Riding the rails around Switzerland’s most scenic places has never been easier.
The urge to ride the rails to every corner of Switzerland is overwhelming. I’m holding what feels like a golden ticket – the all-in-one Swiss Travel Pass that covers trains, buses and boats. Technically, nothing’s stopping me from heading north to south, east to west, or even diagonally if I so please.
Switzerland is encouraging train enthusiasts to do just that. This year, it bundled its most awe-inspiring scenic highlights into a new itinerary called the ‘Grand Train Tour of Switzerland’. The Tour comprises eight panoramic train journeys that run all year round. Visitors can start the tour from any point but many will set off from Zurich, Switzerland’s biggest city.
Certainly, that’s my starting point. The plan is to take two of the tour’s panoramic trains – the Bernina Express and the Glacier Express – as I explore the rugged canton (or state) of Graübunden in the country’s south-east. Railway engineers had their work cut out for them here, forging routes through a region that’s home to 937 mountain summits, 615 lakes and 150 valleys. In fact, those daring high-altitude engineering feats have earned World Heritage status for the Albula-Bernina rail line between Thusis and Tirano, just over the border in northern Italy.
I receive my first insight into Swiss precision when I drop into the railway travel centre underneath Zurich airport where I’m handed a personalised timetable outlining the three trains I need to reach Klosters. One of the connections allows just six minutes between trains but it pans out like clockwork. I later learn that those iconic Swiss station clocks – black and white with a red second hand – are all synchronised to a central master clock. Perhaps that helps with the trains’ renowned punctuality.
We nose around Klosters – made famous by Prince Charles’s forays on the ski slopes – and neighbouring Davos before getting on with the real business of riding the rails.
The Bernina Express departs from both Chur – the Graubunden capital – and Davos, with the scenery and rail infrastructure becoming more interesting the further south you travel. After crossing the 65-metre-high Landwasser viaduct near Filisur, the red train hugs the shoreline of Lago Bianco marking the region’s watershed (rain falling around this area either drains south to the Adriatic or east to the Black Sea).
Ospizio Bernina station lies at 2253 metres and marks our entry into the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. We leave the train at Alp Grum, which offers a brilliant view of the Palu Glacier and the shockingly blue Palu Lake. The station restaurant serves a perfect lasagne – best eaten at one of the outdoor tables so you can soak up the scenery between bites. We work off lunch with a hike down through the forest, past towering pines and tiny Turk’s cap lilies, to the village of Cavaglia. The village is near a natural phenomenon known as glacial mills – holes up to 15 metres deep that have been gouged by large stones rotating under pressure from glacial waters. Hard-working locals cleared the rubble from the holes and installed safety fencing and a ladder so that people can climb to the bottom of a mill.
Legs stretched, we board the next train coming through Cavaglia and disembark at Poschiavo for the night. This pretty town is renowned for the Renaissance-style palazzi built by prosperous local residents who’d made their fortunes elsewhere. The town was struck by a devastating flood in 1987 – photos installed in the streets show just how much debris had to be cleared away – but today it’s a charming place to while away a night.
With our cameras fully charged, we reboard the train the next day in anticipation of the picturesque Brusio circular viaduct – a highlight of the Bernina Line. Hanging out of the windows, we capture the moment when the train corkscrews around the loop. From Ospizio Bernina, we’re descending an incredible 1824 metres in altitude to Tirano – a city of warmth and wine that is overlooked by the famed Valtellina terraced vineyards.
From Tirano, we swap trains for buses to head over one of the world’s most challenging roads. The Stelvio Line, open only from June to September, includes 75 hairpin turns that attract cyclists, motorcyclists and motorists who like an extreme challenge.
At the end of the line is Mustair, a Romansch-speaking village that is home to another of Switzerland’s World Heritage-listed attractions: the 1200-year-old Convent of St John. The village attracts those who want to admire the convent’s early medieval cycle of wall paintings, as well as hikers and nature lovers.
A completely different crowd flocks to St Moritz, which is one bus and two train rides from Mustair. The jet-set come in winter to ski but in summer one of the main attractions is the month-long Festival da Jazz that attracts top talent such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Dianne Reeves and Al Jarreau. Venues range from the low-key, tucked-away Dracula Club to a sunny hotel terrace to Muottas Muragl, which can only be reached via a mountain railway.
St Moritz is also the departure point for the Glacier Express. Known as the world’s slowest express train, it takes 7.5 hours to reach Zermatt at the foot of the Matterhorn. I’m aboard the train only until Thusis (I’m taking the long way around to Lake Como, which can also be reached from St Moritz on the Palm Express bus service).
Still, I make the most of my short time aboard. When I learn that the dining car hosts and hostesses have a special skill – namely pouring spirits into a shot glass from a height of 60 centimetres – I go right ahead and order the local firewater for breakfast. •
Photography by Switzerland Tourism
Fly to Singapore with Qantas, British Airways or Singapore Airlines. From Singapore fly to Zurich direct with Swiss.
• Qantas: qantas.com.au
• British Airways: ba.com
• Singapore Airlines: singaporeair.com
• Swiss: swiss.com
• Air France: airfrance.com.au
When to Go
The Grand Train Tour of Switzerland is doable year-round but accommodation will be more expensive during winter at ski resort towns such as St Moritz and Klosters. The Swiss Travel Pass covers three to 15 days of travel (either continuous or within a month) aboard trains, buses and boats. Panoramic trains such as the Bernina Express and Glacier Express require reservations; ditto for scenic bus routes such as the Stelvio Line and the Palm Express.
Where to Stay
• Hotel Vereina, Klosters: This four-star hotel in the heart of Klosters is an easy stroll from the Klosters Platz train station; there are terrific mountain views from the rear-facing rooms. hotelvereina.ch
• Hotel Schatzalp, Davos: The only sanatorium mentioned by name in Thomas Mann’s influential 1924 novel, The Magic Mountain, is now recast as a hotel with to-die-for panoramic views. schatzalp.ch
• Hotel Albrici, Poschiavo: Centrally located on the town square, the antique-stuffed boutique hotel is an attraction in its own right. hotelalbrici.ch
• Croce Bianca, Poschiavo: Splash out on one of the two new minimalist suites featuring free-standing tubs. crocebianca.ch
• Chasa Chalavaina, Mustair: The bones of this cosy atmospheric hotel date back 700 years. chalavaina.ch
• Badrutt’s Palace, St Moritz: Join the jet-set and ask for a Rolls Royce pick-up from the train station. badruttspalace.com