The Glacier Express train: When slow is sexy

Travel isn’t always about getting there in the shortest possible time. True travellers take the scenic route. A journey aboard one of Switzerland’s premier trains gives you the luxury of time to soak in all the sights, experience every vista and take home tales of a real adventure.

Gingerbread chalets and houses, Alpine meadows, brooks and rivers, medieval castles and pitch-black tunnels, green pastures, the world’s luckiest cows munching on green grass, and glacial emerald streams, the panoramic views through the floor-to-ceiling windows, changing every second, are a sensory overload. But that’s what the Glacier Express is all about.

The train is almost as beautiful as the scenery it traverses! Glacier express, train travel, slow travel, switzerland, switzerland tourism
The train is almost as beautiful as the scenery it traverses! Image: Courtesy Glacier Express.

‘Welcome to the world’s slowest express train,’ says the commentary on my headphones, as the train pulls out of St Moritz station. The handy headphones signalled by a gong, keep doling out interesting snippets about the journey, from the sights outside the panoramic windows to engineering feats.

The iconic train pulls out of st moritz station. Glacier express, train travel, slow travel, switzerland, switzerland tourism
The iconic train pulls out of St Moritz station. Image: Kalpana Sunder.

Switzerland, connected by an efficient train system, has many epic train journeys crisscrossing the country but the Glacier Express which spans the Swiss Alps and three cantons of Switzerland — Valais, Uri and Graubünden — and runs from Zermatt to St Moritz, is touted to be one of the most spectacular trips.

The train has been travelling on this route for more than nine decades. Glacier express, train travel, slow travel, switzerland, switzerland tourism
The train has been travelling on this route for more than nine decades. Image: Courtesy Glacier Express.

It was in 1930, that the first steam train chugged its way between these two mountain resort towns. In the first 50 years of its operation, it was seasonal, thanks to the winter months with the risk of heavy snow and avalanches, but with the Furka Tunnel completed in 1982, it runs through the year. Today the leisurely journey on a narrow-gauge railway cut through rugged terrain, and 91 tunnels and 291 bridges.

We board the first class of the apple-red train at St Moritz, the cradle of Alpine tourism in the Engadin Valley, and the haunt of the rich and famous, home to Switzerland’s Romansch speaking communities. Our seats in the first class come with a three-course dinner served beautifully on real china and tablecloths, with attendants braving the twists and turns the train takes with aplomb. From March 2019, the train has introduced a 20-seat luxury coach, Excellence Class, where passengers can enjoy a five-course meal and their own private bar, with better seats.

Excellence class on board the glacier express is an outstanding experience. Glacier express, train travel, slow travel, switzerland, switzerland tourism
Excellence Class on board the Glacier Express is an outstanding experience. Image: Courtesy Glacier Express.

‘This was where winter tourism was born. Hotelier Badrut invited some guests in winter here and said that he would refund their money and pay their travel expenses back to foggy London if they did not like it. The guests loved the Alpine holiday and stayed till Easter and the region became famous for its winter holidays as well as ice skating, ski jumping and ice hockey,’ voices the commentator as we pull out of St Moritz.

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The commentary talks about the Engadin Valley and how they have a ritual to drive the winter out with bells. It mentions a popular book for children that I put on my reading list — ‘A bell for Ursli ‘which is about a little boy who lives in the Swiss Alps. The story goes that Ursli climbs up alone to his family’s chalet high up in the mountains in order to find a big cowbell to lead the spring procession through his village.

The serene engadin valley. Glacier express, train travel, slow travel, switzerland, switzerland tourism
The serene Engadin valley. Image: Courtesy Glacier Express.

St Moritz is at 1775m above sea level, so the Glacier Express begins with a steep descent in a series of loops. After reaching Filisur at the end of the Albula valley, the trains passes through the spectacular Landwasser Viaduct and jaw-dropping precipices below, and then the train descends to Chur which is the lowest point on the Glacier Express at 585 metres. I peer and crane my neck to catch sight of the blink-and-you-miss-it six arched limestone pillars of the Landwasser Viaduct that helps the train cross a deep gorge and enter a tunnel. I marvel at the engineering feat and the sheer logistics of building something so ambitious in this rugged terrain.

The train crosses the impressive landwasser viaduct. Glacier express, train travel, slow travel, switzerland, switzerland tourism
The train crosses the impressive Landwasser Viaduct. Image: Courtesy Glacier Express.

We pass through the Domleschg valley, once an important trading route known for its many ruins and castles. Strategically placed between three major Alpine passes, many castles were built along this route, At Chur, Switzerland’s oldest city, settled by Celts 3,000 years ago, where remains from the Bronze and Iron ages have been found, situated on the right bank of the Rhine, the train stops for about 15 minutes, and then changes direction.

The stunning rhine valley. Glacier express, train travel, slow travel, switzerland, switzerland tourism
The stunning Rhine valley. Image: Courtesy Glacier Express.

From Chur to Disentis, we pass through the Rhine Valley, also known as Switzerland’s Grand Canyon and the best of Alpine wilderness. The most dramatic scenery in the nine-mile-long Rhine gorge (a UNESCO heritage site) is between Ilanz and Reichenau, where we pass the river cutting deep into the rocks, with knife-edge ridges, and 650-foot-high rock walls. Disentis has a thousand-year-old Benedictine monastery, and people here speak Romansch too, with its roots in classical Latin.

The train traverses the Oberalp Pass with a new engine with cog and wheel technology attached for the ascent, before arriving in Andermatt at 1436 metres, the town at the crossroads of four Alpine passes, situated at the foot of the Gotthard Pass, and famous for its hiking and skiing. Andermatt is also the centre of the Swiss army’s training centre.

Destination matterhorn.
Destination Matterhorn. Image: Kalpana Sunder.

At an altitude of 2431 metres, the Furka pass is one of the highest passes linking Valais and Uri cantons. On the Valais side, the view extends to the Aletsch Glacier, which has lost most of its spectacular size due to global warming and is now just barely visible from the train. ‘In the past, it was a threat and people prayed that the glacier melts. Today they pray for the opposite,’ says the commentary. After Visp, the Glacier Express passes through the deepest cleft valley in Switzerland, the Nikolai Valley with its narrow rock walls. Waterfalls gush off the craggy cliffs.

The final ascent is towards Tasch, the gateway to Zermatt, and the place where all the cars of that car-less town are kept. We get our first glimpse of the almost symmetrical Matterhorn peak, which could not be a better finale to the spectacular journey of almost eight hours. As we pulled into Zermatt station, we finally understand the meaning of the phrase ‘the journey is the destination’.

The stunning peak of matterhorn. Glacier express, train travel, slow travel, switzerland, switzerland tourism
The stunning peak of Matterhorn. Image: Shutterstock/Gaspar Janos.

Throughout the journey, it’s the lively commentary that keeps you entertained with quirky facts about the regions that you traverse, from a vegetable tart called Cholera that probably owes its name to the fact that it was created during the cholera epidemic, to the Alpine art of artist Segantini.

The best part of the journey are the nameless small villages that you pass, the random sights that you are privy to, from colourful kayaks on glacial waters to hikers and trekkers, cable cars and ski lifts, chalets and small railway stations, mountain huts, pastures and sheep and cows that have you reaching for your camera every second.

Swiss chalets, cows and countryside all make for wonderful sights. Glacier express, train travel, slow travel, switzerland, switzerland tourism
Swiss chalets, cows and countryside all make for wonderful sights. Image: Shutterstock/by-studio.

More than anything else, a ride on the Glacier Express is a ride in the slow lane, forcing you to stop and stare, and soak in the sights which is the essence of travel.

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