Eight hours, 291 kilometers, through 91 tunnels, over hundreds of bridges: this is the route of the Glacier Express, described by rail guru Seat61 as one of Switzerland’s two most scenic train trips. I had sampled the first before the pandemic, craved a return to Switzerland to round out the short list.
Please regard this post as a personal addendum to details provided by others. A few clicks in a search engine will turn up gazillions of pages of Glacier Express lore, photos, history. I leave the journalistic heavy lifting to these pages, and instead confine myself to what value I can add from personal experience. Why reinvent wheels?
CAN I DO THIS TRIP AFFORDABLY?
In winter, the Glacier Express offers two daily westbound departures from St. Moritz, and two daily eastbound departures from Zermatt. International tourists with ordinary human yens for sleep and rest will think of shacking up in one or another of these Alpine burgs the night before. I contemplated lodging in St. Moritz, as I hoped to ride the soon-to-be-described Gornergrat train near Zermatt the following morning.
St. Moritz is a famous Shangri-La for the scandalously well-to-do. TripAdvisor would be delighted to book a hotel room for me there, and their top three “traveler ranked” St. Moritz listings all offered Breakfast Included bargains. ¡Qué ganga! Such a deal! …
… for, respectively (when I checked prices in December):
- €1,802/night at the Carlton
- €1,122/night at Badrutt’s Palace
- €1,057/night at the Kulm
I think a thousand euros is rather a lot to pay to shack up for a single night before riding a choo-choo. Call me a cheapskate.
Of course, I could book cheaper rooms in St. Moritz, but I interpreted these top tier prices as handwriting-on-the-wall, and sought an alternative. And found one: Switzerland is famous for the quality and density of its intercity rail network. Couldn’t I hunt up a nice hotel in a more affordable town close to St. Moritz, and then rely on that world-renowned rail grid to get me to St. Moritz the following morning?
This I did. I booked the Hotel Donatz in Samedan, five kilometers northeast of St. Moritz, and stuck with the same strategy for my post-Glacier shack-up the following night: at Hotel City in Täsch, six kilometers northeast of Zermatt.
Success! The SBB web site showed speedy, direct ‘Regio’ trains from Samedan to St. Moritz at 7:09, 7:49 and 8:12. I strolled downhill from the Donatz after breakfast, caught the 7:49 and arrived in plenty of time for my trip. I can vouch personally for the hotels and towns just named, but don’t see why a frugal tourist can’t scout many other options with an online map and the SBB home page trip planner.
(But please do double check transit access before booking the hotels.)
IS THE GLACIER EXPRESS WORTHWHILE?
I thought so. Emphatically. I’m glad I went.
TripAdvisor reviewers give the Glacier Express four out of five stars, versus four-and-a-half out of five for the Bernina. I generally take these major attraction reviews at face value. A small tour or hotel operator may think it worthwhile to massage star ratings with fake reviews, but I strain to imagine similar behavior from, say, the Prado, or Louvre, or operators of a classic rail line, or the Vatican museums.
(Maybe I’m naive. Do I really know that Pope Francis doesn’t have a fake TripAdvisor log-in? He put himself through school as a bouncer in B.A., didn’t he?)
Some negative Glacier Express reviews complain of:
- photo-despoiling window glare
- rude servers
- time spent in tunnels
Unreasonable, say I. The servers I met were politeness personified. A day-long train journey through the Alps shall traverse both tunnels and sun beams that interact predictably with window surfaces. I suspect, but can’t prove, that many writers of negative reviews had been unprepared to spend eight non-stop hours on a train, and vented their bile on TripAdvisor.
A LANGUAGE ANECDOTE
Under Travel tips & FAQ, Seat61 notes that the Glacier Express’ right and left hand side views are not equal. Fate put me on the less desirable side. I hankered for a means to photograph opposite side scenery without crawling over the laps of strangers across the aisle.
A seat-side pamphlet mentioned a ‘panoramic bar’ affording views to both sides of the train. Where in the train was this bar? Time to query a server! I had overheard one speaking Spanish, caught her attention as she hurried past with an order.
Disculpe, quisiera saber …
That might have been as far as I got. The rushed server pegged me as native English speaker, said she’d fetch an English-speaking colleague.
The “English-speaking colleague” appeared a minute later, displaying the game, doomed smile of one introduced as possessing abilities she knows she doesn’t have. I think we made it through three sentences. I asked diplomatically if I might try again with the Spanish speaker.
(And did. The train did indeed include the described bar, the Spanish speaker told me, but it was closed. Covid.)
English-only tourists can expect to communicate meaningfully with staff at Alps rail stations. Elsewhere in the Alps? Good luck. English fluency in these acres of the Swiss boonies struck me as significantly lower than in Madrid, despite Switzerland’s overall high marks for English proficiency.
Zermatt is a famous ski resort. I strolled among many toting skis and clunking sidewalks in ski boots, and overheard more American-accented English than in any European city I’ve visited to date save Florence.
Zermatt is also virtually car free:
To prevent air pollution that could obscure the town’s view of the Matterhorn, the entire town is a combustion-engine car-free zone.
A more attentive visitor would have discovered the above-quoted Wikipedia entry before the trip. Your doddering blogger did not, only noted absently while in town that the pedestrian street above looked much more agreeable than streets seen in often-congested St. Moritz, and that boxy, toy-like electric vehicles prowled the area near the train station.
I didn’t linger long in Zermatt after the Glacier Express ride. I caught a rail shuttle to my Täsch hotel, would return the next morning to ride the …
GORNERGRAT RACK RAILWAY
‘Mostly for skiers’ was my strong impression, whilst surrounded in the train by hardy young ‘uns in goggles and neck gaiters. But the railway will sell ‘priority boarding’ tickets to sightseers who want views of the Matterhorn, and my camera thanks me for buying one for the ride up. Sunrise was shortly after 8:00, and the morning’s first train departed at 8:24. Golden hour views of the Matterhorn! How lucky can a tourist get?
SWITZERLAND ODDS N’ ENDS
(♦) ‘Tim, you ol’ dummy, you forgot to change euros for francs at the airport!’ thought I uncharitably, while riding my first train out of Zurich Flughafen. I paid no penalty: Swiss outlets accepted my euro notes, gave Swiss francs in change.
(♦) Switzerland rookies should beware of the country’s notorious prices, particularly if waltzing into a first-ever Swiss restaurant with empty stomach and extravagant mood. Some frugal travelers may want to save their appetites for wares from a Coop market; Switzerland is home to nearly 2,500. I saw likely tourists eating on their feet near Coops in St. Moritz and Zermatt.
(♦) The smartphone shot below shows upcoming departures from the Zurich airport rail platforms. I was on the 11:48 IC 5 to Zurich central. Compare this chance sample to what you might expect at an airport in the U.S.
A series of rides on Switzerland’s intercity rail comes as close as any experience I know of to a transit geek’s promised land. Service is prompt, plentiful, reliable; trains are clean, well-appointed; one need only know that ‘gleis’ means ‘platform’ to transfer easily from IC X to IR Y at a particular station. Many fellow transit geeks would be happy to go nowhere in particularly in Switzerland, to merely spend several days bombing around on the rail network.
(♦) But, one small, related complaint: the otherwise superb trip planner at the sbb.ch home page refused to recognize that Täsch is a town in Switzerland until I installed a German keyboard in Android (Settings –> System –> Languages & input –> Languages) to render the ä that makes Tasch into Täsch. Switzerland Tourism Corp.: do you really want your visitors to have to do that kind of mechanicking with their smartphones?
(♦) And speaking of smartphones: my cell phone connectivity in the Alps was abysmal.
TRAVEL DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
This was my first trip out of Spain during the pandemic. It wasn’t supposed to be: I had booked a short jaunt to Spanish-speaking northern Morocco for the start of December.
Booked and paid for. Then Omicron struck. Morocco cancelled flights. I stayed in Madrid.
So it goes during the pandemic. Governments must make speedy decisions as hospital beds fill and the virus evolves.
While trip planning, I regularly consulted:
- the IATA TravelCentre: https://www.iatatravelcentre.com/
- Iberia airline’s Covid page: https://www.iberia.com/es/en/covid-19/travel-restrictions/
Switzerland decreed a PCR test requirement after I’d booked a Monday flight to Zurich, with the stipulation that the test be taken within seventy-two hours of flight time. Madrid hosts many test centers, but fewer with weekend hours. I had to scramble. I suspect, but don’t know, that the new PCR test requirement explains why my flight to Zurich was so much less crowded than the flight back to Madrid a few days later.
The Spain Travel Health web site explains what Spain expects from arriving travelers. One can do what has to be done at the web site, or through an app, available through Google Play, Apple’s App Store, and as a sideloadable .apk through AppGallery.
I chose the app, fed it the .pdf of my European Union Digital Covid Certificate. The app produced a big QR code that was scanned on arrival at Madrid Barajas. I’ll guess that the extra step with the QR code added no more than five minutes to my travel time from the plane to the metro.
In short: air travel during the pandemic is tougher and chancier than it was before Covid. Untold thousands already have said so online, in articles, blog posts, comments, tweets. I join the chorus.
For full-sized copies of the shots above and other trip photos, please visit the photo directory: