Now that I look back, I think I owe my first trip to Switzerland to the mythical Glacier Express. After all, it was the picture of this train passing over the dramatic Landwasser Viaduct that convinced me to make this journey.
The famous Swiss scenic trains are something every traveler should experience at least once in his/her lifetime. Although any rail line in Switzerland passes through beautiful cow pastures and flower-trimmed chalets, there are some rides that could rightfully claim the title, like the Jungfrau Railways, Gornegrat Railway Zermatt, Brunig Pass Interlaken-Lucerne, or Bernina Express.
The Glacier Express is a true classic. Arguably Switzerland’s most famous train ride, the Glacier Express is connecting the two major mountain resorts of Zermatt and St. Moritz. Contrary to its name, the 75 year old Glacier Express is actually a slow-speed train. In fact, it is considered “the slowest express train in the world” and for a good reason: the 275 km journey takes about 8 hours. The narrow-gauge track goes across three high-mountain passes, passing through 91 tunnels and over 291 bridges. But we were not in a hurry that beautiful spring morning, as we boarded the train in the little village of Zermatt. Why would we want to race through the spectacular scenery of green valleys, blue rivers, dramatic limestone arches and gorges?
Seated comfortably in my seat, as the train pulled out of the station, I felt like I was on a movie set. The bright red carriages with almost floor to ceiling windows were winding like a caterpillar through the snowy mountains. The scene was reminiscent of “The Polar Express.” How could one not enjoy this journey from the comfort of such a train?
After leaving Zermatt, the train started to descend from 1,600 m towards Brig, passing through many narrow places flanked by massive rock walls, then climbed up again to 2034 m, the higest point of this journey. Along the way you we came across pristine mountain landscapes, deep gorges, glamorous health resorts, delightful little towns, and impressive viaducts.
The scenery was incredibly beautiful, so those of you who know my passion for photography can imagine I couldn’t sit still. But to my dismay, the window glare was messing up my pictures. When I booked this trip I knew the panoramic windows of the Glacier Express are fully sealed and can’t be opened, but I was hoping that with my polarizing filter and with the sun at some angle I could cheat the glare. But that wasn’t working as I hoped. The sun was shining through the tilted roof windows making it almost impossible to avoid the glare. Big disappointment! Passing by so many gorgeous places and not being able to photograph them was truly painful.
With the sun streaming in it gets a little warm, but the train is air conditioned. In the first class we were provided headphones, so all along the way we got information about the routes. Lunch or snacks can be ordered on board, but the food didn’t look great at all. We brought our own lunch and I’m glad we did.
Another inconvenience is that on the Glacier Express the seat reservation is mandatory. You can’t get onboard without reserving a seat, but the problem is that you can’t choose your seat. So you may find yourself stuck with your back in the direction of the train and facing a couple of total strangers for 7.5 hours. Besides, the seat reservation is not cheap. With the Swiss Rail Pass it’s 50% off, but we still paid 33 CHF/person.
There are regular train services on the same line as well, so you don’t need to buy an expensive Glacier Express ticket. On the regular trains no reservations are required if you travel with the Swiss Pass. Plus, you can hop off and back on again along the way at the many little stops. The regular trains do not offer the panoramic windows and the same level of comfort, but other than that you can see the landscape just as well. The Glacier Express is just like a normal Swiss train but with better service.
All in all though it was a beautiful trip and the 7.5 hours passed quite quickly. So is the Glacier Express really worth it? You’ll have to decide. I’m glad we did it, but I wouldn’t do it again.