We started the day exploring the lovely Altstadt (Old Town) of Chur. They were setting up for what looked like a very impressive city-wide festival, too bad we can’t stay.
Then back on the train for a short, hour and a half, trip to Zürich. The scenery was exactly what you would expect to see in the Swiss countryside, pastoral green hills, cows, small quaint villages, clear lakes and the occasional castle. In fact, this is Heidi territory.
Once at the Hauptbahnhof in Zürich, we made a quick transfer to an airport train and checked into our hotel to drop off our bags. We are leaving for England at dawn tomorrow so we wanted to be on-site to make things as easy as possible at that inhuman time of the day. Then back into central Zürich.
There was no real agenda today, just walking around and taking it easy after the last few hectic days. We enjoy the Old Towns in European cities, and this one was no exception. Larger than many such districts, we found its sister cobbled-street neighborhood of Niederdorf across the River Limmat even more charming and definitely more upscale. Being ever-minded of equal opportunity, we visited cafes on both sides.
The Rhine River in Chur, Switzerland’s oldest city, was inhabited since the Neolithic era in 2500 BC and settled by the Romans in the 1st century BC.
It’s no secret my husband loves trains; while I may not share his passion for Lionel trains, model train displays, or being in the engineer’s cab, I do love riding trains; especially in Europe.
So, riding the Swiss Glacier Express was naturally at the top of our list. This morning we left Zermatt before 7AM and headed east to St. Moritz. We went back along the route from the day prior, to Visp, bypassing it for a quick stop in Brig. Other scheduled stops included Andermatt, Disentis, Chur and Filisur.
At times, I felt like I had been miniaturized and dropped into the magnificent Swiss model train display at Hamburg’s Miniatur Wunderland; I expected at any minute to see a naked couple in a field of sunflowers, or a team of detectives investigating a body in a river.
The “slowest express train in the world” (at an average 22 mph), covers 291 kilometers (181 miles) in about eight hours and every minute is riveting.
The scenery is nothing less than spectacular and I will try to let the few pictures here tell the story. Unlike the Rocky Mountaineer, these cars have no option to stand at an open window for photos, so you cope with windows getting progressively dustier, awful reflection, lots of electrical wires and the fact you are in a moving train, to try to get any shots at all. Mostly, you just have to sit back and enjoy the experience.
From snow-covered peaks, glaciers, bright green pastures, cows collared with giant bells, expansive evergreen forests, workers building new spiral tunnels, a helicopter flying buckets of cement to a mountain top, sheer limestone cliffs, deep gorges, raging rivers and towering waterfalls, we crossed 291 bridges and viaducts and travelled through 91 tunnels. At our highest point, at the Oberalppass near Andermatt, we were 6,670’ high. The segment between Chur and St. Moritz is also part of the Bernina Express; one area, known as the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes, has been a World Heritage Site since 2008.
Once in St. Moritz, we jumped right back on another train and headed back to Chur, Switzerland’s oldest city, for the night. My lesson for the day – you pronounce Chur, “Kor”.
Tips for anyone thinking of going:
There are 3 trains a day, just before 8, 9 and 10 am, from each direction. Reservations are required (there is first and second class) and all food and beverages are additional, and served at your seat (the dining car was discontinued years ago). Commentary is skimpy and by headphone, and the guy reading the English script could put sheep to sleep. Thankfully, we read a good description in a book prior to going. Most of the souvenirs available on the train are not much to brag about and better off skipped. If you have room in your suitcase, the angle-bottom wine glass they formerly used in the dining car (to keep liquid even), is a conversation piece.
The Swiss Rail/Travel Pass, www.sbb.ch, is a good way to go, but keep in mind, you still need to pay a bit more for a reservation on any Swiss scenic route like the Glacier Express. www.glacierexpress.ch
The route from Geneva took us through the Swiss towns of Nyon, Morges, Lausanne, Vevey, Montreux, Aigle, Bex, St.Maurice, Martigny, Sion, Sierre and Leuk before arrival in Visp.
Zermatt is the most popular vacation spot within Switzerland for the Swiss. It’s a huge ski resort and a perfect spot for summer hiking.
We had a really nice train ride to get here. Two and half hours to Visp, much of the ride around the Swiss boundary of Lake Geneva, a brief change and then another hour along an incredibly beautiful mountain route into Zermatt. We saw beautiful, green pastoral views with vineyard after vineyard during the first leg of the trip. It seems like homes here have vineyards in their yards along with their flowers.
Zermatt is a pedestrian village, with the exception of the hotel trolleys (and horse-drawn carriages) that transport visitors and their baggage to and from hotels.
We were lucky the forecast changed and the 90% rain predicted did not happen. Our first mission was to take the Gornergrat Bahn, known as the Matterhorn Railway, straight up to see the peaks of the Swiss Alps. We took the train to the highest open-air station in Europe, and got to experience sleet and snow during our visit. Unfortunately, dense fog settled over the peaks, obliterating any long-range views.
The station is 10,134’ high, and I was light-headed immediately upon arrival. Because of this, we had to report directly to the restaurant on top for lunch consisting entirely of a dark chocolate torte covered in powdered sugar. I figured stimulants could only help . . .
They say the best views of the Matterhorn are from the center of Zermatt, so we have one more chance to see it tomorrow.
The village of Zermatt is charming and very walkable, with temps in the high 50s. We spent a few hours wandering around and exploring. Lots of shops, but nothing I wanted to buy. Loads of restaurants, one of which we returned to for dinner, during which I enjoyed traditional cheese fondue.
Tomorrow we set off early for the Glacier Express scenic train from here to St. Moritz. Fingers crossed, we see the Matterhorn.
We are in beautiful Geneva. We are breaking from our usual frenetic pace and enjoying Geneva as the locals do. Under the tutelage of our good friends, Geneva residents Eva and Bob, we are seeing some sites, relaxing, chatting, and enjoying views of the tranquil lake. A highlight for us was visiting the nearby country village of Hermance and enjoying some of the fabulous local perch prepared the typical Swiss way (with a butter sauce), at La Croix Federale.
Good company, blue skies, perfect temperature, harmony of the migrating songbirds and cold white wine combined to create a day of really special memories.
Along the way, we sampled delicious dried filet, luscious cheeses and Italian sesame bread sticks (better than they had a right to be). We visited the Vielle Ville (Old Town), stopping in the Cathédrale St. Pierre to see Jean Calvin’s famous chair, and then took the time to hang out in one of the area’s many small cafes. At the center is the Place du Bourg-de-Four, with the Palace of Justice on one side and the 15th century Hotel de Ville on another. In 1864, the Geneva Convention was signed in the Alabama room (named for the ship) on the first floor of the hotel.
We hit the famous spots: where the Red Cross was founded, the high-end shops cluster, and Palais des Nations. Geneva is a center of diplomacy, and hosts more than 250 international organizations. We quickly passed by the Jardin Anglais with its large floral clock (a spot no self-respecting Swiss would be caught).
And of course how could you not love the iconic Jet d’Eau, the 460’ tower of water on a jetty on the south bank of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman). It’s the landmark you can see from everywhere.
One very interesting fact I learned is that even though we are in this lovely city in this neutral country, Geneva residents are required to have bomb shelters. The government backs this requirement up with financial support and inspects them annually. Who knew? Should we be worried . . .
This is a beautiful city, and we have loved our all-too-brief interlude here before we hit the rails tomorrow morning. Now to sleep.
Last night we followed the Belgian tradition of leaving our shoes outside our door to see what ‘Santa’ would bring us on the morning of December 6th. This morning we woke up to find a special gift of a very large chocolate Santa for each of us!
We arrived in Basel, Switzerland’s third largest city, early in the morning after traveling through eight locks during the night. Guides we had today all talked about Art Basel and Art Basel in Miami (going on right now); we also saw ample evidence of the big pharma companies based here, most prominently Novartis. After an orientation tour of the city, we visited the beautiful Rathaus (Town Hall) built over a 400-year period beginning in 1501. Basel is also home to the largest Swiss Xmas Market nestled into the plaza on Barfusserplatz. Today was very cold and threatening to rain and we didn’t get much time in the market; but since it is much smaller and more compact than many we’ve seen, we managed to cover all the bases.
This afternoon we drove towards the Alps and the beautiful city of Luzern. It was nostalgic to see the Old Swiss House (a copy used to be at Tampa’s Busch Gardens) and interesting to visit the lion monument and another beautiful Town Hall. The lake, of course, is so picturesque and even the dark clouds didn’t diminish the beauty of the surrounding scenery with its snow-capped mountains. It was a perfect jigsaw puzzle picture. We walked across the (rebuilt) historic wooden covered bridge that stretches across the lake, watched graceful swans, and paid a visit to the very small, but pretty, Xmas Market located between Franziskanerplatz & Hirschengraben.
The Swiss have a less-is-more philosophy when it comes to Christmas decorations and often the trees were unadorned or very sparsely decorated. Although there are many beautiful shops and department stores, the holiday markets here were the most disappointing of the trip (but we’ve seen so much it is not important). One of my favorite sites in Lucerne was a building that had been turned into a giant, colorful Advent Calendar. Hanging street lights didn’t have the variety we’d seen in other cities, but were still elegant and featured large crowns or lit stars; and since we were in town until dark we did get to see all the city lights! We concluded our Swiss odyssey with a wonderful hot chocolate in a local café.
For our last evening on the cozy River Princess, we said goodbye to new friends, wishing everyone a Wonderful Christmas Season, Happy, Healthy New Year & to All a Good Night!