Slow Journey Through Beautiful Switzerland on the Glacier Express

As the train moves around the tracks, the mountains get higher and closer. The valley is narrow, with steep limestone cliffs on either side, clusters of pine trees and a flowing river below, along which the train runs.

I have just left the historic town of Chur and am entering the Rhine Gorge. I’ve only been on the train for 10 minutes, but already glued to the window.

Some people have trains like Orient Express on their wish list, but my dream was always to take the Glacier Express in Switzerland. The route runs from the alpine resort of St. Moritz in the southeast to the ski resort Zermatt at the foot of the Matterhorn in the southwest. Along the way, it passes alpine villages, green pastures, rivers and lakes as well as snow-filled mountain passes and glaciers for which the train is named.

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Glacier Express passing through the breathtaking Matterhorn. Image: Glacier Express / Stephen Schlumpf

Taking seven-and-a-half hours to travel 291km, the word ‘express’ isn’t to be taken literally – it’s the slowest express train in the world – but it’s the perfect day for a slow journey, with thoughts popping up as the train cuts through. Through the Soaking Alps, the Rhine makes its way along the river gorge and climbs the icy mountain pass at the Oberlup.

The Glacier Express has been running since 1930, and the route consists of 291 bridges and 91 tunnels. Two years after postponing my trip (for pandemic reasons), I am thrilled to fly into Zurich airport, a train to Central Station and then one night before joining the Glacier Express the next morning. Take a train to Chur.

This is my first leg of a week traveling in Switzerland by rail, so there’s no need to rent a car or tour buses. I am going to watch everything comfortably.

In the Rhine Gorge, light green water flows along a rough riverbed of gray stones and rocks, white caps on the water pointing to the rapids below. Once in a while, I can see people rafting from afar.

Everything is quiet inside the train; Glacier Express is smooth and surprisingly quiet. My little wooden table is set with a napkin, cutlery, and proper glasses—a change from the usual flask and squash sandwiches I have on train travel. The seven-course dining experience is included in my ticket to Excellence Class. The menu lists Smoked Trout, Pea Mint Soup and Swiss Beef Tenderloin. There is a line of wine glasses and the waiter is already filling a champagne glass. I wonder if anyone ever manages to have a whole cheese plate and a chocolate cake.

Each table in my car has just two seats, so there’s a window in each seat (even with the windows upstairs), plus an iPad with headphones and an app that lets you text and audio about what we’re passing. Giving information. The Rhine River flows through six countries for over 1,200 km here into the North Sea in the Netherlands. Cars are banned from the gorge area, so there are plenty of rare animals and plants – ibex, golden eagle and wolf, according to the app.

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Animals along the Glacier Express route. Image: Glacier Express / Stephen Schlumpf

On the way, we stop at small stations – in Valendas-Sagogan, the stations are in beautiful wooden chalets with red shutters on the windows; Another station has window boxes of daffodils. As we leave the gorge, the valley expands into green pastures, some with grazing cows, and tall houses on green slopes. Snow falls on the peaks of the mountains far and wide.

Things start getting exciting as the train climbs up and the snow on the peaks becomes less and less until it covers the entire mountains. We enter a tunnel, and when we leave on the other side, the whole landscape suddenly turns white with snow.

A Glacier Express train going in the other direction passes by us. There is nothing but an empty road – just these two red trains crossing each other in this vast, white, snowy valley. Looks like something out of a Bond movie.

The highest point of the route, Oberlup Pass, is 2033 meters above sea level, and we stop here for fresh mountain air and photos (it’s a good idea to wear layers for the different temperatures on and off the train). The tracks often have to be cleared of snow on this part of the route.

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Oberalppass in winter. Image: Glacier Express / Stephen Schlumpf

When we move again, I walk into the train and pass an American couple, Katie and Justin, who are about to eat some chocolate cake.

They live in Paris and tell me they were in Switzerland once before and have just come back to train this time.

“We are loving the views. We are also quite lazy, so we can see it without going hiking,” laughs Katie.

I get off the train at Brigg and take another train in the direction of Geneva, to the resorts of Montreux and Lausanne on Lac Léman (often called Lake Geneva).

It is a world apart from the snowy mountains. Here, rows of opulent 19th-century hotels line the Riviera, with terraces and balconies overlooking the lake to Avion-les-Bains in France. Charming guests with small dogs and oversized sunglasses sip champagne on the terrace and stroll along the promenade in Montreux, home of the legendary jazz festival.

From Montreux, I take the Goldenpass train to Château-d’Eaux, which leaves the lake for a world of lush mountain pastures, lined with traditional wooden chalets. I spend the day hiking and e-biking, along riverside paths and through wildflower meadows, taking trains and day trips here and there to Roosemont and Gstaad.

At night, local restaurants in traditional wooden buildings serve rosti (a potato dish), raclette (cheese), ragout and, of course, Swiss wine.

It is a rest week. Trains are frequent, punctual, never packed, and you don’t need to book a seat (except on Glacier Express), which makes it all too easy if you have a rail pass. Everything connects, and trains run to airports as well.

On my last day, I take the train around the lake back to Geneva Airport, and I’m glued to the windows, right to the end.

do it

A Swiss travel pass with train, bus and boat travel costs up to €228/€362 (second/first class) for three days and €421/€662 (second/first class) for 15 days. Rail.myswitzerland.com

Glacier Express fares range from €92 to €289 depending on the length and class of the journey – add €458 for the class of excellence. GlacierExpress.ch

Aer Lingus flies from Dublin to Geneva and Zurich. Yvonne was the guest of the airline and Switzerland Tourism. aerlingus.com; myswitzerland.com

Take 3: Swiss Rail Tour

Bernina Express

The Alps’ highest railway runs from Chur via St. Moritz to the Italian city of Tirano, taking in Lago di Poschiavo and the famous Landwasser Viaduct. berninaexpress.ch

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GoldenPass. Pictured: valentine flouraud

goldenpass

This line from Montreux to Lucerne consists of three trains, three mountain passes and eight lakes. Some trains are belle-poque reconstructions of the retro style. goldenpassline.ch

Grand Train Tour

The Grand Train Tour takes eight days and seven nights, covering all panoramic trains and top sights. You can book a complete tour package. myswitzerland.com/grandtraintour