The Glacier Express Route
(Zermatt, Switzerland) – One of the most highly-touted train journeys in the world is the Glacier Express in Switzerland. It is a slow 8-hour train ride from Zermatt to St. Moritz covering 291 kilometers through the Alps, passing by picturesque landscapes that are guaranteed to take your breath away. There are 290 bridges to cross and 91tunnels to zip through at elevations ranging from 1500 meters to over 2,000 meters.
Although we had a Swiss Pass, we needed seat reservations on this special train so there we stood in the early freezing morning in front of the SBB counter in Zermatt an hour before departure time at 8:52AM. Imagine my shock when the guy at the counter told me that all the seats were taken and there was none left for the day! My heart sank for what were we to do now? Well, Monsieur, it’s not a problem, he told me, taking note of my crestfallen face. There are other local trains leaving every hour and they are just as comfortable, albeit without the glass ceiling roofs but they pass thru the same route. You will see the same sights and experience the same tingling awe when you pass by them, he reassured me. That is if you don’t mind changing trains at four stations but they are only a few minutes apart. Count me in, I said, beaming like I just won the local lottery!
He was right. On the first 1-1/2 hour leg of the train to Brig (the first stop) as well as the second 2-hour section to Andermatt passing through the scenic Mattertal Valley which was 1,800 meters above sea level, we practically had the coach all to ourselves. I could easily move across the aisle like a kid shuttling between the left and right side windows, checking out the best views to shoot! We couldn’t have done this on the Express train because all the seats there were taken and you were stuck where you sat. It made me realize that just like some things in life, better opportunities arise out of nowhere when you least expect it.
And so we pretty much did what we wanted to do on the train: ate, chatted, Facebooked or just sat in silence watching the awesome panorama unfolding in front of us. Because it was in the dead of winter, the Alps were blanketed with snow but the weather was great with lots of sunshine and the skies were a deep cerulean blue. This was the Switzerland I had seen in many marvelous wintry postcards.
On the next local train to Chur which was 3 hours away, we boarded the last coach so I could stand at the end of the vestibule which had a locked door with a clear glass window to shoot some videos to my heart’s content. The rails meandered hypnotizingly through the snowy mountain range capped by soaring rugged peaks sprinkled with the night’s fresh snowfall. Every so often, a tunnel fleetingly plunged the coach in darkness or a bridge noisily rattled past, with the river way down below having just a sliver of black ribbon which was the water that had not yet frozen over.
The train winded its way upwards to the highest point of the journey through the Oberalp Pass where a lot of ski resorts were located. Skiers got onboard every now and then to go to the next resort and their loud talk and jubilant laughter, as well as the banging of their equipment on the racks, punctuated the silence that mostly pervaded throughout this section of the trip.
The landscape took a dramatic turn between Ilanz and Reichenau through the Rhine gorge where the river carved deeply into the rocks that’s why it is often called the ‘Swiss Grand Canyon’. After watching this mesmerizing view for over half an hour, snow began to fall in earnest until there was nothing else to be seen but total whiteness.
We arrived in Chur at 3:30PM as the weather cleared and had to wait for an hour to board the train that would take us onwards through the final leg to St. Moritz, 1-1/2 hours away. This city, being the capital of the Canton of Graubünden, had a large terminal since it was an important railway junction. Here you could take the local connection to Davos or the sleek, high-speed trains to and from Zurich which we now boarded.
It was starting to get dark as we left and it was quite unfortunate since the views here through the narrow alpine valley were awesome especially the Landwasser viaduct which you will mostly see in the publicity shots of Swiss Rail. It’s quite an engineering marvel as it curves spectacularly high up in space before piercing the side of a mountain through a tunnel. After a steady climb, the train finally reached St. Moritz, the famous Swiss holiday resort town, 1,775 meters up in the mountains.
It was now completely dark and snow was falling heavily as we got off the connecting bus from the station and slowly made our way to our hotel, tramping on deep, freshly-fallen snow in the freezing cold. As we entered the warm lobby with a huge, bright Christmas tree, I couldn’t help but think what a great journey it had been!