David Bowden travels to Switzerland in winter to explore the country by train and to enjoy a range of adventurous activities in arguably the world’s most picturesque alpine scenery.
In the 19th century, Switzerland was one of the first countries to welcome global travellers and it still ranks as one of world’s most visited nations.
With the establishment of railways across Europe, people could for the first time travel long distances over land and the concept of taking a holiday became a reality. A grand tour of Europe became the essential activity for the wealthy.
While snow-capped mountains (200 above 3,000m) and quaint alpine villages are what many travel to see and experience, Switzerland is a year-round destination but one that’s especially enchanting during winter.
Considered the world’s best connected country by rail, Switzerland now offers the Grand Train Tour (GTT). This covers a mesmerising 20,000km of rail, bus and ferry routes and provides a systematic journey that ensures the leading sights can be visited in one week.
However, I realised that trying to accomplish this would mean doing nothing but sitting on public transport so I researched the possibilities using a seven-day travel pass.
Day One: Zürich to St. Moritz
My SWISS flight arrived at daybreak and I collected a pre-booked, seven-day, Swiss Travel Pass from the railway office within the airport. Trains to many parts of Switzerland radiate from the airport and I was soon heading towards St. Moritz on a scenic three-hour journey. St. Moritz is a mountainous resort and one of Switzerland’s most acclaimed and glamorous destinations for winter skiing and après socialising.
Swiss people speak German, French, Italian or a local dialect but most importantly; English is understood and this makes travel very easy. I discovered this when checking into Hotel Steffani in the centre of St. Moritz overlooking a plaza and close to the Corviglia funicular railway.
The town wraps around sections of a lake with towering peaks overhead. Divided into the main town called St. Moritz Dorf and lakeside settlement of St. Moritz Bad, this part of Switzerland has been popular with international jetsetters since 1864 when the Engadine Valley welcomed visitors to the Hotel Kulm, the mountain’s first luxury hotel.
Having hosted the 1928 and 1948 Winter Olympics, alpine sports have a long tradition in St. Moritz. In winter, the ski slopes of Corvatsch, Diavolezza and Corviglia attract serious skiers while novices like me could join ski lessons to enjoy the thrill of skiing.
Ski lift passes covering all Engadine Valley pistes are available for experienced skiers. While skiing may not appeal to all, the town’s glitz and glamour is hard to ignore. It is compact and while hilly; its narrow streets especially Via Serlas are lined with boutiques like Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Karl Lagerfeld plus watch manufacturers such as Bucherer.
While St. Moritz has many restaurants (including Chesa Veglia dating back to 1658), travelling up the nearby Punt Muragl funicular railway to Muottas Muragl and the Romantik Hotel was recommended by the hotel concierge for its delicious cuisine and panoramic views. At 2,456m above sea level, the restaurant has spectacular views over St. Moritz and the food served matches the scenery. I dined on delicacies of pizokel (pasta and cheese) and grilled veal steak with morel sauce.
Day Two: St. Moritz to Andermatt
Regarded as the world’s slowest express train, the Glacier Express is one of Switzerland’s most famous rail odysseys. Panoramic windows enabled uninterrupted views of the spectacular alpine scenery that was like watching the Discovery Channel on wheels.