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Europe's Top Rail Journey

Aug 17, 2007
The Glacier Express journey between St Moritz and Zermatt, is not a high speed intercity dash. It is a 7 hour travel experience through some of the most spectacular valley and alpine scenery in Europe. It travels through glorious scenery at a leisurely pace demanded by hairpin turns, high bridges and mountain tunnels.

Imagine viewing from your panoramic window, tiny picturesque valley villages set below soaring peaks, raging river torrents and high, snow covered mountain passes?

There are 2 trains each day. One starts at St Moritz and the other at Zermatt. They run throughout the year and all seasons are very popular, so you have to book. The Swiss meadows in summer are covered in flowers and make a spectacular sight. In winter, most of the countryside, particularly the alpine passes, will be snow covered. It is a unique experience waving at skiers as your train climbs to the top of mountain passes!

Fall or autumn however, has a special magic. The mornings are generally clear, crisp and sunny, early season snowfalls have carpeted mountain peaks and the deciduous trees display a variety of brilliant golds, reds and yellows.
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The mid October morning in St. Moritz was typical for this time of the year. On the previous night, a light fall of snow had blanketed nearby mountains and the temperature on the St. Moritz bahnhoff platform, as we waited to board the Glacier Express, was hovering around a chilling zero degrees. The day however, was superb, with promise of fine weather to take advantage of the breathtaking scenery.

The journey to Zermatt follows the mountainous backbone of Switzerland from east to west, passes the source of two major European rivers, the Rhone and Rhine, crosses 291 bridges and goes through 91 tunnels. A series of tunnels, approximately an hour's journey from St. Moritz, are spirals inside a mountain. They were ranked among the world's greatest feats of railway engineering at the turn of the century.

The Glacier Express route has historical significance dating back to the 13th century. The river valleys going both north south and east west have been the crossroads of central Europe for centuries.

The first part of the journey to Disentis follows a narrow valley surrounded by mountain peaks. The best views are on the left side of the train. An example is the magnificent valley scenery as the train leaves Landwasser tunnel and immediately crosses the famous Landwasser viaduct towering high above the stream below.

If every journey has its magic moments, mine came as we left the tunnel. A sudden and unexpected mist swirled around the train windows, momentarily shutting out the wondrous alpine view like stage curtains closing on a play. The next minute, a patchwork of emerald green pastures and clusters of dark wooden farmhouses appeared. Firebox red geraniums filled boxes at every window.

The climb from Disentis to Andermatt, over the 2030 metre Oberalp pass, is spectacular, as the train leaves the valley and ascends above the tree line. At each turn of the track, there are flashes of glacial lakes rimmed with tiny, delicate wildflowers. Small groups of hikers, decked out in bright woolly sweaters, felt hats and stout boots were making their way slowly up the mountainside.

It was here that memories of my childhood geography lessons came flooding back. On the alpine meadows were the cows, complete with bells, grazing on the highland grasses while further down the valley little barns and farmhouses dotted the landscape. Since Disentis the line has been following the Rhine gorge, with its source near Lake Oberalp at the top of the pass and the highest point of the journey.

Lake Oberalp has a spectacular wilderness appearance as the glass like surface reflects the surrounding snow covered mountain peaks. Towering above all, these vast and rugged mountains pierce the clouds, staking their claim as one of the great natural wonders of Europe. An awe inspiring sight!

The descent from the pass down to Andermatt is perhaps the most spectacular of the entire journey, with panoramic views along the length of the Urseren valley from both sides of the train.

Andermatt is a great place for a one day stopover .A cable car ride to the summit of nearby Gemsstock mountain, with a spectacular panorama of the central alps, is recommended. A hike down the Schollenen Gorge to Goschenen. is also worthwhile. This village is on the main road and rail link between Zurich and Milan through the St. Gotthard tunnel.

Leaving Andermatt, the train passes through the 15km Furka tunnel before commencing its descent following the Rhone valley to Brig. It is important to stay on the train at Brig, a main junction and the terminus of the Furka Oberalp railway. There is a change of locomotive, as we journey on another privately owned railway, the Brig Visp Zermatt railway and enter the Swiss canton of Valais.

On a clear day there are glimpses of the Matterhorn, as the train approaches Zermatt. This picturesque alpine village is the terminus of the Glacier Express journey and it is worth spending 2 or 3 days here enjoying the peace and quiet without the noise of motor vehicles. All vehicles must park at Tasch further down the mountain. Zermatt is the base for numerous mountain walks or a spectacular cog railway journey up to Gornergrat, a plateau opposite the Matterhorn.

Sitting in the sunshine outside the charming restaurant at Gornergrat and gazing at this magnificent mountain, I reflected on the previous day's travel and my journey through Switzerland. Beyond these mountain splendors, Switzerland's great strength lies in the vigour and candour of its people. Friendly yet always respectful, and like their famous trains, perfectly punctual, they are passionate about their country and are keen to show it off. I rank it as my favorite European destination.

To many travelers, the Glacier Express is their most enjoyable rail journey in Europe. It conveniently connects with major railway lines in Brig, Andermatt and Chur, making it possible to combine with trips through Switzerland and Europe.

You may like to include the journey as part of a Swiss Pass or Eurail Pass. These should be purchased before you leave home. A Swiss Pass for 4 consecutive days first class costs US$278. Longer travel days are available. If you wish to combine travel in Switzerland with a number of other countries, a Eurail Pass gives you a number of flexible options.
About the Author
Graeme Lanham is a senior travel writer and author of "Your Life Fitness", a new book covering all aspects of travel health. It is considered a "must read" for all health conscious travelers.
Visit http://www.yourlifefitness.com and receive 2 special FREE bonuses.
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