Scaling the heights of Switzerland, wineglass in hand, aboard the Glacier Express


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).

Depending on your degree of interest in the food, you may later recall the landscape between Reichenau and Disentis as nothing more than a blur, but that would be a shame. While finding your seat in the diner, browsing the menu, ordering, and balancing the contents of your wineglass over the bumpier stretches of track, you'll pass one of the most intriguing geological curiosities on the Glacier's route: the Rhine Gorge, sometimes called the Swiss Grand Canyon. In the aftermath of the last Ice Age, retreating glaciers gouged deeply into the mountains, causing massive landslides. The hillsides were stripped of their fertile veneer and left exposed in an almost vertical slant, like the white cliffs of Dover, upstaging even the lofty Alpine backdrop.

"I shouldn't linger in the dining car if I had been you," says the conductor in formal and weird English. "We disattach the restaurant at Disentis."

There, in the Rhine Valley, engines are replaced as the line switches from the bailiwick of the Rhaetian Railway to that of the Furka-Oberalp, which operates the tracks between Disentis and Brig. (While the train is changing engines and crew in Disentis, notice the twin onion-domed towers of the Benedictine monastery. The oldest in Switzerland, it was founded in 765-- the towers were an afterthought, added 900 years later.) The primary reason for the change in engines is that the steep climbs and descents ahead require cogwheels and additional braking. The FO gradient is as much as 179 feet per thousand, compared with the Rhaetian Railway's max of 70 feet per thousand.

The Glacier Express begins its climb toward the daunting Oberalp Pass almost as soon as it pulls away from Disentis. Here the baby Rhine River, whose source is nearby, would be hard-pressed to fill a Dixie cup. The mountains above become snowier, more rugged. At the summit lies Oberalp Lake, covered in ice and snow as late as June. The barren mountainsides are harsh and cold.

West of the pass, as the train parallels the newly formed RhÙne River, you begin to see the distinctive architecture of the Valais: dark-brown wooden barns and houses with overhanging eaves. The town of Münster and the villages of Reckingen and Gluringen are Swiss tourism brochures come to life, down to the clanging of cowbells and sheep clambering up the hillsides. All they lack to complete the picture is yodeling-- thank God.

During the FO portion of the journey, a recorded commentary plays in the passenger coaches in German, English, and French. "To the far end of the valley," it says as you approach Fiesch, "lies the Rimpfischhorn, part of the chain near Zermatt and one of Europe's highest icy giants." Hyperbole notwithstanding, the commentary is welcome and descriptive, but not unexpected once you know the Swiss.

In Brig the engine and crew are replaced yet again, this time as part of the BVZ (for Brig-Visp-Zermatt) railroad. After a brief stop at the industrial town of Visp, the Express makes a 90-degree turn to the south and begins its ascent up the valley leading to Zermatt. If you happen to be sipping a glass of Swiss Merlot at that moment, hold on tight. Here the train latches onto a section of the rack-and-pinion track, so steep you can feel the G-force against the insistent pull of the engine.

Just beyond the village of Herbriggen lies an immense, moraine-like pile of rocks, the result of a monumental landslide in 1991. The slide buried part of a hamlet as well as the BVZ tracks. In less than 10 weeks a new set of tracks was laid around the boulders, but the wreckage of the mountain remains, mind-boggling in size.

When the Swiss build nowadays, they often do so in the manner of a wealthy people with rustic roots. Even new buildings are decorated with mottoes or family crests in sgraffito (delicate incised plasterwork) and roofed using ancient methods; lavish modern houses sometimes have elk horns over the doorways. "At heart they still want to play peasant," says a Swiss friend. They may have a BMW in the garage, but they also have goats in the back yard.

By the time the Glacier Express reaches Täsch, 15 minutes from Zermatt, the sky has turned fierce. The clouds break into rain, a torrent, almost biblical. Any romantic would revel in such a storm, knowing with certainty that at any moment, after the train chugs around the last bend, the sky will open up, the angels will trumpet, and there, towering over that splendid horizon, will appear the stately Matterhorn in its perpetual raiment of snow. And that's exactly what happens . . . even if it's not until 10 o'clock the next morning.

The Facts

The journey between St. Moritz and Zermatt aboard the Glacier Express can be made at any time of year, though hotels, and the train itself, are more crowded at the height of summer and winter.

The Glacier Express
A one-way ticket costs $181 plus a $9 reservation fee; round-trip, $360. A better value is the eight-day Swiss Pass ($316), which allows unlimited trips on all Swiss Railway trains and discounted tickets on most private mountain railways and funiculars. For information and reservations, call a travel agent or Rail Europe (800/438-7245, fax 800/432-1329). Reservations are required for lunch in the dining car (make them when you buy your ticket); $45-$75 for two.

Hotel Albana
6 Via Maistra, St. Moritz; 41-81/833-3121, fax 41-81/833-3122; doubles $160-$200. Old-world coziness and good value, in the heart of the upper village.
Badrutt's Palace Hotel
27 Via Serlas, St. Moritz; 41-81/837-1100, fax 41-81/837-2999; doubles $385-$730 (opens for summer season June 26). Grand in every sense, from the palatial interiors to the views of St. Moritz Lake below.
Grand Hotel Zermatterhof
Bahnhofstrasse, Zermatt; 41-27/966-6600, fax 41-27/966-6699; doubles $235-$320. In this village with no street signs, the Regency-style Zermatterhof is one of the few hotels not designed like a chalet. The luxury is obvious but understated, the rooms large and comfortable.
Alpenresort Hotel
Zermatt; 41-27/966-3000, fax 41-27/966-3055; doubles from $135. Cosmopolitan flair with small-hotel intimacy. All guest rooms have balconies and Matterhorn views.

Side Trip
The Gornergrat-Bahn
This narrow-gauge train, a popular excursion from Zermatt, meanders through deep pine forests and past waterfalls, through tunnels and around horseshoe bends, while serving up continually shifting perspectives of the Matterhorn and its sister peaks. The round-trip fare ($42) is almost as steep as the train's 4,500-foot climb. A restaurant and viewing platforms at the 10,145-foot-high terminus (the highest open-air railway station in Europe) make for apleasant half-day outing. Trains leave frequently from the Gornergrat-Bahn station across the street from Zermatt's main station.