Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Summer Alpine Adventure 4: Glacier Express, Zermatt and the Matterhorn

Provisions being loaded into the kitchen of the Glacier
Express during its reversing stop at Chur
A feature of our Great Rail Journeys holiday this year is that it includes the complete route of the Glacier Express, all the way from St Moritz to Zermatt, the two Alpine resorts in which we stayed on this memorable adventure. We had done the whole route before, but in bits and pieces, only using the Express itself between Brig and Chur, so it was good to see it in one go.

Our party was all accommodated in a First Class car at the rear of the train leaving St Moritz, although there were a handful of other passengers in the same coach. The first part of the journey was back along the way we had arrived from Chur, some of it the same way we had travelled as far as our change of train on our free day, too. At Chur the locomotive was coupled to the other end of the train and hauled it in the other direction, retracing our journey for a few kilometres before taking the line straight along the Alps towards the east.

It is impossible to do justice to the scenery on the route of the Glacier Express; it is a journey you simply have to experience yourself. After leaving the line on which we'd arrived we traced the Rhine gorge for some distance, totally different from anything else we'd seen, and then with the familiar twists and turns we climbed up into the Alps. At Disentis the Rhatische Bahn locomotive was taken off and a Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn locomotive with cog-wheels was coupled onto the train to take us the rest of the way: this route is a collaboration between the two railways.


Soon tablecloths were brought and lunch was served. It so happened that we were waiting to cross an oncoming train in a passing loop overlooking a high-altitude lake as we were eating. A cooked meal was included in our holiday and we bought our own drinks, in our case an appropriate wine, and after the meal the Grappa liqueur which is worth having just for the joy of watching it being poured from a great height by a skilled waiter.

There was another brief pause in the journey at Andermatt and from the station there we were able to watch another Glacier Express train climbing up the way we had just come down, shuttling across the Alpine mountainside and weaving in and out of tunnels, the railway and the Oberalp highway criss-crossing one another in the landscape. Far beneath our feet was the Gotthard Tunnel taking a railway line north-south under the Alps, and a little to the west the Gotthard Road Tunnel on highway 2 which crosses the middle of Switzerland, north-south.

The tables were cleared and we descended into Brig, where we had begun our winter holiday in the Alps three years before, and then, turning south at Visp, the cogs were engaged once more as we began the climb to Zermatt. We were running out of words to describe the scenery, but in many ways the best was yet to come as we made our way to the Park Hotel Beau Site in Zermatt and then, after checking in stepped onto the balcony of our room to see the stunning view of the Matterhorn presiding over the village.

Zermatt had been a poor agricultural village until the penchant of rich young aristocrats, mostly British, for mountain-climbing was established just a century or so ago and the village decided to make an industry out of welcoming its visitors. Hotels were founded, railways and cable-cars were built and people came in droves and spent their money, and plenty of it. Outside the village is the settlement where the mostly foreign workers live who keep this expensive tourist attraction functioning, and the car park where everyone has to leave their cars, for internal combustion-propelled vehicles are not allowed in Zermatt.


We do not count ourselves among the rich, the young or the aristocracy, but with a little willpower and some savings is is possible for commoners of more limited means to enjoy a good holiday in Zermatt, at least with the resources of Great Rail Journeys to get a decent deal. On our first evening we just had to stroll down through the village on the route we had walked on our day-trip to Zermatt in winter, simply to see how it looked without a metre of snow having fallen the night before. Unfortunately the sky was not quite as clear this time, so our view of the Matterhorn was not as good as before, but it still, as always, looked stunning.

After an excellent dinner and a good night's sleep we were ready for the next day's adventure, to climb the Gornergrat by train and to enjoy a guided tour of Zermatt. We also planned to visit the Matterhorn Museum in the village, so although we were not off to too early a start this time, there was still a lot to pack into the day! The party walked down to the Gornergrat Railway terminal and boarded the next train to the summit. Last time we had done this on our own in free time in Zermatt but this time it was included in the tour. One of our party was an experienced geography teacher and author and gave us a most informative lecture on the glaciers we could see from the summit of the Gornergrat, an unexpected and worthwhile addition to the programme. We had not seen these on our winter visit, being deep under snow.

We did not avail ourselves of the expensive refreshments at the hotel on the Gornergrat and made our way back down to Zermatt a little ahead of the party then met them again for the guided tour, which took in both the English church (founded mostly for climbers!) and the local Roman Catholic church. Each was interesting in different ways.

We learnt something of the story of Zermatt and how it became the holiday resort that it is now. After tea at our hotel (tea and cake served every afternoon at no extra charge) we went to the Matterhorn Museum which taught us about the first ascent, how it ended in disaster as four members of the seven-man team died on the way back down, and how that tragedy started Zermatt's fame and fortune.

Another wonderful dinner and an early night, because we had another early start in the morning for the next excursion on our tour, a trip through the Simplon Tunnel to Italy and a visit to a lake island.


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