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Travelogue - Glacier Express
Oct 02 2011 (8:42PM)
News Entry# 40945 Glacier Express: Swiss bliss on a very laid-back Alpine rail adventure
Posted by: rdb*^ Added by: rdb*^ Oct 02 2011 (8:43PM)
We were at the Oberalp Pass, literally the high point of the Glacier Express's seven-and-a-half-hour journey between St Moritz and Zermatt. We were passing between a range of 6,600ft mountains before our descent towards Brig. In all directions the carriage's giant observation windows revealed amazing vistas: to our left we gazed down lush green valleys, above us were steepling cliffs and - further off - loomed muesli-box views of mountain peaks dusted with snow and topped with wispy cotton-wool clouds.It was a sight to take the breath away. We fell silent. Nobody, I felt, could feast on this extraordinary sight and fail to be uplifted.Not for the first time in my life, I was wrong. One person refused to be either uplifted or silent. Somewhere nearby lurked a grumpy man still smarting at being charged £6 for an orange juice (when you come to Switzerland, you can find out what terrifying...
stratosphere UK prices might reach by 2030).Mr Grumpy's holiday had, one presumes, been a series of exasperated Victor Meldrew moments. Now, it seemed, everything was getting on his nerves: 'Why is it called "Glacier Express"? I've not seen a glacier and this train is certainly no express.' He had a point. 'Express' it most certainly is not. The up-hill down-dale train that bears the name 'Glacier Express' rolls along at an average speed of 18mph: it is actually promoted as 'the slowest express train in the world'.But if the speed isn't spectacular, the views certainly are. Who would want to race through this wonderful scenery? And 'Grumpy' can really not have been paying attention. On this run up to Andermatt, I spotted several glaciers nestled among high mountain peaks.High point: The Glacier Express crosses the famous 215ft high Landwasser Viaduct. However, he hadn't entirely given up on his list of complaints. 'And so much for Swiss Railways' famous punctuality - we're running 18 minutes late,' he remarked loudly to his long-suffering wife.'For God's sake, do belt up,' she snapped. 'Can't you just try to enjoy this holiday like everyone else?' This was a moment as glorious as the mountainscape.Someone once remarked: 'The more I see of man, the more I like dogs.' The more I see of planes and airports, the more I have grown to love trains and railway stations.An easyJet flight will get me to Switzerland in about 90 minutes. My Great Rail Journeys holiday got me from London to Brig, situated in Switzerland near the Italian border, in six days. The return journey back to London St Pancras via Luxembourg took a further four days, but it would be hard to imagine a more perfect journey.The trip began with the Eurostar from London to Brussels and a highspeed connection to Cologne. After an overnight stay, we boarded a Swiss Railways train to head down the valley of the Rhine (past hilltop castles and the famous Lorelei rock) to Basel, Zurich and, finally, the lovely town of Chur, where we spent four glorious days before the climactic Glacier Express ride to Brig.One of the pleasures of a Great Rail Journeys holiday is that while the tour leader has a comprehensive programme of excursions lined up to fill your stay, you are perfectly free to use your Swiss travel card to follow your own fancies wherever you wish.'The journey is just the start of the adventure,' runs the Great Rail Journeys slogan. Actually, this journey gave me the chance to relive an adventure.My first trip to Switzerland was in the winter of the first Beatles hit. It took in my first flight - on Swiss Air Lines (as they were known then) - and my first attempt at skiing.My lasting memories of that childhood trip to the slopes are quite revealing. At Zurich station, where we caught the train to St Moritz, the door to the waiting room opened by itself and the car that picked us up at St Moritz to drive us to the Waldhaus Hotel in Sils Maria was an automatic. These were technological wonders.'I remember that automatic car well,' said Urs Kienberger, the current member of the family responsible for the Waldhaus. 'My father wanted a car that would amaze the guests - so he got a Chrysler on which you changed gears by pressing a button.' We had visited over Christmas and New Year 1962 and, as Urs recalled, we were lucky the hotel was actually open. He is the fourth generation of his family to run the hotel built by his great-grandfather in 1908. Like any family-wrun business, each new generation has its own ideas about how things should be done.Mr Kienberger's father had persuaded his father - Urs's grandfather - to experiment with opening the hotel for a few weeks in the winter. Until the Sixties, hotels such as the Waldhaus were strictly summer places. Though the British had pioneered winter-sports holidays at the end of the 19th Century, the ski market in Switzerland remained modest.In its early years, like all Swiss hotels, the Waldhaus had to survive the slump in tourism caused by the First World War, followed by the Great Depression of the Thirties and then the Second World War.Urs produced a year-by-year analysis of arrivals at the hotel for each year of its 103-year history, showing dramatic peaks and troughs which, curiously, looked like an elevation profile map of Switzerland.And he had other documentation at his fingertips. He popped back to reception and returned wreathed in smiles with our registration card from 49 years ago, showing which rooms we had and how much they cost (about £12 per night for two rooms - this winter, expect to pay about £600 per night per room). Urs consulted the card: 'Ah, one of the rooms you had was 68 - the favourite of novelist Hermann Hesse and his wife.' I had slept in a bed that had been slept in by the Nobel Prize-winning author of Steppenwolf - clearly the explanation for my literary brilliance.In roasting-hot September sunshine, we took lunch in the Waldhaus's garden, entertained by a pianist and saxophonist playing Gershwin classics. It might have been 1931 rather than 2011.This time there had been no automatic Chrysler to bring me to the Waldhaus from St Moritz station. There were, however, four buses an hour - free of charge to me as I had a Swiss travel card (remarkably, nobody ever checked bus tickets - the presumption was that you were abiding by the rules).The bus was modern (an LCD screen showed upcoming stops), clean, efficient and on time. Of all the things that impress about Swiss Railways, the astonishing punctuality is perhaps top of the list. (The delay on the Glacier Express was the only one on more than a dozen rail trips.) Somebody assured me that one or two Swiss lines had received a Dr Beeching-style axe, but it was hard to imagine where they might be. Switzerland's web of train routes is amazingly comprehensive, linking even the smallest communities with regular services. This is even more impressive when you consider the phenomenal engineering challenges posed by Switzerland's inhospitable mountainous landscape. Every hour, for example, you can take the train from Chur to the small mountain village of Arosa, a 15-mile journey up a steep climb of 3,700ft.The Glacier Express route is famous for the extraordinary 215ft-high Landwasser Viaduct which leads straight into the 709ft Landwasser Tunnel. The Arosa line has the equally extraordinary Langwieser Viaduct, plus half a dozen other tunnels and countless bridges and cuttings, all created and now maintained at huge expense. In the UK, this line would have been junked decades ago for cost reasons, but the local rail company kept the faith and now this relatively short but hugely spectacular ride is a tourist favourite. I could happily have trundled up and down to Arosa for hours drinking in the view.I had another reason for visiting Arosa. When Sherlock Holmes's creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, wrote an article for Strand magazine in 1894 about a journey he made 'on ski' from Davos to Arosa, it was the first published feature about skiing. Having taken a house in Davos for the health of his wife - who had TB - he was anxious to try out a new concept of snow travel pioneered by a Davos saddle-maker.The writer concludes: 'I am convinced that there will come a time when hundreds of Englishmen will come to Switzerland for the 'skiing' season.' Arosa would still be recognisable to Conan Doyle. Davos, however, has changed from the small village he knew to an ultra-expensive jetsetters' resort famous for its annual economic forum.The first place you see on leaving Davos Platz railway station, however, is the humble Co-op. For a country that is so associated with high-rollers, Switzerland has a thoroughly down-to-earth style.Relieved at finding somewhere inexpensive to eat, I settled down in the Co-op cafeteria for a plate of chips (£1.21) and a small bottle of mineral water (£2.36).Despite the terrifying prices, I have to conclude that Switzerland is about as perfect as a holiday destination can be.Urs has invited me back for a 50th anniversary celebration next winter. I shall return!The Glacier Express is billed as the main railway attraction for anyone visiting Switzerland - winter or summer - but some would argue that it's not the greatest of the Swiss train rides.Our tour leader, Eric Wise, claimed that in many ways the narrow-gauge Bernina Express - a four-hour journey from Chur to Tirano on the Italian border - is actually better. 'Some would say that the scenery manages to be even more spectacular,' he said.The train heads through the ancient landscape of Switzerland's beautiful Grisons /Graubunden region and travels south along 76 miles of track, through 55 tunnels and across 196 bridges - including the spectacular Landwasser Viaduct.The route meanders past glaciers, an Alpine garden and rushing mountain streams, passes through the 5,955ft-long Albula Tunnel and climbs over the Bernina Pass to more than 7,000ft before crossing the Italian border to arrive in Tirano. (A shorter version of the journey from St Moritz to Tirano takes just two-and-a-half hours.) 'What many travellers enjoy is that the train ascends through many hairpin bends which are so tight that passengers at the rear can see the front of the train going past them,' said Mr Wise. The route of the Bernina Express between St Moritz and Tirano was classified as a Unesco World Heritage site in July 2008.
Great Rail Journeys (01904 527 180, www.greatrail.com) offers a range of tours throughout the year that feature a journey on the Glacier Express, including the ten-day Classic Glacier Express escorted tour by rail from £1,750pp, twin share. Available for departures between April and October 2012, the holiday includes first-class rail travel (standard premier class on Eurostar); nine nights' hotel with breakfast (four in Chur, three in Brig, two en route); seven dinners; first-class travel on the Glacier Express including lunch; a scenic rail excursion on the Bernina Express to Poschiavo; excursion to Lucerne; excursion by mountain railway to Zermatt; first-class Swiss travel card; all transfers; transportation of luggage between Chur and Brig; and the services of a tour manager throughout.