Breakfast at St. Moritz, lunch high up the Alps, and dinner at Zermatt… all thanks to the red caterpillar!
Who, you might wonder, would dare market a spectacular train journey, between one of the world's most expensive holiday-destinations, and an especially charming mountain village as the ‘world's slowest fast train'? Well, the Swiss seem to have done just that, and despite the unforgivably quaint pitch, have made a grand success of it too! Then again, success comes easily to the Glacier Express. The train, running from the East to the West of Switzerland, simply slices through the Alps, and pulls-in, a good 7.5 hours later, at the other end. Which can be, depending on where you hopped on, either Zermatt or St. Moritz, both incredibly lovely places, and without doubt, eye-wateringly expensive!
Take St. Moritz – all we wanted to do, was doss down for the night, and catch the Glacier Express the next morning. After many enquiries and much haggling (and pledging all our heirloom jewellery) we, finally, put down a deposit for a family room, at a pokey little hotel, miles from the actual village! Once we got there, it was easy to see why they charge those absurd prices – right from the giant escalator that neatly whisks you up from the shores of the stunning, sapphire blue lake (surrounded, naturally, by very photogenic, snow-capped mountains) to the glamorous high-street brimming with designer stores, everything here screams ‘playground of the rich and famous!' All winter long, St. Moritz graciously hosts the uber-chic, flaunting their carefully tanned, toned bodies and in summer, we were told to expect nothing less than a profusion of opulent, fur-trimmed coats! Sadly, we saw no such bizarre sight, mostly because the famous St. Moritz sun, guaranteed to shine 322 days a year, was obliterated, on our one measly evening in town, by fat, tumultuous rain clouds.
Praying for good weather
At exactly 10:02 the next morning, the arrestingly red, gigantic caterpillar pulled out of the St. Moritz Railway Station and made its way sedately (average speed 39 kmph) towards Zermatt. Since its maiden journey on the 26th of July 1930, the train has transported thousands of excited ski-addicts and armchair explorers from one chic mountaintop ski-resort to the next! But, despite its roaring popularity, the train remained, for 52 years, a summer-only service, as some of the higher reaches (on the Furka Alpine route) were unsafe in the winter months. But the Swiss weren't going to allow mere snowdrifts and impassable-mountains come in the way… and after nearly 10 years of hard-labour and remarkable-engineering, they proudly unveiled, in 1982, the mammoth, 15.4 km Furka tunnel, between Realp and Oberwald
Today, the ultra-modern train, with its great big panorama windows, runs all year long, on a narrow gauge railway, and uses a rack-and-pinion system to pull it up the steep bits. Why, when the train climbs up the Oberalp pass (another marvel, at a dizzying 2033 metres!) you hear the creaks and groans, like you do on roller-coasters, just before the big, sheer drop! Thankfully, the Glacier Express does not do undignified descents… everything about the train spells class and comfort – even the food (limited vegetarian options) was scrumptiously good!
Value for money
At 133 CHF for a second-class one-way ticket (or a mere 33 CHF supplement if you have a Swiss Rail Pass) you get to gawp all-day long at vistas that are simply not otherwise accessible. Throw in truckloads of history and trivia piped into your middle-ear, in a language of your choice, and you get your money's worth long before you reach the much-photographed Landwasser Via-duct. With every twist and turn of the tracks, you see new landscapes - gorgeous villages, all soaring steeples and brick-red sloped roofed-houses, fat, brown cows phlegmatically munching-away a few metres from the tracks, ice melting in front of your eyes, tumbling down great hills as little water-falls, thick, green pine forests and wild-meadows, canyons, gorges, ancient rivers, spanking new bridges… there's no getting bored of the journey!
Just before your camera goes up in smoke from over-use, the train trundles into Zermatt. Walking out of the station, you are greeted with a remarkable sight – boxy electric taxis and horse-drawn carriages, standing side-by-side! Zermatt, you see, is a car-free village (cars are parked at Tasch, from where regular shuttle-services are available). With the Matterhorn (the mountain that inspired the delicious Toblerone chocolates, shaped as close to a triangle as nature could possibly manage) smiling down the village, like some mighty guardian-angel, this charming place is humble chalk to St. Mortitz's gourmet cheese. Even the accommodation is (by Swiss standards) affordable, while the cafes and pubs happily groan with a vibrant, youthful (slightly grungy even) populace. But there's one major, striking similarity – the omnipresent Swiss branded-watches, some of them at prices that make you wonder if they're throwing in the Glacier Express itself as a freebie…
St. Moritz and Zermatt are easily accessible by the superb rail-network in Switzerland. Fly into Zurich or Geneva, and board a train (change-overs possible) and get to the mountain-resorts in a few hours.
There are accommodations to suit all budgets, particularly the high-end! But if you book early enough and are willing to travel a bit, you can get yourself a great deal.
The Glacier Express (jointly operated by the Rhätische Bahn and Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn) runs several times a day in summer, but has just one service from each end in winter. Crossing 291 bridges and 91 tunnels, the train covers a mere 290 km over 7.5 long hrs and is, justifiably, vaunted as the most scenic ride in all of Europe!