Lets Go: All Aboard the Glacier Express

January 21, 2012
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Like transport designed for royalty, its eight coaches gleaming red and silver, looks like a creation by Cartier or maybe Tiffany, never ever to be mistaken for commonplace commuter conveyance.

By Linda McK Stewart

Some people collect seashells and some collect antique cars. Others collect art or CD’s or first editions. I collect train trips, and what a wonderful collection it is. It takes up no house space, requires no insurance and I can re-visit it whenever I want just by closing my eyes. My collection includes the Orient Express Paris-Venice and the other Orient Express Singapore-Bangkok and the overnight run Mombassa to Nairobi. It includes super-deluxe rides like South Africa’s Blue Train and hang-out-the-window rides like Puffing Billy through the Dandenong mountains of eastern Australia. Impossible to omit the Flying Scotsman or Alaska’s Vistadome ride. But if asked to choose my most favorite, I think I would have to go with the Glacier Express, Switzerland’s marvelous eight-hour run from St. Moritz in the southeast to Zermatt in the southwest, a distance of about 180 miles. That bit of information alone tells you that the train is misnamed for there’s nothing express-like about it. Indeed in places, the route is so steep that the train moves upward at a snail’s pace, traveling along a combination of cog and narrow gauge tracks.

Photo credit: Rhaetische Bahn

I board the train in St. Moritz, the lofty (6,000 feet) alpine playground of the rich, the super rich and the would-be-rich. It’s a February morning, blue and gold and icy, the cold so brittle that the day could shatter as easily as a pane of glass. There’s no problem finding the Glacier Express. Like transport designed for royalty, its eight coaches gleaming red and silver, looks like a creation by Cartier or maybe Tiffany, never ever to be mistaken for commonplace commuter conveyance. I make my way to my assigned seat in Second Class, only to find the seat already occupied by a young French mother, skillfully juggling a pair of two-year old twins. We compare tickets. No question about it: they are identical. The very idea that the Swiss Railway system could have mistakenly issued identical tickets for one seat strikes us as nigh impossible. As unthinkable as comets colliding. Within moments the conductor arrives and is even more aghast. There’s a flurry of paperwork and the next thing I know I’m ushered into the adjoining car, First Class Panorama. A screw-up in Switzerland results not in chaos but in an upgrade. Who could protest?

Photo credit: Rhaetische Bahn

My wide red plush seat has its own tabletop and a large gleaming window from which, within minutes of departure, I can peer up to the Bernina glacier. My Glacier Express Guidebook informs me that it’s 13,284 feet high. Like some heavenly benediction, the early morning sun is radiating off its icy summit, but before I can dig out my point-and-shoot, it vanishes as we plunge into the unforgiving blackness of the first of 90-some tunnels, some built more than a century ago. My guidebook turns out to be a bible of Swiss train lore. It bristles with fact and fact-lettes. I trust it implicitly. How else could I know that the distant rock-strewn steep, steep slope was once a village, lost in an avalanche or that the ancient castle glimpsed on an icy peak stands on what was once a Roman outpost?

Photo credit: Rhaetische Bahn

We roll through snow-blanketed hamlets, surely lifted from underneath someone’s Christmas tree. We cross ice-filled rivers bordered by mammoth snow-topped boulders, a wilderness best-suited to warring tribes clad in bear skin. Slopes served by cable car ski lifts slide by, followed hard by blinding stretches of snow devoid of trail or foot print. By night, I’m guessing, out come the wolves for this fierce landscape is surely to their liking. We pass through the Furka Tunnel that runs under the Furka Pass that lies at an altitude of almost 8,000 feet. The tunnel measures nine and a half miles in length. It took 10 years to build and is the longest one-meter gauge tunnel in the world.

A Jumpsuit to Start a Dialogue

We stop not infrequently. Snug and warm in our cozy compartments, we watch bearded workmen in boots and furry hats execute mysterious mechanical exercises to couple and uncouple the cars of our train. At one crossing I spot a team of ink-black draught horses, hitched to a sledge piled high with logs. Impatient at being reined in, they toss their huge heads, snorting steam.

Photo Credit: Rhaetische Bahn

The Glacier Express, surely one of Europe’s most dramatically scenic routes, dates back to 1928, one of the world’s oldest continuous rail excursions. Passengers have a choice of dining from dishes served by a rolling cart or having a four-course meal in the dining car, advance reservation required. More than a quarter of a million passengers ride the train each year, not all of them nearly as delighted as I am. It’s not uncommon for the incredible views to be completely obliterated by rain in summer, blizzard in winter. One fellow passenger told me he had taken the train on two previous occasions but this was the only time he hadn’t had at least part of the route obscured by weather. I know I was lucky to have hit such a patch of crystal-clear weather. But if I was so lucky, why shouldn’t you be too?

IF YOU GO: For complete information, call RAIL EUROPE, toll free, 1-800-438-7245. www.RailEurope.com.

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