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Switzerland

In a song called My Kind of Town, Frank Sinatra said that Chicago is one town that wonít let you down. The same could be said about Switzerland. It starts off great and keeps getting better. And just when you think that this is as good as it gets, it gets even better when you get to the top of the world, high up in the Alps, where it is impossibly beautiful.

Several months ago, Lynn saw a brochure for a train ride, the Glacier Express, through the Alps from St. Moritz in the east to Zermatt in the south, a distance of about 170 miles. The ride takes almost eight hours so you can see that this is not the bullet train and thatís the point. The train meanders through some of the most scenic vistas in the world and it doesnít hurry so we thought weíd take the ride.

The weather gods were on our side for this trip as we had almost cloudless blue skies the whole time. We spent our first day in St. Moritz. This is the oldest winter resort in the world and the winter Olympics were held here in 1928 and 1948. They told us that many of the worldís movers and shakers come here for winter vacations but because this was August, none of them seemed to be around. The city center sits on a hill high above a lake so the view of the lake and the snow-capped mountains on the other side are visible from almost everywhere. The altitude here is just shy of 6,000 feet and a local resident said that winter temperatures get down to 15įF below zero. Thatís so cold that they can and do have horse races on the lake.

It may come as a surprise to some that while the Germans speak German and the French speak French, the Swiss donít speak Swiss. There are four official languages in Switzerland, German, French, Italian, and Romansh (similar to French, Italian, and Spanish and spoken by less than 1% of the populace) but, of course, most people donít speak all four. We had a waiter one night who spoke pretty decent, but less than excellent, English. Like so many Europeans, he apologized to us for that which always amazes me. He told us a story about a very rude Ugly American who came in one day and took exception to the fact that the waiterís English was less than perfect. To make his point, our waiter asked this guy in French if he spoke French. He asked in German if he spoke German. He asked in Italian if he spoke Italian. The American said no three times. The waiter let the customer know then that he spoke three and the customer only spoke one, and therefore the customer wasnít bright enough to eat dinner there and should go. What a guy.

The next day was the train ride. The car we rode in was a "panorama" car with windows that curved into the ceiling of the car so the view was almost unobstructed. The first two hours the train moved downhill going around bends and twisting around on its route. You could see above and below sometimes to where we had been and where we were headed. Because the train traveled so often along the sides of the mountains, the view out the window was frequently straight down. We could see lakes and villages a thousand or more feet below. If one has an aversion to heights, it would be good not to sit next to the window. After about two hours we began the ascent to Oberalpass where I had driven through earlier in the year. This is about 6,700 feet and the highest point the train would reach. After a second descent to Visp, the train began its steepest ascent to Zermatt. As good as the ride had been to this point, this was easily the best part.

The track bed was narrow with thick woods on one side, a steep drop on the other and the snowcaps in the distance. We came to a town called Kalpetran. We were told to look out the window where we could see a cable car starting from the train station going up the hill to another village called Embd. This cable car, with a vertical climb of about 1,500 feet, is how one gets there from the train.

After almost eight hours we reached Zermatt and the spectacularity of what we were seeing was about to increase. Zermatt sits at about 5,300 feet and is in a valley in sort of a cul-de-sac. You go out the way you came in. Thereís a town in Italy, Breuil-Cervinia, thatís about ten miles or so away as the crow flies if a crow could fly that high. To get there, one has to drive about 150 miles around the mountains. Between Breuil-Cervinia and Zermatt is the Matterhorn, and if you come to this town, this is what you come to see. However, it was late it the afternoon so that would have to wait until morning. First there was the town to explore.

Zermattís permanent population is about 5,500 people. All but three work in the tourist trade and those three are retired. When first seeing the town, it looks like it was built to be a tourist town. They bill it as traffic-free but thatís not exactly true. There are no cars or other privately owned vehicles but there are horse-drawn carriages used by some hotels to take you from the train station to the hotel, and there are little electric powered cars, two people wide, maybe five deep, used by others. There are zillions of these. Maybe half-a-zillion. They never blast a horn to encourage you to get out of the way but they do tend to whiz by pretty closely. If one wants to drive to Zermatt, one must park in the enormous garage at the next town down, Tasch, and take the frequent shuttle trains.

The town is not new, however. The library and the big church (where we saw a funeral that day) were built in the 19th century. Thereís a section, appropriately called Old Zermatt, where we saw barns from the 16th century and houses from the 17th century. Immediately next to an old house was a relatively new house built so that the old structure would be undisturbed. These folks care about their heritage and old stuff. As an old guy myself, I greatly appreciate that.

Our guidebook said some people donít like Zermatt because thereís nothing to do there. Granted there are no museums and if your purpose is to see lots of things then you might be disappointed. Also, bad weather could pose a problem. But taking it for what it is, it is stunning.

Then there is the matter of the Matterhorn. This is the view of the Matterhorn, a hundred times larger than the Disney version, that we had from our window. We thought we would make a climb the next day. The Matterhorn is about 14,700 feet high, and while not the highest peak in the Alps, itís the most well-known. To climb this mountain, one has to know what heís doing. We donít. So we took the easy way and climbed the Klein (small) Matterhorn. Most of the climb was by cable car, then an elevator, and finally about 50 steps until you reach the top of the world, at 12,736 feet the highest mountain lift in Europe. Iím not at all religious and Iím not sure what "spiritual" means, but perhaps this is what I felt while in this place. Never have I seen anything even approaching this; it was the ultimate in awesome.

It was also fun. The snow was perfect for snowballs so there was a little of that. A mountain nearby, with some help from the snow on its peak, took on the definite shape of the Philadelphia Eagle which I see as a good omen. And the 26įF they said it was up there felt much warmer. Maybe, though, that was just the thrill of being so close to heaven.

The cable car idea originated in 1965 and was met with political obstacles and opposition from environmental groups. After those issues were resolved, there were problems recruiting a work force. There was, after all, no cable car to get them to work so they would be gone from home for long periods in treacherous conditions. Somehow they found some hardy souls who began work in August 1976 and the line opened in late 1979. People can ski up there now in summer and there is even talk of building a hotel.

Reluctantly, we had to leave. We took the train out the way we came in, the only option, and it was just as breathtaking in retreat. For a while the train followed the Alps until it turned north toward Zurich. The Alps began to shrink a bit in the distance but in Switzerland they are visible from almost anyway and always a major presence. What on this earth could be more beautiful?

See all my pictures of Switzerland.

See videos from Switzerland.

 

© 2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008