Saturday, December 3

The Glacier Express

The first anniversary of our departure from London is barely a week away. We cannot believe a year has passed. It feels like only yesterday that we were riding trains through the snow-clad Swiss Alps. As I look back through old blog posts I can see we never told you about our day trip on the stunning Glacier Express.

This is scenic tourist train that traverses the spine of Switzerland’s alpine region. It runs 291kms from the exclusive ski resort of St Moritz west towards Zermatt, nestled on the slopes of the Matterhorn. The route takes passengers through winding, picturesque river valleys, across plunging rocky gorges and over soaring, narrow mountain passes. The entire journey takes the better part of a day to complete.

Our itinerary didn’t allow for an end-to-end passage so we boarded the train at Chur, a town 65kms north of St Moritz, before leaving it at Brig, about 40km east of Zermatt. However, even this truncated four-hour route was worth every penny. The views were unbelievable and, as luck would have it, we travelled on a day filled with blue sky and sunshine for most our journey. In fact, the weather was nothing short of a miracle. At the time, Northern Europe was being smothered by the heaviest snowstorm in decades.

The train itself is designed to ensure the best possible view. Each carriage offer wide, panoramic windows that stretch the length of each carriage and up into the roof line. We booked seats that offered a hot lunch served in comfort at our table; a far cry from the arduous, bitterly cold trek endured by generations past. Our only tribulation was trying to take memorable photos without distracting glare and reflections.

From Chur we journeyed through the Rhine Gorge, where towering cliff faces follow the tracks for miles. The train then hooks on to a special cogwheel locomotive before making its way slowly up the Oberalppass. At 2033 metres, this is the highest point of the journey. Here the train glides past snow-capped mountains surrounded by undulating landscape of white in every direction. At times it was as if the train was travelling through the blank pages of an unfinished novel.

It then descends along a series of dramatic, twisting spirals and cliff-hugging ledges to the town of Andermatt, one the main north-south route across the Alps. The train then passes through the Furka Basis Tunnel for 15kms, a 20-minute journey in darkness before emerging in a completely different valley system; the Rhone, filled with tiny villages and rolling hills. Here the track also drops 150 metres down to the valley floor by lopping through a 270° spiral tunnel.

We left the train at Brig as our final destination was north to the city of Bern. However, we made the most of our Eurail ticket by catching the local train that deftly winds its way up the opposite side of the valley. Our train slowly wound its way ever higher through yet more stunning landscape and alpine vistas before plunging into the 14.5km long Lötschberg Tunnel. This was once the only way across the Alps in the immediate area until a new, even longer Lötschberg Base Tunnel was opened in 2007.

Garry and I were fascinated by the car shuttle service that takes accompanied vehicles through the tunnel. The main road literally ends in a rail siding where cars are driven onto open sided freight carriages and taken through the mountain. They then disembark 20 minutes later at the opposite end where the road begins again. At peak times, the car transport service operates every 7½ minutes in each direction. Gosh the Swiss are ingenious.

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