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Switzerland : Swiss Adventure: A Trip on the Glacier Express

October 20, 1985|MICHAEL JACKSON | Jackson is a network talk-show host based in Los Angeles.

As a child, I was always torn between wanting the largest toy train set and the smallest. The bigger carriages and tracks were grander, faster and more imposing. The more miniature the model, the more the urge to lie on the floor with my eyes alongside the track, daydreaming, pretending that my train would travel through some magical country.

Now I have found the smallest "N-gauge" of express trains in real life--and it does travel through a scenic wonderland. It's the Glacier Express, which winds its way through the heart of Switzerland.

Ever since the early 1800s, when Napoleon's engineers constructed a road across the Simplon Pass in order to move troops into Italy, this south-central area of Switzerland has seen enormous engineering projects. In the 19th Century, roads and railways were built across and through the St. Gothard massif in the heart of the Alps, northeast of Simplon. Between those two passages stands the Furka Range, with a road of its own built in the 1860s. In all these areas, the roads were passable only in fair weather. As soon as the snows began to fall, the precipitous mountains started to disgorge frequent avalanches, and the roads were closed.

Since 1928, the Glacier Express train has passed through the Furka area, but because of severe blizzard conditions, many of the railroad bridges were removed in October and not reinstalled until May. To get from St. Moritz to Zermatt, skiers and tourists had to travel through Zurich--a time-consuming journey.

Since the opening of the new Furka tunnel in June 1982, the Glacier Express has run one train in each direction between St. Moritz and Zermatt every day of the year. The train is operated by three private companies working-- as railroads always seem to do in Switzerland--in perfect harmony. They are the BVZ (Brig-Visp-Zermatt Bahn), the FO (Furka-Oberalp Bahn) and the Rhatische Bahn.

In late January, my wife and I undertook the splendid scenic journey through the heartland of Switzerland. Since all Glacier Express seating is unreserved, we arrived at the St. Moritz railway station at 8:30 a.m. and made our way onto one of the four bright- red coaches. The powerful new locomotive was especially designed for the steep climbs and descents. At precisely 8:54 a.m., our journey--on what is probably the slowest express in the world--began. The operators are quite proud of the statistics: The train travels 150 miles, traverses 251 bridges or viaducts and passes through 91 tunnels, including the eight-mile-long Furka, the world's longest narrow-gauge railway tunnel.

As we left St. Moritz, icicles hung from nearly every balcony and snow-covered rooftop. On the frozen lake, thoroughbreds were being prepared for the day's races, and skiers raced and traced their way down the Corviglia-Piz Nair runs above St. Moritz while a couple of daring hang gliders circled over the village.

Within five minutes of leaving St. Moritz, we passed the famed Cresta Run, which is to bobsledders what the Matterhorn is to mountaineers. Through the train window we heard the announcer apologize for a slight delay because "Wing Commander Smathers has gone off the course at Shuttlecock." On certain days during the season, rank novices try their skill and courage on the Cresta--hurtling headlong down the course with their faces no more than six inches from the ice. Trains are safer and at the same time more utilitarian.

The first stop on the journey was Bergun. On the platform, an oompah, oompah brass band played with more enthusiasm than skill. In the street, horse-drawn carriages were filled with young men and women in full Engadine costume. We were lucky; it was the annual Schliteda Festival, during which unmarried young people dress in 19th-Century costumes and take their sweethearts on a processional ride to a nearby village.

The next stop was Disentis--in the heart of the Grisons, a largely rural area. The official language here is Romansh--a mixture of Latin and the native language, which dates back to the Roman conquest. After a brief stop at Andermatt, often called the crossroads of the Alps, we entered the long stretch of the Furka Tunnel.

Lunch on the Glacier Express is served from noon until 1:15 p.m. in a belle epoque dining car that is added en route. On our trip, the set menu featured veal, a selection of fresh vegetables, a mixed salad, a dessert and a variety of cheeses from the regions through which the train passes. You can also order a surprisingly broad variety of dishes a la carte. There is a small but good selection of French and Swiss wines on board. The dining car itself has made only one concession to progress--a new electric kitchen. The rest of the dining salon is decorated with highly polished oak panels and gleaming brass fixtures. The flatware is the original monogrammed sterling silver from the 1930s. Upholstered leather chairs and crisp, white table linens complete the scene.

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