An historic journey…. and snow!

Or should that be A Historic Journey????

I heard from a work colleague this week of a travel opportunity which caught my imagination. They have built a brand new 35km tunnel under the Alps. It is ready to open in December for regular traffic, but from today, they are running two trains in each direction under the name NEAT Express. See the website for further information:

As today is the first day I thought it would be pretty “neat” to be able to go on this train. I expected that there would be loads of reporters and masses of people clammouring to be first, and since the first southbound train departed at 8:30 from Bern (an hour away from Zurich) I thought I should be there early. It was going to mean a really early start from the apartment, so on Friday night I looked to see if I could find a reasonable deal for B&B in Bern. I was lucky to find a nice place a stone’s throw from the railway station.

So I packed my toothbrush and some spare undies and socks and headed to Bern on Friday night.

This morning, I woke early. The hotel was nice and the bed was comfortable, but there was a clock in the town which chimed each quarter hour. I slept most of the night, but I think it was the 6:00 clanging which woke me. Breakfast was from 6:30, and I filled up on cereal and coffee. Then I headed to the station. There were lots of people milling around, so I assumed that my prediction of crowds was right, but slowly all of the likely ones left on other trains. When they finally announced the platform for the NEAT Express, there was no more than a normal amount of interest, although there were lots of people taking pictures of the departure board and the train itself.

Part of the deal was that they are only running first class carriages, so I had to pay 10 francs (£4.00) each way to upgrade. I thought there might be champagne and press photographers on the train, but it seems that this is just another train and just another tunnel to the Swiss, so nothing special.

The train was due to arrive in Brig at 9:37, and the train back from Brig the other way through the tunnel was not until 17:21, so the question was “what to do with a day around Brig?” Well I have been to Brig before, and believe me, there is not enough to occupy an hour, let alone a day. So I decided to get off the NEAT Express at Visp and catch the connecting train to Zermatt and spend some time there. I had read all about this in the guidebook, and it was attractive because Zermatt is very close to the Matterhorn.

The train from Visp to Zermatt was one of the mountain railways like I have been on before – very slow because they climb so much. I arrived in Zermatt at 10:44 and strolled along the main street in what felt like the right direction to get UP. Zermatt itself is very touristy, but quite nice. They know how to look after tourists as well. Interestingly there are no cars in Zermatt. There is a small fleet of tiny electric taxis, some run by the hotels, but everyone else has to park a few miles away and catch the train in.

Soon I glimpsed the Matterhorn. I read that it is really distinctive in shape, and that it really represents Switzerland, in the same way that the Eifel Tower represents France. It certainly is BIG and has an interesting shape. It is very pointed at the top, just the way that a child would draw a mountain!

When I found the cable car depot, I told them I wanted to go high, and they looked at me as if I was a bit funny, and then sold me a round trip ticket to Kleine (Little) Matterhorn. Perhaps they thought that someone wearing a T-shirt couldn’t possibly be stupid enough to want to go up a mountain! I had a couple of extra layers in my bag, so I knew where I was going.

It took 3 cable cars (quite long ones) to get to the top and the views on the way up were stunning. And yes, there was SNOW. Lots of it. In fact there were lots of people Skiing and snowboarding. Apparently this is another glacier and is snowy all year round. I read that they have skiing for 300 days of the year!

At the end of the last cable car, there was a corridor leading to a lift to go even higher. And at the top of the lift, a couple of flights of steps to get to the top at just under 4000m. It was bright sun, but apparently the temperature was -3ºC. I was very glad of my two extra layers, and would actually have liked a pair of gloves too. However, I sat and munched a packet of my fruit and nuts at the very top, and took lots of photos. The views were just breathtaking.

I went back down the lift and walked the other way along the corridor and found myself at the start of a ski run, complete with ski lift etc. There was a little cafe and lots of people sitting around enjoying the view. I saw a short way across the snow there was an entrance to a “Glacier Palace”, but it looked slippery and I wasn’t sure whether to risk it in trainers. In the end I decided I would and I am SO glad I did! There was a long tunnel hacked through the ice, and at the end was a chamber with lots of ice sculptures. It was amazing! I took lots more pictures, before heading back down to the bottom, accompanied by loads of teenagers with their skis and snowboards. Photos here

When I got to the bottom, I felt over dressed again, and stripped off to my T-shirt. The difference between 1600 and 4000m was QUITE noticeable! Also the air was VERY thin at 4000m. There were signs everywhere telling people to “move slowly – you are in a high alpine region!”

I wandered along the main street, browsing in some of the shops. Didn’t buy anything cos it was pretty expensive. Some nice stuff. Most of the shops were selling sports gear from hiking shoes to snowboards.

I caught a train from Zermatt at 3:30 all the way to Brig, where the NEAT express was due to leave at 5:21. My second journey through the Lötschberg Basis tunnel was similarly uneventful, but I know that I was on the 2nd and 3rd public trains to pass through this new tunnel! There’s a story to tell the grandchildren!

Arrived back in Bern and jumped on a train to Zurich, and here I am back at Grubenstrasse. It’s been an amazing day – one I will remember for a long time.

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