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September 21st 2018

A trip on the Glacier Express

This morning I have enjoyed for the last time the tasty breakfast in Hotel Europe with the homemade cereals and the dried fruits. Today I would like to travel from Brig to Küblis: a place in Grisons, between Landquart and the Vereina Tunnel on the road to the Engadin. I will stay in Küblis for a couple of days, also to hike one or two stages of the Via Alpina. The shortest, but also the most beautiful itinerary by train is over the Oberalp Pass with the narrow gauge railway of the Matterhorn-Gotthard-Bahn. This railway company exploits in cooperation with the Rhaetian Railways in Grisons the Glacier Express. This “slowest express train in the world” as the Glacier Express is jokingly called, runs from Zermatt via Brig and Chur to St. Moritz (and back) and is one of the touristic highlights of Switzerland. A few years ago in wintertime I had already travelled with this train into Grisons – I found the journey spectacular! Because the Glacier Express would leave Brig only at 09.18 hrs I was in no hurry at all. The weather was wonderful again and there were a lot of people afoot: hikers, but also many foreign tourists who can easily travel from Brig to Zermatt and the Matterhorn. When the train arrived, I looked for my (obligatorily) reserved seat: I was in the very last coach. This had an advantage: I was able to take pictures also from the balcony! It is a luxurious train, with panorama windows and table service, so I made myself comfortable… There also was an elaborate booklet and an audio program with additional information about the places we would pass during the journey, and all this in six languages. Before leaving Brig I looked once more to the mountains rising above Belalp and remembered the beautiful hikes I made in this area!


Brig: view on the mountains above Belalp

As wide as the Rhone Valley is near Brig, so narrow it becomes further upstream the river Rhone. The mountains get wilder and steeper and also the river gets narrower and narrower… The train passed places where the Via Alpina also passes by and where I would like to hike next time: I was already looking forward to that! I noticed however that those beautiful high panorama windows had a downside: there was entering a lot of side light, not only annoying for taking pictures but also to the eyes. But that of course was a trifle…!

The train slowly went up into the Rhone Valley passing through green meadows and many larger and smaller villages all built in the Walser style. Only from the brighter-coloured wood one could see that it concerned new builds! After about one and a half hours the train arrived in Andermatt. In this area three Cantons share borders: Valais, Uri and Grisons. Before the Gotthard Tunnel between Göschenen and Airolo was built (1980) all motorised traffic passed through Andermatt; nowadays the town is only of importance for the traffic passing over the three mountain passes near-by: the Furka Pass (to the west). The Oberalp Pass (to the east) and the Gotthard Pass (in the south). The mountain world around this valley is impressive indeed.


Andermatt: mountain massif to the north of Andermatt

After Andermatt at 1.447 metres the track started to rise considerably: on the part to the Oberalp Pass at 2.046 metres a difference in altitude of nearly 600 meters has to be covered. This is only possible with cogwheel support. The train slowly crawled up the steep slope. Already before a waiter had passed by to inform what I would like to have for lunch. I chose a Bündner Gerstensuppe (a Grisons barley soup) and a mixed salad. This would only be served after we passed the Oberalp Pass. That didn’t surprise me at all: the glass of red Veltliner wine clearly showed the angle of inclination! This will also be the case in the kitchen… As a souvenir also glasses are for sale which are mounted on the stem in the same angle of inclination… This part of the journey I liked very much.

After about a quarter of an hour the train passed the most elevated point of the trip near the Oberalp Pass. There has been created a large reservoir for the electricity supply. Much to my surprise I spotted a bright red lighthouse! This appears to be a promotion stunt of the regional Tourist Information: the Rhine springs near-by and to emphasise the beginning and the end of the river Rhine near Rotterdam this lighthouse has been placed on the Pass. This lighting installation is a diminished replica of the light beacon “Hook of Holland” that stood at the mouth of the Rhine near Rotterdam…


Oberalp pass: the Oberalpsee Lake

From this point the train descended rather quickly and we went through the Surselva, the western part of the Canton of Grisons, where the idiom Sursilvan of the Rhaetian-Romanic is spoken. This is distinctively different from the Vallader which is spoken in the Engadin… From the point of view of landscape this area is green and forested, the valley is wide. Disentis, in Sursilvan called “Mustèr” is renowned for its Benedictine Abbey that exists already for 1400 years. It is a very imposing building.


Disentis: the Benedictine Monastery

Here the river Rhine, the Vorderrhein to be precise, flows, still a narrow stream – near Reichenau, some 50 km more to the east, it merges with the Hinterrhein. In Chur the river grows larger.

Between Ilanz and Reichenau came the most spectacular part of the journey: the „Rheinschlucht”, the Rhine Ravine or the “Ruinaulta” in Sursilvan – this ravine is also indicated as the “Swiss Grand Canyon”. Here the river Rhine has eaten its way over thousands of years through a gigantic mountain of scree, 14 km long, that has been created by the rock slide of Flims (“Flimser Bergsturz”) dating from some 10.000 years ago. The towering, rough mountain walls of lime stone are greyish-white, the forests are dark green and the water is bright-blue. Now those panorama windows were very convenient! The train winded through the narrow ravine, on some points high above the river, sometimes over a bridge over the river. During half an hour I could relish on this view and I went from left to right in the train – it was a fantastic show!

Here follows an small impression:

From Reichenau it only took ten minutes or so before we arrived in Chur. Via Landquart the journey continued to Küblis. Every time when I pass the small village of Malans, the collection of statues standing beside the tracks has grown: this time I had the opportunity to have a closer look! It is a colourful parade of people and animals carved out of wood, who appear to wait on a train. Especially the goats, sheep and wolves are amusing. I have tried to find out about the artist, but in vain…

I arrived around 2.30 pm in Küblis and checked in at Hotel Terminus, which is situated very close to the railway station and which had recently been completely renovated and modernised. The last time when I returned from Scuol, I had spotted the hotel from the train and thought that it looked very inviting… My room was wonderful indeed, very stylish with bright colours in wood and stone, inspired by the rustic, rural “Grisonic Style”, but with a modern touch. Therefore I was quite pleased with this choice.

The Prättigau, as this region around the valley between Landquart and Klosters/Davos is called, is one of those regions which I pass through year after year without stopping. I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know it. That’s why I strolled through the village. I started at a nice-looking small building of the Tourist Information: the “Informationschalet”, where I took many brochures. Around Küblis that also has quite a large industrial area, is a lot of agricultural activity with a lot of stock breeding (Alp cheese!). Not only the “Milchzentrale” (the Central Diary) is important, but also the maintenance of the agricultural equipment: I saw a mowing machine with a cutting bar in front and wheels with spikes, providing grip on the steep mountain slopes, preventing sliding away. It is almost the end of the grazing and mowing season.

A special building is the protestant (evangelic reformed) Nikolauskirche (Nicolas church) dating from the end of the 15th century. There are three beautiful stained-glass windows with the apostles, made by the Swiss artist Augusto Giacometti (1877-1947), the better-known Alberto Giacometti’s uncle. Augusto Giacometti was a prominent painter from the Jugendstil period, but he is also considered an innovator of the art of stained glass. He has created windows for many churches, like the main churches in Zürich, the Grossmünster and the Fraumünster. From the outside the images cannot be seen, but inside the church, as its choir is facing east, the windows offer a beautiful and special light effect.


Küblis: the stained glass windows by Augusto Giacometti in the Nikolaus church

Moving on the houses in Walser style caught my eye, here with the traditional wall cladding with “Schindel“, the wooden shingles in different colours and varieties of wood, that overlaying each other protect the house against the elements. The lifespan depends on the choice of the wood… The old town hall is combined with an pub (“Gasthaus”) with a “Bündner Stube”. In the past there was also a butcher in that building – the vague outlines of the word “Metzgerei” are still visible on the wall. Nowadays there is another shop: a “Kreativ-Laden”, a shop for the arts and crafts.


Küblis: the former town hall (“Rathaus”) with pub (“Gasthaus”)

Another remarkable building is that of the Hypropower station of the Electricity supplier RE Power. This enormous building from 1922 has been listed in the „Schweizerisches Inventar der Kulturgüter von nationaler und regionaler Bedeutung“, the Swiss inventory of Cultural Property of National and Regional Significance. It is the tallest of all historical buildings in the energy industry in the Grisons and its style holds the middle between a factory-type of building and a representative building. It is built in the so-called “Heimatstil”, a architectural movement that developed in the second half of the 19th century. The building dominates the eastern entrance to the village.


Küblis: the building of the water power plant of RE Power

After I ate a tasty “Hirschpfeffer”(marinated stewed venison) on the terrace of a pleasant restaurant near the railway station with the appropriate name “Bahnhöfli” (small railway station), I returned to the hotel. Reading the brochures I noticed that I will enjoy myself very well in the days to come.