Dec 17

Alpine Tour on the Glacier Express, Switzerland.

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In February earlier this year, R treated me to a wonderful trip around Switzerland (bless him!) as a Valentine’s Day -cum- 30th birthday treat. We spent a total of 15 days touring the various parts of the country, trying as best we could to squeeze in as much as possible without rushing about like crazed tourists. We wanted to travel at a relaxed pace and take in the sights at our leisure … very unlike our first visit to Paris, which I can only describe as borderline manic. Spent a good week visiting all the attractions along the shores of Lake Geneva, and we even had time to catch a ferry to Evian-les-Bain on the French side of the lake and took in dinner at a friend’s place in Bussigny pres Lausanne. Then on Valentine’s Day we embarked on what can only be described as the highlight of our trip: An alpine tour of the Swiss alps  aboard the renowned Glacier Express, worlds slowest express rail service. For a sneak peak of what it’s like, click the link below to watch some very informative online media; languages available also in German and French. I tried to embed the footage right here on my site but the file was too large.


The Glacier Express Official Media (English)






I have been looking forward to this rail journey ever since we bought the tickets for it back in Amsterdam. It’s no secret I love trains … I’d always opt for a rail journey over one done in a car, if only they didn’t cost so freakin’ much. Again, we had our all-inclusive Swiss Pass rail ticket so all we needed to do was pay like € 20 for the reservation fee. However, if you don’t have a Swiss Pass, a one-way trip in 2nd Class on the Glacier Express from Zermatt to St Moritz (or vice versa) will set you back CHF 136 (€ 113); 1st Class costs CHF 232 (€ 193) … and if you want lunch that’s an extra CHF 43 (€ 35). However, before you go running off into the hills, it must be said that this is no ordinary sandwich + coffee in a plastic cup type lunch. For your money you get a gorgeous 3-course lunch, all served by wait-staff dressed in smart uniforms and starched aprons. Beverages and alcoholic drinks are charged separately. We didn’t opt to have this lunch … and now I totally regret it!! I sat on my side of the carriage with my store bought cold sandwich and yes, the plastic cup coffee, drooling over what the other passengers were being served for lunch. Humpfff … no braised beef for me. It wasn’t measly little portions either as the staff would come round again with the platters of food asking if you’d like a second helping. If you don’t feel like indulging in a full-on three course lunch spread then there is always the option of ordering something light off the à la carte menu like a plat du jour or simply some coffee and cake.



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Staff attending to luncheon preparations.

Staff attending to luncheon preparations.



Tea-time aboard the train. Most passengers have gotten off at earlier stations. It was just me and R left in this carriage.

Tea-time aboard the train. Most passengers have gotten off at earlier stations. It was just me and R left in this carriage.



The Glacier Express has got to be the world’s most famous (and most fabulous) alpine rail service, and I feel so totally fortunate to have done it. Now if only R would consider doing the Trans-Siberian with me without the paranoia of a hijacking or of getting stranded out in the middle of nowhere and then dying of hypothermia.


The Glacier Express is not a singular tourist train; rather it is a regular scheduled train service like any other but with the added “panorama” coaches in between cars for those who have paid for the experience. In the panorama coaches the windows are far wider and extend all the way up to the roof of the train, giving one the impression of being in a glass carriage. Seats are reserved as stated on your ticket; regular commuters are not allowed in here … although we have seen a couple people sneak in just to enjoy the views. Who could blame them honestly, coz the views are simply magnificent! It must be said that the Swiss do know a thing or two about rail travel and they do it well. Their trains are all in excellent condition, clean, temperature controlled and their seats are very comfortable. The trains are seldom late … although trains in the Netherlands don’t muck about either.



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The Glacier Express began its service back in the 1930’s, and it connects the two major mountain ski resorts of Zermatt and St Moritz. In between the train will make stops at several stations : Visp, Brig, Andermatt, Disentis, Chur, Reichenau, Filisur and Davos. The entire journey takes about 7 ½ hours one-way, so don’t even think about day tripping this one. Plus, you’ve gotta love train rides enough to sit there just ooh-ing and aah-ing over the spectacular scenery … coz there’s not much else to do in there.



Glacier Express Map




Zermatt is where you’ll find the Matterhorn, and St Moritz is where you’d wanna go to ski with the rich and famous. In between, the train will cross a total of 291 bridges, through 91 tunnels and across the Oberalp Pass which is 2,043 m (6,675 ft) in altitude at its highest point. Stunning!! Throughout the journey an audio commentary will be played for you via your headset, explaining the various sights, bridges, tunnels and viaducts that you’d encounter along the way.



We began our journey from Brig instead of Zermatt coz we did Zermatt the day before. I really didn’t want to rush things so we put aside a full day just to visit Zermatt and the Matterhorn mountain. My dream of finally seeing this peak with my own eyes had come true after all those years as a kid watching the Heidi cartoons. Always knew it was there somewhere in the Swiss alps but never in my wildest dreams did I believe I’d actually see it one day. Zermatt was also the place where I came THIS CLOSE to passing out from altitude sickness at 3,888 m above sea level … but that’s a story for another time.



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Mt Matterhorn

Mt Matterhorn, as seen from the ski village of Zermatt.




After Zermatt we travelled to Brig to spend the night at the delightful Victoria hotel, situated right in front of the central train station. Couldn’t ask for a more perfectly situated accommodation coz I could stand on the balcony and watch all the various trains pass in and out of the station. It’s not the most modern of hotels and neither is it the most glamorous, but I loved it to bits almost immediately. It had real charm and character. It’s been there since the turn of the century … early 1900’s … and it’s still there! In the breakfast salon there are old black and white photos of the hotel from back in the day. Even Bill Bryson (the author) stayed there on his travels through the country. I know coz he said so in one of his books.



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Words cannot express my excitement the next day when R and I were finally standing on the platform waiting for our 11:30 am train to arrive. I’m sure many other people felt the same for when the train did pull up there was a flurry of camera shutters going off … mine included. R is very patient with me when I am in holiday mode, bless his heart. He’d patiently stand there while I take a gazillion photos with all the enthusiasm of a Japanese tourist on caffeine. We shared our carriage with a group of lovely British retirees; they kept the journey lively.


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Seeing as which it was February, most  …. well, pretty much all, of the landscape outside was bright white. The day started out pretty much perfect with blue skies and sunshine up above. I was even feeling a touch hot in the train and had to remove a couple of layers of clothing. All the windows are double glazed, which kinda sucks coz there is just no way of taking nice pictures without the photo getting somewhat distorted by the reflection ~ the idea is to just sit back, relax and enjoy the view without worrying about holiday snaps. I THINK NOT!! Grrr  … but I photographed as best I could regardless. In retrospect, I think I still did pretty well … although I did snap well over a thousand photos and these are just the good ones.



As we climbed higher and higher the sunshine disappeared and the weather changed quite drastically. Everything took on a monochrome hue and I could definitely feel the chill thru the glass. Certain parts was snowing pretty heavily while others just had a subdued atmosphere, looking all grey and foreboding. Along the way we did manage to glimpse some bits of wildlife … I saw 3 foxes and one deer … none of which I managed to photograph.



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The decision to visit Switzerland came about from the lack of snowfall in the Netherlands. I waited the whole of December to January for some semblance of snow and I got zilch. Disgruntled, we started looking for fail-safe countries to visit that were guaranteed to have snow : Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Austria and Switzerland. We picked Switzerland mainly because I had Kerry to visit in Lausanne. Also, once we saw the promotional video on the Glacier Express we were sold … and I got what I wished for ~ ~ snow. There was so much of the stuff everywhere I couldn’t believe it. It was my first snowy holiday and I loved every minute. If snow could be bottled and preserved I would have started a collection by now.



Snow does magical things to the landscape and to ones senses. It makes everything almost fairytale-like; the hush that blankets the wilderness is strangely deafening … I felt very connected to the outdoors and with nature. It’s great to be in a place like Switzerland that takes great pride in preserving nature in all it’s glory and takes pains to minimize the human footprint on the landscape. In Zermatt not a single motorized vehicle is allowed on the mountain or within the ski resort. People get around on electric buggies, on foot or in horse drawn sleighs. There are shuttle buses but even those run on electricity.



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Throughout our journey on the train passed many a quaint little town or village, some so completely covered by snow that only the roofs were visible. The train takes a spectacular route up and over some incredible terrain too. We started in Brig, which was some 700 m above sea level, and ended at St Moritz which was 1,775 m above sea level.



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In between Andermatt and Disentis lies the highest point of which the train has to cross, the Oberalp Pass, which connects the cantons of Graubünden and Uri. In the winter the roads into these cantons are closed due to heavy snow, but the trains run year round therefore providing a means for people to get around … even those with cars as a special car-carrying train is used. At a height of over 2,000 m, getting to the top is quite a feat of railway engineering. Many steep climbs are assisted by employing a ratchet and pulley system that pulls the train up the steep slope … much like going up on a roller-coaster. This method is also used on the downside to control the trains descent. Other methods used include the construction of a series of spiral tunnels which provides a much gentler gradient of descent … it just means you go round and round the same bit of scenery until you finally reach the bottom of the slope.



Too busy snapping picture on the other side of the train that I nearly missed this shot, hence the odd angle.

Too busy snapping pictures on the other side of the train that I nearly missed this shot, hence the odd angle.




The journey up to St Moritz was indeed a tiring one because I think I was on a perpetual adrenaline rush the entire time. Some time during one of the many stops our cabin emptied out completely … there was just R and me with the whole carriage to ourselves. We got a bit hungry too, so we broke budget and ordered tea and cake … which cost a bomb. I justified it was “Oh well, it’s Valentine’s Day after all”. Armed with sustenance, I sat back and awaited the grand finale of the ride : The Landwasser viaduct!




The Landwasser viaduct is over a hundred years old, built in 1901 – 1902 by Müller & Zeerleder, and designed by one Alexander Acatos. It opened for use in the fall of 1902. The viaduct stands 213 ft off the ground, supported on five massive limestone pillars and six arches which bridges the gap across the Landwasser river below. I got a couple shots of it but I wish I could have stuck my face out of a window for reflection-free snaps. As you across the viaduct with its gentle curve you get to fully appreciate the sheer beauty of its structure, and get to scare yourself silly by looking straight down to the river bed … eeep!! At the end, the rails literally just vanish into the side of the mountain through the Landwasser Tunnel. Truly a breathtaking experience!



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I think the Landwasser viaduct was the final “big thing” to see before reaching our final destination. It was dark by the time we got to St Moritz, about 5-ish in the evening. We didn’t stay the night in St Moritz proper (too expensive!) … rather we took the shuttle bus down towards the lake and stayed at the Ferienhotel Julier Palace, Silvaplana. It turned out to be really cute and cosy, and I was quite happy with it. The bus dropped us off at the post office and we had to walk about 10-mins to the hotel in the dark. I was convinced we were lost … but then again I always think we’re lost coz I am a hopeless pessimist.



The Ferienhotel Julier Palace is a family-friendly hotel with a warm atmosphere … like literally, coz the interior had this bizzare Mexican themed decor throughout; warm tones and terracotta hues everywhere. As we checked-in we discovered that this hotel is also pet friendly, so feel free to include your furry friends on your skiing holiday. It was at this point I began missing our dog which we left at our local animal shelter for the duration of our vacation. The hotel also boasts Turkish baths and steam room facilities … of which I did not use because I didn’t think of packing a bathing suit in the middle of a winter vacation.



We were pretty tired but dinner awaited us ~ our Valentine’s Day dinner at the top of a world famous mountain ski resort. All female diners received a rose courtesy of the hotel. The restaurant was fairly full and busy but they found us a table in the corner which was out of the way. The dinner menu was rather fancy-schmancy … small portions on large plates kind … but all I really wanted was to pull a classic tourist move and order fondue, seeing as which having fondue in the Swiss alps is one of the items on my 100 Things To Eat Before I Die list. So that is just what I ordered, and then I promptly got drunk coz there was so much alcohol in there. Sheesh! Also I don’t know if the price tag was worth fulfilling my wishlist coz at CHF 48 a pot with just bread seemed a bit steep to me, when the same dish cost just half that when we were in Gruyere. My beloved boyfriend ordered the grilled lake fish (I think it was trout) which he said was fabulous, and then he refused to share it with me since I was kind of disappointed at having just a pot of melted cheese + booze and plain bread cubes for a Valentine’s meal. Humpfff …



After dinner we crawled upstairs and into bed. I don’t remember anything more of that night coz I basically lost consciousness instantly. I think it was the alcoholic cheese dinner.





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