In a song called My Kind of Town, Frank Sinatra
said that Chicago is one town that wonít let you down. The same
could be said about Switzerland. It starts off great and keeps
getting better. And just when you think that this is as good as it
gets, it gets even better when you get to the top of the world, high
up in the Alps, where it is impossibly beautiful.
Several months ago, Lynn saw a brochure for a
train ride, the
Glacier Express, through the Alps from St. Moritz in the east to
Zermatt in the south, a distance of about 170 miles. The ride takes
almost eight hours so you can see that this is not the bullet train
and thatís the point. The train meanders through some of the most
scenic vistas in the world and it doesnít hurry so we thought weíd
take the ride.
The weather gods were on our side for this trip
as we had almost cloudless blue skies the whole time. We spent our
first day in St. Moritz. This is the oldest winter resort in the
world and the winter Olympics were held here in 1928 and 1948. They
told us that many of the worldís movers and shakers come here for
winter vacations but because this was August, none of them seemed to
be around. The city center sits on a hill high above a lake so the
view of the lake and the snow-capped mountains on the other side are
visible from almost
everywhere. The altitude here is just shy of 6,000 feet and a
local resident said that winter temperatures get down to 15įF below
zero. Thatís so cold that they can and do have
horse races on the lake.
It may come as a surprise to some that while the
Germans speak German and the French speak French, the Swiss donít
speak Swiss. There are four official languages in Switzerland,
German, French, Italian, and Romansh (similar to French, Italian,
and Spanish and spoken by less than 1% of the populace) but, of
course, most people donít speak all four. We had a waiter one night
who spoke pretty decent, but less than excellent, English. Like so
many Europeans, he apologized to us for that which always amazes me.
He told us a story about a very rude Ugly American who came in one
day and took exception to the fact that the waiterís English was
less than perfect. To make his point, our waiter asked this guy in
French if he spoke French. He asked in German if he spoke German. He
asked in Italian if he spoke Italian. The American said no three
times. The waiter let the customer know then that he spoke three and
the customer only spoke one, and therefore the customer wasnít
bright enough to eat dinner there and should go. What a guy.
The next day was the train ride. The car we rode
in was a "panorama" car with windows that curved into the ceiling of
the car so the view was almost unobstructed. The first two hours the
train moved downhill going around bends and twisting around on its
route. You could see above and below sometimes to where we had been
and where we were headed. Because the train traveled so often along
the sides of the mountains, the view out the window was frequently
straight down. We could see lakes and villages a thousand or more
feet below. If one has an aversion to heights, it would be good not
to sit next to the window. After about two hours we began the ascent
to Oberalpass where I had driven through earlier in the year. This
is about 6,700 feet and the highest point the train would reach.
After a second descent to Visp, the train began its steepest ascent
to Zermatt. As good as the ride had been to this point, this was
easily the best part.
The track bed was narrow with thick woods on one
side, a steep drop on the other and the snowcaps in the distance. We
came to a town called Kalpetran. We were told to look out the window
where we could see a cable car starting from the train station going
up the hill to another village called Embd. This
cable car, with a vertical climb of about 1,500 feet, is how one
gets there from the train.
After almost eight hours we reached Zermatt and
the spectacularity of what we were seeing was about to increase.
Zermatt sits at about 5,300 feet and is in a valley in sort of a
cul-de-sac. You go out the way you came in. Thereís a town in Italy,
Breuil-Cervinia, thatís about ten miles or so away as the crow flies
if a crow could fly that high. To get there, one has to drive about
150 miles around the mountains. Between Breuil-Cervinia and Zermatt
is the Matterhorn, and if you come to this town, this is what you
come to see. However, it was late it the afternoon so that would
have to wait until morning. First there was the town to explore.
Zermattís permanent population is about 5,500
people. All but three work in the tourist trade and those three are
retired. When first seeing the town, it looks like it was built to
be a tourist town. They bill it as traffic-free but thatís not
exactly true. There are no cars or other privately owned vehicles
but there are
horse-drawn carriages used by some hotels to take you from the
train station to the hotel, and there are little
electric powered cars, two people wide, maybe five deep, used by
others. There are zillions of these. Maybe half-a-zillion. They
never blast a horn to encourage you to get out of the way but they
do tend to whiz by pretty closely. If one wants to drive to Zermatt,
one must park in the enormous garage at the next town down, Tasch,
and take the frequent shuttle trains.
The town is not new, however. The library and the
church (where we saw a funeral that day) were built in the 19th
century. Thereís a section, appropriately called Old Zermatt, where
we saw barns from the 16th century and houses from the 17th
century. Immediately next to an old house was a relatively new house
built so that the old structure would be undisturbed. These folks
care about their heritage and old stuff. As an old guy myself, I
greatly appreciate that.
Our guidebook said some people donít like Zermatt
because thereís nothing to do there. Granted there are no museums
and if your purpose is to see lots of things then you might be
disappointed. Also, bad weather could pose a problem. But taking it
for what it is, it is stunning.
Then there is the matter of the
Matterhorn. This is the
view of the Matterhorn, a hundred times larger than the Disney
version, that we had from our window. We thought we would make a
climb the next day. The Matterhorn is about 14,700 feet high, and
while not the highest peak in the Alps, itís the most well-known. To
climb this mountain, one has to know what heís doing. We donít. So
we took the easy way and climbed the
Klein (small) Matterhorn. Most of the climb was by cable car,
then an elevator, and finally about 50 steps until you reach the top
of the world, at 12,736 feet the highest mountain lift in Europe.
Iím not at all religious and Iím not sure what "spiritual" means,
but perhaps this is what I felt while in this place. Never have I
seen anything even approaching this; it was the ultimate in awesome.
It was also
fun. The snow was perfect for snowballs so there was a little of
that. A mountain nearby, with some help from the snow on its peak,
took on the definite shape of the
Philadelphia Eagle which I see as a good omen. And the 26įF they
said it was up there felt much warmer. Maybe, though, that was just
the thrill of being so close to
The cable car idea originated in 1965 and was met
with political obstacles and opposition from environmental groups.
After those issues were resolved, there were problems recruiting a
work force. There was, after all, no cable car to get them to work
so they would be gone from home for long periods in treacherous
conditions. Somehow they found some hardy souls who began work in
August 1976 and the line opened in late 1979. People can ski up
there now in summer and there is even talk of building a hotel.
Reluctantly, we had to leave. We took the train
out the way we came in, the only option, and it was just as
breathtaking in retreat. For a while the train followed the Alps
until it turned north toward Zurich. The Alps began to shrink a bit
in the distance but in Switzerland they are visible from almost
anyway and always a major presence. What on this earth could be more
See all my pictures of Switzerland.
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