Switzer­land’s Glacier Ex­press is one of the most dra­matic train routes in Eu­rope, as Jamie Laf­ferty found out first-hand

Ahlan! - - Contents -

Why the Glacier Ex­press is the only way to see Switzer­land at this time of year.

I call this the ‘blue hour’,” says Do­minic Ba­chofen, gen­eral man­ager of the Carl­ton ho­tel in St Moritz. We’re shiv­er­ing on a bal­cony of his grand ho­tel, half an hour or so af­ter sun­set. The sky has turned the colour of a deep ocean, its vast blue­ness bleed­ing down onto snowy moun­tains and the frozen Lake St Moritz. Un­til the black of night takes over com­pletely, the en­tire re­sort will be bathed in this strange, sooth­ing colour.

Here in the east of

Switzer­land, it’s im­por­tant to be able to make ac­cu­rate weather pre­dic­tions but, un­for­tu­nately, the most re­cent win­ter sea­son has been any­thing but pre­dictable. With warmerthan-av­er­age tem­per­a­tures in St Moritz, the arti cial snow-blow­ers have been work­ing over­time. As peo­ple have been kept o the slopes, the de­signer shops and up­mar­ket restau­rants around town have been busier than usual. Ev­ery­thing has seemed a lit­tle up­side down.

In a coun­try that cher­ishes plan­ning and pre­ci­sion more than most, it’s been a frus­trat­ing few months. But just at the bot­tom of this panorama from the Carl­ton there’s a bas­tion of re­li­a­bil­ity: the glo­ri­ous Swiss rail net­work. When all else is chang­ing, the one thing you can rely on is the in­fal­li­bil­ity of the trains: if a Swiss ser­vice is sched­uled for 9:02, you can bet that is pre­cisely when it will de­part.

Ad­mit­tedly the re­li­a­bil­ity of train timetabling is prob­a­bly only ex­cit­ing for a niche group of so­ci­ety, but St Moritz is also

“The jour­ney, not the ar­rival, mat­ters; the voy­age, not the land­ing” – Paul Th­er­oux, ‘The Old Patag­o­nian Ex­press’

the de­pot for one of the planet’s most re­mark­able trains, the Glacier Ex­press. Leav­ing from this lux­ury re­sort once a day, a jour­ney on the “world’s slow­est

ex­press train” is also one of its most scenic.

The sta­tis­tics are quite in­cred­i­ble: the route was opened in 1930 (though some sec­tions are forty years older than that) and fea­tures 291 bridges, 91 tun­nels and end­less jaw-drop­ping views. But, un­til you’ve ac­tu­ally rid­den in one of its car­riages, the num­bers mean very lit­tle.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, I check out of the Carl­ton and head down to the train sta­tion in good time for de­par­ture. It’s a bright, shiny day when I step into the rst-class panoramic car­riage of the Glacier Ex­press. The sun­light bounces around and through the glass like lasers in a strange, ethe­real disco. It’s such a clear day that tak­ing pic­tures is quite di cult – the re ec­tions in the win­dow con­tain yet more re ec­tions and the sun’s are is re­fracted half a dozen times be­fore hit­ting my lens.

When we do leave, we do so ex­actly on time. The rst stop on the route is Cele­rina, just a cou­ple of kilo­me­tres out­side St Moritz. It’s here that the fa­mous bob­sleigh run – the world’s old­est and only nat­u­rally formed track – ends.

Once we pull past there, how­ever, the coun­try­side opens up and the sky breathes out. Out in the cold, a de­ter­mined cou­ple bat­tle their way across a frozen eld on cross-coun­try skis. In­side the car­riage, an el­derly Swiss man with a face the colour and tex­ture of wal­nut, watches them in­tently. It’s im­pos­si­ble to tell whether he’s la­ment­ing the fact he can’t be out do­ing the same, or if he is con­tent to be here in the warm car­riage.

It will take us the best part of eight hours to travel to Switzer­land’s most cel­e­brated win­ter sports des­ti­na­tion, Zer­matt. As the crow ies, it’s only 170km be­tween the two towns, but the Glacier Ex­press isn’t about speed or, in truth, e ciency. No, this is the kind of thing Paul Th­er­oux, per­haps the great­est writer of train travel, would love. The Glacier Ex­press is the tourist at­trac­tion – the train is the rea­son for trav­el­ling, not the charms of St Moritz or Zer­matt. As Th­er­oux said in the in­tro­duc­tion to his bril­liant book, The Old Patag­o­nian Ex­press: “The jour­ney, not the ar­rival, mat­ters; the voy­age, not the land­ing.”

It’s easy to ad­mire (and be en­vi­ous of) Paul Th­er­oux – for travel writ­ers, a great deal of his wis­dom is sacro­sanct. But he also fa­mously said: “Travel is only glam­orous in ret­ro­spect,” and while I gen­er­ally agree with that state­ment, I can only con­clude that the wily Amer­i­can has never rid­den rst class on the Glacier Ex­press.

There’s plenty of room; the seats are com­fort­able; and the air-con­di­tion­ing is care­fully man­aged. All of the things you’d ex­pect from an ex­pen­sive ticket are just as they should be. But there’s also a waiter bring­ing three-course meals to my ta­ble, danc­ing to the rhythms of the train, shim­my­ing this way and that to cope with the uxes of the track. Dishes vary from steaks to cur­ries to tra­di­tional Swiss ros­tis to Hun­gar­ian goulash. It’s all ex­tremely com­fort­able, but the real sell­ing point is all that glass, which o ers su­perla­tive views from al­most ev­ery an­gle.

Trav­el­ling as I am from east to west, the rst sec­tion of the Glacier Ex­press is per­haps its most dra­matic. At times my eyes feel over­whelmed, it­ting in ev­ery di­rec­tion to try and take it all in. Moun­tains loom over the roof pan­els, snow­blasted r trees cling onto sheer cli s, and below them deep gorges carry turquoise rivers through the earth.

In 2008, this 62km stretch from St Moritz to Thu­sis – also known as the Al­bula Rail­way – was added to UNESCO’s World Her­itage List. The UN body said in the in­scrip­tion: “The prop­erty is ex­em­plary of the use of the rail­way to over­come

the iso­la­tion of set­tle­ments in the Cen­tral Alps early in the 20th Cen­tury, with a ma­jor and last­ing so­cio-eco­nomic im­pact on life in the moun­tains. It con­sti­tutes an out­stand­ing tech­ni­cal, ar­chi­tec­tural and en­vi­ron­men­tal ensem­ble and em­bod­ies ar­chi­tec­tural and civil en­gi­neer­ing achieve­ments, in har­mony with the land­scapes through which they pass.”

They didn’t men­tion that it’s also ex­tremely pretty. At times, look­ing out of the win­dow it’s hard to be­lieve that what lies be­yond is ac­tu­ally real, so per­fect is the scenery. There’s some­how a dis­con­nect be­tween what you’re see­ing en­sconced in a warm shell, and the frozen set out­side.

Ev­ery time the car­riages emerge from tun­nels through thick moun­tains, there’s an­other sur­prise: a pre­car­i­ous viaduct, a per­ilously po­si­tioned ham­let, a pris­tine cas­tle. This re­mark­able sec­tion of the route ends at the an­cient town of Thu­sis.

Just be­fore we get there I nd my­self lean­ing against the win­dow, peer­ing out across the val­ley, when the ground falls away and the train moves out onto a skinny bridge. I inch back from the win­dow as though I’ve been wo­ken from a fall­ing dream. Below is the in­fa­mous Via­mala, a huge cut in the earth once used by the Ro­mans to travel through the rugged Alps.

Of all the stops on the Glacier Ex­press, Thu­sis is the most tempt­ing to dis­em­bark, not least be­cause of its culi­nary in­sti­tu­tions. Just a few kilo­me­tres to the north lies Schloss- Schauen­stein, which, de­pend­ing on who you lis­ten to, is one of the nest restau­rants in the en­tire world.

Awarded three Miche­lin stars and ranked 30th in the o cial World’s 50 Best Restau­rants, there seems lit­tle doubt that Chef An­dreas Cam­i­nada is in charge of a spe­cial place. As spe­cial as the on-board food is, I can’t help long­ing for a stop-over there for lunch.

A cou­ple hours af­ter set­ting o we ar­rive in Chur, widely con­sid­ered the old­est town in Switzer­land. Hu­man habi­ta­tion goes back at least 4,000 years here, in­clud­ing sev­eral hun­dred as a Ro­man camp. To­day it has a pop­u­la­tion of around 36,000, who are squeezed into its nar­row pic­turesque streets and me­an­der through its cob­bled al­leys.

Just be­fore we pull into its sta­tion, the con­duc­tor ap­proaches with some bad news: there has been an avalanche on the track, up at its high­est point, the fa­bled Ober­alp Pass. We will have to play it safe and take a de­tour. The news is di cult to di­gest. The pass rises to over 2,000m and is the source of the mighty Rhine River, but to­day, at the end of win­ter, it will keep its charms hid­den. Af­ter an in­dig­nant few min­utes I ac­cept the sit­u­a­tion – I have no more con­trol over avalanches than I do the sun, and be­sides, bet­ter to have it hap­pen be­fore our train ar­rived.

Some hours later, the Glacier

“At times, look­ing out of the win­dow it’s hard to be­lieve what lies be­yond is ac­tu­ally real”

Ex­press has re-joined its orig­i­nal route at the small town of Visp. At around 600m above sea level, from here we will have to climb over a kilo­me­tre to our nal des­ti­na­tion, Zer­matt. With such a tight track, the train snakes slowly, gen­tly wob­bling to the left and right like a child who has just stepped o a fairground ride.

Ev­ery­thing seems squeezed on the route to Zer­matt. The moun­tains peer in through the roof like nosy neigh­bours. The stra­tum of the rock is scarred and an­gry look­ing, at times al­most touch­ing our mo­bile green­house.

The train runs in both sum­mer and win­ter, with each sea­son o er­ing com­pletely di er­ent pic­tures of Switzer­land. I won­der how much un­der­stand­ing the men who built this route had of what they were cre­at­ing – did they ex­pect that it would be­come an at­trac­tion in and of it­self? Surely, work­ing in that en­vi­ron­ment for so long, they knew that they were in charge of some­thing des­tined to be more than just a func­tional route be­tween two points. Hav­ing crossed so many bridges and passed through so many im­pos­si­ble tun­nels, their brav­ery and in­ge­nu­ity are ev­i­dent and truly magni cent.

On and on we travel, through the town of St Nick­laus (a hub for moun­tain guides), and up to­wards Zer­matt. Ahead lies the Mat­ter­horn, per­haps the most dra­matic moun­tain in Eu­rope. Its peak is so crooked, its faces so sheer, that it looks like a child has been asked to draw a moun­tain, rather than it be­ing the re­sult of a cat­a­clysmic ge­o­log­i­cal event. Its ap­pear­ance is so bold that it’s hard to ac­cept the facts com­ing from the train’s au­dio guide: “At 4,478m, the Mat­ter­horn is not the high­est moun­tain in the re­gion: that ti­tle be­longs to the Dom, just out­side Saas-Fee.”

When the train nally pulls into Zer­matt, I al­most don’t want to get o . Even fac­tor­ing in the de­tour, it’s been one of the most spec­tac­u­lar jour­neys of my life. When I step onto the plat­form it’s hard to be up­beat. Zer­matt has long banned the use of or­di­nary cars, so I’m picked up by a driver from the Cervo Ho­tel in some­thing like a cus­tom-de­signed milk oat. He asks about my jour­ney and I ex­plain the bad luck with the avalanche, ea­ger to talk to a sym­pa­thetic ear.

He looks over his shoul­der at me: “Well, you know what that means, don’t you?” I con­fess I don’t. “You’ll just have to come back and do it again.”






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