The Swiss Express train drew up at the platform in the lovely old city of Chur exactly on time. This punctuality was something we would get used to over the next 10 days wherever we travelled in this beautiful country.
We had flown to Basel from Faro and a couple of hours later were sitting in our comfortable first-class train seats watching stunning lake and mountain scenery slip gently by.
The ‘Swiss Holiday Company’, based in London, had efficiently organised our itinerary and provided us with First Class Swiss Travel Pass E-tickets. This would give us free travel on any train, postal bus, boat, legendary scenic routes and on public transport in most Swiss cities. Also, a 50% reduction on mountain top journeys by cogwheel train or cable cars and free admission to more than 400 museums. Great value!
Chur is a lovely city, with a notably Mediterranean atmosphere. Our hotel was in the Old Town just a five-minute walk down pedestrian-only streets from the busy railway station. Chur is Switzerland’s oldest city and has a fine mountain setting with narrow streets, twisting alleys and numerous ancient buildings. It has a 5,000-year history because it was a gateway to important trade routes and alpine passes.
The entrance to the Old Town is guarded by an unusual stilt-walking statue. The whole area is absolutely charming with some fine buildings, our favourite being the Church of St. Martin, with its elegant slender spire, and which dominates the very oldest part of the city.
Chur proved to be an excellent centre for the first three days of our Swiss adventure. A modern cable car whisked us up from the old town area to the Brambrüesch, a scenic mountain plateau situated at 1,600m. This is a popular sports centre in winter and summer, and we spent a wonderful day hiking along some of the walking and mountain bike trails.
The weather was perfect. It was the end of June so the wildflowers at that altitude were at their glorious best. There was also a fascinating nature park focused on wetland flora and fauna.
The following day, we took the local Rhaetian Railway train to the magnificent mountain resort of Arosa. The line climbs over 1,100m in 25 kms through tunnels and over viaducts amongst stunning scenery to reach Arosa – perhaps a perfect example of an alpine mountain village.
It is located in the romantic Schanfigg Valley, surrounded by mountains, and is host to a myriad of hiking trails. It boasts two beautiful lakes close to the town centre. We ambled around both before tucking into a delicious lunch at the excellent café at the smaller of the two lakes. It was thronged with swimmers on this hot day, but we weren’t too tempted to take a dip ourselves, as the lake water was a chilly 18°C!
The Glacier Express, one of the world’s most famous trains, took us from Chur to our next destination, the lovely town of Brig in the SW corner of Switzerland. What a magical journey! It is often called the ‘Window to the Alps’, and that is a perfect description. It is the slowest express train in the world, averaging just 38km/hr, but who wants to hurry through this panoramic countryside?
The train glided past plunging gorges, idyllic alpine villages and had uninterrupted views of dozens of mountain peaks. It crossed spectacular bridges, dived through tunnels and reached a high point of 2,033 metres at the Oberalp Pass.
Like everyone else though, we found it difficult to take photos due to the reflections off the glass windows and the rocking of the train. The solution is to ‘forget photography’! Relax and just enjoy the amazing views.
On board the pristine train, we listened to the helpful audio guide to the journey and were served a delicious lunch of regional specialities. During the afternoon, the train trundled gently along the spectacular River Rhône gorge, often called the Grand Canyon of Switzerland.
We could see the Rhône Glacier far above. It seemed to be such a shame to have to alight from the train at Brig, some three quarters of the way along the Glacier Express route, as the finest stretch of line to Zermatt was yet to come. All was not lost, however, as we were to travel this amazing last stretch the following day on our visit to Zermatt.
The 44km railway line between Brig and Zermatt has some the finest scenery in Switzerland. It takes around 1 hour 20 minutes and is rack-assisted in parts. The route follows the Matter Valley and has rock walls, replete with waterfalls, rising sheer above the railway line in places.
The first major stop is the pretty town of Visp, and then the route climbs around 1,000m more towards Zermatt. Switzerland’s highest mountains are in this region, but few glaciers can actually be seen as they are high above the valley.
The reason that Zermatt now has 115 hotels goes back to 1865, when the rivalry between British and Italian climbers to be the first to reach the summit of the Matterhorn was finally ended by Edward Whymper’s successful climb. The fact that four of his party subsequently died on descent just added to the media fascination with this Swiss resort!
We soon found that Zermatt has now become a mass tourism destination. On leaving the station, you could have believed that you had arrived in Downtown Shanghai. We reckoned that at least 25% of the tourists thronging the busy streets were Chinese!
The town is actually ‘car free’, but the roads are not necessarily safe as there are lots of electric taxis and countless young folk buzzing around on electric scooters.
It was time to go up into the mountains, so we followed the crowds to the Gornergrat Railway Station, where we crammed ourselves into one of the coaches and travelled by the famous rack and pinion train way up to 3,100m to view the Matterhorn, other 4,000m peaks and the area’s many glaciers.
The weather was unfortunately hazy and the summit of the Matterhorn was covered in clouds all day. But the views were memorable, and we had an unexpected bonus – to find some of the flora of Europe’s highest alpine garden. Surprisingly, considering the altitude, the local flora is in one of the most diverse areas in the Swiss Alps.
It had been a wonderful day out, but we couldn’t help thinking that Zermatt had sold itself to the ‘financial devil’ of mass tourism. Most visitors spend just one day here, and this lovely old town seems to be losing all its original character.
Post the Covid pandemic, Zermatt was still managing to ‘rake in the cash’ from international visitors. High in the mountains we could see that those same tourist feet were doing their best to trample down the fragile high-altitude flora, as people strained to take their selfies with the Matterhorn in the background!
In Part 2, we visit a Baroque Palace, Europe’s longest glacier and the lovely city of Lucerne.
Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 19 years ago. The couple lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s. Although now retired, Nigel still continues to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.