The Glacier Express
Called one of the top ten rail journeys in the world, The Glacier Express lives up to it's lofty name. Travel through the Alps to isolated villages where the modern world seems far away.
There are train rides, and then there's the Glacier Express. Switzerland's premiere train journey cuts a the route through the rugged Alps from Zermatt to St. Moritz or vice versa, over eight hours.
Chugging through some of the most stunning landscapes in Europe, the Glacier Express is considered by many to be the best in train excursions. At an average of only 22 miles per hour, calling her an "express" is a misleading. On the other hand, you have ample time to relish every moment.
To make the most of my Alpine journey, I had a reservation on one of their special panorama cars. For several years, the Glacier Express had been on my things-you-absolutely-must-do list. Prior to my adventure on this famous train, I spent two rainy days in Lucerne, enjoying the wooden bridges, the poignant dying lion monument and Medieval buildings in the old town.
Taking the Train to the Train
My journey on the Glacier Express started in Zermatt and ended in St. Moritz. I was understandably concerned when I found my route by rail from Lucerne to Zermatt required three changes of train. Not-to-mention the fact that the second change allotted only four minutes to disembark and find the right connection.
The friendly assistant at the information desk assured me the computer would not spit out that particular itinerary, if the train changes were not humanly possible, so I went forth on faith. (It was ever thus with travel!)
One should trust computers, as I learned. At that stop we arrived one minute early and I rejoiced! I had gained an additional sixty seconds to find my train! With relief, I noted the small station only had four tracks. I hopped off, backpack in place, walked 16 paces (give or take a step) and boarded the correct train with a full minute to spare. Relief.
My three train changes went smoothly, but I was eager to arrive in Zermatt. As it turned out, I would follow the same route, only in the opposite direction on the Glacier Express. As you can easily tell from any Swiss map, this village is the end of the line, unless you're a serious climber. From there, the only way is up, way up, or back out and down again by rail.
Because of it's high altitude, Zermatt is a rather inaccessible place, but that's part of the charm...no automobiles. Cars must be left behind in another small village down below. Over-sized golf carts are available for toting luggage, as well as horse-drawn carriages for atmosphere.
Whether at the beginning or end of a journey on the Glacier Express, you should allow time to stroll Zermatt. The flower boxes alone were worth the trip. It's true main attraction is the Matterhorn, that haughty jagged peak, one of the last Alps to be conquered by man.
The small English church and cemetery in Zermatt also make a worthwhile stop. The memorials to climbers who lost their personal battle against the mountain are thought provoking. How difficult it must be (especially to your loved- ones) to have an avocation so hazardous. Two climbers were lost in 1959 and not found again for thirty years, at least according to the epitaph on the memorial.
Eight hours of scenic
Eight hours on a train may sound lengthy to some, but I can truthfully say I enjoyed every minute. There's a reason the Glacier Express has the reputation as one of the most picturesque train journeys in the world. You simply can't take your eyes away from the passing scene. It takes all your concentration not to ooooo and ahhh, out loud, as you emerge from a pitch black tunnel and suddenly come face to face with the grandeur of the Alps.
The panorama cars on the Glacier Express have extra large windows, and a horizontal window overhead to capture the entire scene. With typical Swiss efficiency, they make sure no dead bug dare besmirch their sparkling clear glass.
Can one ever grow tired of Swiss chalets with window boxes overflowing in crimson blossoms, or villages where the tallest building isn't a skyscraper but a church steeple. And always hovering above, are the white, dreamlike peaks reaching for the sky. Now I can understand the phrase, rushing mountain streams. We seemed to pass at least a dozen of them. The water was a color unlike I've seen before, a light shade of blue with a hint of green.
I had to laugh at the bell-wearing mountain goats huddled closely together atop a small outcropping of rock. Even though they had an entire pasture to graze, still green in October, mother nature dictated they should climb rocks and climb they would!
Though my train car wasn't full, I counted five different languages spoken. There's something reassuring about knowing we all value nature at it's unspoiled best, whether we come from Spain, Japan, France, Germany or US. The fifteen of us formed a travelers fellowship of a sort, smiling and clicking photos, without much need for the spoken word.
I was told in the summer months the Glacier Express is always full, but in early October, the tourist numbers fall off a bit. The weather was dicey too, light rain fell every day of my visit, but the temperatures stayed in the upper forties.
One family with young children began counting the tunnels, (quite loudly in German, I think) but with 91 altogether, I was hoping they'd soon give up. They stopped after eight. Thank God they didn't count the bridges we crossed, there were a remarkable 291 of them!
The day passed more swiftly than I could have imagined. My only regret was that none of my loved ones were along to experience this extraordinary journey. I realize now it would have been much better shared.
It was nearly five p.m. when we reached St. Moritz and heavy mist was settling over the lake. Though attractive, I preferred Zermatt to the more pretentious St. Moritz.
You need not be a train buff to ride or appreciate the Glacier Express. If you plan to go, you must make reservations, especially if you want a seat on the panorama cars. A sit-down lunch can also be reserved. Another option is the snack trolley which makes several passes throughout the day.