It is named the Glacier Express, but perhaps it is the slowest express train in the world — taking nearly eight hours to cover a distance just short of 300 km, making the average speed only around 50 km.
First of all there is the romance of the two destinations it connects. We, a group of nine international journalists, board the train at Zermatt, one of the prettiest towns in Switzerland located at an altitude of 1,604 metres. This is the place you go to for many a hikes in the Alps, or take cable cars to some of the highest peaks in the region, including the king of them all — the Matterhorn peak, the summit of which was the last to be conquered in the Alps.
Located at a height of 4,478 metres above sea level in the Valais canton of Switzerland, the British explorer Edward Whymper managed to scale the Matterhorn summit only at the seventh attempt in 1865. But the consequences were tragic. As they reached the summit only around 1.16 p.m. and time was running out, Whymper’s group had to make a hasty descent.
But tragedy struck with four members of the group falling to their death 300 metres below the summit. While Valais is very proud to remind all its international and domestic visitors that 45 of the 48 mountain peaks in Switzerland above 4,000 metres are in this canton, it bears reminding that Mount Everest rises to a majestic height of 8,848 metres!
The eyes of all visitors to Zermatt are glued to the skies towards the majestic Matterhorn peak. We are there at the end of August while it is still summer, but as luck would have it, of our five days in the country, the day we are scheduled to take a ’gondola’ or cable car ride to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise or its viewing platform located at a height of 3,883 metres turns out to be cloudy, rainy. The saving grace is that it snows when we reach the viewing platform!
Pollution free town
Zermatt, by the way, gives you the cleanest and freshest of air to breathe as it is a town free of all petroleum vehicles. Both the cars and buses are battery operated; only the traffic police can use petrol or diesel cars during emergencies and twice a year, huge trucks carrying construction material, either for building or repair, are allowed in the enchanting little town for two weeks.
Once you’re done with Zermatt and the Matterhorn, and consumed the best of Swiss wines — the Valais region is the largest wine region in Switzerland and accounts for almost half of the total wine production — an ideal itinerary would be to take the Glacier Express to St. Moritz, the glamorous playground of the rich and the famous, and one of the most picturesque regions of the world.
The rail track of nearly 300 km is considered a masterpiece in Railway technology and if your pockets are deep enough, do opt for a first class coach. Along with the reservation fee of 33 Swiss Francs, and a simple lunch, it will set you off by nearly 300 Swiss Francs (about ₹20,000), but the journey in luxurious comfort is worth the price tag. The ride offers so many scenic highlights that after a while you are compelled to put the camera away and take in nature’s beauty with the best lens in the world — your eyes.
A scenic journey
The journey between the Valais glacier region and the Engadin mountain valley includes the majestic Rhine gorge, the mountain lakes in the 2,033 metre high Oberalp pass — Oberalp is a famous skiing destination in Europe and many Swiss nationals head here for a holiday — and a glorious view of some of Valais’ most famous peaks — including the Matterhorn! What is more, this train can also connect you to Davos, another world famous holiday resort, made even more famous by the World Economic Forum’s annual meets. A Glacier Express bus now connects passengers between Davos and Chur, as Davos is not a station on this route.
The train which passes through 291 bridges and 91 tunnels, and introduced the cog component — the engineering bit that pulls the coaches up without the danger of slipping back — in 1891, also gives alert passengers an opportunity to photograph the legendary viaducts on this route.
Small wonder that a quarter million passengers board this train to enjoy this scenic route! But a small quibble; for photo enthusiasts, even though the large and clean windows offer a panoramic view, the journey is marred somewhat by the reflections on the glass. So in what you thought was a perfect picture of a snow peak, you’ll find the image of a fellow passenger. My Italian colleague, for whom Switzerland is a just a few hours away by train, gave us a valuable tip. “Next time, choose other trains … they might not be so fancy, but they allow pulling up of the glass window by half, so you can get perfect pictures!”
Soon our train pulls into the charming city of St. Moritz and Swiss Tourism has planned for us a chat with a distinguished senior citizen and retired school teacher Phillip Walther who gives us a countdown on how St. Moritz became such a popular destination for winter tourism. In fact next year, the Graubunden Canton has lined up a series of events to mark the 150th anniversary of winter tourism in this region.
Over a delicious nut pastry made of walnut, called the Nusstorte, which though not from this region has become so popular that many visitors take it home as a souvenir, along with a tall glass of hot chocolate, Walther tells us the story, which is already a legend, of how 150 years ago, the Swiss Alps which were thitherto considered an ideal holiday
location only during summer, became such a hot winter destination.
A Swiss hotelier in the Upper Engadin (St. Moritz) called Johannes Badrutt was heartbroken every winter to find his hotel empty at the onset of winter as his guests, most of them English, headed back home, dreading the freezing Alps. So in 1864 he took a bet with six of his last remaining summer guests and urged them to stay on. Winter in Engadin, he assured them, was full of sunshine and much better than the cold damp winters in England.
They left anyway, only to return before Christmas and loved the sun-kissed region so much that they stayed on all till after Easter! Surely Badrutt must have heaved a sigh of relief because the bet he had made with his guests had agreed to make their hotel stay free and reimburse their travel cost if the guests did not love their winter stay here!
On our walking tour we are shown the houses of the rich and the famous, including one of the steel baron, L.N. Mittal. But the best is yet to come. After a short car ride to Punt Muragl we ascend by a funicular and a 15-minute stunning ride to the mountain Muottas Muragl, which provides an outstanding view of the entire Engadin valley — with its snow covered mountain peaks, lush green stone-pine covered slopes, the sparkling waters of several lakes at a lower level, and clear and intense blue skies. The funicular has taken us up by about 1,000 metres; we check into one of the most romantic hotels in the world … The Romantic Hotel Muottas Muragl. From 2010 it has really earned the label of being eco-friendly by harnessing the sun’s energy to become a Power Plus hotel. In summer it stores its extra energy in the power grid and borrows back some of it in winter.
Whether it is its fabled 300-year old mineral water springs with impressive therapeutic and regenerating properties or its 500-odd km hiking and biking trails, not to mention the various skiing slopes and routes, the Upper Engadin valley is so beautiful that you can imagine how and why this region sees annually 2.1 million overnight stays in summer and 2.3 million overnight stays in winter. Significantly enough, of the tourists visiting this stunningly beautiful region, guests from Switzerland comprise 55 percent and foreign visitors a remaining 45 percent.