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story Alex Eberspaecher photographs Judy Eberspaecher
It is an incredible sight, frightening, yet amusing. First there is one running towards me, perhaps the fittest of them; the one with the least equipment. Others suddenly emerge, running as he is, from the lush alpine forest, apparently chasing this lone man. Then one of them is swallowed up by a fast flowing creek, crying unsuccessfully to his friends for help. The last thing I can see is the leader of the gang falling to his knees. I can just see his eyes as he aims at me. Down near the brook, a lone, irritated cow bolts for safety. Then as suddenly as the spectacle begins, it is over as a complete darkness overcomes me...
Seven kilometres later as we emerge from the tunnel, the men are there again, although I can’t see the wet one. Paparazzi are like that, it is more important to get a good picture than to help the competition. Opportunities are rare and to get a good shot of the legendary “Blue Croc” is not an ordinary occasion.
The Blue Croc pulls the famous Glacier Express that is transporting me at neck-breaking speeds. At times it might reach upwards, if only on downhill slopes, to 20 km/hr from Andermatt to St Moritz! The Blue Croc, engine number 412 was built in 1925 and, although it had been retired after chugging a mere 4.5 million miles – about 104 times around the world – is returning to service after receiving a new coat of blue paint.
The landscape is unbelievably stunning as the old engine labours along the steep sides of the Swiss mountain. The early morning sun on this clear May day is reflecting off the newly fallen snow high up, but there is also a tranquility and beauty that is almost eerie.
I feel suspended, if not humbled, by the beauty of nature as we wind our way through the deep gorges and the majestic snow-covered peaks of the Alps. At times we cross a few meadows ablaze with wildflowers and peaceful cows here and there, but most of it is sheer splendour, just as life has intended it to be.
My journey started back in Zurich when I boarded the train to go south to Andermatt to catch the legendary Glacier Train that runs from Zermatt to St Moritz. “You need to go to Goeschenen,” the conductor told me as we made our way into the foothills of the Alps. I explained that I needed to go to Andermatt not Goeschenen to catch the train, but he wouldn’t listen. Apparently the train disappeared somewhere into the cool mountain air.
So I got off in Goeschenen at nightfall and walked over to the train that went to Andermatt. Actually it was more like a streetcar except that there was a spoked wheel that propelled us amidst much groaning, up the slopes to Andermatt. I guess the conductor knew what he was talking about, after all . My Zurich-to-Lugano express train meanwhile had disappeared into a tunnel, heading south toward Italy.
Traveling in Switzerland is both relaxing and easy; it is also legendary as far as timing is concerned. I have come to realize that the Swiss don’t run their trains by the clock; they set their Swiss army watches by the arrival and departure of the train!
Each passenger train, every bus and all boats run on the hour. If the train departs Zermatt at 12.02, you can bet it will also depart at 1:02 and then again at 2:02. One day I took the scenic train from Chur to Arosa for lunch and had the nerve to ask the waitress for the time of my train’s departure. Why, she asked, is something wrong? I assured her that nothing was wrong, so she told me, somewhat annoyed, that the train would leave on time, like always, 12 minutes after every hour.
The Glacier Train is different. Not only does it run only once a day but it also has the honour of being the slowest express train in the world. The narrow gage tracks hardly find enough room on some slopes as the marvel of engineering spirals and moans its way to the top. Yet at times, as it meanders through the alpine meadows, it is unobtrusive and looks like it has been there since the beginning of time.
The romantic trip down memory lane on board the 1920-era Pullman coaches, complete with a dining car, the Swiss Alpine version of the Orient Express takes about eight hours from beginning to end. Starting almost at the Italian border, not far from the legendary Matterhorn Mountain in Zermatt, the train actually winds along some glaciers on its way past the Simplon Pass, the villages of Visp and Brig, skirting the Valais Region in an easterly direction. By Oberwald, just south of the famous Jungfrau, Eiger and Moench mountain peaks, where the traditional and fast commuter train once again goes underground, the Glacier Express chooses to climb the Alps toward Andermatt. It is here at the historical winter resort of the Gotthard region that I will board the Glacier Express on my journey east.
From Andermatt, the train continues to climb over Oberalp, past a few deserted, but wonderfully restored historical rail stations that lead apparently to nowhere, in an easterly direction toward the village of Reichenau. Here it turns more southerly as it winds and labours its way along the upper reaches of the Rhine toward the final destination of St Moritz. This is a town of about 6000 that grows to 100 000 when the rich and famous invade the expensive hotels and restaurants during the skiing season.
Traveling on a Swiss Rail Pass is an experience in itself. No other country I have ever visited has perfected travel as have the Swiss. A single train pass will let you travel every kilometre of track you can find and every last kilometre by Postal Bus. This pass is accepted on all cable cars that take you up to the top of mountains and it will cover all your boat travel as well as all the public transit, if you ever should need it. Each village is accessible, and there are some with five homes in some of the most remote mountain valleys, and if the train does not stop there, the yellow Postal Bus surely will. Transferring between different carriers is easy and encouraged, so if you are traveling for instance, from Bern to Interlaken by train, you may get off your rail coach in Thun, the village on the shores of Thuner See (Lake Thun) and take the passenger ferry to any of the nearby villages where you board the train to Interlaken again or continue your journey on water directly to the small town of Interlaken.
In 2008, a portion of the most picturesque and spectacular segment of the Glacier Train Route, the Albula Line section, located between the Villages of Andermatt and St. Moritz will become only the third rail line in the world that will be part of a UNESCO heritage site. The other two are the Semmering Train Route in Austria and the Darjeeling Railway in the Himalayas.
Traveling the mountain region of Switzerland is a rather unique experience as far as the weather is concerned. Starting the day with a swim on one of the sunny beaches on the lower lands, it is quite possible that by lunchtime when the train has climbed a few thousand, you might be looking for a sweater as you marvel at the freshly fallen snow that covers the nearby mountain peaks; so tantalizingly close yet so inaccessible in their majestic setting. This wilderness is so unique to that part of the Alps and Switzerland which is so proud to have changed very little since the Blue Crocodile made its first trip along one of the world’s most scenic routes 75 years ago. GL
|ABOVE Mountain Village
ABOVE paparazzi scramble to capture the "Blue Croc,"
the engine that pulls the Glacier Express
ABOVE Swiss beauty
ABOVE the Glacier Express from Andermatt to St. Moritz
ABOVE the Blue Crocodile
IF YOU GO
Switzerland has not joined the EU and retains the Swiss Franc as the official currency. (1 Cdn Dollar = 1.10 Swiss Franc.) As the currency is almost equal, conversion is easy. At major hotels and stores, Euros may also be used. Although prices may be slightly higher than here, remember that whatever is indicated, is what you pay. All taxes are included and all restaurants include tips and taxes in the bill. German, French and Italian are the official languages but most establishments speak English. An 8-day Swiss Rail Pass will cost about $321 Can in 2nd class, $481 for 1st class; for a 15 day pass $390 for 2nd class and $585 for 1st class. If you are traveling with your family, purchase a family pass and children up to 16 years old travel for free. The purchase of a rail pass will get you into most museums for free. Check www.raileurop.com for details and www.rail.ch for schedules. Air Canada, in conjunction with Swiss Air lines has daily flights from Toronto to Zurich.