and I always pretend I hear it for the first time.’
Eventually it was time to head back down to the valley. Apart from me, there were no passengers waiting at the village bus stop. Carolyn sat behind the wheel and started the engine. Before driving off, she backed down, attached a neat rubbish container left behind the shelter to the back of her vehicle, and all three of us – Carolyn, myself and the postbus – began our slow descent to Wilderswil.