- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

ON THE OBERALP PASS, Switzerland — At more than a mile above sea level, with the sun reflecting off the deep snow, everything is so bright that even the sky looks white. That’s just the view from the train window.

Surrounded by a succession of Alpine giants, this isolated rail station is so high that it actually looks down on ski routes. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that you can get here on a regular, scheduled Swiss train that runs several times every day of the year, no matter the weather, and there’s no extra charge for getting to the roof of Europe.

The Glacier Express — which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year — is one of the world’s great and most remarkable railway journeys, ferrying tourists in panoramic carriages through the heart of the Alps, from the world-famous resort of St. Moritz to the foot of the Matterhorn, the country’s national symbol.

“The main thing is the change in nature in total,” says Helmut Biner, spokesman for the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, which runs the western section of the rail route. “It is quite impressive because it’s in the heart of the Alps and with all these rivers and valleys to cross.”

Tagged “the slowest express train in the world,” the Glacier Express takes passengers at an average speed of 18.6 mph through the mountainous state of Graubunden before climbing up the Rhine Valley to cross the Oberalp Pass, at 6,670 feet the highest point on the route at a nexus of ski lifts.

It then descends with the Rhone River before turning into a side valley to reach the world-famous resort of Zermatt, at the foot of the Matterhorn’s pyramid. The whole journey takes about 71/2 hours, crossing 291 bridges and rumbling through 91 tunnels.

The route is a celebration of Swiss engineering, from breathtaking viaducts crossing rushing mountain streams to switchback rail lines that sometimes even go in full circles to spiral up or down the steepest slopes.

“We did a survey last year, and 81 percent [of passengers] said they would tell friends to take the Glacier Express,” Mr. Biner says. “That’s a good figure.”

The number of people traveling on the scenic train rose rapidly through the 1980s and now is fairly constant at about 250,000 a year, Mr Biner says.

“Often it’s better to make reservations, to be sure to get space,” he says, noting that the Edwardian-era restaurant car is a very popular feature. “The nature stays more or less the same, but we try to give more comfort as well.”

Those who want to escape the hordes of camera-clicking tourists also can follow the spectacular route on regular trains and plan their own stops.

Many of the regular trains are almost empty and have the same panoramic windows and dining facilities. This option also gives travelers the chance to spend some time in the charming old city of Chur along the route and in any number of small mountain villages, where often the only other people encountered are Swiss. Regular trains don’t charge extra if you hop on and off.

On the Glacier Express, it costs more to stop along the way, but with reservations, passengers are guaranteed the panoramic carriages and access to the dining car.

From St. Moritz, the Glacier Express route cuts through a tunnel into the high Albula Valley, which it then descends in a series of breathtaking spirals. At times, it barely seems possible that your train has just descended from tracks visible far above.

Remote places like Berguen and Tiefencastel offer a chance to break the journey and get away from it all, perhaps fitting in some hiking or sledding. Just before Tiefencastel, the train rumbles out of a tunnel and over the soaring Landwasser viaduct.

About 90 minutes from St. Moritz, the train descends to the Rhine Valley, bringing travelers into Chur, the largest town on the route. It’s surrounded by steep-sided mountains and supposedly offers the best shopping between Milan and Zurich as well as a variety of accommodations and dining.

Above the cobbled streets of Chur’s old town is an onion-domed cathedral. Vineyards and forests cluster up the hillsides, offering rural walks just five minutes from the center of town.

Leaving this pretty town, the Glacier Express then climbs along the rugged Rhine gorge, chugging along next to the young river, which burbles between two sheer rock faces. Halfway along the Upper Rhine Valley, the train reaches the small town of Disentis — also known as Muster in the local mountain language of Romansch — with its monumental white Benedictine abbey with exuberant and intricate interior decorations.

Then starts the long haul up to the Oberalp, climbing through snowfields as skiers jump on and off, ferrying up to the top of the ski runs. In the picturesque village of Andermatt, situated at the foot of four great Alpine passes, you can stop for refreshments and stretch your legs before the long descent through a region known as the Goms, which has fine cross-country skiing.

The final stretch is possibly the most dramatic, as the train uses cogs to climb the steep Matter Vispa valley, anticipation mounting as passengers await their first view of the Matterhorn at every turn.

“It’s one of the highlights, especially, the Matterhorn at the start or the end of the trip,” Mr. Biner says.

Travelers have to wait. Their first view of the majestic mountain comes only after stepping outside Zermatt’s train station.

Anytime is good time to enjoy Swiss scenery

The Glacier Express runs between St. Moritz, almost four hours from Zurich by train, and Zermatt, four hours from Geneva and five hours from Zurich. There also are good connections through Milan in northern Italy.

A Swiss Pass, costing from $236 for a month, allows unlimited travel on trains, including the Glacier Express, as well as on buses and many boats.

For more information on the train, visit www.glacierexpress.ch; in Brig, call 41-27-927-7777; in Chur, 41-812-886-100. The Glacier Express runs up to five times daily in summer and once daily in winter in each direction. A second-class, one-way ticket costs about $111; a first-class ticket is $185, plus a surcharge of up to $15.

Hotels and apartments are plentiful in St. Moritz and Zermatt but slightly more expensive than in most other Swiss resorts. Reservations are advisable in peak summer and winter season.

For those without reservations, panels at the railway stations give hotel information. Top of the range in St. Moritz is the renowned Kempinski Grand Hotel, with doubles from $772. More affordable is Hotel Sonne, with doubles from $172.

Zermatt’s classiest hotel is the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, where doubles begin at $446. Riffelberg, above the village, offers stunning Matterhorn views, from $266. Both resorts also have youth hostels and some lower-range hotels. All the towns along the Glacier Express route have at least a couple of hotels, with a wider selection in Brig and Chur.

A three-course meal in the Edwardian dining car on the Glacier Express costs about $33, excluding drinks. Wineglasses have a tilted base so the steep gradients don’t spill your drink.

The daily special is $22, and there also is a refreshment trolley for snacks and drinks. Geschnetzeltes (sliced meat in cream) and rosti (hash browns) are standard Swiss fare, as is melted-cheese fondue. There is a wide variety of local restaurants, with Italian restaurants often offering the best value.

Anytime of the year is a good time to go. Seasonal highlights include summer hiking and lake swimming; fall foliage; and winter skiing and snowboarding. Spring is perhaps the best time of all — when most activities are feasible and there’s still plenty of snow but temperatures are more comfortable. Glacier skiing is possible year-round.

St. Moritz and Zermatt are renowned for outdoor activities and good skiing. Many other towns along the Glacier Express route — such as Chur, Disentis and Andermatt — also have easy access to the slopes. In summer, most of these towns are also centers for hiking, particularly Zermatt.

Almost anywhere in the valley boasts views of the Matterhorn as well as several other 13,000-foot giants. Ski lifts and mountain railways can easily get hikers to high altitude. In St. Moritz, passengers can take trips down the world-famous mile-long Cresta bobsled run — www.olympia-bobrun.ch or 41-81-830-0200.

St. Moritz, www.stmoritz.ch; Zermatt, www.zermatt.ch or 41-27-966-8100; Switzerland Tourism, www.mySwitzerland.com, with a toll-free international line, 800-100-200-30; Swiss Federal Railways www.rail.ch or 41-900-300-300.

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