Switzerland’s Glacier Express is one of the most dramatic train routes in Europe, as Jamie Lafferty found out first-hand
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.”
VIEWS TO ADMIRE FROM EVERY ANGLE OF OUR FIRST CLASS CARRIAGE
ONE OF THE 291PICTURESQUE BRIDGES EN ROUTE
ONE OF THE MANY PICTURE-PERFECT VIEWS
A JOURNEY ON THE “WORLD’S SLOWEST EXPRESS TRAIN” IS ALSO ONE OF ITS MOST SCENIC