Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

Rails Ring Around Switzerland

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By Igor Lobanov, Mature Life Features

ZERMATT, Switzerland — There were a couple of dozen of us and a friendly family dog in the large gondola that swooped down the cable before climbing sharply over a rock wall and nestling in a building that appeared to be glued to the sheer granite face of the mountain.

We stepped onto the summit of Klein (Little) Matterhorn, where we had a 360-degree view of sparkling snow fields on the surrounding Alpine peaks and could look straight across at its renowned relative. Below us, the village of Zermatt basked in the sunshine and skiers schussed down the broad glacier flowing from the Matterhorn.

Switzerland, slightly larger than Maryland, is crammed with lakes, rivers, lush valleys sprinkled with grazing cattle, and picture-postcard-neat villages. Linking them all is a railroad network that operates on to-the-minute schedules.

Aiming to circle the country counter-clockwise by rail, we were on a train within minutes of landing at Zurich and heading for Lucerne to spend the night and walk to its best-known attraction: the Chapel Bridge. It’s a roofed wooden walkway built over the river Reuss  in the 13th century, and rebuilt after a 1993 fire. The original Water Tower was used to store treasures from foreign wars, as a prison, and even a torture chamber.

Our 2 1/2-hour journey from Lucerne to Grindelwald by way of Interlaken took us past lakes whose glass-like aquamarine waters mirrored the mountain peaks and passing clouds. The overriding word for this route is green. Grindelwald sprawls along a narrow valley whose miles of hiking paths meander over and around nearby slopes, most notably on the lower reaches of the 13,000-foot Eiger, which looms craggily over the community.

For a bird’s-eye view, we took the five-minute gondola ride up to Pfingstegg, where a tiny restaurant clings to the cliff hundreds of feet over the valley. Nearby, you can ride a small toboggan down a metal chute to the valley floor and be towed back up again.

Our next stop was the 13,642-foot Jungfrau that, with its sister peaks Eiger and Month, offers one of the more dramatic ice-and-rock settings in Europe. Cogwheel trains depart Grindelwald at regular intervals to Jungfraujoch, the country’s highest railroad station, called The Top of Europe. The two-hour trip takes you over meadows, past small towns, and through a long tunnel. Clinging to the mountainside at 11,225 feet is a small complex that includes a restaurant, exhibit area, and viewing platform.

Then it was a six-hour train trip to Zermatt. Those who choose to drive must leave their cars in the nearby resort of Tasch and ride shuttle trains the last few miles. People here mostly walk public transportation is provided by electrically-powered taxis and horse-drawn carriages.

There are two ways to get close to the Matterhorn: the large gondolas to Klein Matterhorn, or small gondolas to Schwarzsee and its restaurant at the foot of the major peak. Klein Matterhorn and the Jungfraujoch offer tunnel-and-cavern complexes carved deep into glaciers, with niches containing ice sculptures. For another take on these peaks, you can visit the climbers’ cemetery at Zermatt’s St. Maurizius Church.

A day-long ride east from Zermatt on the Glacier Express took us to Switzerland’s preeminent hideaway of the rich and famous: St. Moritz. And our journey around Switzerland ended where it began, in the nation’s business and financial capital, Zurich, whose tree-lined Banhoffstrasse, with its chic, world-famous boutiques is cited as one of the world’s finest shopping venues.

The Limatt River separates the city’s two best-known churches. The Grossmunster, a former monastery said to have been founded by Charlamagne, has striking stained-glass windows by 19th century artist August Giacometti. On the opposite river bank, visitors to the former convent and church of Fraumunster will find a series of Old- and New-Testament representations in glass by the 20th century master, Marc Chagall. The best viewing in both churches is with morning sunlight.

Mature Life Features, Copyright April 2004

Written by Cecil Scaglione

November 5, 2012 at 12:05 am

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