Diccon Bewes is already at the bookshop in Bern when I arrive. He's chatting with some of the staff while stacks of copies of Slow Train to Switzerland, his newest work, stand before him. "Just signing before I go on two weeks' holiday," he explains.
In the morning he's travelling to Spain for an "unplugged" vacation. He won't be bringing his computer, and he won't be using his iPhone either. Instead, he's taking along six books that have "nothing at all to do with Switzerland," he says with a wry smile.
Bewes deserves the break. Lately, he's been on a Swiss tour promoting the travelogue. It seems apt that the promotional circuit would take him around the country by rail. To write the book, he retraced the first conducted tour of Switzerland organized in 1863 by the famous English travel agent, Thomas Cook. Bewes used the diary of Miss Jemima Morrell, one of the travellers, as a guide and means for exploring the history of trains and tourism in this Alpine nation.
Bewes scrawls his name in the last book and looks up. "Coffee?" he proffers. As we enter the cafe, he nods to the barista who returns the gesture with a smile. I realize everyone knows him here. After all, this is his old stomping ground. Before becoming an author, he managed Bern's Stauffacher English Bookshop from 2006 to 2011.
In the year before he started his job, he moved from London to Bern to be with his Swiss partner. It was a move that halted his career as a travel writer. On arrival in Switzerland, he had to learn German, and he had to get a day job. "Neither of which helped me get back to writing in the shortterm," he says. But Bewes thinks both experiences were crucial to his eventual success. "Without them I could never have written Swiss Watching," he says, referring to his first book. "The further away from writing I seemed to be, the closer I was to actually being able to write something that changed my life."
With the success of Swiss Watching, Bewes was able to quit the bookshop and return to writing full time. But rather than resuming his career as a travel writer, he instead became the local expert. "At first it was by accident, but now it's more by design," he says.
As an established "outsider" expert on Switzerland, he continued to write about the country in his blog with his second book, Swisscellany: facts & figures about Switzerland. But for his third and latest project, Bewes took a slightly different approach. "The one thing I didn't want it to be was Swiss Watching II, so although it is also about Switzerland, it had to be from a different angle," he says.
For Slow Train to Switzerland, he utilized his experience as a travel writer and also the language skills he acquired as a new arrival. "I had to find out all the local history along the way, as well as try and paint a picture of what travelling was like back in 1863. So this book involved a lot more background research, which was often a challenge in itself, as reading economic history books in German isn't that exciting, and it took a lot longer – almost two years' work."
To complement his research, he enlisted his mother as travelling companion and recreated Miss Jemima's historic journey. He points out that while modern trains move faster than nineteenth-century ones, the pair tried to keep to the slower rhythm of the Victorian trip. They followed Miss Jemima's itinerary, saw the same sights, and stayed in the same places. "It was interesting for me to see how some things have changed and how some things have stayed the same. Although the landscape hasn't changed in 150 years, some tourist attractions, like Mer de Glace, are still popular and others, like staying overnight on Mount Rigi to watch the sunrise, aren't popular at all."
No stranger to rail travel, Bewes has never owned a car, and he always opts to travel by train. It's an inclination he attributes to cramped childhood car journeys across Europe. Every Easter, his parents would load up their three children and drive from England across France and Switzerland to holiday with his grandmother in Italy.
For all the effort he has made to learn about Switzerland and to share its history and culture with his readers, Bewes says he isn't sure if he will ever understand it completely. "I'm always learning something new or observing something different," he says, admitting that he is even warming to the Swiss notion of the country walk, which "normally involves substantial height differences, and no pub at the end!" It's no wonder he wrote a book about a rail tour.
Although Bewes continues to learn about life in Switzerland, he now feels very much at home. And to his surprise, he has been embraced not only by the international community but also by locals. "I have received many positive emails from Swiss readers and been approached in the street, in Coop, in the tram, and even at the swimming pool! It is not typical behaviour for most Swiss, as it involves spontaneity and displaying emotion with strangers, but it is very welcome."
For Bewes and the Swiss the attraction is mutual. Despite leaving everything behind in London, Bewes has written an insider's guide to Switzerland, a book of facts and figures, and now a breezy travelogue about trains and tourism. "In Britain, I may have simply stayed a behind-the-scenes travel writer," he says, modestly underplaying his very Swiss success story.