The Swiss Alps by Plane and Train
A PEAK EXPERIENCE
by Kira Albin Halpern
As I walked across the Zurich airport tarmac toward Classic Air’s DC-3, a gleaming 1943 model jauntily tilted back on its tail feathers, I felt a surge of excitement. At last I would experience the Switzerland of my fantasies - majestic scenery, winter chalets and foil-wrapped chocolates - through a first-class, alpine-focused vacation package that would carry me over, under and through the Swiss Alps.
Flights of Fancy
Despite the DC-3’s tight quarters and angled aisle, Classic Air’s scenic flight was definitely fancy. Once we were airborne, a flight attendant in a 1940s uniform passed out flutes of champagne, and the ghastly, but romantic smell of cigar-smoke wafted through the 28-seat cabin. Our inflight meal, served on china with silver flatware, included transparent slices of Bunderfleisch (dried veal), a regional specialty; smoked ham and salami; an assortment of cheeses, including Tete de Moines, a French cheese cut into delicate, lacy flowers; French rolls; and a choice of local wines.
Between bites, I witnessed views as legendary as the plane itself: the Eiger, the Jungfrau, and the Matterhorn, the Alp’s most famous peaks, as well as rugged glaciers, glistening mountain lakes, and tree-ribboned valleys. I noted that now a veritable United Nations crew - a French-Swiss captain, an Italian-Swiss co-pilot, and a German-Swiss flight attendant - manned the DC-3, once lauded by General Dwight Eisenhower as one of the four most important pieces of equipment in World War II. Our model, “The Charlie,” had a picture window on each side, allowing for panorama-sized vistas not possible through conventional plane windows.
I felt like a fly buzzing among mammoths as our tiny plane hummed over the dramatic mountainous landscape. Little cloud puffs nestled into the mountain crevices, like cotton stuffed into the ears of giants, leaving the peaks unobscured. A mountain range creates unpredictable climates, and a Swiss cloud gives preferential treatment to no one, but as luck would have it, the sky shone bright and blue that day.
Peaks and Valleys
We landed on an airstrip laid out among cow pastures near St. Moritz in the Engadine Valley. St. Moritz, playground of the rich and famous, tempts visitors with a multitude of events, shopping and being seen among the most important year round. But summer is the time for greyhound races, car meets, sailing regattas, and concert weeks. And winter activities include cricket, polo, horse races, skiing, and golf on a frozen lake.
Those who yearn for less activity and more serenity, as I did, can find them in the small, picturesque towns - Pontresina, Sils, or Celerina, for example - just five to 20 minutes from St. Moritz. I stayed two nights in Pontresina at the Hotel Saratz, a hotel of distinction that blends old and modern architecture. The surrounding park land offers walking trails and stunning views of glaciers and mountains. For most of two days I pampered myself in a plush, white hotel bath robe and made the most of the swimming pool, whirlpool, sauna and steam bath. In the evening, from Muottas Muragl, a mountaintop reached via cable car, I sipped wine and watched the sunset while listening to the deep, low sounds of the Alpenhorn. The Alpenhorn, a national instrument once used to help the cows relax so they would produce more milk, is now mainly a tourist attraction. But the relaxation part worked on me and, when combined with a huge buffet dinner, I was more docile than the bovine.
Larder on the Alpine Express
After two days in the Engadine Valley, I pried myself out from under the thick folds of terry cloth onto the newly restored Alpine Classic Pullman Express of the Rhaetian Railway (also known as RhB or Rhatische Bahn). The four salon coaches and one dining car of the Alpine Classic Express, made by 1930s craftsmen in the Pullman style, were set to travel the 100-year-old Glacier Express line between St. Moritz and Zermatt. Dubbed the “Orient Express of the Alps,” this train would cover 270 km of tracks, cross 291 bridges and pass through 91 tunnels - an eight-hour journey through the Swiss Alps.
I sat back, listening to the click of the wheels, and I imagined this train in its 1930s splendor, when it carried passengers such as the Persian Princess Fahrah, conductor Herbert von Karajan, and bandleader Louis Armstrong. But little imagination was needed, for the restoration project had missed no detail of the original design. The salon coach interiors were upholstered in a plush carmine-, mustard-, and cobalt-colored fabric made in Belgium. The wood paneling with inlaid designs, made from Switzerland’s walnut and pine trees, was of a rich, warm hue. And the brass fixtures, featured most prominently in the dining car, even included candleholders which, at one time, provided the only light available when the train entered one of the many dark tunnels on the line. Even the toilet was authentic, in that all contents are dumped directly onto the tracks, a disturbing fact I discovered upon flushing. Right at that moment, I heard loud and piercing screams. I thought I had entered an Agatha Christie novel and the first victim had just been discovered; or worse yet, that my bathroom acts had not gone unnoticed. In fact, the reality was that we had crossed our first viaduct - 179 yards long and 295 feet above the valley floor - an event that excited some passengers to high-pitched outcries.
Food service onboard the Alpine Classic began soon after I settled into my seat. First, orange juice, coffee, and tea service, followed by champagne and hors d’oeuvres - hot, flaky, mini-quiches and an artistic assortment of canapés. Lunch was an excellent three-course meal inspired by fresh, local ingredients, though it is the dessert that still lingers in my memory: Passionsfruchteis mit rhabarberkompott - stewed rhubarb with passionfruit ice cream topped with whipped cream - impossible to pronounce but easy to eat. The pièce de résistance of the meal occurred when the wait staff filled a trayful of glasses in one continuous two-foot stream of alcohol while on the moving train. By then I thought I would die from gluttony, but the Swiss liqueur was just the thing to aid digestion.
A full stomach and the rhythmic motion of the train lulled me to sleep after lunch, but I awakened to enjoy a scenic stretch from the town of Brig, the first town on the Rhone, to our final destination, Zermatt. The Rhone River at our side, we traveled past beautiful wooden chalets capped with rough-hewn slate roofs and surrounded by vegetable and flower gardens. On either side of the line, vineyards grew on the hillsides in an area known to be the highest grape-growing region in the world. Had I not sampled the local wines myself, I would have thought cultivation impossible on such steep terrain.
The Horn of Plenty
In Zermatt, three permissible modes of transportation - electric car, horse-drawn carriage, and bicycle - shuttle about and contribute character to this automobile-free village. I was nearly run over twice by these assorted vehicles during the short walk from the train station to the hotel door. But like every other tourist, I was distracted by the behemoth Matterhorn.
Zermatt’s 5,500 inhabitants plus a large tourist population reside in the shadow of the famous pyramid-shaped Matterhorn. Like an army of ants conquering a mole hill, a continuous stream of bodies travel over, around, and across this mountain mecca year-round. Zermatt offers the longest skiing season in the Alps as well as an abundance of summertime attractions. For skiing, 93 miles of marked trails provide every degree of difficulty and special type of skiing: firn-snow skiing, heli-skiing, cross-country skiing, and summer-skiing. Summer features 250 miles of walking and hiking paths, mountain lakes, helicopter trips, paragliding school, tennis and squash courts, indoor golf and minigolf, mountain bike trails, and cultural events from classical concerts to alpine folklore parades.
At the Hotel Mont Cervin, a deluxe alpine hotel that opened in 1851, I had my own terrace view of the Matterhorn. I thought I might feel indifference toward the Matterhorn, given the ubiquity of its image, but instead, it mesmerized me. I sought out unobstructed views. One minute it appeared as a sharp granite Egyptian pyramid, the next, as the peak of a stiffly beaten egg white, but most of the time it looked like a snow-covered, tilted stocking cap.
A short ride from Zermatt, on a hundred-year-old train line, lies Gornergrat, with excellent views of the Matterhorn as well as the continent’s highest-altitude hotel and restaurant (10,134 feet above sea level). Gornergrat draws the crowds, including hucksters selling postcards, bottled water and staged photo sessions with Bernese mountain dogs, but it’s still well worth a visit. Locals say that if you go to Gornergrat early, you experience the majesty of the sunrise in a serene setting.
Self-guided hikes are equally scenic without the crowds. If the weather is overcast and the Matterhorn in hiding, numerous guided hikes focus on other landscape features, including glaciers, flora, and birds. Or if your soles are aching and your soul still searching, visit Otto Burgener, owner of one of Zermatt’s oldest shops, to witness the art of manufacturing mountaineering boots.
Even when crowds don’t cover it and clouds don’t surround it, the Matterhorn is still shrouded in controversy. In 1865 seven climbers made a successful ascent, beating out their Italian rivals. But an avalanche during the descent killed all but three of their party: Englishman Edward Whymper and his two Zermatt guides, Peter Taugwalder, Senior and Junior. The survivors were accused of having cut the ropes so they could claim fame for themselves. As one wag put it, “Perhaps those who died didn’t want to go out with a Whymper.” The Alpine Museum tells the story in detail, provides a history of mountain climbing and a look at early climbing equipment and memorabilia unique to Zermatt and the Matterhorn.
Crowds, clouds, and controversy aside, Zermatt has a special charm that is easy to discover. On one of several short walks I took on an easy, groomed trail, I found a bench that afforded a vista of the village and a view of the Matterhorn. I sat there reflecting on my Swiss experience, and I realized my fantasies had been fulfilled. I opened my Toblerone, a foil-wrapped chocolate bar shaped like the Matterhorn, and consumed a piece of the alps that had come to consume me.
IF YOU GO...
Alpine Classic Pullman Express Package:
Prices (per person)*:
Travel Dates 2001:
In Pontresina, 20 minutes from St. Mortiz, Hotel Saratz offers the perfect blend of old and new and accommodates the interests of every member of your family. Special features include:
In Zermatt, Hotel Mont Cervin is centrally located and offers all the amenities you expect plus luxury features, including:
To book your trip, call Hotels & Tours Network at 1-888-GO-4-ALPS.
Kira Albin Halpern is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on KQED Radio (a National Public Radio affiliate) as well as in numerous print and Internet publications. Ms. Halpern is also the editor of The East Bay Monthly in the San Francisco Bay Area.