Glacier Express, Switzerland train journey: The most beautiful country to see by rail

For the umpteenth time in recent days, the view through my carriage window is so beautiful, so screensaver-perfect, that it looks as if it's been computer-generated, or at the very least Photoshopped.

But no. This alpine idyll – all craggy, snow-dusted mountains lording over a lush green valley dotted with pine forests, snug wooden chalets and grazing cows and goats – requires no "touching up", no "filtering" or any other funky tool designed to trick, or induce envy, on social media. We're talking about Switzerland here, a country so spectacularly, naturally picturesque that you'll be dreaming about it long after your trip – especially if, like me, you explore it by rail.

While there are scenic train rides throughout Europe, nowhere can match Switzerland for its assortment of jaw-dropping journeys, whether it's high-profile ones like the Glacier Express – "the world's slowest express train" – or hidden gems that wend their way to remote alpine hamlets that could have been plucked out of a Heidi story.

I'd begun my adventure in the rather more functional surrounds of Zurich airport, a gateway to a Swiss public transport system that boasts more than 29,000 kilometres of rail, tram, bus, cable car and waterway routes – quite a feat for an alpine nation about two-thirds the size of Tasmania. What makes things even more impressive is the fact that it all pretty much runs like clockwork, whatever the weather – and that the vistas, more often than not, leave you mesmerised, snap-happy or, more likely, a mix of the two.

From Zurich, you should head to Interlaken. A two-hour ride on comfy modern double-deck trains (changing in chocolate-box-pretty Swiss capital Bern), it's not just the country's adrenaline hub – you can do everything from canyoning to paragliding here – it's a springboard for the awe-inspiring rail journeys of the Bernese Oberland region. Transporting a blend of Swiss and foreigners (with snowbunnies in winter, hikers in summer, when I visit), the train from Interlaken to Grindelwald is utterly beguiling, spiralling up, with no great rush, to a quaint alpine resort perched in the shadow of daunting peaks, including the Eiger (3970 metres), whose treacherous north face has long been a magnet for daring mountaineers.

If following in their footsteps sounds a bit taxing, you can appreciate the Eiger from other angles. Take the Wengernalp railway (25 minutes) to Kleine Scheidegg to transfer to the Jungfraubahn, which chugs nine kilometres to Jungfraujoch, Europe's highest train station (3454 metres). It's a masterpiece of late 19th century Swiss engineering, travelling on narrow-gauge rack-and-pinion (cogwheel) tracks and via tunnels that bore through the Eiger and neighbouring Monch mountain. Sadly, my audio guide reveals that the project's pioneer, Adolf Guyer-Zeller, died 13 years before the Jungfraujoch was unveiled on August 1 (Swiss National Day), 1912. There are tributes to him – as well as restaurants, ice and chocolate attractions, a post office and a research centre used by astronomers, geologists, physicists and meteorologists – at Jungfraujoch's labyrinthine Sphinx Observatory, which bears some of the hallmarks of a James Bond villain's lair.

As it happens, another nearby mountain – Schilthorn – doubled up as the retreat of 007's nemesis, Blofeld, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). I can't see Schilthorn from Jungfraujoch's Top of Europe viewing terrace. Mind you, such is the fog, I can't see anything, which is a shame, because when it's clear, it's said you can glimpse not only the Aletsch Glacier (at 23 kilometres, the European Alps' longest), but the Vosges mountain range in France and Germany's Black Forest.

At these altitudes, the weather – and visibility levels – can change quickly, but the following afternoon, I'm treated to glorious blue skies on the Gornergrat Railway. Starting in Zermatt, two hours and two changes south-west of Interlaken, it's another rack-and-pinion affair and plonks you, with ears popped in my case, at a 3089-metre open-air lookout that faces 38 peaks over 4000 metres. My gaze is fixed on the needle-shaped Matterhorn as I feast on a picnic of Swiss bread, Gruyere and bundnerfleisch (spiced, air-dried beef).

The next day, travelling first class on the Glacier Express, I'm served barley soup, and entrecote with herb butter and vegetables, plus wine from the Swiss canton of Graubunden, on a train that takes eight hours and three minutes to snake 291 kilometres between Zermatt and another southern Swiss resort, St Moritz. I'd previously ridden the Express one March, when everything, through the giant panoramic windows of its red-and-white coaches, appeared as if cast under a frozen spell by the White Witch of Narnia. On this fine June day, however, the landscapes are mostly a lush green, snow-melt cascading down forested slopes towards meadows alive with wildflowers, cattle and characters clutching Nordic walking sticks.

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Occasionally, we peek distant, model-like villages, which are protected, high up on the mountains, by anti-avalanche barriers. Things get icier and starker when crossing the 2033-metre-high Oberalp Pass, while adding to the intrigue. The train, first launched in 1930, traverses 91 tunnels and 291 bridges (or so says the informative audio commentary; I don't count them). With several stations along the way, you can break up your Glacier Express experience.

I alight at the halfway point in Andermatt, an exquisitely-situated resort town which, in its pomp, attracted holidaymakers as illustrious as Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill and Arthur Conan Doyle. A garrison town for the Swiss Army for much of the 20th century, it's now enjoying a mini-tourist renaissance thanks to the Chedi, a luxury new hotel bankrolled by an Egyptian-Swiss entrepreneur with eyes on transforming Andermatt into "the new St Moritz". Designed in Asian-Swiss alpine fusion style, and boasting butlers who do everything from warming up guests' ski boots to arranging summer hiking, cycling and golfing activities, the Chedi is the kind of lavish place you could imagine James Bond getting up to mischief in. The mountains fringing Andermatt, incidentally, were the backdrop to a thrilling car chase scene in Goldfinger (1964), with Sean Connery's 007 roaring around in his Aston Martin.

Reboarding the Glacier Express the next morning, I travel two and a half languid hours to Chur. Switzerland's oldest town – there's been a settlement here since 3000BC – it has a charming, strollable historic quarter, and is the launchpad for another much-vaunted train, the Bernina Express, which spirits four hours south, through UNESCO World Heritage-listed territory, across the Switzerland-Italy border. However, I board the less-heralded service from Chur to Arosa, a resort popular with Swiss skiers, snowboarders, hikers and wellness spa seekers.

Departing hourly, this Rhaetian Railways service threads, rather surreally, through Chur's streets, bringing all vehicular traffic to a halt, before rising 1000 metres, past vineyards, steep-sided valleys, emerald lakes and the Langwieser viaduct. The world's first reinforced concrete railway bridge, it arches 62 metres above the fast-flowing Plessur River. If we're being picky, one thing landlocked Switzerland lacks is a coastal train, but with lines like Geneva-Montreux, which whistles by Lac Leman, it's hard to complain.

Besides, from next month (April, 2017), there'll be another new (partially) waterfront journey to savour. Comprising a nostalgic paddle steamer ride, then a train trip, the Gotthard Panorama Express will ferry passengers from Lake Lucerne, near Zurich, to Bellinzona and Lugano in Switzerland's palm tree-blessed, Italian-flavoured canton of Ticino. As well as fine wining and dining, there'll be on-board presentations and apps illustrating the history, myths and legends of the famous St Gotthard Pass, which the service will traverse via the 15km Gotthard Tunnel (opened in 1882, since last December it has been largely superseded by the state-of-the-art 57km Gotthard Base Tunnel). Promising a mix of heritage and scenery, this latest Express is just the ticket in case you needed yet another reason to visit – or return – to Switzerland, a country for which that old phrase "It's about the journey, not the destination" could have been invented.

See also: There's a good reason to avoid the world's longest rail tunnel

See also: Stunning: The world's most beautiful hiking trail can be found in Switzerland

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/switzerland

myswitzerland.com

FLY

Swiss Air and Singapore Airlines fly to Zurich from Sydney and Melbourne via Singapore; see swissair.com

TOUR

Switzerland's wondrous travel system isn't perfect, with on-board Wi-Fi fairly rare and train fares pricey. Purchasing a Swiss Travel Pass may ease the financial burden. It allows unlimited use on most of the network, including inter-city and regional trains, ''panoramic'' railways, buses, trams and boats – and gives discounted fares on special mountain railways, such as the Jungfrau and Gornergrat. It's available for three to 15 days of travel, priced from CHF185 second class; See myswitzerland.com/rail

Steve McKenna was a guest of Switzerland Tourism

FIVE OTHER SCENIC SWISS JOURNEYS

BERNINA EXPRESS

Meeting the Bernina Express train in Tirano, the ''panoramic'' Bernina Express bus weaves through Italian alps and vineyards, then returns to Switzerland, dropping passengers in the sun-kissed, espresso-fuelled, lake-side city of Lugano; rhb.ch/en/panoramic-trains/bernina-express

JURA

Spanning valleys and mountains, the 60-kilometre (round trip) Jura Bike Tour to Laufen is one of several pretty cycle routes from Basel, a city by the River Rhine, bordering France and Germany. For a boost, hire an E-Bike (electrically-assisted bicycle) at Basel train station; basel.com 

LAC LEMAN

In Geneva, take a yellow ''mouette'' (public shuttle boat) across Lac Leman – or Lake Geneva, as it's also known; mouettesgenevoises.ch/pw/en

ST SAPHORIN-LUTRY

Over 65000 kilometres of waymarked trails criss-cross Switzerland, and few stretches are more tantalising than the 12-kilometre St Saphorin-Lutry hike by the UNESCO-rated Lavaux Vineyard Terraces overlooking Lac Leman between Lausanne and Montreux. Sample tipples in cellars along the way; montreuxriviera.com

THE ALPS

From Grindelwald, hop on the gondola to First. It's a soothing 25-minute ascent, with spellbinding views of the Eiger and other Jungrau peaks. In First, do the Cliff Walk, a new 260-metre walkway that protrudes out of a mountain side; jungfrau.ch

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