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Scaling the Heights with Ease

On a clear spring morning after a rain, St. Moritz looks scrubbed and snappy, an aging boulevardier fresh from a good steam. The international cocktail crowd and their polyglot winter have given way to a season of Romansh, the intriguing local dialect that sounds like Gypsies on methedrine.

The clock chimes in the stone tower of the train station near the lake: half past nine. Passengers on the bright red rolling stock of the Glacier Express settle themselves into cushioned seats and secure their hand luggage for the third or fourth time. Two giggly high school girls whisper to each other and clutch their knapsacks. Businessmen hide behind yesterday's Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and an American man wrestles with the door to the smoking compartment. "Push the button," says his wife.

Standing on the platform, arms akimbo, the conductor sings out what sounds like "Heee-yap!" Right on time, the Express pulls out of the station-- not slowly as do most trains, but quickly, as if it can't wait to reach its destination: Zermatt, 167 miles to the west, at the base of the most famous alp of all, the Matterhorn.

If St. Moritz is Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief-- suave, handsome, worldly-- then Zermatt is Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral: equally charming and handsome, perhaps, but far less sophisticated than it would like to think. While the social elite began flocking to St. Moritz in the 19th century for winter sports and the high life, mineralogists and entomologists sought out Zermatt for its abundance of rocks and bugs. The one is spandex and Sémillon; the other, lederhosen and lager.

In just under eight hours, the Glacier Express, which has been running in one form or another since 1928, passes through some of Switzerland's most lyrical landscapes, crossing 291 bridges and charging through 91 tunnels, crawling over the 6,700-foot Oberalp Pass along the way. Some tunnels actually form corkscrews inside the mountains: trains enter in one direction, spiral upward or down, and exit in the same direction they entered.

The engine's high-pitched whistle screeches as the train rounds a bend, and there, just beyond Celerina at the lower end of the famed Cresta Run, the entire valley of the Engadine opens up before you, hemmed in by snowy mountains on all sides. Soon after passing the stone houses of Samedan, you enter the 3.6-mile Albula Tunnel, returning to the sunlight at Preda. The line passes through the steep valleys of central Graubünden-- less a land of cultivated tourism than of nature left to its own devices. The lushness of the Engadine gives way to slopes speckled with larch and patches of mountain grass.

Everything changes north of the Albula Tunnel: language (German instead of Romansh and Italian), weather (more clouds now than in sunny St. Moritz), even the flow of the rivers (now leading to the North Sea instead of the Black Sea). As the train levels out on its way to Filisur, you'll come to one of the country's most photographed man-made landmarks: the Landwasser Viaduct. This bridge, constructed on six 65-foot-high arches and named for the river it crosses, is a spectacular piece of engineering wizardry that looks like a 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct.

Not all the vistas are so powerful. Some are as private and homespun as Heidi's grandfather. Like most trains everywhere, the Glacier Express provides an inside-out view of the towns and villages it passes. You see slightly unkempt alleyways and the backs of buildings, where the residents' intimate things are displayed on clotheslines and the weeds have grown a little tall.

Punctuality is strictly observed on Swiss trains. A waiter walks through the coaches to announce that lunch is being served; no matter that it is not yet noon. In the dining car, linen-covered tables are set with crystal and china. The atmosphere is pleasant if not luxurious, but becomes downright enchanting when you enter a tunnel and the only light comes from the dim bulbs of the table lamps.

It was a wise person who developed the Glacier menu-- not because of its culinary brilliance but because of its simplicity: spaetzle, pork steak, vegetarian schnitzel. The choices are few, but wide enough to satisfy most tastes. At one table the friendly waiter presents a warm salad of tomato, squash, and onion, which leads promptly to a perfectly acceptable if undistinguished veal paillard and the omnipresent Rösti (fried grated potatoes).


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