Written by Matthew Teller
It’s 15° below zero, but, to be honest, I’m hot. Sitting in short sleeves, with my elbows chilled but my face to the scorching sun, it feels just like the tales my mum used to tell of winter evenings in London in the days before central heating – face and body toasty in front of a coal fire, back raw with cold.
I wrap the rug tighter round my frozen knees and rub more sunscreen into my sizzling nose. Switzerland can be a little topsy-turvy like this, especially in the Alps. It is February, and I’m sitting on the terrace of a restaurant in the centre of St Moritz, at around 1,800m above sea level, eating my lunch – simple potato r?sti given a St Moritzy twist with the addition of sour cream and mounds of smoked salmon. The air temperature has been hovering between -15?C and -20?C for the last few days, but St Moritz is famous for its days of perpetually blue skies: 322 of them a year, on average. Glittering sunlight is roasting my poor nose, while any part in shade – my knees, for instance, tucked under the table – remain icy.
Sunshine, snow, and smoked salmon: St Moritz has it all. It’s an incredibly beautiful little town, nestled alongside its lake amidst forests of larch and fir, and loomed over by high Alpine crags. The quality of light is sensational, the air toothpaste-fresh. I’ve spent a couple of dream-like days on sensory overload, half-blinded by the sunlight, trying to earwig on surreal conversations in Romansh, Switzerland’s fourth language – a fossilised form of the Vulgar Latin left behind by the Romans.
All the jet-set designer swank that St Moritz is famous for – one little street features Prada, Gucci, and Versace stores side by side – is rather overhyped. I choose instead to scour local bookshops and drop in on the town’s art galleries, including a fine collection devoted to 19th century Alpine painter Giovanni Segantini. My last morning, after a breakfast-time stroll on the Lej da San Murezzan – the beautifully evocative Romansh name for St Moritz’s lake (which, I should add, was frozen solid at the time) – I arrive at the station to sample one of Europe’s great railway journeys: the Glacier Express, which traverses the Alps to the distant resort of Zermatt.
This legendary train is dubbed the slowest express in the world. It averages around 30kph – not least because of its ups and downs: from St Moritz up to the Albula tunnel, the highest rail tunnel in the Alps (1,820m above sea level), then down to the historic town of Chur (585m), up to cross the ice-bound Oberalp Pass (2,033m), down to Visp (650m), and finally up again to end at Zermatt (1,604m). Then you have to add in the 91 tunnels and 291 bridges on the way. It takes the best part of eight hours.
But they are memorable hours. The rolling stock is state-of-the-art, and all services have special panoramic carriages – in both 1st and 2nd class – where the windows are vast, extending from knee-level right up around the top of the coach. From any seat the views are all-encompassing.
The effect of this is surprising: removing the window frame from the view erases the sense of having sat on a train all day. It changes the whole experience, and eliminates that alienating feeling – familiar from cars and buses – of the world outside being just more TV. The focus shifts from being a passenger, stuck behind glass, to being a traveller, engaged in the amazing scenery all around.
We set off beside the River Inn, whose waters tumble east through Innsbruck to join the Danube and, eventually, the Black Sea – but here, amidst the wild Alpine forests, it is the slenderest of mountain brooks. Every sightline is dominated by the elemental colours of sky-blue, snow-white, and pine-green. Through steep and densely wooded valleys, we pass the young Rhine, crossable here by a single stepping-stone.
Lunch is served in the wood-panelled dining car as we climb through high Alpine gorges on the way to the starkly momentous Oberalp Pass. Below us, the snow lies two metres thick on the roofs of Andermatt.
Then we join the River Rhone, a tumbling glacial stream at the start of its long journey to the Mediterranean Sea. As we turn away at Visp to head back into the high Alps, my carriage falls quiet: gazing down into the depths of the Matter valley as the train passes beside the stupendous Dom – at 4,545m, the highest mountain wholly on Swiss soil – is enough to hush the chatter.
And then, as we roll into Zermatt at the end of the line, there stands the Matterhorn, a giant pyramidal form familiar from a thousand Toblerone wrappers. The evening is drawing in, but I’ve got the Alpine bug and want to press on. I check in to my hotel and head back to the station for, yes, another train.
Zermatt’s Gornergrat mountain railway was founded in 1898, and boasts a scenic route through forests and across open meadows, superb Matterhorn views and a dramatic ascent to 3,100m above sea level. It’s dusk when we arrive: I have an hour before the last train down. As the stars come out, I walk up the short distance from the station hotel to the icy Gornergrat summit, in time to see an ethereal moonrise illuminate the glaciers below and raise a glow on the face of the Matterhorn. It seems a fittingly majestic conclusion to an epic day of travel.
Swiss railways are among the wonders of the modern world – clean, fast, efficient, and massively comprehensive. Almost every line has its scenic wonders; here is a personal choice of five favourites to supplement the Glacier Ex-press and Bernina line.
The Glacier Express is not the only panoramic rail route which begins from St Moritz.