Slow train coming

The Glacier Express
The Glacier Express
Caroline Hurry
Caroline Hurry

Glacier Express? Hah! Snail rail is more like it at 29km/h. Amen to that. Who wants to hurtle through heaven?

The Glacier Express straight tracks you to the heights of Switzerland’s vertiginous mountains amid seas of green, oceans of forest, turquoise lakes and rushing rapids. Actually, it’s more of a Swiss roll through epic landscapes along the iron arteries that traverse the frame of this curvaceous country from end to end. If Switzerland were a woman, she’d be a mother goddess with enormous breasts.

Architects may eulogise aesthetics that bring rich tourists to beautiful hotels such as the Schweizerhof in St Moritz with its marble bathrooms and magnificent lake views, but I could have stayed for days in my mobile home, winding through mountainous domes in one of her blood red carriages throbbing like corpuscles with the heat of exertion.

Schweizerhof hotel in St Moritz
View from my room at the Schweizerhof hotel in St Moritz

You can understand why the Swiss love their trains. Before their advent in the mid 1800s, travellers – long after Hannibal in 218 BCE – had to traverse the Alps on foot or by horseback, an arduous, hazardous affair. Few of Hannibal’s elephants survived the 16-day trip.

The four-star Schweizerhof Hotel in St Moritz.
The four-star Schweizerhof Hotel in St Moritz.

Besides, what’s not to love? The Glacier Express, which first ran in 1930, crosses 291 bridges and chugs through 91 tunnels between the Matterhorn and St Moritz – an eight-hour journey into clouds, through pristine countryside, over roaring rivers, past towering rock walls and waterfalls.

Flowers spill over the balconies of wooden chalets. Shops, church steeples, castles, and yellow, red, brown or blue shutters reflect in the huge glass windows as we rumble on through little towns flanked by mealie fields and garden orchards. Cowbells tinkle. Crows caw. A housewife sunbathes on the grass. Black-faced sheep frolic in a meadow. Village railway stations with names like Visp and Gletsch offer gateways to roads I have no time to explore.

Passing through Visp, the train visits Brig before changing direction to follow the Rhone valley with its fir trees and rushing waters. Climbing through Betten, Grengiols, and Oberwald, the Glacier Express whistles through the long Furka Tunnel towards Andermatt for a brief stop to stretch the legs. Then it ascends towards the Oberalp Pass, the highest point of the line, before descending again towards Disentis, the historic town of llanz, the spectacular Rhine Gorge and on to Chur before backtracking to Reichenau-Tamins and heading for Hinterrhein.

Passing over the Landwasser Aquaduct into the tunnel cut into the rock face.
Passing over the Landwasser Aquaduct into the tunnel cut into the rock face.

The wow moment comes at the Landwasser Viaduct, between Tiefencastel and Filisur in the Canton of Graubünden when the train crosses the Landwasser River that runs down from Davos. Built in just 14 months between 1901 and 1902, the limestone-built viaduct is 65m high and 136 m long.

Sweet wares on display in a little chocolate shop in St. Moritz.
Sweet wares on display in a little chocolate shop in St. Moritz.

After plunging into a tunnel carved into the rock, the Glacier Express then goes through the village of Flisur before a series of looped tunnels, spirals, bridges and viaducts take it even higher towards the village of Preda and through the long Albula Tunnel, the highest in the Alps at nearly 6000 feet. From there, it descends again through woodlands and pastures until it reaches its final destination at St. Moritiz.

Glacier Express lunch
Lunch was good. Here’s my starter salad with some bubbly.

Huge windows enable the views to be enjoyed from the first or second class carriages along with a dining car.

Staff walk up and down the train, taking orders for drinks, snacks and lunch, which comes with a great selection of wines and beers. Otherwise you can go and investigate the dining car for yourself.

We used a Swiss Flexi Pass for all our train journeys in Switzerland and flew back to Johannesburg with Swiss International Airlines.