Twisting its way through breathtaking alpine scenery, the Glacier Express is said to be one of the world’s greatest rail experiences. Our Tour Manager Kim Riddell shares her experiences of this tour, which she has looked after for nearly 15 years. Her philosophy from the start of her career as a tour manager was, and is, “If I came here for the first time, what would I want to know?”
By Kim Riddell, Tour Manager
The Matterhorn and Glacier Express Tour has been the main tour I cover for Riviera for around 14 years now and I never get tired of it. Even transfer day and there are not many tours you can say that about! From the minute we leave Zurich airport for a 4 hour transfer. Let’s face it – it’s not always the most welcome news for people getting off a flight. The flight itself is only 2 hours or so but still, some of them may have been up since the early hours and now I have to tell them they have such a long journey ahead?
But what a journey – there have been guests who have told me at the end of the tour that their favourite day was the first. Others who at the end of that first day have said , ‘How can it get better than this’? Admittedly, and to a certain extent, the weather can make a difference, but I can honestly say that in 14 years there have been less than a dozen transfer days (I checked my diaries so this is true) where we have not had at the very least a great transfer. Most of the time, it is not hyperbole to use the word ‘spectacular’. Passing lakes, driving through mountains, over high alpine passes and clocking up some serious miles of scenery, the route takes us over the Fürka Pass between the Swiss Cantons of Uri and Valais.
I’m able too, during the journey, to build up a background and introduction to Switzerland: socio – economic, folkloric, historical and geographical that sets the scene for the coming days. So often on a tour, the first day is just ‘getting there’ and the sooner the better, get it over with so we can start exploring on day 2. But on this tour we hit the ground running and far from being a wasted day, guests are stunned almost to silence by the time we arrive at the hotel in Brig in the late afternoon. By the time we sit down to dinner, usually within an hour or so of arrival, they are already chatting to their fellow travellers in a way that can take a few days to break the ice on a more ‘pedestrian ‘ tour. There’s already so much to talk about.
After a welcome drink and a toast to ‘a good tour ahead’ I sit down with my driver and as we listen to the rising volume of chat on that first evening, we just know we have done our job well and the tour is off to a good start. Of course as a Tour manager it has always been my duty – and pleasure – to give as much information as I can about what there is to see, sometimes too much as when you only have 2 hours in a place there is a limit to what is possible, but I have always liked to give my guests as many options as I can and you learn from the guests themselves what is interesting to them. Of all the tours I have ever done, this tour is very well planned. Bearing in mind how many people are wowed on that first day and can’t believe we can ‘top that’ , well, we can!
Day 2 to Zermatt for a start. An equally spectacular, though much shorter, journey – an hour and a half by coach and train. Again let me say that in all the years I have been going to Zermatt, I have only ever maybe once or twice a year not seen the Matterhorn, and have only twice not had the Gornergratt journey thrill people, even when the view at the top may be restricted by cloud. As I always tell people it is the 33 minute journey itself – from the village at 5276 ft through forest, alpine meadows, tundra and snow to 10140 ft above sea level – that is the draw, as much as the views: weather permitting 20 peaks over 13000 feet are visible as well as numerous glaciers.
Mountains are notoriously fickle weather wise so one aspect of my job is managing my guests expectations, when the weather is maybe not going our way, but you know that is one aspect of any tour that we have no control over (Thank goodness! For who would make that decision?)
Zermatt is perfect for walkers without a doubt but if you are not so active and like to wander a bit then sit and enjoy the scenery, then Zermatt is still ideal as it is a compact resort with everything we need very close to the train station where we arrive.
Day 3 takes us over another high alpine pass drive – The Simplon Pass – and down into Italy – specifically to the Piedmont region and the charming Lake side town of Stresa – ‘Italy in a Nutshell’ I like to call this day as you have the scenery, the Lake, the old villages on the islands. In Stresa itself chance to buy all the things Italy is famous for – leather goods, wine, olive oil and lovely culinary treats, not to mention some delightful cafes and gelaterias. A boat ride, a train and then a dramatic drive back over the Simplon pass – such a lovely drive it is worth doing twice, and back to Brig.
By the way, Brig, our ‘host’ town – few people will have heard of it before booking this trip, I bet. It’s not an internationally well know place, unless you are an international train spotter – as it was one of the main stopping off places for the early ‘Orient Express’ and until the Simplon Tunnel was opened in 1921 and sleeper cars added accordingly, guests of that luxurious route would sleep in our Hotel – The Victoria. Today a charming though simple family run hotel, that more than makes up for it’s lack of modern grandeur with it’s location – right in the centre of things, making it ideal for us to explore the town in the evening and the region during the day. It has a bar which is popular with locals and tourists on their way to and from the Railway station.
Proximity to the station means our highlight journey on the Glacier Express train starts with a leisurely stroll after breakfast across the road to the platform. The size of our groups usually means we commandeer a whole carriage and with large panoramic windows, with views equally stunning forward and aft, means we really do get an unforgettable and leisurely day on this route. It’s our shortest day on the coach – the journey from the last station – Chur to Klosters is less than an hour and with a distinct slackening of pace, we arrive late afternoon to the delightful mountain resort which, out of ski season is the definition of peaceful. Looking forward to a whole day free to enjoy Klosters and Davos – it’s larger neighbour and accessible FREE via the excellent local transport network, I get to see everyone on board visibly sigh!
We need that day ‘at leisure’ . Leisure being a subjective term as some take the opportunity to head off on several trains, swim, or walk walk walk as Klosters is a fabulous place to do all of these.
Why do we need that day at leisure? Because the last ‘touring’ day of the tour is perhaps the most breathtaking. Those who have witnessed and declared that first day’s scenery the best, if they haven’t changed their opinion after Zermatt or Stresa or the Oberalp pass, well wait until you see the Bernina Route – technically a stretch of the Glacier Express Route, but a scenic route in its own right. Weather conditions permitting, this is almost certainly, to me, the best scenery of the tour, though that is a very difficult call to make. But the train runs along a higher route, we get closer to the glaciers, and we end up in the little known Italian town of Tirano for lunch (I love Italian food) with wine cheaper than coffee, what is there not to love about this day?
As I mentioned earlier the planning on this tour is key – and you can tell the meticulous attention to detail, in the fact that, in Klosters we are only 2 hours from Zurich, meaning our return transfer on the last day is not as forbidding as you might think.
Do I love this tour? You bet. This last year not being even once to Switzerland has seen me suffering serious withdrawal symptoms, I can’t wait for the restrictions in both countries to be lifted and let’s get this show back on the road!