Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Switzerland: Grandeur on the slow trail

Jamie Morton travels aboard the world's slowest - and arguably most beautiful - express train.

Taking The Glacier Express train is the perfect way to savour Switzerland's mountainous scenery.
Taking The Glacier Express train is the perfect way to savour Switzerland's mountainous scenery.

It's a hotel room window, but it may as well be a picture frame.

I climb out of bed, pull open the curtains, and there stands that majestic fin of rock and ice that says Switzerland like nothing else: the Matterhorn.

The day before, while roaming around the fairy-tale skiing resort of Zermatt, I'd caused a few cringes while taking a picture of the mountain framed with a Toblerone.

Like the chocolate bar, Zermatt is attached to its picture-hogging resident monolith in nearly every way, from the mountain's tourist-pulling power to the exploits and tragedies it has been dealt over almost two centuries.

Tourists crowd the main street but few stop by the village cemetery and see the graves of those who perished on the Matterhorn and surrounding peaks. At the Matterhorn Museum, a rope used in the first successful ascent in 1865 serves more as a memorial to the four climbers killed on their way back down.

The Matterhorn says Switzerland like nothing else. Photo / Getty Images
The Matterhorn says Switzerland like nothing else. Photo / Getty Images

I climb aboard a cogwheel train that takes me to my hotel, the Kulmhotel Gornergrat, perched more than 3000m above sea level on the summit of the rocky Gornergrat.

The imposing Matterhorn juts out of the horizon, but from my chilly vantage point there are 28 other peaks to enjoy, among them Switzerland's highest mountain, the Monte Rosa Massif, and the sprawling Gornergletscher below, the second largest glacier in the alps.

It's the perfect starting point for my day-long meander on the world's most beautiful train ride, The Glacier Express.

Vista after vista leaves your neck craned towards giant, panoramic windows for the entire eight-hour journey, taking in 91 tunnels and 291 bridges. You've nothing to do but sit back in plush seats and savour the stunning mountainous scenery: forested Visp, Oberwald, the picturesque gate to the 15.4km long Furka Base Tunnel, Oberalp Pass, where the train climbs to an altitude of 2033m.

Headsets are provided to those who want to hear about the rich history and local quirks of the hamlets and valley communities that roll by - the dark fable behind the so-called Devil's Bridge near the Schollenen Gorge, the enchanting alpine reaches of Disentis, or the snaking, 14km-long Rhine Gorge, dubbed the Swiss Grand Canyon.

I get off at Chur, the oldest city in Switzerland - and one of its warmest.

Boasting 130 restaurants, 16 museums and two theatres, there's plenty to see and do, but I'm more interested in seeing the city itself, particularly its car-free, cobblestoned Old Town. A guided walking tour is the best way to experience it, while getting historical insight into the 800-year history of the cathedral church of St Luzius.

I round off the day with a sumptuous four-course meal at the Romantik Hotel Stern, the principal dish a speciality of Chur's Graubunden canton: dumplings wrapped in cabbage leaves, and drizzled in a cheese sauce.

Skipping Chur's nightlife hub - the so-called "pleasure mile" of Welschdorfli - I head for bed, my belly and head full with the delights of an unforgettable corridor through Switzerland.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Several airlines run stop-over flights between Auckland and Zurich. Various offers are available for the express, running between Zermatt and St Moritz. Check online for deals, fares and closure times.

Further information: See churtourismus.ch.

For information on Switzerland, visit www.myswitzerland.com. To find out about Swiss Passes, visit www.myswitzerland.com/rail or www.raileurope.co.nz

Jamie Morton travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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