The world’s most scenic express train….
We travelled on the Glacier Express today, one of the most famous railways in the world. The Glacier Express travels across the breadth of Switzerland, from Zermatt to St Moritz in around 8 hours. Along the way we passed rocky mountains still tipped in snow, green rolling hills, valleys dotted with picturesque Swiss villages, and deep gorges. It was a long day, but a good one, watching scenery like this drift past…
The Glacier Express first traversed the country in 1930 and was considered a “must do” train ride for the elite of the day. The journey from Switzerland’s Western alpine region to its most Easterly alpine resort was only possible in summer however, until 1982 when the Oberalp Pass near Disentis was opened (see map below). Since then it has been carrying snap-happy tourists across 320km of Swiss countryside, through 91 tunnels and across 292 bridges.
The train is certainly not an “express” in terms of its speed (in fact, it is often touted as the “slowest express train in the world”!); rather that it provides a one-seat ride for a long duration travel. And what a ride it was! The scenery was amazing, the service exemplary and the included lunch delicious. Basically we sat on our bums for 8 hours today, just watching Switzerland roll past and taking photos. It was like taking a day off from all the rigour of travel and sightseeing, but having the scenery come to us!
Starting in Zermatt early this morning we travelled back down the Mattertal Valley, past alpine villages like St Niklaus, Randa and Täsch. When we emerged from the valley, into Visp, the train basically turned right and headed on to Brig. Brig was once one of Switzerland’s richest towns as it sits in the valley between 2 key alpine passes; traders travelling North from Italy or South from Germany had little choice, therefore, but to stop in Brig on their way through.
From Brig the train ran alongside the River Rhone, through the Rhone Valley. Gradually climbing up through the valley we reached Andermatt at around 12:30pm, when lunch was served. We travelled past a huge hydroelectric plant just outside of Andermatt; at which point our very informative train commentary informed us that 50% of Switzerland’s electricity comes from hydroelectric plants. Apparently they have around 500 hydroelectric power plants around the country harnessing the power of that downward flowing water. Between hydroelectric power, a few wind turbines and some solar panels, Switzerland produces 65% of its electricity from renewable sources. Pretty impressive!
From Andermatt we climbed up through the Oberalp Pass which, at 2,033m, is the highest point of the journey. Not long after we passed near the village of Bürglen, the town where Switzerland’s favourite folk hero, William Tell, reportedly resided. The legend goes that William Tell was known as a strong man, an excellent mountain climber, and an expert shot with the crossbow. In his time (15th century) the Hasburgs, Emperors of Austria, were seeking to dominate the canton of Uri where Tell resided. The story goes that the newly appointed leader of Tell’s village raised a pole in the village’s central square, hung his hat on top of it, and demanded that all the townsfolk bow before the hat. When Tell publicly refusing to bow to it, he was arrested. Tell and his son were to be executed, but he could redeem his life by shooting an apple off the head of his son. As we all know, Tell was such an expert marksman that he split the apple with a bolt from his crossbow. He then killed the Austrian-appointed leader with another bolt. This gesture of liberty is said to have sparked a rebellion, that fed the impetus for the nascent Swiss Confederation. There are doubts as to whether William Tell was indeed a real man, or whether the legend was simply told to foster Swiss nationalism. Either way, he remains a popular folk hero here.
We then descended into the Rhine Gorge, reaching our lowest point of the journey in Chur (585m). The elevation profile below shows you just how much “up and down” we really did today. The Rhine Gorge was stunning; this steep-sided gorge is where the Rhine River starts its journey North towards the North Sea. So near its alpine source the river was a milky aquamarine blue, full of glacier melt and fine powdered rock.
Finally, from Chur we climbed up on to the Engadin Plateau, one of Switzerland’s most famous skiing areas. As the sun began to dip behind the mountains around us, the scenery became more and more alpine with fewer green pastures and more pine forests and rocky slopes begging to be covered in snow. Finally we reached our final destination: St Moritz!
Ahhh, St Mortiz! Most expensive ski resort in the world; popular with the rich, famous (and wanna-be rich and famous) from around the world; and now our home for the next couple of days! Needless to say we are NOT staying the heart of town, but a few kilometres away from the ritzy hotels, in a small hamlet on the other side of the lake. We have our own little studio apartment again and are paying a fraction of what we would be paying if we were staying just on the other side of the lake. The views here are great and we can admire the lights of St Moritz proper from our little balcony. We’re actually in a fantastic spot – a few hundred metres from the Lake St Moritz, just 2.5kms from St Moritz town proper, and we back on to the forest. It’s such a beautiful, peaceful spot; we even had a squirrel come visit us as we were having dinner! A wonderful way to end a long, but great, day….