Dark mountainsides striped with pure white snow fill the panoramic windows and rise into the skylight before giving way to bright blue sky, marked only by a couple of strips of chiffon cloud running down to the peaks like heaven’s ski pistes.
“Would you like a drink? Water or champagne?” It was 9am aboard the Glacier Express and we’d just left St Moritz, with eight hours to go to Zermatt. I was travelling in the train’s Excellence Class – new this year – and if their pre-publicity was anything to go by, I needed to pace myself.
“Could I have a coffee first, please?”
I settled into my generous window seat (all Excellence Class seats are window seats) and adjusted it to my preferred incline and the shape of my back. My train iPad with route and highlights (some of them audio, so you can listen and look) was propped next to me, along with padded headphones. This journey was the highlight of a week of train journeys and I had a feeling I was going to enjoy it…
We entered a tunnel – the first of 91, along with 291 bridges – and were whisked from the frozen lakes of the Engadin Valley to the Albula region, where we joined the Unesco World Heritage railway line, opened in 1903, and listed for its stunning feats of engineering. We spiralled up through a series of tunnels, crossing the valley a disorienting four times. In the ceiling of the carriage’s private bar, the golden compass circled in its own confusion.
“Champagne”. This time it was not a question but a glass, accompanied by an amuse bouche of beef tartare and intensely flavourful cream cheese (“Swiss?” “Of course”).
We passed blue-tinged filigrees of frozen water caught mid-fall, striations of thick forest, and little cream-and-pink villages, each with its own peak atop a pointy church spire. Our train wound like a red snake across the mountainsides before sweeping over the Landwasser viaduct – an elegant curve of narrow arches rising 215ft above the valley – and diving into a tunnel in a sheer face of rock.
“Smoked trout and beetroot salad – paired with a crisp white wine.” (“Swiss?” “Naturally”). OK, I gave in.
Appropriately for the fish course, snow and ice had temporarily given way to water and we were running along the banks of the Vorderrhein, dotted with ancient towers and schloss perched like eagle’s nests on rocky outcrops. Soon, our noses were glued to the windows for the Rhine Gorge – “Switzerland’s Grand Canyon”– nine miles of sculpted grey cliffs up to 1,100ft tall, braided with pines and adorned with shark’s-tooth pinnacles.
“Fillet steak with truffle mashed potato. The red wine…” – OK, let’s cut to the chase. There are six five-star courses each paired with local wine. Oh, and then there’s tea, Edelweiss tea in my case.
It was beginning to feel distinctly like another age of travel. In fact, it felt a bit like time travel all the way from London (albeit with all mod cons, including charge points and Wi-Fi).
Unlike the teleport experience of flying, I’d actually seen where I was going, watched the landscape change – and relaxed. Eurostar whisked me to Brussels and then Cologne, with a visit to Europe’s largest Gothic cathedral, a towering Unesco World Heritage site located right next to the station.
Continuing south along the Rhine Valley, I entered Switzerland at Basel – and soon the mountains began. My journey to St Moritz ended in darkness, but there was plenty of Alpine scenery to come.
My sense of having fallen back into the golden age of rail was compounded on arrival at Waldhaus Sils, a castle-like, Jugendstil hotel overlooking peaceful Sils Maria (six miles from St Moritz). Opened in 1908, it is still run by the same family – who greet every guest. An open fire burns in the large comfortable lounge, where a trio plays each teatime. And there wasn’t a mobile phone in sight.
The following morning, I took a ride in the panoramic carriage of the Bernina Express – the other part of the Unesco World Heritage line, from St Moritz to Tirano in Italy. Switching seats from side to side (an advantage of uncrowded first-class carriages) I passed snowy glaciers (shrinking at an alarming rate), giant daiquiri-blue icicles, picture-postcard villages and tiny stone stations – the highest at more than 8,000ft – before descending into the temperate valleys of Italy.
If you are not a skier or hiker, scenic trains are a wonderful way to get deep into the landscape; and if you are, they’re a perfect overview and the most pleasurable passage between activities. There is superb skiing here in winter, as well as skating, sledging, cross-country, and walking on the frozen lakes – or in summer, all sorts of boating, biking and verdant hiking.
I opted for snowshoeing and spent a glorious couple of hours scrunching through the mountain forest with guide Ruedi, as the late-afternoon sun glowed through the trees, lace-patterning the snow. We followed an official trail (safe from avalanches) in the footsteps of deer, foxes and hares.
I arrived back at St Moritz station to be greeted by the dedicated concierge and a branded red carpet to board “the slowest express train in the world” (and no complaints!) – the Glacier Express. The train was climbing again, our surroundings becoming more dazzling by the minute. Passing the snow-scree remnants of the previous night’s avalanche, cleared from the line this morning by a dedicated snowplough, the altitude was up to 6,670ft. We’d reached our journey’s highest point, at Natschen on the Oberalp Pass, where we stopped for a few minutes of fresh air amid pearl-white pyramids, smooth meanders of glacier, and the silvery backs of crouched snow-dragon mountains.
Then down we went into an entirely different landscape: a dark-rock gorge, where we stared up at menacing overhangs and down so precipitously that the river below was invisible. The valley became broader and more populated until… “the Matterhorn!” – not large against surrounding peaks, but distinctive in its sharp-edged toothiness. Another glimpse and we were pulling into Zermatt station.
This was not the end of the scenic trains. After a comfortable night at the five-star Cervo (Deer) Hotel – a cosy-and-cool, very Swiss, Alpine-chic establishment with antler bannisters and great service – I woke to views of the Matterhorn. These just got better and better as the sun rose and I rode up the Gornergrat cogwheel railway.
Opened in 1898, the train climbs 4,819ft in 33 eye-popping minutes, to the highest open-air station in the world (10,134ft). I looked back along the valley that brought me to Zermatt and marvelled at the little red-fabric kite flying above it – a paraglider, slowly, peacefully, circling down to earth. Jet-black Alpine chuffs shadow-played across the snow, and a couple of ibex looked for food on a rock outcrop.
While skiers shot off down the pistes, I wandered up to the viewing platform at 10,100ft for a 360-degree panorama of the Matterhorn and 28 other mountaintops above 13,000ft (and many more a little lower). My scenic rail journey had reached its peak – and it was simply stunning.
It was downhill all the way from here. Next time, I’ll bring skis.
How to do it
Juliet Rix was a guest of Planet Rail (01347 825292; planetrail.co.uk), which offers a seven-night Luxury Glacier Express and Scenic Switzerland by First Class Rail holiday from £2,495pp based on two sharing. The price includes the Excellence Class Glacier Express, scenic rail out and business-class flights back (all-rail option available) year-round except mid October to mid December. Further information: MySwitzerland.com.