Switzerland’s Scenic Alps Part One, Matterhorn

It wasn’t supposed to work out this way. We originally planned to spend a day in Zurich, followed by a day in St. Moritz and another day on an end-to-end train trip (from St. Moritz to Zermatt) on the Glacier Express, one of the most iconic and scenic train trips in the world.

We didn’t realize that the Express gets fully booked so early. Apparently tour groups reserve a large number of seats, which leaves us mortals with a limited selection. The only seats we could find a month in advance (we snagged the last 2 seats) required us to change our itinerary to a one night stay in Zurich (with only an hour to explore the city) and a detour to the town of Chur. There we caught the Express for a portion of its route—a roughly six-hour journey from Chur to Zermatt. While not ideal, the change gave us two extra days for a previously unplanned stop in Beaune France, in the heart of Burgundy. But more on that in a future blog.

Chur Switzerland

Chur is a small town in the Swiss Alpine region. It was founded 5,000 years ago and is the oldest town in Switzerland. We had an hour layover before boarding the Glacier Express and we put it to a fast tour of the pretty little town.

Although we saw little remains of its ancient history, a stroll through its shopping and Old Town Districts did provide some interesting sites. These included:

  • Railway Administration building

Chur railway administration building

  • Former Post Office, now the City Library;

Chur former post office now city library

  • St. Martin’s Church; and

Chur St Martin's church

  • St. Luzi Church.

Glacier Express: Taking in Breath-taking Beauty

This iconic train trip has operated the same route since 1930. They call it the longest short-distance train ride as it takes about 3 times longer than normal trains to travel similar distances. It is one of the most scenic rides in the world and is well worth trying to grab a seat.


Things to know about the Glacier Express

  • Buy your tickets as far in advance as you can to get the route and seats that you prefer.
  • If you buy the Swiss Half Price rail pass, you can use it on this trip. So get the pass first if possible (the pass has a time limit).
  • You might be better off buying a ticket through an agent that will allow you to change the ticket if seats become available on alternative dates if seats open up (apparently tour groups release seats if they aren’t using all of the seats they reserved). Although we bought the only open seats on our train when we booked, our train car ended up being half empty as tour groups released the seats.
  • Food and drinks are available for purchase. We didn’t eat but took advantage of the wine service.
  • Attendants are readily available for any questions and to help in any way.
  • Brochures and informational sheets are passed around in appropriate areas.
  • The train only operates about 4 months a year due to weather. It runs to Zermatt from either Davos or St. Moritz (with some stops in between).

Simply Breathtaking

Although the entire route is beautiful, it traverses several particularly spectacular areas:

  • Albula/Bernina, a UNESCO Heritage Landscape Site. This is generally regarded as the most scenic segment of the line (a segment we were unable to do since we had to catch the train in Chur rather than St. Moritz). It spans rivers and canyons and steep mountains, with a 400-meter elevation change, via bridges, spiral tunnels, and viaducts, including the 65-meter high, 142 meter long Landwasser Viaduct;
  • Oberalp Pass. At 2,044 meters, it is the highest altitude pass on the route. The train can access it only with the assistance of a cog;
  • Rhine Gorge, also known as the “Grand Canyon of Switzerland”. This deep valley was carved by a combination of glaciers during the last Ice Age and huge landslides that followed; and
  • Zermatt, whose approach is marked by a view of the 4,478-meter Matterhorn.

Just discussing the most dramatic sites, however, doesn’t do justice to this beautiful ride. Virtually the entire trip, other than when you are in tunnels, presents you with some combination of steep, sheer cliffs, tranquil mountain valleys, deep gorges, lovely rural villages, rushing mountain streams, and snow-flecked and capped mountains. It comes at you from both sides of the train, in seemingly random order. The biggest drawback is that too many views are into the sun (at least when we traveled). The window reflections made it tough to get good photos. And heck, even the best pictures could not do justice to the beautiful scenery.

However, the brochure indicated that the train is rolling out some needed changes including:

  • Anti-reflection windows
  • Wifi and power plugs (neither of which were available on our trip).

Enjoy the view.

Glacier Express 03Glacier Express 06Glacier Express 08Glacier Express 12Glacier Express 17Glacier Express 24Glacier Express 26Glacier Express Little Church

Zermatt Switzerland

We left the Glacier Express in Zermatt Switzerland. This pretty mountain winter resort town virtually lies in the shadows of the iconic, 14,692-foot Matterhorn and 38 other 13,000+-foot mountains. The town is accessible only by train. It is very pretty with flower-decked, three-to-five story balcony buildings and hundreds of shops, galleries, and restaurants. The main street of the pedestrian-only town (except for electric buses and cabs that zip around it) has layers of multi-story condos along with a network of streets and walkways that thread up the mountain across the river. The town also provides convenient access to surrounding towns and mountains via a network of trains, cable cars, and cog rails.

DSC05669DSC05672Zermatt churchZermatt villageZermatt flowers on building

Matterhorn views are everywhere, from the center of town and on many of the mountain trails. It is easy to see and a joy to look at, but hell to climb. With dozens of attempts to scale it, the first successful attempt did not come until 1865 (by Edward Whymper) and even that ascent took four lives. And while it is not climbed quite regularly, it has already claimed more than 500 lives.

Joyce holding the Matterhorn from Zermatt

Five Lakes Trail

We were told that the Five Lakes Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the area. It was all we could hope for. Leaving from Zermatt, we took the cog-railway from the “Sunnegga” station about 7,500 feet up the 15,200-foot Monte Rosa. We emerged from the cog-rail train to tremendous views of the awesome Matterhorn (views that seemed to follow us practically the entire trail), as well as about a dozen other 15,000-foot mountains and several glaciers. Although the trail itself is only about 6.5 miles, the side paths to some of the lakes, and in the case of Lake Sellisee, to the opposite side of the lake for the ideal view (see below), adds about two additional miles. It entails a roughly 1,500 feet in elevation gain, with perhaps a couple hundred more on the detours.

The trail promised and delivered five lakes. We had three favorites:

  • Grunsee, while not spectacular, looks out across a particularly rugged landscape;

Grunsee Lake 02Grunsee Lake

  • Moosjisee is a beautiful turquoise color and has a pretty view of the Matterhorn, although the effect is muted by a dam and control building right in the path to the Matterhorn;

Moosjisee lake with Matterhorn in background and Tom and Joyce 02Moosjisee lake with Matterhorn in background

  • Stellisee, the largest and most lovely of the five, offers the greatest reward, although the greatest payoff entails a roughly 1.5-mile flat detour off the trail. It is well worth it since the payoff, at least in proper sun conditions, provides a the money-shot picture: a perfect reflection of the Matterhorn in the water with the Matterhorn in the background.

Joyce at the Matterhorn in reflecting lake

The least inspiring lakes were Grindjisee Lake and especially the Leisee Lake (which is closest to the railway stop and therefore more crowded with running children and dogs).

The hike, however, offers more than lakes and mountain and glacier views. When we visited in mid-October, the Swiss stone pines that managed to grow in the mountains sandy, scree-covered soil were turning bright yellow. These pines are quite different from the evergreen pines with which we are most familiar. The area, meanwhile has adopted the agile and resourceful marmot as something of an unofficial mascot. The city has a bronze statue of a marmot family on its main street and the first section of the trail has about half a dozen wood-carved marmot statues, each with interesting tidbits about the large (relatively 5 kg) rodents, their habitat, and their lifestyle.

Zermatt marmot fountainMarmot carving on Marmot train

Overall, it was a very good introductory hike with more views of the iconic Matterhorn (not to speak of other rugged mountains and glaciers), than you can imagine.

Zermatt Restaurants

  • Restaurant Julen, a very nice restaurant where we split our first cheese fondue of the trip. In addition to bread, it came with boiled potatoes, gherkin pickles, and pearl onions. Wine, per our server’s recommendation, was a 2017 L’Orpanlleur Fendant.
  • Restaurant Stadel, where Joyce had another, less compelling cheese fondue (with gruyere and vacheron cheese) and Tom had a tasty rosti with a huge, filling and tasty veal sausage. We shared a bottle of wine with friends we met on the trail–a 2018 Les Fils de Charles Farce Favi, a blend of pinot noir and humagne.
  • Ross-stall is another traditional Swiss alpine restaurant where we had the best of our three meals. Joyce enjoyed yet another excellent cheese fondue. Tom’s tasty beef fondue was cooked in a salty, but rich beef bouillon and served with fries, rice (to eat with the bouillon) and a choice of five sauces (he preferred the curry and the tartar sauce). Our wine was quite a nice 2017 Swiss pinot noir from A. Mathier of Rhoneblut. A very good place to eat traditional Swiss food. But make reservations as the place is small.

Zermatt Hotel

The Hotel Pollux is a 4-star hotel about an 8-minute walk from the train station and on the main road in Zermatt. The beds are the normal firm Swiss beds and nice, soft pillows. The room had a hot water pot for tea, bathrobes, and slippers. Breakfast had a wide variety of meats, cheese, cereal, fruit. The scrambled eggs were a little weird. Little pieces of chopped up eggs that were dry. Sausage and bacon were available. They have a sauna in the basement that you can use and a one-person jacuzzi tub.

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