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Introduction

Nestled between France, Italy, and Austria, Switzerland may be a small country, but it packs a punch when it comes to big mountain scenery not to mention its rich culture and impressive culinary scene. No matter where you go here, you’ll be awed by the spectacular beauty. It’s dotted with charming villages and towns with shops that sell some of the world’s most delicious chocolate and cheeses, while the sound of cowbells is never far away. There’s plenty of history to explore in places like Bern’s medieval Old Town, a UNESCO-listed site surrounded on three sides by the Aare River with the towering Alps providing a jaw-dropping backdrop. The layout has remained virtually unchanged from the time it was built from the 12th through 15th centuries.

There are nearly endless activities to enjoy too, perhaps a visit to a cheesemaker to learn how cheese is made in a lush valley. Hiking some of the planet’s most epic trails, whitewater rafting on a rushing river, and even paragliding from a dramatic cliff can all be enjoyed, while winter brings opportunities for world-class skiing and boarding. The famous Glacier Express runs between Zermatt and St. Moritz between December and October, providing one of the world’s most stunning rail adventures. 

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Glacier Express History

History of the Glacier Express

Covering nearly 200 miles through the Swiss Alps, the Glacier Express route is a panoramic journey through the heart of the Alpine heartland. But how did it all begin? The wealthy segment of society discovered the spectacular beauty and charms of the Swiss Alps, transforming what were once isolated mountain villages like Zermatt and St. Moritz into glamorous, cosmopolitan resort towns. In the 1920s, the railway companies in the area decided to capitalize on the tourism potential, opening up various lines. The Brig – Chur – St. Moritz lines were in high demand by tourists, leading to the birth of the Glacier Express.
Named to honor Rhone Glacier on Furka Pass, the first trip on the Glacier Express was launched on June 25, 1930, and it’s been popular with tourists and locals alike ever since. The only time service has been interrupted was during the Second World War when it was halted for about five years, resuming full daily service in 1948. Despite what you might think, it was always powered by electricity, although one section was driven by steam engines due to the steep gradients until 1941 when the entire route was electrified.
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Technological advances in the 1950s and ‘60s benefited the Glacier Express, with faster railway traction helping to shorten the travel time for what’s known as the world’s “slowest express train,” which clocks an average speed of 24 mph. Until 1982, the train only ran in the summer due to the significant snowfall, but once the Furka basis tunnel opened, Zermatt and St. Moritz were connected all year round (now with the exception of November).

The first trains already included a dining car allowing passengers to enjoy food and drink. One of the biggest changes over the decades was the addition of panoramic cars in 1993, providing sightseeing windows to watch the magnificent Swiss mountain scenery unfold. Short of climbing the mountains, it’s the best way to admire the incredible vista that brings the outdoors in.

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Glacier express today

The Glacier Express Today

The panoramic trains that were a new addition in 1993 were recently renovated for the 90th anniversary of the Glacier Express, ensuring the utmost comfort for passengers. Dining can be accompanied by crisp Swiss white wine and enjoyed with the same breathtaking panoramic views that have been savored for decades.

The train chugs through 91 tunnels and over 291 bridges on the eight-hour trip, with the slow pace perfect for taking in all of the jaw-dropping views. You’ll pass dramatic craggy peaks with a frequent backdrop of bright blue skies, glacial streams, deep gorges, emerald valleys dotted with quintessential chalets and dairy cows, and the highest geographical point at Oberalp Pass with an altitude of more than 6600 feet.

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The panoramic windows are perfect for the vistas, but not for taking photos due to the glare. The better news is that you can get some great shots by opening the windows of the doors at the end of each cabin, for a glass-free viewpoint. The main differences between 1st and 2nd class is the seat configuration. Every seat has a power socket and USB charger. You’ll also have the ability to access the built-in infotainment system via your tablet or smartphone to get interesting details about the route as well as track your location. There will be someone to take your order for snacks, lunch, and drinks, or you can pre-book a complete meal, served on real fine china with white-table service, your choice of starters, entrees, and desserts that can be paired with a good section of wines.

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If you want to go all out and enjoy an ultraluxurious experience, go for Excellence Class seats. You can be sure your ride is quite memorable with many extras included. You’ll have a guaranteed window seat and concierge service, such as assistance with your luggage and just about anything else is also provided, along with access to an exclusive bar with high-quality food and drink. Your reservation also includes champagne and Apéroplatter as a welcome course and a 5-course menu including wine accompaniment. No matter which seats you choose to reserve or whether you ride when the scenery is lush and green or a dazzling winter wonderland, the iconic Glacier Express is sure to be a highlight of your time in Switzerland.

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Simon on Glacier Express

Simon Clifford, European Product Manager

Notes From The Field

“When traveling abroad, many people worry about navigating the local transport system, whether that’s buses or taxis in the city or understanding road signs when hiring a car. But one country where you don’t need to worry is Switzerland. This tiny alpine nation is home to what is arguably the most straightforward and easy-to-use public transport system in the world. Made even easier with the Swiss Travel Pass – a single ticket that allows travel on any part of the network for the duration of your vacation, with up to 50% off all mountain excursions.

Back in May I put this to the ultimate test travelling a large swath of the country in a matter of days, on trains, cable cars, buses and boats, sometimes with only a matter of minutes to make my connection! Everything ran on time, every train left from the platform indicated and the scenery is just to die for!

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The real highlight of traveling by train in Switzerland has to be the iconic Glacier Express an epic 8 hour journey from Zermattto St. Mortiz. The train trip offers some of the best and most varied scenery you’ll be able to get on a single train journey, including snowcapped mountains, glacial streams and charming alpine villages.

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But it’s not just the view that’s 1st class, the onboard service is also brimming with delights. I was lucky enough to travel in ‘Excellence Class’, which offers a 1-1 seat configuration so you’ve got a guaranteed window seat with huge panoramic windows. The concierges will be there to help with luggage and anything else you need and there is access to an exclusive bar onboard with top-quality catering and drinks. This includes a lavish five-course meal using regional ingredients, accompanying wines, coffee, juice, champagne, afternoon tea, soft drinks, and snacks throughout the trip.
However, if you’re looking for something a little shorter and less extravagant other wonderful express services include the Bernina Express from St Mortiz down into Nothern Italy and the Golden Pass Express from the Lake Geneva Region across the Bernese Oberland to Interlaken.”

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Magazine issue 9

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This article was first published in issue nine of the Unforgettable Travel Magazine.

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