The Glacier Express: One of Europe's great railway journeys

The appeal of the world's slowest express is its speed. Matthew Teller explains
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The Independent Travel

One crisp, sunny morning last month, I walked on water. The miracle happened on the Lake of St Moritz - which, strictly speaking, was frozen solid, but it still felt a little supernatural to be crunching through snow 100m offshore.

St Moritz is incredibly beautiful, perched alongside its lake amidst forests of larch and fir, surrounded by Alpine slopes. The quality of light is sensational, the air toothpaste-fresh. St Moritz is also known for its blue skies: I visited when temperatures were around -15C, but the sun felt deliciously warm on my skin.

It's a small town, with more than its fair share of swank - one street boasts Prada, Gucci and Versace stores side-by-side - but, in general, its reputation for priciness is a little unfair. My south-facing room at the splendid La Margna (00 41 81 836 6600; www.lamargna.ch), which opened in 1907 and retains its picture windows and stout armchairs by the hearth, was just SFr195 (£85). St Moritz likes to cultivate an air of exclusivity, but that's not the whole truth.

By 8.45am I was at the station, ready to board the Glacier Express for one of Europe's great railway journeys - across the Alps to Zermatt.

This amazing train is billed as the slowest express in the world with good reason. Aside from the 91 tunnels and 291 bridges on the seven-and-a-half hour route, there are lots of ups and downs: from St Moritz up to the Albula tunnel (1,820m above sea level), then down to Chur (585m), up to the Oberalp Pass (2,033m), down to Visp (650m), and up again to end at Zermatt (1,604m). At several points, cogs engage to help with ascents or descents.

The rolling stock is excellent (and about to be improved still further - see panel, right). All services have panoramic carriages - in first and second class - where the windows are vast, extending right up around the top of the coach.

From every seat the views are all-encompassing. The effect of this is surprising: removing the window frame from the view erases the sense of having sat on a train all day. It changes the character of travel, eliminating that alienating feeling of the world outside being just more TV. You stop being a passenger, and are, instead, placed squarely within the scenery you're passing through. If only all trains were like this.

We set off late but, this being Switzerland, the delay was precisely four seconds by the station clock. It soon struck me that, glaciers aside, this train could just as easily be named after the three great European rivers it shadows, all of them in their infancy: we began beside the Inn, which tumbles east to the Danube and the Black Sea; then we were to climb alongside the Rhine, which flows to the North Sea; and, after, the Rhône, which flows to the Mediterranean.

Beyond the short Albula Tunnel the train entered a series of corkscrew tunnels in order to lose 416m in altitude before Bergün village, 5km down the valley as the crow flies. This entailed almost 13km of switchbacks. I counted seven tunnels, then we entered the God Tunnel (as in "God! How many more tunnels can there be?") before coiling down into pretty Bergün.

The highlights kept coming. The Graubünden valleys, steep, high and densely forested, sheltered the young Rhine, the great river crossable here by a single stepping-stone. Lunch - three courses, with wine and schnapps - was served in the elegant wood-panelled dining car as we climbed through the Surselva gorges. From the Swiss accents on all sides it was clear that the Glacier Express is not just for tourists. Fellow diners from Winterthur, near Zurich, told me they regularly drove to holiday near St Moritz but had never taken the train. They were loving the experience.

Coffee was served as we reached the other-worldly beauty of the Oberalp Pass, at 2,033m above sea level, dwarfed on all sides by a thousand more metres of mountain. The snow lay two metres thick on the roofs of Andermatt as we rolled on, by now almost becoming blasé about such spectacular landscapes.

At Brig the train emptied out, as people rejoined main line routes back to the lowlands, while a few hardy souls remained for the final pull to Zermatt. By this stage my carriage was quiet: fingers were laced over bellies and there were a few yawns. We gazed down into the depths of the Matter valley as the train rolled on below the stupendous Dom - at 4,545m, the highest mountain wholly on Swiss soil.

It was only as we drew into Zermatt that the iconic Matterhorn showed itself. The end of the line was anything but anti-climactic: I wanted to press on to see the mountain close-up. I checked in to the Schlosshotel Tenne (00 41 27 966 4400; www.schlosshotel-tenne.ch) - a traditional dark-wood chalet reworked into a cosy boutique hotel - and nipped across to the Gornergrat station.

The Gornergrat mountain railway has been running since 1898, and, for my money, is the best in the Alps, with a scenic route through forests and across meadows, superb views to the Matterhorn and a dramatic ascent to the Gornergrat, a dizzy 3,100m above sea level. It was dusk when we clanked to a halt. I had an hour to myself until the last train down. As the stars came out, I walked up from the hotel to the icy summit, in time for an ethereal moonrise. From the frozen lake at St Moritz to moonlight on the Matterhorn: one extraordinary day.

Log on to www.glacierexpress.ch for full details of the Glacier Express.

Matthew Teller is author of the Rough Guide to Switzerland (£12.99).

Time for an upgrade

On 20 May this year, when the summer timetable begins, the Glacier Express gets a facelift. Alongside the current rolling stock, new panoramic carriages are entering service, with pneumatic suspension and an improved design which means even less rail noise. In both first and second class panoramic coaches, lunch will be served directly at your seat: your table will be laid with a linen cloth, cutlery and glasses, and your meal - freshly cooked in the on-board kitchen - served on china. Fewer seats in first class also means more space to stretch out. Cultural and historical information (in English) on each section of the route will be available on headphones, provided free on board.

Two trains a day in each direction between St Moritz and Zermatt will feature the new carriages. In addition, there is to be a new Glacier Express service between Davos and Zermatt, once daily in each direction.

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