Today we embarked on the part of the trip I’m most excited about: riding trains through and hiking around the Swiss Alps.
Mont Blanc Express
We began by stumbling off the overnight train from Paris in St Gervais. It turned out that the water on board the train wasn’t potable, so we were leery of brushing our teeth there. Instead I thought we could maybe wash up at the St Gervais station, but there appeared to be no facilities, not even toilettes.
There weren’t any ticket kiosks, either, much to my dismay. I had many opportunities to buy tickets at other stations, but assumed I would be able to at St Gervais. Such was not the case, but it turned out you could buy tickets on-board. But only with cash. Of which we did not have. Fortunately the ticket checker was reasonable and wrote us an invoice that we took to Chamonix and paid at the station.
At Chamonix I picked up the timetable for the Mont Blanc Express (which is what the segment between St Gervais and Martigny is served by), and discovered that the train continued past Chamonix, which was not what the timetable had led me to believe when I had checked some weeks before. So then it was another rush to get back on the train we have just left, again with mere seconds to spare.
At Martigny, we took a bit of a break to change all our US dollars and euros into Swiss francs, as cash has been a dire problem for us all this trip. Then it was off on a regular service train (that somehow still had panoramic windows) to Zermatt (with another transfer in Visp).
There were a lot of transfers today, but all the stations were small, well-equipped with ramps and Wi-Fi, clear signage and in all it was actually all quite easy. That’s what you get for travelling on the Swiss rail network, you see.
The other thing you’re supposed to get taking Swiss trains is amazing on time performance. While I had a lot of really satisfying moments of feeling the train move as my watch struck 30 seconds after the minute (my, hah, Swiss-branded watch), and determininh exactly where we were and how long we had left to go using the detailed timetable, we were actually on board a late train. At some point we had to stand on the tracks for an unusually long time and ended up being late into Zermatt by like 10 or 20 minutes.
Zermatt is one of those car-free alpine villages that seems to subsist entirely on tourists and skiers. But there’s a lot of motor vehicle traffic for a car-free town: it’s just of tiny and electric vehicles instead.
We picked up a couple of maps at the tourist office, which was conveniently located mere steps away from the train station. I tried to make a plan, but with so many options it was a bit futile.
We checked into our hotel, the Hotel Bristol, which was just great. I think it might be the most comfortable place we’ve stayed in so far this trip. Everything is clean and functional and well laid out, and the bathroom is just awesome. We really needed to clean up after the overnight train and all the other travelling we did today, so that bathroom was like an oasis.
After cleaning up we were starving (having decided against stopping for food along the way), and scrounged for victuals at one of the local grocery stores. Pickings were slim for prepared foods, but I guess I’m finally desperate enough to look forward to sandwiches. (Eating out, dear readers, was out of the question. The prices we were seeing were about $50 a head, for simple and likely mediocre fare such as pizza.)
Clean and fortified, we were at last ready to ascend the mountain by cogwheel railway and hike down. But when we finally got to the tourist office, they were 5 minutes from closing and most reluctant to take on any further work, like selling cogwheel railway tickets. Undeterred, we decided, who needs a fucking train? And simply climbed the mountain by foot.
I won’t lie, it was rough. At different points both of us thought we wouldn’t make it. We started obsessing over the benches, periodically placed by the trail. Every time we came to a bench, we took a breather and switched off on bag-carrying.
At last we reached Patrullarve, some 380m above where we started. At this point we decided to head back, first along a gloriously flat stretch, then, eventually, a long descent. My thighs were killing me. I hope I’m not too sore to go hiking in the next few days.
The highlight of the hike was when a chamois, a goat-antelope, bounded down the slope right in front of us. For a second we thought he would crash right into us, but no, he did the goat trick of being breathtakingly agile and changed directions on a dime. No pictures, of course. I was far too busy staring with my jaw open like an idiot.
After the hike, we relaxed on our balcony with drinks and phones. The icing on the hotel cake is that the WiFi is relatively fast.