Bruce Dennill
3 minute read
4 Oct 2013
6:00 am

An idle idyll on the Glacier Express

Bruce Dennill

The first thing you notice as you step into a carriage on the Glacier Express is the bright sunlight – not something usually associated with a mode of transport that has you pack your suitcase above your head.

This train, though, which travels across southern Switzerland, from Zermatt to St Moritz via Davos, is not designed to fit stereotypes. For one thing, that sunlight you’ve noticed pours in through massive windows that take up most of the side of the carriage and half of the roof as well – a brilliant feature in the mountainous terrain through which the train travels.

And for another, the Glacier Express takes pride in its name being a misnomer, meandering leisurely as it does through the Alps in such a way that those aboard can take in as much of the passing panorama as possible.

 

travel 1

 

What your eyes miss, your ears will pick up: there’s a remarkably thorough (you traverse parts of regions that make up about a third of Switzerland) audio guide to the areas and towns you pass through. You listen via headphones, alerted to each new chapter by a discreet chime that goes off every so often, so if you would prefer to read or listen to music, you can do so.

Do give the narrator a chance, though, as the English version is recorded in lovely, plummy tones by someone whose occasional turns of phrase confirm that he is not a first-language speaker, and the result is a collection of wonderfully sincere but often over-the-top descriptions. And where else can you get walked through topics like the cheese-making process while travelling in such luxury?

 

travel 2

 

A first-class ticket includes a three-course lunch. If the train is full, service begins early, as the practicalities involve a relatively small number of staff having to serve a large, spread-out clientele. If you’re near the back, expect starters at around 11.30am.

If you’d like a digestif or to stretch your legs, trundle down to the Panorama Bar in the middle of the train. Be aware, though, that it’s a bit of a grand name for an area next to the kitchen with some small elbow-height tables and some narrow bar stools.

Back in your seat, the public school narration continues, informing you that there are around 1 000km of tunnels and galleries in Switzerland, a statistic you can well believe as you cross ever more of the country on your eight-hour journey. The galleries in question are not rows of paintings alongside the train (not a bad idea, mind you, if it’s going slowly enough), but rather sections of track protected by roofs held up by pillars, designed to keep the tracks free of snow if and when there’s an avalanche.

 

travel 3

 

 

That’s quite a rock and roll problem to have on a public transport network, but this solution is simple and elegant. More complicated are the so-called spiral tunnels utilised when there’s a particularly steep gradient to conquer. You don’t really feel the train turning, but you emerge into the daylight higher up the slope and facing the opposite direction, which takes a bit of getting used to.

More stories in your earphones: there’s a tiny chapel in this valley and, according to legend, you can cure toothache by walking around it. And later: what became the abbey around which the town of Disentis was built was founded by a wandering monk whose only aim was to escape the bustle of the bigger cities further north – in 700AD (Zurich airport alone would probably terrify the poor man nowadays).

Under a bridge along the way is a stream that will become the Rhine River, and you pass dozens of rustic, old-fashioned barns that confirm how close to the surface history remains in this otherwise first-world country, where farming still plays a big role.

The defining moment of the trip for many travellers is the crossing of the imposing Landwasser Viaduct (above left), a 65m-high, six-span bridge built in 1901. The train on that bridge is the image used front and centre on the Glacier Express marketing material, but if you want to snap your own version, you’ll need to be quick – even at a relatively low “non-express” speed, you’ll have crossed the viaduct and entered the tunnel on the other side in no time.