At Martigny Croix beyond the old railway station building, there is a gravel path that rises gently past the rocky wide Dranse. With a sudden ascent the path turns sharply, climbing hard towards the hamlet of Les Ecoteaux.
At 905 metres Les Ecoteaux is the tapered end of a ridge that separates the valleys of the Rhône and the Bagnes. This is not apparent deep among the stands of mixed conifer and deciduous trees. The switchback climb is arduous.
Experienced walkers go slow, like mountain goats finding their way cautiously over firm ground. Gradually the path levels out onto a pleasant meadow, rising gently again towards the sprawling chalets of Chemin, a settlement 250 metres higher.
Here we consult the map, because we are facing a set of choices. To descend back down, to the town of Martigny, where the L-shaped Rhône slides into Lake Geneva, or continue upwards towards the Col des Planches, at 1411 metres the first high peak along the ascending ridge. At the splendid Col des Planches the path offers some respite, descending slightly more than 100 metres down to Le Planard, a panoramic viewpoint. Also a crossroads.
Five paths test our resolve. Three go down, two go up! Always a good time to stop and contemplate. Eat. And make the correct choice. It is too far early for lunch, so we snack on sun-dried raisins, dried apricot halves, slivered almonds, crushed walnuts, whole hazelnuts, some wild berries, an energy bar of honeyed seeds and grains, and apple juice or pear nectar. This raises our energy levels.
Lunch is chunks of semi-hard cheese, wafers of air-dried beef, torn soft flatbread, a handful of spelt flakes and mineral water. That can wait. Although we are still hungry we need to continue – up or down? A meal not too dissimilar was found to have been eaten by a walker on a different mission 5,300 years ago. And as we are heading to the area where Ötzi, a 45-year old hunter was found mummified by the ice, we will also leave that story until later in the journey.
Anyone walking today in the high mountains without high-energy provisions might not meet the same fate that Ötzi suffered, but they would find themselves wondering what to eat from the wild, and that would make them exactly like the ancient iceman. The most interesting path for us to take is the one that rises toward the ridge at Les Blisiers under the 2472 metre high peak of Pierre Avoi, towering over Verbier in the Bagnes valley and Saxon in the Rhône valley.
It is interesting because the path runs alongside an intact Roman built viaduct. The Roman workers would also have been familiar with a lunch made from berries, grains, roots and seeds. They might even have been fortunate enough to have had some kind of meat to savour, and perhaps a swig or two of wine from local grapes to allow to linger. This makes us wonder how they got back down. We look at the map again. And there it is, a steep path that drops down into Saxon on the valley flour. Before the descent, that lunch!
Terra firma. We are tired and decide to visit a hostelry that serves barley soup. After a hard walk, this enigmatic winter soup is a reminder of how little the world has actually changed over millennia. It is hearty and conducive to well-being, just what we need. That hike was hard.
For us the Glacier Express will always be a train for winter and since the Furka Tunnel (featured on the cover of this book) opened in 1982 it has run from Zermatt to St Moritz unimpeded, revealing the enchanting white wonderland of the Swiss Alps.
The story of this train is not revealed in the impressive tourist figures (’oh you must do the Glacier Express’). It is something much deeper, and alluded to by Iso Camartin in the wonderful 2005 large format production (with fantastic photos by Robert Bösch), The World of the Glacier Express, published by AS Verlag of Zürich www.as-verlag.ch.
’To this day, the technical structures designed for this line by the early pioneers of railway engineering still amaze admirers from near and far,’ writes Camartin, a native of canton Grabünden.
’The Glacier Express connects three Swiss cantons, different linguistic and cultural landscapes, each with their own building styles and forms of habitation. The journey provides views spectacular as well as unpretentious, wild and dangerous as well as idyllic. Throughout the year, the Glacier Express offers new glimpses of the daring solutions devised by the engineers and constructors to overcome the hindrances and secure the connections between landscapes and people.’
This is the true story behind this train, the cultural connections that link the people and places of the Valais with their counterparts in Uri and Grabünden. From the Matterhorn, above the ski resort of Zermatt, to the Galenstock, above the Furka Pass, and Piz Bernina and Piz Palü at the border with Italy, the people live with these imposing peaks, forever in their debt. Camartin, a Rhateo-Romansh scholar, knew the implicit reasoning behind these cultural connections, but it was German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who understood what it meant.
’This is a metaphysical landscape,’ he said, a place that is never the same. The railway presented challenges to the people of the Alps, and now that several generations only know the railway age it is important that tourists and travellers experience that culture, especially their food culture (the whole purpose of this little tome). Those who want the full Glacier Express experience should devote two or three weeks to the trip, and get off at each stop where accommodation is offered, and walk alongside the lakes and rivers.
We recommend Brig, Fiesch, Oberwald or Realp, Andermatt, Disentis / Mustér, Thusis, Filisur, Bergün / Bravuogn and Samedan. It is all very well to travel on this train but it is still a very good idea to get off, find a suitable vantage point and marvel at the exquisite bridges, spiral tunnels and towering viaducts on the route. You are spoilt for choice. The train crosses 291 bridges and viaducts, and enters 91 tunnels. And of course the train also gives majestic views of the landscape that cannot be seen from footpaths. To appreciate them you need to be in the panoramic carriage.
The GEX leaves Zermatt at 8:52 in winter, and at 7:52, 8:52 and 9:52 in summer. It can be met at Visp, Brig, Andermatt (as we have done on this journey – coming up from Göschenen), at Chur and Filisur (with a change for Davos). We are getting off at Thusis.