Friday, 25 April 2014

Climbing the Swiss Alps - part 3: Mountains and Valleys

There were several suggestions for the free Saturday and we had decided to wait and see what (a) the weather and (b) fatigue might help us choose. The weather was fine and sunny and we felt fine so we took another trip into the mountains to the famous resorts of Klosters and Davos: we took our provisions with us but kept an open mind about eating out for lunch if we saw a suitable restaurant. Again, we left Chur on a metre-gauge train which travelled slowly through the suburbs before climbing, at first slowly but later much more steeply, into the Alps: these narrow-gauge trains are much more able to take the tight curves needed to climb the hills than a standard-gauge train would be able to do. All are electric and many Swiss lines always have been, plentiful cheap hydroelectric power being widely available here, and railway-building having started relatively late. As the valley is left behind the trees grow more dense and the snow becomes more and more of a feature until we are again in entirely snow-covered landscape. There had obviously been overnight snow and the snow-ploughs, snow-blowers and brooms and shovels were hard at work clearing it away while the sun was beginning a slow thaw in places it could reach.

We left the first train at Klosters. The train was going on through the lengthy Vereina Tunnel to Tirano in Italy. We went for a stroll through Klosters: no sign of any British princes but we did bump into another member of our group who sensibly warned us not to stand under any trees as they were thawing nicely and dropping their snow in great lumps, although the temperature in the town was still a degree or so below freezing. Little attempt is made by the Swiss authorities to clear the roads and pavements of snow, reliance rather being placed on individuals to cope properly with the ice and snow. With our ice-grips on our boots we could walk quite normally on pavements covered in pack-ice and we had a very pleasant walk around Klosters before taking our next train on to Davos.

Davos was a much bigger place even higher in the mountains and from the town several cable cars, ski lifts and funicular railways took people up the surrounding mountains to ski or snowboard back down. We looked for the funicular to Schatzalp recommended by our tour manager, bought our tickets and rode up the mountain. At the top of the funicular railway was a huge hotel and a timber-built restaurant overlooking the valley with the town far below and mountain-peaks far above on the opposite side.

Those going up to ski could ride up further by ski-lift but we went to the restaurant for a delicious meal to a local recipe, a variation on the traditional rosti with cheese and ham – full of fat and calories but this altitude and these temperatures some sustenance is needed! Back down from Schatzalp we looked around the shops in Davos and returned to the station to catch a train down to Filisur and so home to Chur.

This time the weather between Filisur and Chur on the Albula Line was much sunnier and I was able to photograph some sights I had missed the evening before.

When we arrived back at Chur we had an evening stroll around the city – the oldest in Switzerland, apparently, and spent the rest of the evening in our room writing this article (!) and packing for the morning. In the morning our main cases were to be out for the porters by 7.30am for transporting to the station while we had our breakfast. By now all that was in the the cases was clothes for laundering, plus the winter boots we'd no longer be needing, for in the morning we were to leave Switzerland.

After breakfast on Sunday we all checked out and met at the agreed place to board the main line train for Zurich. Our cases awaited us on the platform and we went to our allocated seating on the top deck of a multiplex train. We soared through the Swiss countryside (for the first few minutes along the same route as we had taken on the metre-gauge train the day before) and beside two of the wonderful lakes that are as characteristic of this wonderful country as the mountains.

 In Zurich we changed trains and with half an hour more than we needed for this there was a chance to have a very quick look at the city centre while our tour manager kindly looked after our luggage on the departure platform for our onward connection. This was a through train to Cologne (Koln) where we were to spend our final night before travelling back on Eurostar to the UK.

A long journey along the Rhine Valley took us out of Switzerland and through Germany past vineyards, castles, factories and churches and the great river itself, through the former West German capital of Bonn and into Cologne with its distinctive gothic cathedral. We had brought our picnic lunch, bought from a wonderful baker's shop at Chur station, but beer from the trolley and hot chocolate in the restaurant car were also welcome as the scenery slipped by.

 Our hotel in Cologne was a short walk from the station and again there was a porterage facility to help with our cases. We went for a walk around the city and popped into the cathedral briefly (it was during the evening service so we could only stand at the back and listen to the marvellous choral music) before a buffet supper for the last evening with our new friends made on this tour.

In the morning it was an early start: we delivered our larger cases to the reception area for porterage to the station and consumed our breakfast, which this time was very similar to an English buffet breakfast. We set off to the station and awaited our through train to Brussels where we would change for London. This was a French “Thalys” high-speed train with inclusive light meal as part of the First Class offer, much like Eurostar. The interesting thing about the trip home was that we were served something to eat and drink at no extra cost on all four of the trains we used, even having a drink and a biscuit on the short hop from Peterborough to Stamford! So we needed to purchase nothing along the way, although we did have a glass of wine while we waited in Brussels: South station is well outside the city centre of Brussels and although we did go for a short stroll there is really nothing to see in the short time we had, apart from the amazing sight of taxis queuing for custom right around the entire station. The station site does include a shopping area and we looked around there and bought a thank-you card for our wonderful tour manager, in which we placed our tip for handing to him as we said farewell on the approach to London.

And so to the final stage of the organised tour, the Eurostar back to St Pancras International, with the light meal including wine, water and coffee. At St Pancras we made our way over to Kings Cross with over an hour to spare before the departure of the train on which I had reserved seats, but we decided to go for the next one to Peterborough, a Leeds departure which had plenty of room in First Class and there we had our third on-board meal of the day – a bit more substantial than the others with full-sized sandwiches, cake, crisps and wine.

At Peterborough we are now becoming used to using the new platform 7 for departures to Stamford, although building work is not yet quite complete. First Class is always at an end of the Stansted-Birmingham trains but one never knows which end, nor whether there will be three or only two coaches, but in this case First was at the front end, right where the refreshment trolley is loaded onto the train (there are no refreshment facilities between Stansted and Peterborough), so we were the first people the caterer visited and he had time to give us our included biscuits and insisted that as we didn't have time to consume a cup of tea before Stamford we take a bottle of water to take away – so we did!

Well, it was intended to be the trip of a lifetime and so far it has met that expectation. We have to go back, though, as soon as we can afford it and at a different time of the year, and I've a feeling that if we live long enough it will become one of many trips competing for that title. It is hard to specify highlights, but they have to include dining aboard the Glacier Express among snow-covered mountains and standing on Gornergrat and looking across at Matterhorn. The entire adventure was filled with exciting new experiences that were certainly not exaggerated in the tour company's advertising and will go on being a joyful memory for a long time to come.  


  1. Breathtaking photo from the Albula line - red train crossing the gorge.

  2. Yes. There were many breathtaking sights. Literally, though, the altitude on Gornergrat really did take our breath away and walking was slow and deliberate!

    My first experience of ear-popping while climbing hills by rail.