The Vallorcine train waits, like a bridesmaid without a bride. Fresh snow clings to the lower slopes of the forested mountains. Ice rivers flow from crystal peaks. The air is cold. The train is warm. We are waiting for the driver. Suddenly there is movement. Into the white. Past the river. Along the valley. Rising, slowly. The glint of a glacier in the distance. Townlands appear out of nowhere. Wooden chalets. A village on the hill. Above, the peaks are sharp against the sky. Ski resorts. Viaducts. Twisting roads. Fallen trees. Boulders. These are exciting moments. This is the start of a long journey through the expanse of the Alps on short trains built for their endurance and strength. Into lands where the dialects change with the landscape and the cultures and traditions are etched into daily rites of passage.
On the faces of the people, with their colourful clothes, their irresistible homes and solid buildings, with cuisine that is as diverse as the products of the landscape, listening to those rustic dialects, warming to their genuine hospitality, people who know mountain and valley life. This is the way into the winter wonderland that is alpine Europe. Only the mountain goats know where the ancient paths go. Here there is beauty and diversity, nature unfolding through large windows in full colour. And it is never still. You can never describe these high mountain peaks, divided valleys and sloping meadows because nothing remains the same. This is what makes this journey a fabulous adventure. A slight change of perspective, a different view and the experience itself changes.
We are in the Trient Valley, crossing from France into Switzerland by the backdoor. Travelling through alpine Switzerland is nothing less than a remarkable journey that pays homage to past and present engineering feats, celebrates the dilemma of a modern utilitarian country and reveals beautiful ways of escape. So we are going to get out at Salvan, have some lunch and then make our way down to Martigny by foot. So, a reminder of the fondue they make in Haute Savoy, if only to acknowledge that this very Swiss dish comes from across the border, in Alpine France.
Travelling in the Alps by rail and road, on mountain and valley trains and buses, is an educational experience. The culture is rooted to the landscape. There is a strong feeling for place and a sense of belonging. The routes are ancient. When the railways arrived, new routes were carved out of the rock, tunnels were bored and platforms were raised to shorten the distance between alpine villages. When skiing became a leisure (and sporting) activity, the carriers offered their services. Buses and trains were adapted to carry ski equipment, and so it has continued into the 21st century. After a while, the frequent alpine traveller notices that the names of the most famous towns and villages are synonymous with skiing, particularly alpine world cup events organised by the international skiing federation.
Skiing is a tough sport, so it is no great surprise that the Alpine countries win more races than anyone else. Virtually every village on the upper slopes has a ski resort. Children learn early and are quick learners. By the time they reach their mid-20s they are ready to win races. Traditional culture in the Alps is centred on food but it is also concerned with well-being, and skiing down steep slopes is more than just a sport, it is a way of life, etched into the faces of the people. When you are young you ski, when you are old you hike.
Welcome to Europe’s pleasure dome.
High above Martigny where the Rhône valley turns eastwards, the picturesque town of Salvan is an alpine vision of perfection. Here the restaurants serve a special fondue made from mountain pasture cheese, in the tradition of their forebearers. The Savoy Alps and the Jura range are believed to be the birthplace of this comforting winter dish and there is ample evidence to suggest that fondue is a product of the dairy farmers who have tended cattle for centuries in these mountains.
Emmental, gruyère and vacherin, cheeses that form the basis for fondue, only tell part of the story. The vacherin cheese of Fribourg is preferred by fondue aficionados because it adds full flavour to the mildness of the emmental and the piquancy of the gruyère – the combination for the classic neuchâteloise. Neuchâteloise, moitié moitié (half gruyère, half vacherin) and the fondue served in Salvan restaurants and along the valley canton are among the most popular with Swiss people. But if you want to know which cheeses go into which fondues served in the Alps you will have to ask. It is in these mountains that fondue makes its reputation, as chefs compete with each other to produce the ’perfect’ fondue. And they are not going to give away their trade secrets. Of course the popularity of this amazing cheese dish may also have something to do with the tradition that demands punishment when a diner loses their bread in the fondue pot. A man must buy a bottle of wine or a round of drinks. A woman must kiss all the men in the company. commune.
There are several walks out of Salvan, all signposted in the familiar yellow well known to all hikers in Switzerland. The easiest path follows the river Trient down to Vernayaz on the Rhône valley floor. We are taking the challenging path up past the hamlet of Gueurox to the edge of the Mont d’Ottan ridge, overlooking the scary expanse of the flood plain, where the river Dranse flows into the mighty Rhône amidst the cultivated fruit trees and chestnut groves. Here at the ridge, no matter the season, the wind is lethal. Caution is obligatory. Then it is a gradual climb toward the peak of Roc Blanc at 1704 metres. We skirt this majestic mountain, and descend quickly, across the steep road that goesthat goes to Le Châtelard-Frontière and the alpine border with France. Dropping down, several paths cross the rows of vines above Martigny Croix.
At Martigny Croix beyond the old railway station building, there is a gravel path that rises gently past the rocky wide Dranse. With a sudden ascent the path turns sharply, climbing hard towards the hamlet of Les Ecoteaux. At 905 metres Les Ecoteaux is the tapered end of a ridge that separates the valleys of the Rhône and the Bagnes. This is not apparent deep among the stands of mixed conifer and deciduous trees. The switchback climb is arduous. Experienced walkers go slow, like mountain goats finding their way cautiously over firm ground. Gradually the path levels out onto a pleasant meadow, rising gently again towards the sprawling chalet of Chemin, a settlement 250 metres higher.
Here we consult the map, because we are facing a set of choices. To descend back down, to the town of Martigny, where the L-shaped Rhône slides into Lake Geneva, or continue upwards towards the Col des Planches, at 1411 metres the first high peak along the ascending ridge. At the splendid Col des Planches the path offers some respite, descending slightly more than 100 metres down to Le Planard, a panoramic viewpoint. Also a crossroads. Five paths test our resolve. Three go down, two go up! Always a good time to stop and contemplate. Eat. And make the correct choice. It is too far early for lunch, so we snack on sun-dried raisins, dried apricot halves, slivered almonds, crushed walnuts, whole hazelnuts, some wild berries, an energy bar of honeyed seeds and grains, apple juice and pear nectar. This raises our energy levels. Lunch is chunks of semi-hard cheese, wafers of air-dried beef, torn soft flatbread, a handful of spelt flakes and mineral water. That can wait. Although we are still hungry we need to continue – up or down?
The most interesting path for us to take is the one that rises toward the ridge at Les Blisiers under the 2472 metre high peak of Pierre Avoi, towering over Verbier in the Bagnes valley and Saxon in the Rhône valley. It is interesting because the path runs alongside an intact Roman built viaduct. The Roman workers would also have been familiar with a lunch made from berries, grains, roots and seeds. They might even have been fortunate enough to have had some kind of meat to savour, and perhaps a swig or two of wine from local grapes to allow to linger. This makes us wonder how they got back down. We look at the map again. And there it is, a steep path that drops down into Saxon on the valley flour. Anyway, before the descent, that lunch! Terra firma. We are tired and decide to visit a hostelry that serves barley soup. After a hard walk, this enigmatic winter soup is a reminder of how little the world has actually changed over millennia. It is hearty and conducive to well-being, just what we need. That hike was hard.
Before we continue, we must have a little discussion about Switzerland’s modern travel system, particularly its integrated timetables and elaborate pricing. On December 6, 1987 the Swiss voted and approved the multi-billion franc Bahn 2000, a strategy to overhaul their train network and travel system. New tracks, with new trains – including double-deckers and fast tilting trains – would reduce travel times, all travel connections would be within minutes of each other, and an upgraded infrastructure would facilitate an integrated timetable. Fast forward to 2017 and this is exactly what travellers can expect when they board their regular mode of transport. Rarely in the history of travel has a system been clock-worked to perfection. But the downside, partly caused by the devaluation of the Swiss franc, has been felt by tourists and travellers in the country. Yes, you can set your watch by the time of the black and red clock on the station platform and the times of the trains, but you can also pay the price if you don’t know how to get lower fares. The Swiss system includes hundreds of travel elements – boat, bus and rail – and serves two million, largely indigenous, people who hold passes, but it seems that the Swiss want tourists and travellers to pay the price for this wonderful achievement! On the positive side, travel arrivals and departures remain constant throughout the year, and are rarely tweaked. We feature them in this book as a guide, check the timetable.
On August 7, 1953 apricot growers and their supporters besieged the small town of Saxon in the Swiss Valais canton to protest about the huge amount of Italian imports they claimed inhibited the sale of their produce. Freight trains carrying the Italian imports were looted and burned. The railway line and main road through the Rhône valley were blocked for several days. Consequently an agreement was made to restrict the foreign imports to aid the sale of the domestic produce. Eight years later the growers faced another challenge when hazardous emissions from a factory in Martigny began to damage their crops. An eighteen year campaign finally brought sanctions against the factory owners and in 1982 the Swiss Federal Court issued an order for compensation to be paid to the growers. Of the 176 apricot growers in the Valais today most develop the luizet variety, supplying two-thirds of the one million kilos needed to make approximately 120,000 bottles of 70 cl abricotine at the distillery in Martigny. Two hundreds years after they were first cultivated in the Rhône valley, apricots (and apricot brandy) are now established in the food culture of the region, the warm, dry Valais climate perfect for the sensitive luizet. Planted on the south-facing embankments of the valley, apricot trees thrive in the alluvial soil.
A winemaker called Leon is held responsible for the invention of the melting cheese, now known as raclette, when he accidentally let a half-wheel melt by the fire. It is a good story but the origins of cheese-making in the hidden valleys of the Rhône river valley go back thousands of years before the Romans occupied the region. For centuries cheese was used as currency among the people and with visiting traders. Geographically and historically linked to the area that now defines the canton, specifically the valleys of Bagnes and Goms, raclette du Valais is a semi-hard cheese associated with the lively hérens cows. As much a part of Swiss alpine scenery as the chalet and cable car, these cows graze the fragrant flora of sloping meadows along with the black-dotted cows of picture postcard Switzerland. The people of the Rhône valley regard their raclette as the true melting cheese despite its wider production in other parts of Switzerland and especially on the other side of the Alps in Savoy.
Martin, an elderly chef who works in a family restaurant in Naters, across the bridge from Brig, insists that the unique sense of place Swiss people share with their mountains and valleys is dying out, destroyed by modernity and technology. However another Martin, one of the young project managers who worked at the construction of the 34.6 kilometre railway tunnel through the base of the Alps between Raron in the Rhône valley and Frutigen in the Kander valley, takes a sense of pride in the creation of this human-built artefact.
Functionality is a byword of modern Switzerland. It defines the daily activity of a country that runs to precise timetables and delivers its workers and visitors to their destinations on time, whether by bus, train, funicular, cable car, boat or airplane. The workers then deliver a commerce that the people expect, in their offices, schools, factories, farms, shops, restaurants and construction sites.
’Switzerland,’ says Benedikt Loderer, ’is fully utilised.’ The relationship between the human built world and natural world is the theme of Switzerland: an Overview by Emil Zopfi, et al, a collection of five essays, which look at these two Switzerlands – Beautiful Switzerland and Utility Switzerland. What makes the book breathtaking along with its literary scope are the majestic aerial photographs, which accompany the essays, placing them in a context that cannot refute the perspectives of the essayists. Loderer is the most persuasive with his argument that Switzerland no longer exists.
’The beautiful Switzerland you see is the pre-industrial one,’ he says. ’Within two generations we have consumed too much of Switzerland. [It] is fully utilised. We know precisely what every bit of it can be used for, whether it’s a lake, a glacier, a cliff, arable or maintained land. This also means that it’s already been decided what the land may not be used for. The main difference is that of construction zones and non-construction zones.’
The Valais / Wallis canton is precisely that. The human-built construction zone at the Raron end of the Lötschberg base tunnel contrasts starkly with the natural mountain peaks above, and the creation of an artificial mound containing the tunnel deposits at the southern edge of the Rhone valley flood plain. The relocation – on the orders of the federal government, who commissioned the tunnel – of wildlife disturbed by the construction reveals the sensitive nature of ’nachhaltig’ (sustainable development) in Switzerland. This is also Loderer’s argument.
’Beauty Switzerland is a recompense for Utility Switzerland,’ he says. ’There are two conditions left in the country; the city and the mountains. We’ve become tourists in our own country. We commute from Utility to Beauty Switzerland in order to consolidate our identity there. Being convinced of the beauty of the country in our innermost being, we must get out of the agglomeration from time to time and refresh ourselves with a landscape and a picturesque settlement. There are two directions: into the old inner cities or into the mountains. It depends on the type of nourishment we lack. In the old inner city there is more cultural enjoyment; in the mountains, it’s more the enjoyment of Nature. And there is a sufficient number of rewarding destinations for both directions. This book proves it.
Loderer apologises for his cynicism. And he must. This book is an honest appraisal of modern Switzerland and the pictures do prove that Switzerland is still beautiful and rewarding, one of the most attractive countries in Europe. The Switzerland of pristine alpine and lakeside resorts, modern funparks and elaborate transport systems offers as much to the visitor as the Switzerland of precipitous mountain paths, old restaurants and traditional festivals. The photographs – from the ’photoswissair’ collection of the Luftbild Schweiz Foundation, started by Walter Mittelholzer, the Swiss pioneer aviator and photographer who began taking aerial pictures in 1918 – show both Switzerlands. They reveal, in glimpses, the Switzerland of the pre-industrial era and the modern Switzerland that contradicts its romantic caricature.
Unlike Italy, which is suffocating under the weight of expectation, Switzerland has been allowed to reinvent itself, for good or bad. More than Frenchman Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s stunning aerial pictures of human settlements in every region of the Earth, the Luftbild Schweiz photographs reveal an intimacy that only those who live in Switzerland and know every centimetre will fully appreciate. As an overview of a country this book is a perfect portal. From the pictures of the Matterhorn, as if civilisation never existed, to the pictures of the Rhône glacier, where civilisation in the form of a switchback road and a hotel creeps up to the edge of the ice, Switzerland is at once untamed and tamed.
Iso Camartin agrees. ’It is not even the boldness with which human beings have made changes in the landscape, opposing the natural growth and nature-given beauty with another one: that of beautiful design and daring construction.’ Martin, when he was in his tunnel, would agree that daring construction now defines Switzerland. Martin, in his kitchen, would not. For him Switzerland is and always will be the mountains. Camartin, however, knows the real truth. ’What are we complaining about?’ he says. ’It’s great to live here.’
Winter has fallen on Brig. The smell of roasted chestnuts wafts up from the railway station, where heavily clothed snow revellers carrying skis and snowboards pour onto the cold dry streets. This Swiss-German-speaking town sits under the high Alps at the south-east end of the canton astride the Rhône River. On the southern side of the mountains lies lake Maggiore, the sweep of the Po Valley and the Italian cities of Turin, Milan and Genoa. To get there travellers go over the Simplon Pass by road or take the train through the 100-year-old Simplon railway tunnel. It is the way it has always been. Brig is a crossroads.
At the Hotel Ambassador, Zürich-born Stefan Welschen is content. He has a regular clientele who eat regularly in his Cheminots restaurant, and many of those who arrive at the stone steps of number three Saflischstrasse to stay are familiar with the hotel. ’Don’t be slow coming back,’ he says. ’I will always be here.’ So has Brig. The town’s name comes from the Latin Briva for bridge. ’Brig is an historic town,’ he says in an accent that has lost some of its Zürich roots. ’Since the Romans came, they stay in Brig because they can cross the mountains in one day. They rested here. Napoleon was here with his troops. Five battalions stayed here first, then crossed the Simplon Pass.’
Today it is possible to trace the footsteps of the Roman and Napoleonic soldiers. There is a hiking trail that follows an old path used for centuries by merchants and their mules. The trail begins in Brig at the 17th century Stockalper Palace. It was Kaspar Jodok von Stockalper, a Brig merchant, who developed the trail. Once, the merchants would have halted in an inn at the Simplon Pass. These days, the curious can learn the history of the trail by stopping at the old inn, now a museum. For most though it is the railway and the road that brings them to Brig. ’When the Simplon tunnel was built,’ says Stefan, ’the train system started getting faster, but people still stayed here overnight because when they came from England to Naples they needed a break here. ‘When cars started, even then they stopped here, to cool down the cars because they could not get all the way from Germany to Italy.’
Brig is a crossroads.
We are taking the slow stopping train from the plaza in front of Brig main station. This is the hourly train to Fiesch, the seventh stop along the line that carries the Glazier Express into the east of Switzerland. We have been told there is a bakery on Hejistrasse, the road that parallels the river at the western side of the town. Imwinkelried bakery (and cafe) is one of 60 establishments in the Valais / Wallis that makes the traditional rye bread of the region, (roggenbrot in German, pains de seigle in French). And we are excited. Rye bread, once a stable of the canton’s traditional food, is back in the ascendancy. Imwinkelried bake it plain, and with hazelnuts and with the fruit of the canton. They also make the local pastries made with carnival dough, known as chräpfli. If you decide to visit this wonderful bakery to sample their traditional breads and pastries, walk back along the platform in the direction the train has come from. In front of you, past a house, a narrow path winds down onto Hejistrasse. The bakery is immediately across the road, the cafe above.
Our next train, the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (the one you see at the top of the page and again below), is also a slow, stopping train. We are going all the way from Fiesch to the terminus at Göschenen, a journey of ascents and descents in just over 100 minutes. If you are alert, when the train leaves Andermatt – the penultimate stop 14 minutes from Göschenen – you will see the sign of the devil on the wall of the rock face above the ravine below.
We are walking up from Göschenen back to Andermatt. It is a very tough walk, as anyone who has done it will tell you, hard on the calf muscles, so we are taking it very slow. Our penultimate stop before Andermatt is the high ravine where the river Reuss has been forded for millennia. Our attention is the location of an old bridge, now gone, known as teufelsbrücke (devil’s bridge). It is celebrated for many reasons, not least an event recorded by Tadhg Ó Cianáin, who kept a diary of the journey undertaken by Irish Earls and their followers through Europe 400 years ago.
’The country of the Swiss is well fortified, uneven, mountainous, extensive, having bad roads, and no supremacy, rule or claim to submission by any king or prince in the world over the inhabitants. In themselves they form a strange, remarkable, peculiar state. It is said of the people of this country that they are the most just, honest, and untreacherous in the world, and the most faithful to their promises. They allow no robbery or murder to be done in their country without punishing it at once. Because of their perfect honour they alone are guards to the kings and princes of Christendom.’
When they reached the devil’s bridge, tired and weary from the hard walk from Göschenen in the valley below, calamity struck. The story is told from the perspective of the man who was blamed.
Beyond Andermatt on the ancient trail is a little stone chapel. Blessed by Archbishop Galdinus of Milan in the 12th century it is a timeless artefact. Finding faith in the heavenly heights of the mountains kept walkers going, especially when there was a place nearby to rest the head and ease weary limbs. It is also a reminder that for tens of thousands of years the only way to travel was by foot. We would take you there, even take you south, following Irish ghosts wondering about lost gold, but we need to go east and we are going to rest our weary limbs in the comfort of the Glacier Express.
For us the Glacier Express will always be a train for winter and since the Furka Tunnel opened in 1982 it has run from Zermatt to St Moritz unimpeded, revealing the enchanting white wonderland of the Swiss Alps. The story of this train is not revealed in the impressive tourist figures (’oh you must do the Glacier Express’). It is something much deeper, and alluded to by Iso Camartin in the wonderful 2005 large format production (with fantastic photos by Robert Bösch), The World of the Glacier Express, published by AS Verlag of Zürich.
’To this day, the technical structures designed for this line by the early pioneers of railway engineering still amaze admirers from near and far,’ writes Camartin, a native of canton Grabünden. ’The Glacier Express connects three Swiss cantons, different linguistic and cultural landscapes, each with their own building styles and forms of habitation. ‘The journey provides views spectacular as well as unpretentious, wild and dangerous as well as idyllic. Throughout the year, the Glacier Express offers new glimpses of the daring solutions devised by the engineers and constructors to overcome the hindrances and secure the connections between landscapes and people.’
This is the true story behind this train, the cultural connections that link the people and places of the Valais with their counterparts in Uri and Grabünden. From the Matterhorn, above the ski resort of Zermatt, to the Galenstock, above the Furka Pass, and Piz Bernina and Piz Palü at the border with Italy, the people live with these imposing peaks, forever in their debt. Camartin, a Rhateo-Romansh scholar, knew the implicit reasoning behind these cultural connections, but it was German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who understood what it meant. ’This is a metaphysical landscape,’ he said, a place that is never the same.
The railway presented challenges to the people of the Alps, and now that several generations only know the railway age it is important that tourists and travellers experience that culture, especially their food culture (the whole purpose of this little tome). Those who want the full Glacier Express experience should devote two or three weeks to the trip, and get off at each stop where accommodation is offered, and walk alongside the lakes and rivers. We recommend Brig, Fiesch, Oberwald or Realp, Andermatt, Disentis / Mustér, Thusis, Filisur, Bergün / Bravuogn and Samedan.
It is all very well to travel on this train but it is still a very good idea to get off, find a suitable vantage point and marvel at the exquisite bridges, spiral tunnels and towering viaducts on the route. You are spoilt for choice. The train crosses 291 bridges and viaducts, and enters 91 tunnels. And of course the train also gives majestic views of the landscape that cannot be seen from footpaths. To appreciate them you need to be in the panoramic carriage. The GEX leaves Zermatt at 8:52 in winter, and at 7:52, 8:52 and 9:52 in summer. It can be met at Visp, Brig, Andermatt (as we have done on this journey – coming up from Göschenen), at Chur and Filisur (with a change for Davos). We are getting off at Thusis.
The Schöllenen is one of the four ancient trade routes through the Swiss Alps. The others are the Saint Bernard, the Simplon and the Splügen! If the Schöllenen has the abysmal path, the Splügen has the bad path – viamala in Graubünden Romansh, the Roman dialect that continues to thrive in this scenic region of Switzerland, sharing an expansive culture with the Swiss-German speaking and Italic peoples at both ends of the Splügen Pass.
This ancient route, a mule trial for countless centuries, links Thusis with Chiavenna in Italy. Legend dictates that the viamalaschlucht was worse than the schöllenenschlucht, so we are going to find out for ourselves. It is a testament to the Swiss sense of place that the path in this steep-sided rocky gorge has remained accessible, but there is one major reason for that. The viamala is a magnet. It attracts hikers because it is challenging. It attracts tourists because it is dramatic, one of the great scenic trials in Europe. We are following the sight and sound of the hinterrhein (the upper Rhine) as far as Andeer – a four hour walk at a leisurely pace. As the sun is shining we are stopping for a picnic – alpkäse with weggli (cheese and bread) chocolate, with apple juice and pear nectar. The viamalaschlucht, like all gorges, comes alive when the melt water crashes down from the heights, the light dancing like fairies on cool, clear crystal waters.
Another panoramic train ride, on this occasion through the heart of the Alps on Rhaetian Railways’ Bernina Express and down into the plain of the Po Valley. One word. Spectacular!