Climb the Alps while sitting down

Aboard the Glacier Express, you get a new perspective on mountaineering

The Glacier Express runs across the top of the Swiss Alps. The name "express" may be an exaggeration for a train that energetic hikers can overtake when it resorts to cogwheels to pull itself up a slope.

And it doesn't run as much as crawls up and down mountains that other trains cannot cope with, burrowing through tunnels instead. Not that this train shuns tunnels - its route has 91 of them - but it prefers to stay above it all. It crosses deep gorges on high viaducts and bridges (291 of those), sidles around mountains on ledges cut into steep slopes, and plays hide-and-seek under avalanche sheds.

Of the many scenic rides in Europe, I believe that the Glacier Express treats its passengers to the most spectacular views. At each of its many turns, the train shows a new vista: whitewashed churches in valleys, timbered houses squatting on green, grassy hillsides, summer snow fields, and sparkling icy peaks towering above.

Through the open windows of my compartment came the most unrailwaylike sounds. I heard the clanking of bells where cows grazed within arm's reach, kept off the tracks by a single strand of wire. Often the soft whoosh of waterfalls drowned the sound of the train as the spray washed the cars.

I got on the train in Chur, the end of the main line connection from Zurich. Two-and-a-half hours of gawking later, we stopped in Andermatt, the only place in the world where changing trains requires a train trip itself: To transfer to a mainline train to Milan or Zurich, you take a 15-minute ride on a cogwheel train down a dramatic gorge to the entrance of the Gotthard Tunnel in Goschenen.

Here, through the bowels of the Alps, the north-south trains pass 1,000 feet under the Glacier Express.

Then it was time for lunch in the antique dining car. We ate well - second helpings were offered in family style - and drank from the slanted glasses that are a trademark of the Glacier Express. The glass leans sideways on its short stem to assure that your drink won't spill as the table tilts on a steep gradient. However, you must remember to rotate the glass when the train goes around a curve.

You can buy the glass as a souvenir, but if you take the entire trip, you get one as a gift, together with a certificate that lists how many bridges and tunnels you passed.

After lunch, the tracks led from the greenest alpine meadow into a 10-mile-long tunnel. When we emerged high above the timber line, we were in a different season, winter in summer where snowy slopes surrounded a glass-smooth lake. The view sent even the most jaded travelers scrambling for cameras, and the train obligingly stopped for a photo op.

Yet, with all this catering to visitors, the Glacier Express is not a tourist ride. The line is an important transport link, the only direct east-west route across the center of the country, from the Rhine to the Rhone, from the Grisons in the east to Valais in the west.

Once, the service was seasonal, because the tracks were taken up before the winter snows and laid again in spring. Then, in 1982, the Furka-Oberalp-Bahn proudly opened the world's longest meter-gauge tunnel.

Since the road through the pass above is still closed for four months in the winter, the train offers the only year-round access. The line carries freight and supplies to the often-isolated communities along the route.

On this trip, the complement of passengers included local schoolchildren going to classes, soldiers returning home after the rigors of a weekend exercise, and farmers.

At Brig we met the Bern-Milan main line, going to Italy via the Simplon Tunnel. At the station, a couple of train-loving children "collected" railways the way their American counterparts spot out-of-state license plates. The Swiss Federal Railways' wagons each had three initials, SBB, CFF, and FSS, in German, French, and Italian.

And there were more. The route of the Glacier Express traverses the territories of three private companies, so in Brig we saw the initials RhB for the Rhaetische Bahn that took the train from St. Moritz to Disentis, FO for the Furka-Oberalp-Bahn that ran it to Brig, and BVZ for the Brig-Visp-Zermatt-Bahn that handled the last leg.

The BVZ engine pulled the train to Zermatt, a skiers', climbers', and environmentalists' paradise, where no cars are allowed.

The Glacier Express ambled at its slowest speed, taking an hour and a half to cover the last beautiful 30 miles.

That's the speed I want to go when I travel just to travel, not to arrive.

For more information, see www.my switzerland.ch, www.fo-bahn.ch, or www. rhb.ch. The St. Moritz-Disentis section is covered by Eurailpass. To reserve, call Rail Europe, 800-438-7245.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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