Waiting out the Clouds On a Scenic Swiss Sojourn
A ride on the Glacier Express offers breathtaking views, but you may have to go twice if fog is a factor
ST. MORITZ, SWITZERLAND
Switzerland's Glacier Express could be the most spectacular train ride in the world, but few passengers aboard No. 904 out of Zermatt could tell: Their only view was of the inside of a cloud.Skip to next paragraph
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The train plunges down from the rooftop of Europe, back up to the headwaters of the Rhine and Rhone Rivers, down, and back up again.
The nearly eight-hour journey covers 287 kilometers (about 178 miles) from Zermatt to St. Moritz, passing over 291 bridges, through 91 tunnels, and by castles, tawny cows, poster-perfect villages, and alpine vistas.
It has its own line of videos, watches, goofy glasses, ties, rucksacks, and $80-a-coach model trains. Few train lovers - people who know that trains are more than just a way to get somewhere - have not tucked away a hope that they will one day ride this classic line.
However, once aboard, it's good to be able to see something. After climbing in the dark some 9.5 miles (or 12.5 minutes, but who's counting?), our train broke out of the Furka Tunnel into fog as thick as fondue. A collective groan went up from the panoramic seats. By the time we reached the Oberalp pass, some 6,670 feet above sea level, the fog had only deepened. On a clear day, you could see hundreds of miles from this point. On this day, you could see about 12 feet.
There is a moral to this train story - and a happy ending.
The moral: When you book passage on the Glacier Express, don't count on a clear day. Plan to take the trip twice (most of the passengers I talked to did), or give yourself time to just hop off the train, hole up in a scenic village, sup on the local beef-barley soup and rosti (like a potato pancake, only better), while listening to the clanging of cowbells, and wait out the clouds.
Swiss railway executives know there aren't always sunny days in the mountains. That could be why they offer foreign visitors rail passes to get on or off their superb public transportation system at will. When you find a cloud obscuring something you don't want to miss, go somewhere else and come back later. The rail pass makes it easy.
Tourists come to the Swiss Alps to see mountains. What the guidebooks don't tell you is that seeing mountains may take patience and even a little audacity.
The first time my husband and I tried to see the big Alps, in October 1993, we sat at the foot of the Jungfrau for two days of steady rain. On the morning of Day 3, the mountains were still deep in clouds and mist, but we figured this could be our last chance to see Jungfraujoch, at 11,333 feet, the highest railway station in Europe. A handful of Japanese tourists, the only other passengers to the top of the mountain, apparently had the same idea.
At the top, we all groped around outside in a fog, gripping handrails to find the way back to the station.
Suddenly, a hole opened in the clouds, and for a few seconds, you could see all the way down to Grindelwald. Tourists collided in the rush to catch the glimpse. Soon, another hole opened, revealing a bit of the glacier, then another, and the peak of the Jungfrau.
Within minutes, the sky had cleared completely, and people were dashing from one point to another for the pure joy of it. By the time we got back down, the heavy clouds and rain were back.
Such are the Swiss Alps. Such also is the reason we did not despair after taking our first Glacier Express run under heavy cloud cover. The mountains would still be there. And we would be back.
"You just take what comes," said Evelyn Vagt, from Fort Worth, Texas. "If you have eyes that see and want to see, you'll see the beauty of it." She and her husband, Paul, were on their second Glacier Express run in as many days. The first had been "perfect," they said.
As the train pulled into St. Moritz, the end of the line, the sky was clearing. But the forecast for our return trip the next day was grim - more clouds and rain. We had two days left on our Swiss Rail pass. We could stay a day in St. Moritz and take the return trip a day later.
While switching reservations at the station, we asked the attendant if he could recommend the most dramatic point on the Glacier Express. If we couldn't see spectacular views of the mountains from the train, we could try for a spectacular view of the train.
He seemed intrigued. A discussion ensued with other employees. Posters were consulted, and a consensus emerged: The best view of the Glacier Express was from the Landwasser viaduct, 265 feet high with a 328-foot arc that connects to a tunnel into a sheer wall of rock. They showed us a picture and began working out the logistics.