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Switzerland: Moving at the speed of a glacier

With an average speed of just 24mph, the Glacier Express bills itself as the world's slowest express train. And when your route is dotted with gorges, mountains, vineyards and spa towns, there's really no need to rush

Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:19 BST
Switzerland: Moving at the speed of a glacier
Passengers taking in the view through the Glacier Express train’s iconic panoramic windows
Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

It's early morning in the Swiss Alps, and we're curving noiselessly through the sky as the sun spills down onto the mountains. I've just leapt off the side of a ridge harnessed to a man I met half an hour earlier. We experience a few bewildering seconds of kerfuffle, a rush and furl of fabric, the bizarre sense of being hurled upwards — then silence, and the euphoric stillness of the valley. Now, with each current that reaches our paragliding wing, we spiral off and away, gravity-defiant and eagle-high. 

Far below, rags of white cloud still linger above the birch woods. The ageless Matterhorn looks on, its craggy geometry incandescent in the morning light. I'm grinning like a loon, trying to take in everything at once: a gust of wind curling wisps of snow from the tallest peaks; a tiny red car glinting along a forest road. Looking high then low, it's possible to trace precisely the passage of glaciers over time, their ice-scoured valleys and side-gorges spread out in file. "Not a bad way to start the day, is it?" comes the voice behind me, as we float into the blue again. "Makes you feel alive."

There's a lot that makes you feel alive in Switzerland. I'm at the end of a week-long rail journey through the crystalline amphitheatre that is the south of the country. The right scenic superlatives have been hard to come by. This tandem paragliding flight is a final-morning frill to a trip that has brought me from St Moritz to the resort town currently sitting a few hundred metres beneath my dangling legs: Zermatt.

The backdrop is head-swimmingly beautiful, as it has been all week. I've spent the trip riding the Glacier Express, a narrow-gauge train that bills itself as 'the slowest express train in the world'. It's an unflustered way to travel. Indeed, you learn quite quickly in the Swiss Alps that it's best to do as the glaciers do: don't rush.  

My week begins in St Moritz, that bastion of million-dollar tourism. It's summer, so many of the trappings of the ski season are under wraps, but there's still a rarefied air to the lakeside town. These days it's a playground that lures the likes of Ivana Trump and John Travolta, although the resort first found popularity way back in the 1860s. A Swiss resident invited four aristocratic Brits to spend a few months here, on the promise of their being fully reimbursed if they weren't wowed by the setting. They were.

The connection to the UK still holds strong. Today, there's a British classic car rally taking place, so the resort's designer boutiques are being treated to the fine sight of pipe-smoking greybeards cruising past in mustard Jaguar E-Types. Luxury is relative, of course — and budget-dependent. I source a different kind of extravagance 20 minutes out of town on the terrace of a hillside cafe, where a morning coffee comes with an unhindered view of fir-flanked mountains. It's a princely way to spend a few francs.

Back in St Moritz, my train is on the platform. First impressions are good. Every carriage is broad, gleaming and coated in the bright red of the national flag, with panoramic windows as standard. This is no regional commuter-trundler. Since its inaugural journey in 1930, the Glacier Express has functioned unabashedly as a tourist train. It's now in its ninth decade of feeding and watering international travellers across over 180 miles of Alpine loveliness.

End to end, its daily mountain journey from St Moritz to Zermatt lasts around seven and a half hours, with an average tempo of just 24mph. On each journey it passes through 91 tunnels and noses its way across 291 bridges. I'm splitting the route into four sections over the course of the week. The train is prim, punctual and, quite frankly, couldn't be more Swiss if Roger Federer were eating a bowl of muesli in the driver's cab. 

Once we pull away from the platform, it becomes clear just what an engineering feat the line represents. The first leg of my journey is taking me to Chur, the oldest city in the country. This initial stretch of track, looping through yawning valleys of milky rivers, was constructed in 1903, the same time as Albert Einstein was developing his theory of relativity in nearby Bern. The endeavours of the railway's 5,000-strong workforce must have been only marginally less taxing.

When the sun comes out, the whole wraparound scene — ravines, Heidi huts, lush meadows — is carpeted in a giddying green. To just sit and stare is a delight. We're in the canton of German-speaking Graubünden, the country's largest region. Cars were prohibited here until 1925, on the basis that they sullied the overall environment. "Yes, you could say we have a little rivalry with 'French' Switzerland," one of the train staff tells me, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "Why wouldn't we? We have more to boast about." 

The epic natural surroundings dwarfing the Glacier Express as it makes its way along the Oberalp Pass. Image: Slawek Kozdras

The high life

On the outskirts of Chur I find a vending machine selling nothing but freeze-dried fondue. It's a modern touch in a city that has been part of Switzerland's story from the very beginning. Founded by the Celts and subsequently ruled by the Romans and the Franks, it's somewhere that has always been positioned at a crossroads for traders and alpine wayfarers. Even my accommodation for the night, the modest, pine-panelled Romantik Hotel Stern, has been welcoming travellers for more than three centuries.     

Hans, the jolly guide showing me around the city's elegant old squares the next day, claps his hands. "I want to show you some marmot fat," he says. I'm ushered into a pharmacy, where he produces a jar of thick, pale ointment. It smells pungent. "This substance is taken from marmots," he explains, referencing the hefty, squirrel-like animals that live on the surrounding mountains. "It's very valuable. It's good for aches and pains, and it's all-natural."

As elsewhere on the trip, the relationship between Chur and the countryside is a symbiotic one. Fifteen minutes out of town, the slopes are draped in vineyards. At nearby Bad Ragaz I hire an e-bike — the inclines here are tough — and meander up into the hills. Within the hour, serendipity leads me to a small-batch winery, where a dozen people are sitting on sun-dappled wooden tables under a broadleaf tree. I order a glass of Riesling and some local cheese, then sit back.

Only around 2% of Swiss wine gets exported. Judging from the drinkers in front of me, the remaining 98% has no trouble finding a willing market. I get talking to the couple next to me, who, it transpires, are from Liechtenstein, the tiny principality just a few kilometres away. "We come to Switzerland a lot," says the man, taking a slug of rosé and wiping his moustache. "The wine's nicer here." 

Back on the bike, I make the most of the electric assistance as I continue to follow the hills. Unable to resist the urge to pedal into another country, I make the short diversion into the southern tip of Liechtenstein, where a bluff-top castle stands over empty Sunday roads. Returning into Switzerland, I wheel back to Bad Ragaz along the banks of the Rhine. The river is broad and cloudy with glacial run-off. Groups of bathers are relaxing on the banks, some of them swimming in the shallows offshore. It takes little deliberation for me to join them, improvising with clothing and dunking into the cold, fast waters.

To a large degree, water and ice have moulded and contorted the Swiss Alps into the features we know today, scooping out valleys, sharpening ridges and forging river courses. The region showcases nature's work on a titanic scale. There's a reminder of this when I rejoin the Glacier Express for the journey from 1,949ft-high Chur to the 6,706ft-high Oberalp Pass. On either side of the train, the Rhine Gorge stretches up towards rock spires and granite buttresses. Copses of larch trees perch at impossible angles, staring down at our little scarlet locomotive. For our part, we have to pause at the old monastery town of Disentis to change to a cog-wheel engine: nature might do its own thing in the mountains, but mankind needs a helping hand.

Human intervention isn't always positive, of course. My next stop is the high-altitude town of Andermatt, which for centuries prospered from its position on regional trading routes. Then a 10-mile tunnel was built under the surrounding peaks in the 1880s, greatly easing cross-mountain travel but effectively cutting Andermatt adrift from the source of its livelihood. The town, ringed by snow-capped behemoths, struggled badly.

"We were screwed, if you'll pardon the expression," explains Berni — a middle-aged man with unruly hair tucked under a flat cap — who grew up in the valley. He introduces himself as a snowboarder, historian, chemical analyst and crystal digger. Today, he's my guide. "Andermatt had always been a world between worlds, but now we were properly isolated," he continues. "Most people who live here are descended from the Walsers, the Germanic people who settled here in the Middle Ages. Me too. We adapted. Nowadays we focus on tourism."

This is no idle statement. Things don't get done by halves in Switzerland, and the town is currently in the middle of a fairly staggering £1.3bn development programme, which already includes five-star The Chedi Andermatt (iPad-controlled fireplaces, Swarovski crystal lamps, cheese cellar). Just as pertinently, it also gives access to superb hiking and skiing territory. At Berni's recommendation, I trek up into the hills to reach the source of the Rhine, a five-hour round-trip on which I meet just two other hikers.

It's nevertheless a busy walk. Tiny dragonflies zip across pink wildflowers; mountain jackdaws arrow past in tightly choreographed flocks; marmots bundle nervously away from the trail. All the while, serried ranks of mountains file off into the distance, their sides splattered with enormous snow grooves. I climb higher. Silhouetted peaks haze away to the horizon, and when I take a diversion to the almost perfectly pointed summit of Pazolastock, I can see for what feels like forever.

The river source, when it arrives, is enjoyably understated. A sign on a rock reads 'Rheinquelle', marking the small, lonely lake from which one of Europe's mightiest rivers takes shape. I dip my hand in. From this high cradle in the hills, these waters will flow down through six countries, getting broader all the while, passing through the cities of Basel, Strasbourg, Cologne and beyond, before discharging into the North Sea. 

A quiet evening in Arcas Square with St Martin's Church in the background, Chur. Image: Slawek Kozdras

Lucky Leukerbad

Some places get all the luck. Having taken the Glacier Express as far as the little city of Visp, I've travelled away from the main St Moritz-Zermatt route by catching a bus up hairpin bends to the hill town of Leukerbad. It's another Alpine settlement with a long history — the Romans are known to have lingered here, for example. The main reason? For as long as anyone can remember, Leukerbad has received 900 litres of hot thermal water a minute, every hour of every day.

"We use it to heat our homes and power our lights. And to relax in, of course," says guide and local resident David, with an understandable hint of smugness. We're watching a few dozen people wallowing in outdoor thermal swimming pools, the steam rising against a backdrop of cathedral-like mountains. "It doesn't even smell. No rotten eggs. No sulphur. It's basically melted snow that has bubbled up again through the earth. The water that's coming out today was snow 40 years ago."

There are 65 mountains higher than 13,100ft in the European Alps. Leukerbad sits in the canton of Valais, which claims no fewer than 48 of them. Almost every direction you choose to face reveals a postcard panorama. And all those peaks mean lots of south-facing slopes, which in turn means plenty of places to grow grapes. "We have 20,000 vineyard owners in Valais," says David. "So life is good. Mountains, hot baths, wine. Yes, life is good." 

As evening falls, we find a restaurant. Over a carafe of local white and multiple plates of raclette (the dangerously moreish Swiss dish of melted cheese served with pickles and potatoes) I hear more about Leukerbad's past. It emerges that tourism of a sort has been in evidence here for over 1,500 years, thanks to a bath-loving bishop who invited his friends to sample the thermal waters in AD 501.
It seems churlish not to see what the fuss is about, so the following morning I visit one of the numerous public pools around the town. Two hours later, having soaked and sauna'd in varying degrees of heat and humidity, I'm rather wishing I was staying up here for longer. The calcium levels in the local water make it particularly good for the bones, I'm told. So it's a pleasant irony that the experience has left me feeling sleepily invertebrate.

In the vast valley below Leukerbad, another of the continent's major rivers forces its way westwards. I stare down at the Rhône, its waters flowing slowly on their journey to the Mediterranean. Of the various tributaries feeding the river, one of the most notable is the Matter Vispa, which drains the Matter Valley. It's down this lateral branch that I'm heading next, to round off my trip.

The Glacier Express isn't the only train making the journey between St Moritz and Zermatt. There are good Swiss rail services plying the same route for a lower price. But there's something laudable about a long-distance train that still exists for pleasure alone, and as we trundle past waterfalls and onion-domed churches in the shadow of the Alps, it's easy to let your mind tread back through the decades. Then the tip of the Matterhorn appears, and all eyes on board look south.

Certain landforms demand to be ogled. There are far higher and far broader mountains than the Matterhorn, but its Toblerone-inspiring pyramid of gneiss is a thrill to behold. When I disembark in Zermatt, 15 minutes later, teasing afternoon clouds linger around the summit, before parting to reveal the mountain's full form against a blue sky. The streets, busy with outdoor stores and tour groups, are suddenly awhir with cameras.

My final morning is deliciously exhilarating. It's hard to do justice in words to a day that starts with a paragliding flight in clear sunshine. Halfway through our descent, Stuart, the instructor on my back, veers us towards a remote mountain cafe where two families are having breakfast on the terrace. "Two cappuccinos, please!" he shouts, before angling our wing back out across the valley. The families wave back. It might be a while before we return there to drink our coffee, but in the Swiss Alps, there's nothing more unnatural than hurrying.


Getting there & around
Base your Glacier Express itinerary around Zürich Airport. SWISS operates up to 119 weekly flights to the city from London City, Heathrow, Gatwick (seasonal), Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh (seasonal) and Dublin. Other airlines that serve the city include British Airways and EasyJet.

The country has a comprehensive and efficient rail and road network. The Swiss Travel System provides a dedicated range of travel passes and tickets exclusively for visitors from abroad.

When to go?
The Glacier Express runs year-round, with one daily service in winter and up to three over summer.

More info
(Lonely Planet Travel Guides). RRP: £15.99

How to do it
All-inclusive air fares with SWISS from the UK start from £71, one-way. One-way tickets from St Moritz to Zermatt on the Glacier Express cost from CHF 149 (£119) second class or CHF 262 (£210) first class, plus seat reservation fee. Tandem paragliding flights with Fly Zermatt from CHF 170 (£136).

Follow @benlerwill

Published in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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