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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"Get off at Tiefencastel station, catch a bus, ask the bus driver to let you off at the trail head, walk in 50 minutes ... No, too complicated," he said. Plan B: "Get off at Filisur station, we'll call you a taxi and explain the plan to the driver, who will drive you to the trail head. You walk in 50 minutes, climb up above the viaduct, climb down below the viaduct. Here's the schedule for when the trains will pass."

The next morning - overcast as predicted - we found that the morning crew at St. Moritz station had all been briefed on the plan. They called a cab driver, Felix Barandun, who was waiting for us at Filistur station. Felix dropped us off at the trail head, and then came back two hours and four trains later to take us to another vantage point.

There may be a more glorious sight in this world than a bright red train rattling over the Landwasser viaduct with a shaft of sunlight streaking through a cloud, but on this afternoon, we could not imagine what it might be.

Waiting around in the Filistur station for the return train to St. Moritz, we learned that locals love this train.

"You really should stop and see 'the Crocodile,' the engine that pulled the Glacier Express before they got the red ones," said Christoph Stoss, a German living in nearby Valbella. "There's a museum in Bergun, just one stop up the line."

It was getting late. An old brown engine didn't sound that interesting. But just as our train pulled into Bergun, a child near us leaned out the window and cried out, "Look, it's the Crocodile!" We jumped off the train.

The Crocodile is just down the road from the train station. It somehow looks like the giant lizard - big, brown, and tough. It's not as glamorous as the new red engines, but it has character. Its massive snowplows must have done some heavy pushing before its retirement here in 1985.

The museum farther down in the village didn't seem to be about trains. Historic photos showed hearty, tough people hauling sacks of potatoes and bundles of hay on steep slopes. We learned that the 1952 film version of "Heidi" had been shot in Bergun, and Clara's wheelchair stood in the corner under a photograph of the cast.

But for train-lovers, the museum's masterwork-in-progress is on the top floor: a scale replica of the track between Bergun and Preda, which includes some of the most dazzling engineering on the Glacier Express.

Between these stations, the train climbs 1,364 feet vertically, including four loop tunnels, seven viaducts, and two galleries. The Albala Bahn Club of Bergun is faithfully reproducing track, tunnels, viaducts, even woodpiles.

Passengers who ride this stretch of track notice that something extraordinary is going on in its dark, twisting tunnels, but even with maps, no one seemed to understand what.

The model train put the maps into perspective. For example, just realizing that two of the corkscrew tunnels sit on top of one another and not side by side, as they appear on maps, helps.

That night, the weather forecast was still bad - dark clouds and rain south of the Alps, where we were; happy, smiling suns to the north, where we were not. But by the next morning, the sun shone brightly on the lake and the yellow larches around St. Moritz.

Down the 3.5-mile Albula tunnel, around three corkscrew tunnels, and over the Landwasser viaduct (which now seemed like an old friend), still sun. Sun all the way through the Rhine valley. Sun all the way up to the top of the Oberalp. Sun every creaking steep, cog-rail-assisted mile down to the Rhone valley. Sun on the mountains, sun on castles, sun on church steeples. Every fogged-over moment of the first trip seemed redeemed.

Passengers spent much of the trip on their feet, leaning out windows, or lurching from one side of the train to the other for a better view. For some, a trip to the restaurant car broke up the eight-hour trip, but most stayed a nose-print away from their windows and didn't notice the time pass or their unread books slip to the floor.

After six hours on the Glacier Express, we cut out at Brig to use the last hours of our four-day Swiss rail pass to get back home. We had already seen the Matterhorn, and the clouds were beginning to roll back in. By the time we got to where our last night's weather map had put all the smiling suns, the dark clouds had taken over in earnest.

Sometimes the weather gurus in the Swiss Alps get it wrong; and other times, it doesn't matter.

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