A train to fall in love with: The Glacier and Bernina Express

Touted as “the slowest express train in the world”, the 7 hour trip on the Glacier Express (GEX) still flies by, keeping the majority of its passengers in rapt attention as the mesmerizing landscapes drift past the window.  According to Rick Steves, this is the most scenic train ride in all of  Europe, and it doesn’t take long to agree with him.  We boarded the train in Zermatt, the origin of this long and lovely ride. Because the GEX requires you to book a seat reservation on a separate website than the sbb train tickets, I had somehow managed to book us in first class, realizing my mistake only after all the other seats had sold out. However, if there is one train worth the upgrade, it’s the GEX, where the panoramic windows extend up and over the cieling, swallowing you into the magnificent scenery.

The GEX caters to tourists, with constant reminders of items for purchase in the dining car, but however touristy, it’s the easiest way to explore the remote parts of eastern Switzerland and get ideas for new weekend explorations. There are local trains that run similar routes at a faster speed, but they cost the same, require a lot of transfers, have much smaller windows, and leave less time to admire the scenery. They also don’t have the option for the additional luxeries of a 4-course meal or ibex intermittently coming down the aisle (we opted for a homemade picnic of pb&j sandwiches and apples with cheese).

The train stops around 20 times throughout the 7 hour journey, winding its way through gorges, mountains, glaciers, and pastures, passing through 91 tunnels and across 291 bridges including the famous landwasserviadukt, the construction of which is considered an architechtural masterpiece for the difficul location and style. From Zermatt, the journey passes through the cities of Visp and Brig in the Valais region, then through the Furkatunnel, built becuase of avalache concerns, into the Gomes valley and on to Dissentis Musters and Chur in the canton of Graubünden, before coasting into its final landing spot in the swanky ski resort town of St. Moritz, dubbed the “hollywood of Switzerland” for its expensive taste. Our desitnation was 30 minutes before the last stop, in the tiny hamlet of Bergün (BER – GOON), a humble swiss village sitting at the grassy bottom of a bowl rimmed by mountains.

As the whistle sounded, we settled into our plush seats, thinking we would alternate between window watching and reading, but as soon as we opened our books we came upon a sight we’ve not only been anticipating, but actively searching for since we arrived in Europe – a field full of Ibexes, a species of wild goat that lives in the mountains of the EuropeanAlps, happily munching on new spring grass! They were all females, without the long curved shofar-like horns, but still easily recognizeable, grazing at the edge of the large protected area in the mountains around Zermatt. Not too long ago, when firearms became more common, the Ibex almost went extinct. They were down to only 100 remaining, but thanks to some clever Swiss who smuggled a few from the Italian Dolomites back over the border into Switzerland, they were able to re-breed them and there are now 40,000 in the entire Alpine region.

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From that point on, my eyes were glued to the window. The rest of the journey was just as riveting – we passed under and over the alps, which I learned grow taller by 1mm each year because the melting of the glaciers puts less and less weight on them while the African continent simultaneously pushes against the European continental ledge. The snow melting off the mountains leaves them a mottled black, green, and white, like a leopard’s skin. Every now and then, in the spots where the glacier is slowly melting and can no longer hold its shape,  a torrent of water pours off the edge of the mountain as a spectacular waterfall. Switzerland is often called the water castle of Europe, with around six percent of the continent’s fresh reserves found here, where the Rhone, Rhine, Danube and Po all launch their journeys. Halfway through the trip we passed Oberwald, the source of the Rhone, coming from a glacier which is known to be the most accessible glacier in Switzerland. The Rhone flows into Western Europe’s largest alpine lake, Lake Geneva, and out the other side, splitting near Arles, in Southern France (our future destination this summer), into the Great and the Little Rhone rivers which create the Camargue delta region. 

Shortly after, we pitched into the impressive 15.4km long Furkatunnel, a key to the existence of the GEX, allowing access to the rest of the country. Apparently warm water is collected in the mountain tunnels and then used to heat buildings in the surrounding towns. Not long after that came the Oberalp pass, the highest point on the GEX route at 2,044 meters or 6,700 feet. Here, the snow can reach up to several meters high and has to be cleared regularly with a massive plough. After the pass we meandered through the “Swiss Grand Canyon”, where the Rhine curves through large sandstone walls and towers.

From there we made our way towards Chur, the land of Heidi, living peacefully on an Alp with Goatherd Peter, bringing joy to everyone. This was easy to picture as we passed through one perfect storybook village after another. Near Zermatt the structures had been wooden chalets covered in ancient crumbling stone roofs turned green with moss, but they slowly transitioned to cottages capped with burnt orange ceramic tiles as we neared Tirano. Chur is the oldest city in Switzerland, the roots of the country residing here, having been formed as an “everlasting alliance” between three states in 1291.

 

This area also marks the beginning of the Rhaetian Railway and the Bernina Express route, which overlaps with the GEX between Chur and St. Moritz, before continuing on to the Italian town of Tirano. The Rhaetian Railway is one of only five railways in the world to  be granted UNESCO World Heritage status for meeting the following criteria: “The Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes, brings together two historic railway lines that cross the Swiss Alps through two passes. Opened in 1904, the Albula line in the north western part of the property is 67 km long. It features an impressive set of structures including 42 tunnels and covered galleries and 144 viaducts and bridges. The 61 km Bernina pass line features 13 tunnels and galleries and 52 viaducts and bridges. The property is exemplary of the use of the railway to overcome the isolation of settlements in the Central Alps early in the 20th century, with a major and lasting socio-economic impact on life in the mountains. It constitutes an outstanding technical, architectural and environmental ensemble and embodies architectural and civil engineering achievements, in harmony with the landscapes through which they pass.”

Just before reaching our final destination of Bergün, we crossed the phenomenal landwasserviadukt, the magnificent stone arched bridge that has become the famous image associated  with the Swiss railways because it is so often photographed.

A few stops later we pulled into Bergün station. It would be easy to overlook this village, a typical Swiss farming town that feels like it has been frozen in time, tucked away between the glacier-capped mountains.  The streets and guesthouses were empty in the off-season; we appeared to be the only tourists in town. I had read about Bergün in National Geographic’s Best Winter Trips article, which highlighted the 3.7 mile night sled run from the elevated village of Preda down to Bergün. This is the primary tourist draw to the traditional farming village, along with being home to the Albula Rail museum which is a must for train enthusiasts. On further investigation, I found a few Swiss blogs listing Bergün as a favorite town of the Swiss, with some great hiking in the area, and the filming spot for the German-language Heidi movie, so it seemed like an interesting stopping point.

We had time for a stroll down the ancient streets and a hike up the hill to get a birds eye view of the surroundings before sunset. This was by far the most authentic place we have stayed in Switzerland so far (Gimmelwald is a close second, but full of Rick Steves fanatics) – livestock, churches and mountains at every angle – a feeling of peacefullness and calm surrounding us as we listened to the only sounds of cowbells, churchbells, and roosters.  We were lucky that our guesthouse, the comfortable family-run Hotel Ladina, was owned by a chef, a transplant from Berlin we found out. He cooked us some fantastic local comfort food,  capuns, a soul-warming dish of meat- and cheese-filled dumplings wrapped in swiss chard and nestled in a bowl of cream sauce, accompanied by a tasty local white wine. It was enough to send us woozily to our wooden-beamed room, ready to curl up in the big down comforter for a good night’s sleep.

We woke up early and ate our way through the standard Swiss breakfast of meats, cheeses, eggs, breads and jams. Unsure of the weather, we decided to start the day by village hopping on the local trains. This was a highlight of the trip – the trains follow the same amazing rails as the Bernina Express, through tunnels, over bridges, and around corkscrews, but the local trains allow you to put the windows down and stick your head out! I spent the whole ride running from side to side taking pictures. After exploring St. Moritz, we decided to risk the rain and take the train back to Preda for a 3 hour hike  from Preda to Bergün along the rail tracks for a fuller appreciation of the architechture. As is common in Switzerland, we found ourselves alone in the alpine forest, not another soul on the trail, surrounded by gorgeous feats of engineering, marmots, AND, another Ibex! I would never have classified myself as a “train enthusiast” of any sort before, but after this trip I may have to rethink that. The architecture is truly stunning.

By the time we reached Bergün we were starving. However, because it was a Sunday there was nothing open…EXCEPT for the amazing “Hofladen”(farm shop) that pop up in all the small farming villages. These are either little hole-in-the-wall caves or wagons set up by local families with coolers and shelves displaying the various products from the farm. They work on the honor system – no staff, just a small container and notepad set out to write down your purchases and collect the money. We picked out a nice Alpkasse (alp cheese), a package of beef jerkey, and some fresh yogurt, all courtesy of the local bovines. Our guesthouse provided a couple fresh rolls, and our picnic was complete. We laid it all out on the train platform together with the Russian River Brewery Pilsner Chris had carried back from California and some leftover Swiss chocolate…then dug in.  Sometimes it just takes a long train ride to a simple village to remember that living well doesn’t have to be complicated.

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