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Glacier Express a frozen Swiss treat

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Glacier Express a frozen Swiss treat

By Marc Atchison
TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

ANDERMATT, SWITZERLAND — From my seat aboard the Glacier Express, I feel like I’m looking at an endless series of Giovanni Segantini paintings. The breathtaking Alpine pastoral landscapes that the legendary 19th-century Italian artist was so famous for painting are framed in my window as the scenic train slowly moves through the heart of the Swiss Alps.

I press my nose up against the window, awed by the natural beauty that so inspired Segantini. The only interruption is when the train enters one of the 91 tunnels located along the 291-kilometre route — day suddenly becomes night when the Glacier Express, billed as the “slowest express train in the world,” is swallowed up by the remarkable man-made mountain cavities.

Since boarding the train in St. Moritz, Switzerland’s winter wonderland for the wealthy, I’ve been overwhelmed by the breathtaking Alpine scenes and the service supplied by Glacier Express staff. They pour me beer made from the glacial waters I see streaming off the mountains in spectacular waterfalls, feed me regional cuisine using farm-to-table ingredients grown in the idyllic pastures that sit below the train tracks and educate me on the fascinating customs and traditions of the Alpine people.

I dart from one side of the panorama coach to the other so as not to miss any of the natural splendour passing by — the train travels at an average speed of 35 kilometres an hour so guests can feel the full impact of the Alps.

The most spectacular section of the trip is between Preda and Bergun, where the Glacier Express navigates six towering viaducts, three spiral tunnels and two helical tunnels that make it possible for the little red and white train to scale a height difference of 400 metres (1,300 feet). It’s no wonder this section has been recognized by UNESCO as one of its World Heritage Sites.

While the scenery leaves me breathless, the engineering feats needed the create this, one of the world’s truly great train routes, overwhelms me. There’s no better example of that than the 65-metre-high Landwasser Viaduct, one of the most photographed landmarks in Switzerland. The 142-metre-long (465 feet) stone bridge, which was completed in 1902, is supported by five arched walled pillars that rise from one of the route’s deepest gorges to allow the train to reach a tunnel of the same name. In all, there are 291 bridges along this fascinating route, which stretches from St. Moritz to Zermatt, where the mighty Matterhorn is located.

While the train proceeds, passengers listen to commentary on earphones supplied at each seat and learn that it took five years and over 5,000 men to build the line, which, at the time of its completion, was the most expensive railway project ever undertaken. The engineering achievements accomplished here were later used to build other great railways, like the Canadian Pacific, which united Canada from coast to coast.

During my four-hour journey, I’m entertained by eagles flying over the domed coach and I marvel at the serene Alpine villages and their neatly-kept shuttered homes that appear every so often. Equally impressive are the many jade-coloured lakes that are fed by glacial streams.

At times, the passages are so narrow I think my car will scrap up against the rock walls or fall off the narrow-gauge tracks into the abyss of the deep gorges. The train is most popular during the summer months but winter weekends can be hectic as well, according to the conductor.

Before we reach Andermatt, we pass some important towns and cities, like Chur (pronounced Coor), which is the oldest town in Switzerland with 5,000 years of history. Its Old Town is a great place to wander and the fact the Rhine River turns towards the north from here is another source of pride for the population.

This is also the area where the fictional character Heidi is from. Swiss author Johanna Spyri made Heidi famous in her late 18th-century books and the cute Alpine girl stills remains an iconic figure worldwide.

Shortly after we leave Chur, we enter the Rhine Gorge, which is often referred to as Switzerland’s Grand Canyon. Formed after the last Ice Age, the gorge offers some dramatic rock formations but until this part of the railway was finished in 1903, it remained inaccessible to tourists. The gorge is also home to 350 species of butterflies and rare wild orchids.

The Glacier Express slowly climbs out of the gorge and we start moving towards Disentis, the historic town that boasts the largest Romansh-speaking community in Switzerland. Romansh originates from the spoken Latin and was brought to Switzerland by Roman soldiers. Since 1938, it’s been recognized as one of the national languages of Switzerland.

The conductor tells me that most Swiss can speak German, French, Italian, English or Romansh. He also informs me that every Swiss citizen uses the country’s remarkable rail system — on average, each of the 8.4 million Swiss travel 2,300 kilometres by train each year. “That makes ours the densest rail system in the world,” he proudly boasts. “You’ll know we are getting close to Disentis when you see the double spires of the church,” he says.

The church, which is attached to the Disentis’s Benedictine monastery, dates back to 1683 and the abbey still remains one of the most prestigious schools in all of Switzerland. Being the first town on the Rhine River is also another thing the locals like to boast about.

Before heading into the spectacular Oberalppass, the engine is replaced with a much stronger one, but even with more horsepower, the Glacier Express still needs the assistance of a giant cog wheel — another engineering triumph of Swiss railway engineers — to reach the 2,033 metres (6,700 feet) above sea level that we’ll eventually climb before descending into Andermatt.

The Alpine scenery, which just a short time ago featured green meadows when we left Chur, is now snow white and as we climb higher, the drifts are as high as the coach window.

“We need very special snow trains to clear the tracks so the Glacier Express can keep moving through here,” says the conductor.

Soon after that, the Glacier Express pulls into lovely Andermatt, a 12th-century town that is being turned into Switzerland’s most modern ski resort, and the conductor bids me uf widerluege (goodbye).

My remarkable journey aboard the Glacier Express (it proceeds to Zermatt) is over but the memories of this trip though the majestic Swiss Alps will live on forever.

Information

The best way to get around Switzerland is by train. Swiss Travel System — http://www.myswitzerland.com/ — offers many options, including the Glacier

Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. As the former Travel Editor of the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, and now editor-in-chief and senior writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and travelife.ca, Marc has been to over 100 countries in the world. Japan is one of his favourite destinations and he’s been there on numerous occasions. http://www.travelife.ca/

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eNewsletter February 2017

Tiny St. John A Refreshing Cruise Stop

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Tiny St. John A Refreshing Cruise Stop

By Marc Atchison

Travelife Editor-In-Chief

ST. JOHN, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS — A grey sky hangs over our cruise ship when we drop anchor off this Caribbean beauty. But we refuse to let the weather dampen our spirits because we’re eager to explore this island where Christopher Columbus became the first foreign tourist back in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World. The ship’s tender delivers us to Cruz Bay, just opposite the downtown area, and we hail a cab piloted by a soft-spoken man named Earl Thomas, a native islander who assures us “no one knows St. John” better than him.

The cabbie gives us a quick history lesson before we start on our tour: “St. John was first settled by Taino people from South America but hieroglyphics dating back to 700 BC have been found here.

“Europeans set up the slave trade on St. John in the 1600s to help harvest the island’s sugar cane.

“The cash-strapped Danes sold the island to the U.S. in 1917 for $24 million.” The history lesson over, Earl drives past an entertainment area in downtown St. John where music is pouring out of restaurants and bars.

“This is Motown, but it’s not like Detroit’s Motown,” laughs Earl. “A guy named Mo was the first person to build in this area and the name stuck.”

St. John, neighbour to its better known Virgin Island cousin St. Thomas, which lies just a short ferry ride away, is puny; just 13 kilometres long with only 4,500 residents, “and only 35 per cent of that number are permanent residents,” says Earl.

It’s also known as an eco-tourism paradise thanks to the presence of the Virgin Islands National Park, established in 1956 as America’s 29th national park. The pristine park occupies three-quarters of St. John’s mountainous landscape and Earl tells me New York’s famed Rockefeller family was instrumental in its development. The park is dotted with quiet coves, white sand beaches, hundreds of kilometres of hiking trails, rare flowers, birds and exotic animals.

Earl expertly guides his cab along the park’s narrow highway that dips and turns and he regularly pulls into scenic pull offs where we marvel at the island’s jaw-dropping coastline.

We pass the crowded beach at Cinnamon Bay where families frolic along the rocky shore; Trunk Bay, whose sugary sand is rated among the best in the world; Hawks Bay, where hawks the size of eagles soar over Peace Hill; Francis Bay, where sun worshippers gather hoping the clouds will soon give way to blue skies; and Annaberg, where we climb a hill to reach the ruins of an old sugar plantation.

Here, Earl tells us about one of the island’s darkest periods; an uprising in 1693 known as the “Night of the Silent Drum,” when slaves rebelled against plantation owners.

The rebellion lasted only six months because French troops from nearby St. Croix came to the landowners’ rescue. Tragically, the native rebels, knowing that slavery again awaited them, decided instead to join hands and commit mass suicide by jumping off the 600-metre-high cliffs of Bordeaux Mountain, the island’s highest point.

Earl’s informative 2½-hour tour (it costs just $25 U.S. per person) also introduces us to the ruins of the island’s first rum distiller, the coral reef that marks the unofficial dividing line between the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, the resorts where Hollywood types like Alan Alda, Mel Brooks and Harrison Ford hang out, and the remarkable Robert Oppenheimer gardens, once owned by the man who invented the atomic bomb.

Earl also explains that the national forest is teeming with plants that offer medicinal benefits and says the leaves from the sour sop tree are still used by locals for relaxation purposes and to induce sleep.

“If you put some of the sour sop leaves behind your ears, it will help get rid of headaches,” says the cabbie, who also informs us that leaves hanging from the island’s manchineel tree are lethal and were dubbed the “apple of death” by Columbus, whose men unwittingly ate the poisonous leaves and then died agonizing deaths. Creatures like mongooses, bats, iguanas and wild donkeys call the national forest home, but the most feared inhabitant of the park is the mosquito, which Earl describes as being of the “747 variety.”

On the way back to town, Earl says St. John is known as “love city” and “Columbus christened these the Virgin Islands because the Taino women would not date his men.”

There’s much to love about St. John, especially a cabbie named Earl.

http://www.travelife.ca/

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