Summer of 1999: I am a child, merely four, on a train to Amritsar. An old boombox fills the compartment with ‘Dholna’ from Dil Toh Paagal Hai. As the Shatabdi Express coasts through bucolic Punjab, I watch the sun set over mustard fields for the very first time…
Summer of 2018: I’m 23 now, on the Bernina Express from Tirano to St. Moritz, Switzerland. The panoramic windows blend in with the roof and further beautify the Alps’ vistas. I walk across to the adjoining open carriage; here, I can scent the snowbells skirting the tracks. The sun is kind, the sounds are mellifluous, and so I never head back to the plush indoors where bubbly flows and patrons relish Engadin walnut cakes, among other delicacies...
Poets and writers have long stared into the ocean horizon and dreamt of endless worlds, just as I have watched train tracks disappear behind hills. I harbour love for everything railways—whether four or (now) twenty-four, narrow or broad gauge, steam engine or Shinkansen. So when an opportunity to explore the Swiss countryside aboard two of Europe’s most-celebrated tourist trains came my way, I could barely contain myself.
My journey, however, did not begin with the Bernina Express. Sebastian Blättler, Market Manager Overseas at Rhätische Bahn (RhB) or Rhaetian Railway, breathed a sigh of relief as we made it just in time for the 10.48am (departs on the dot) ‘regular train’ from St. Moritz to Tirano, right across the Italian border. Switzerland has one railway company for each region; RhB, responsible for the canton of Grisons, operates the largest network of them all.
“55 tunnels and 196 bridges—that’s the Bernina route. We may only be taking the Express for the return journey, but we are already on its exceptional route,” he informed us. This exceptionality is because a portion of the line has a ‘Unesco World Heritage’ site distinction. Over a hundred years ago, the company achieved a remarkable engineering feat when it successfully carved tunnels and galleries through the Central Alps, and built pretty bridges and viaducts to connect a difficult mountain terrain by train. (Aah, the wonders of transportation. Wonders better experienced than words can describe, though I shall try my very best.)
It wasn’t the dream train, but ‘regular train’ let us lower its window shutters, which allowed for these stellar photo-ops along the way: a rusty RhB locomotive from the 1930s on display at Samedan station, adding allure to a railway festival; the whitest streamlet gushing by spruces and firs and buttercups and daises; and Alp Grüm, near the route’s highest point, where snow patches had taken the place of trees. Then began a gradual descent, where every passing hamlet furthered the mountains-to-plains transition from Switzerland to Italy (square-roofed houses surrounded by cobblestone replaced lakeside homes surrounded by grass).
We finally boarded the coveted train in the afternoon. As you already know, we spent most of our time in the open carriage. But whenever the noise began to overwhelm my senses, I would step into the spacious first-class coach. Here I’d connect to the InfoT(r)ainment system using my phone’s wifi to track the speed (never beyond 70kmph so that tourists can savour the scenery), the altitude (an approximately 400m to 2300m range) and gain insights into the journey—such as where to spot the breathtaking Morteratsch Glacier, or which turquoise reservoir is the famous Lago Bianco. I also learned to keep an eye out for viaducts such as Brusio, where the train made a 360° curve. Before we knew it, the Bernina Express pulled into St. Moritz station.
The clock read 5pm, so I gave the European sun another four hours before it set on the resort town located in the heart of the Engadin Alpine valley. I had earlier mentioned the Engadin walnut cake, a deliciously sweet shortcrust pastry famous in these parts. I got to taste the finest at Hauser, a confectionary run by fourth-generation members of a family, that very evening. Initially ‘fourth generation’ caught me off guard—wasn’t this some spanking-new town? Well, at least it looked that way, and I believed what I saw (or did I see what I believed?). On the contrary, hotelier Caspar Badrutt initiated winter tourism in St. Moritz as far back as 1864, after which plenty of hotels were built. Even the winter Olympics has been hosted here twice. Before any of this though, this was a place renowned for its, well, water. The drinking fountain at the Forum Paracelsus museum still gives ferrous-rich aerated aitch-two-o, as fresh as it was 3,400 years ago.
I noticed old stonework buildings intermingle with new designer boutiques, and cobblestone pathways wind around quirky installations. St. Moritz looked even prettier from a bird’s-eye view, as I made my way up a funicular to the gorgeously-located Romantik Hotel. The coach scaled a steep incline towards the Muottas Muragl hilltop, and spring metamorphosed into winter. The setting sun laid a soft glimmer atop the Upper Engadin, which was now visible in its entirely—complete with the lakes and the peaks including Piz Bernina (4049m), the highest in the Eastern Alps. At the restaurant here, I took the last bite of my perfectly-salted-caramel ice cream just as the sky tucked itself into the blanket of the night.
The next day the focus was on the ultramarine Lake St. Moritz. When it freezes, it plays host to a unique 'Cricket on Ice' event. We met Simon the yachter at the sailing club, who, come winter, becomes Simon the ski instructor. I hopped onto one of the yachts for a lesson (from CHF100 a person; scstm.ch). I sipped on my Rivella (a recommended milk-based soft drink) and watched the gent navigate from one corner of the boat to another, loosening, tightening and moving the sails—“You control the sails, you control the wind. It shouldn’t be the other way around.”
On a hill to our left lay Waldhaus am See hotel. If you choose to dine here with those who enjoy whisky, do not tell them what this hotel houses—The Devil’s Place, touted as the largest whisky bar in the world—and film their reaction. While the cheese fondue at the restaurant was to die for, the collection of 2,500 varieties left us awestruck. And when we entered a room where the choicest collection was exhibited—including a 1964 Black Bowmore Final Edition, worth a whopping $32,250—you might as well have whisked me away to heaven. After a drink, of course.
Or, maybe, after I took another one of RhB’s flagtrains—the Glacier Express—to Andermatt the next morning. This one has existed since 1930. Headed westwards, the passes seemed steeper, more rugged. While the terrain initially mirrored the Bernina route, we began to trail along the vast Rhine en route to its final destination—up the European continent and into the North Sea from the Netherlands. We soon passed the Rhine Gorge or the ‘Swiss Grand Canyon’, which boasted massive rock formations. Right before our final destination, we were privy to a view that did justice to the train’s name—the Oberalpsee lake (2026m), was semi-frozen, and the mountain above it was entirely snow-covered. Despite being very familiar with powdered-up hills, I had never witnessed a mountainscape as jaw-dropping as this.
Nor had I ever experienced a place like Andermatt. If you face forward, it is a tiny suburb-sized resort village. But if you face upwards, it is a winter tourism revelation: Skiarena Andermatt-Sedrun, perhaps the largest ski area in the Central Alps, is located across its slopes. As the ski lifts make their way at a distance, every known winter sport seems fathomable here. Billionaire Egyptian Samih Sawiris has invested heavily towards this endeavour, and you may even compare the impact he has had on Andermatt to what Caspar Badrutt’s had on St. Moritz.
But still, a lot of Andermatt’s heritage is accessible within a single block: there was an old, typically Swiss house built in 1620; a hotel Sean Connery stayed in while shooting a James Bond film; Bar Di Alt Apothek, where Elvis Presley may have performed; and Gasthaus Ochsen, a restaurant renowned for its Swiss cheese. The town had me a bit confused though: how did a place surrounded by over 500 peaks (no extra zeroes), which has historically connected various Alpine regions through mountain passes, not develop until now? Perhaps most passed through, and few stayed. Only if The Chedi Andermatt (the palatial deluxe five-star hotel established in 2013) had existed then. From what I know of the brand, you see Eastern hospitality complement Western luxury. And you really do—from the tea offerings in the lobby to the cheesy temptations in ‘The Restaurant’. But, boy, was I enamoured by my room: sizeable, with all kinds of mood lighting, an enticing bathtub, quirky wall panels and curtains. Just as I dipped my toes in the tub, a horn blew behind me; beyond my window I could spot the red-as-a-beet Glacier Express making its way into a tunnel above a hill. I broke into a smile, looking forward to the next day’s train journey to Zürich—and many more that await me thereafter. I then stepped into the tub, lit a candle, and got lost in this train of thought.
- Fly SWISS directly from Delhi/ Mumbai to Zürich. Both St. Moritz and Andermatt are accessible by car or bus. Train-goers: first take the SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) from Zürich HB to Chur and then the RhB to St. Moritz.
- The Bernina Express has two classes and operates on four lines. I took the Chur–Tirano route from Tirano to St. Moritz (from CHF64 round trip; shop.rhb.ch). The Glacier Express connects Zermatt–St. Moritz. I did St. Moritz–Andermatt (from CHF168 round trip; shop. glacierexpress.ch). The train has just added the ‘Excellence’ class, with all-window seats, five-course meals and an aperitif (from CHF420).
- Tip: A Swiss Travel Pass (from CHF232 for three days; sbb.ch) makes all regular trains free and panorama trains only subject to a seat reservation charge (as low as CHF10 per ticket).
WHERE TO STAY
- St. Moritz: I stayed at the four-star Hotel Reine Victoria. Charmingly old fashioned, its architecture and décor reminded me of the hotel (and not the plot) of The Shining. My room had an admirable view of the cityscape. (Varying starting rates—approx. CHF300 [March], approx. CHF180 [September], all doubles; laudinella.ch). The Badrutt’s Palace is palatial to say the least. (Varying starting rates—approx. CHF1,000 [March], approx. CHF500 [September], all doubles; badruttspalace.com).
- Andermatt: The Chedi Andermatt (from approx. CFH800 doubles; thechediandermatt.com). Another option is Radisson Blu Hotel Reussen (from CHF265 doubles; radissonblu.com).
WHERE TO EAT
- RhB: Bernina Express serves limited food items, while Glacier Express has an extensive menu. Bernina stops for lunch at Alp Grüm; I recommend the veal cordon bleu at the restaurant here.
- St. Moritz: visit CheCha Restaurant & Club. The chef-owner, Reto Mathis, dishes up a fine vanilla panna cotta. Pur Alps is both a restaurant and a store for over 2,000 local products.
- Andermatt: The Chedi's ‘The Restaurant’, has a nice Indian selection. Toutoune near the hotel is good too.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
- RhB: Bernina Express has a Landquart–Davos–Tirano route in the summer. Zügen Gorge, near Davos, boasts exciting rock faces.
- St Moritz: Check out Hatecke, a butcher’s shop, to understand the art of making Alpine dried meat; and visit Hanselmann, a confiserie.
- Andermatt: Ski, sledge, snow hike and partake in other winter activities.