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(2016 - Winter/Spring Issue)


To those who think Switzerland’s trains can be summed up in one word—efficient—I say not so fast.

Anyone who has ridden Swiss rails has a story of pulling from the station as the second hand hits its mark. There’s truth there, but travel on Switzerland’s rail system—the world’s densest train network—is about the journey. Efficiency is simply a nice perk. Confession: Even if Swiss trains were notoriously tardy I’d still be a fan, hooked by the seductive stream of towering peaks, sun-kissed lakes and green valleys dotted with larch wood chalets.  

A buffet of rail lines criss-crosses the tiny country—3,551 kilometres to be exact—and it’s hard to know where to start. With concierge-like precision, the nation has unveiled the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland: you choose the itinerary, they craft a seamless prearranged train and hotel package, all on one travel ticket (Swiss Travel Pass). Be forewarned: like any sumptuous buffet, your eyes may outpace your stomach. Here are two of the eight classic train journeys to whet the appetite.

A UNESCO Engineering Marvel

There isn’t a curve the Bernina Express cannot seduce. From the palm-lined boulevards of Lugano across the mountains to Chur, Switzerland’s oldest town, it’s an engineering masterpiece—passing through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges and arched viaducts. Achieving the near impossible is what made UNESCO take notice: the route is a World Heritage Site.

The Bernina Express links two contrasting landscapes, from the Italian-speaking Ticino canton that exudes a Mediterranean vibe to a mountain-dominated Swiss cliché of glaciers and blinding snow.  

My journey begins in Ticino’s Lugano, a place where guide Anna Bezzola says, “People feel their Italian culture.” It’s a cosmopolitan city rooted in history, where strolling the waterfront promenade —gelato in hand—connects you with locals: families catching a ferry to Swissminiatur (where the country’s landmarks have been meticulously recreated in small scale) or groups of men rolling bocce balls with the concentration of Olympic athletes.

Lugano is the launching point for the Bernina Express: first, by bus, we snake along impossibly narrow roads hugging the shorelines of lakes Lugano and Como, from Switzerland into Italy, past traditional villages, vineyards and fruit orchards. At the Italian village of Tirano we break for espresso at a small café before boarding the dramatic rail portion of the Bernina Express to head back into Swiss territory.

This is the only Swiss train to cross the Alps in the open air, without tunnelling through granite mountains. The early 20th-century challenge had engineers fiddling with their slide rules, fixated on drawing boards as they calculated the perfect elevation-gaining equations, creating ingenious curves along bridges and spiral viaducts.

Climbing from Tirano, the tracks twist and turn, ascending through forests of pine, until the lakes and villages below look Monopoly-like. Higher, along flatter portions of the route, the track still winds ever so slightly, creating a gentle rocking. Snakelike, slithering through the forest.

As the little red train gains altitude, there are patches of snow; soon a blinding landscape of white as far as the eye can see. At the route’s summit, turquoise lakes are icy pools fed by glacier streams. Kite skiers skim along the expanse of snow, chalking up bragging rights of zigzagging back and forth along the watershed divide between the Black and Adriatic Seas.

Just as I begin to confuse the seasons, the train slithers back down the other side into summertime, stopping in medieval Chur, intersection point with the Glacier Express.

The World’s Slowest Express Train

On reputation alone, I commit to this train journey. From Chur in the east to Zermatt in the southwest, a ride on the Glacier Express (happily) gobbles up an eight-hour stretch. While eight hours may sound like an interminable length of time to sit on a moving vehicle, truth is the time is filled with a stream of postcard scenery along valleys carved by glaciers, up and over the pinnacle of summer snowbanks at Oberal Pass, past some of Europe’s highest vineyards, through the country’s deepest gorges, finally spilling out at the end of the line: Zermatt.

Stepping from the train, I am not immediately seduced. Zermatt opened to tourism in the early 1800s with scores of alpine-obsessed Englishmen pining for a challenge. Tourism exploded—bars, shops, restaurants, rental properties to satiate the masses. But one block from the station, the Matterhorn comes into view and I am transfixed. The commercial sideshow peels away and I see nothing but that one commanding peak: a top runway model, perfect cheekbones, alluringly photogenic.

From Zermatt, the cogwheel Gornergrat train transports skiers, hikers, shutterbugs and the curious to a higher plane; one with a sweeping panorama of 29 peaks in the 4,000-metre-plus club. But it is the shape of the Matterhorn that still hogs top billing. Aboard the Gornergrat a local confides there is superstition rooted in the peak’s unique shape and a feeling that it needs to be respected at a distance.

Back in Zermatt, a display at the fascinating Matterhorn Museum tells of the late Ulrich Inderbinen, a local mountain guide who made the difficult climb more than 370 times, including one at age 90. He seemed oblivious to the commercial trappings of his hometown—he never owned a telephone and to hire him, climbers looked evenings in the church square. Perhaps he chose his spot on a bench; the one with the unobstructed view of the peak he cherished.

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and myswitzerland.com.

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