All aboard the Glacier Express, from Zermatt to St Moritz
Glacial by name and glacial by pace, the train bills itself as the slowest express in the world – which means plenty of time to take in the views.
With a dark hot chocolate in hand, I step out of the Petit Royal cafe onto Bahnhofstrasse in the Swiss mountain village of Zermatt and make the two-minute walk to the railway station, where a sleek red-and-white train is waiting on the platform. Stamping fresh powder snow off my boots, I squint up at the wonky peak of the Matterhorn, a four-sided pyramid glazed with ice. That the most famous mountain in the Pennine Alps is so sharply outlined against an electric-blue sky bodes well for photo opportunities over the eight-hour journey to the village of St Moritz.
With the spring sunshine already warming my cheeks, I board and slide into my seat at a four-person table as a group of German friends start unloading bags of wine, beer and vacherin cheese in round wooden boxes, arranging their wares like a shopfront display. The carriage fills up with passengers ranging from retirees and hikers to families and parties of friends, everyone stripping down to their base layers and boots, pressing fingers against the floor-to-ceiling windows. I feel as though I’m in a fancy Alpine restaurant that just so happens to be on the move.
The train glides out of the station and meanders through a forest of pine and larch, feathery shadows falling across our carriage before we emerge above stone-walled meadows, sunlight pouring in through the skylights. Edelweiss blooms trackside, its delicate petals giving it the appearance of silver cotton. The village of Täsch comes into view, its half-timber, half-stone houses scattered across the fields, their balconies bright with flowers.
Glacier by name and glacial by pace, the train bills itself as the slowest express train in the world, travelling at an average speed of around 24 mph as it traverses 291 bridges and 91 tunnels. It means passengers have plenty of opportunities to peer between old chapels, barns and disused granaries, occasionally catching the eyes of welly-wearing residents going about their day.
On departure from the town of Brig, the train crosses the Rhône and ascends into the tucks and folds of the Upper Rhône Valley, skimming rock faces and winding high above hamlets and municipalities that appear to me like Lego scattered between the cracks. Clouds sink into the valleys as we climb, circling black lakes with fractured ice shifting beneath the surface and skimming mountains so closely I can see their woolly texture.
A flat stretch leads us to the resort of Andermatt, where some passengers disembark with skis and snowboards. This is where the train begins its ascent to the Oberalp Pass, the highest point of the journey at 6,673ft. Meanwhile, lunch is served, with most of us tucking into three-course meals featuring chicken tikka masala along with apricot pie that goes down nicely with a glass of white-pressed pinot noir. Others peel off slices of salami and ham, the carriage beginning to smell somewhat like a barnyard when a particular cheese is unwrapped and admired by its owners.
Sated, after a plate of slightly milder cheese with biscuits, I touch my head to the window just as the spectacular Rhine Gorge opens up below. Often referred to as the Swiss Grand Canyon, it’s one of the journey’s highlights: emerald water thrashing around a slalom of white rock covered in forest. It’s not easy to turn to a book or zone out when at any moment there may be corkscrew turns, multi-hued forests, meadows at the foot of mountains, bell-wearing cows or bodies of water in shades ranging from teal to mint green to gaze upon. However, it’s the stretch between Tiefencastel and Filisur that makes me sit up like a meerkat. It’s here that the climactic moment takes place: as the train passes through a short tunnel, passengers galvanise into action for the crossing of the Landwasser Viaduct, a six-arched limestone bridge.
Grabbing phones and cameras and kneeling on seats, some look out and wince at the single-track disappearing into a tunnel bored through a sheer wall of rock. I glance down, over 200ft below, to where a sea-green river crashes around boulders, branches and trees wrestling against its force. The engine is swallowed up and we follow into the darkness, a few whoops and hoots until we emerge into the sunshine, greeted by an army of pine.
I had considered taking the train in the depths of winter, but a fellow passenger tells me that finding a festive wonderland comes down to luck: bad weather can often scupper visibility, leaving passengers with little more than low cloud, a few snowy scalps and naked trees shivering by the tracks. And as we loop up the mountainside towards St Moritz, I can see spring may well bring the best of both worlds, with clear skies, snowy slopes and flowers determined to bloom.
A single ticket from Zermatt to St Moritz starts from £168 with online booking available 60 days in advance of travel. For further information visit glacierexpress.ch
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