Swiss Alps viewed from the Glacier Express

After sleepy St. Moritz, it was time to take the Glacier Express, a full eight-hour tour of mountains, trees, cows, rushing glacial rivers, sheep, and perky Swiss villages—all viewed through panoramic windows, because the good stuff is too high to see from waist level.

The views made the time fly, and so, for many passengers, did the $48 three-course lunch. This was served at your seat by cheerful young folk marching up and down the aisles, somehow doling out mashed potatoes, veggies, and meat loaf from large serving bowls tucked under their elbows as the train climbed and jiggled.

As they reached over us to serve our neighbors, we munched on some stolen bread and cheese from the breakfast buffet, and finally succumbed to the temptation of a $6 liter of water.

Cogged third rail

The Glacier Express employs an oh-so-Swiss technical solution to a perpetual Swiss problem: How do you coax a train up a mountain too steep for slippery steel wheels on rails? The solution is a large sprocket mounted on the driving axle midway between the tracks. When the going gets steep, they install a cogged third rail on the right-of-way. The sprocket engages the cogs, the train assumes an impossibly steep angle, and voila! there’s the Matterhorn.

The tip of the Matterhorn, viewed from our hotel window

We disembarked at Zermatt, a town buzzing with little electric vans, since gas guzzlers are not allowed. Zermatt is adjacent to the afore-mentioned 14,692-foot Matterhorn, and served as base camp for Edward Whymper, the first to climb to the top in 1865, after seven previous tries. Having forgotten a British flag, he attached his shirt to a stick for planting. Four of his group of seven died on the descent, yet the feat encouraged mobs of adventurers to descend on the village. Since then the mountain has claimed over 500 more lives. Do I need to say we didn’t try this?

Eighteenth-Century wooden houses in Zermatt

Zermatt feels like the traditional Germanic Christmas village, even in September. Old blackened larchwood houses, dating back to the 1700s, line the tiny back streets, while the three main streets boast 126 hotels stuffed into seven square miles. They range from grand Victorians to Swiss chalets dripping with red geraniums. You can practically smell snow.

Our hotel, with electric taxi

While Tom napped on the rainy Sunday we spent there, I of course explored the indoor swimming pool. It was a dipper, not a lapper, so I made it quick and then retired to the outdoor bubbling hot tub, niftily evading the naked-people sauna and adjacent cold tub.

There was a lot of shopping in Zermatt, especially if you need puffy coats, hiking boots, or cowbells. I needed a black merino cardigan with flowers embroidered on the back. Isn’t that what travel is for?