Have you ever taken any particular mode of transport just for the experience of travelling that way? Back in my days of London commuting, I would have laughed if you’d told me that one day I would go on the Glacier Express, an all-day train journey, just for the views and the experience. In fact, if you’d told me this when I was standing at London Kings Cross station facing yet another hour-plus delay, or cramped into the corner of a crowded carriage under someones armpit, the chances are we still wouldn’t be speaking. UK commuter trains are not for the faint-hearted, or those who place value on things like time, money and personal space.
So why do this?
The Glacier Express is no ordinary train and the route it takes is no ordinary journey. On the whole trip, you will roll through the ever-more stunning Swiss Alps for seven and a half hours. Over 291 bridges and through 91 tunnels. Climbing to more than 2,000 metres above sea level at the highest point in the trip, the Oberalp pass. Through mountain villages, alongside rivers, and trundling lazily past skiiers and snowboarders jumping from chairlifts to zip off into the distance. It’s known as the slowest express train in the world. This is not so much a journey as an experience in itself. If England is only 500 miles away, the horror of London commuting is five hundred thousand miles away from this.
We decided on this particular getaway because it was my birthday. We had opted not to do the full Glacier Express journey as we only had three days and wanted to spend a full day somewhere not travelling. So we boarded the train at Chur, and stayed on until Zermatt. This is about five and a half hours, and still in time for the lunch service on the train.
A panorama of the Swiss Alps
The Glacier Express service has been running since 1930 and is named after the Rhone Glacier. It starts in St Moritz, in the south-east of Switzerland and travels through Chur where we boarded. Chur is the capital of canton Grisons, or Graubunden. Did you know that Swiss cantons and even some towns can be named differently in French or German, or even in Italian as well? This can be incredibly confusing to a foreigner. When I first moved to Switzerland I thought there must be about eighty Swiss cantons when in fact there are only 26.
Apart from the stunning mountain scenery and the fact that it is the largest canton in Switzerland, Graubunden is actually a trilingual canton. Native speakers of Swiss German, Italian and Romansch, the least-spoken fourth language of Switzerland, exist side by side in the pretty mountain villages.
On board the Glacier Express
On boarding the Glacier Express at Chur around 1130, the first thing that is striking about the train is the extra light and views in the panoramic coaches. This is not just a gimmick, it really makes the whole carriage feel much closer to the scenery outside. At our seats, we found menus and earphones on the table, which was already set for lunch. The earphones are complimentary to enable listening to the audio guide to the rail journey through the in-seat audio jack. The guide is available in multiple languages.
Lunch is available as a fixed menu of three courses, or only the main course. The entree on the day we travelled was pork peppersteak with spätzli.
While the train was fully booked, the seats are fairly spacious so we didn’t feel at all crowded. We were sharing our table with a couple on holiday from South Korea who were doing a multi-stop trip across Switzerland. We chatted with them over lunch. After lunch, Tom and I decided to visit the bar carriage as we had aisle seats (tip: book early if you want window seats!) and we wanted to get some photos from the windows.
From Chur, the train climbs up narrow-gauge rails to Disentis and the Oberalp pass, into the canton of Uri. From there, it descends through to Andermatt and into the canton of Valais (or Wallis, in German!). The train stops at Brig and Visp, and climbs up through the Mattertal valley. The journey ends in Zermatt, 1600m above sea level.
The journey itself is incredibly relaxing. There is really nothing to do for hours. Except stare out of the panoramic windows at the dazzling scenery that sweeps past relentlessly. The most strenuous thing I had to do was keep putting my sunglasses back on quickly enough when the train moved from the mountain shadows into the piercing sunlight, which reflected off the glittering snow so brightly it made my eyes leak.
The reading material on board the train mentions the foresight of the mountain-dwellers who built the Swiss railways. They correctly predicted that the only sustainable future for the people of the mountains was to attract tourists. Building the railways has ensured that tourists can access the mountain villages and skis areas. As we alighted the train and came out into Zermatt, it is quite amazing to think about that foresight. The tourists far outnumber the locals in this pretty but developed alpine village. We walked the short distance to our hotel and prepared for our weekend in the shadow of the mighty Matterhorn.