Rail route of the month: the drama of an Alpine epic from Zurich to Graz

3 months ago
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Every great railway station needs a guardian angel. Zurich has one of the quirkiest. A colourful sculpture of a curvaceous, swimsuit-clad woman with golden wings hovers over the main concourse at the city’s Hauptbahnhof. L’ange protecteur by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle is as intriguing as the busy departure boards. With direct trains to destinations across 10 countries, this station is rich in possibilities. Anywhere from Amsterdam to Zagreb! Berlin, Bratislava or Bologna? Or perhaps Paris or Prague?

Sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle at Zurich’s Haupthanhof
Sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle at Zurich’s Haupthanhof Photograph: eFesenko/Alamy

For lovers of fine scenery, the star departure of the day is, in my opinion, the 08.40 to Graz. This EuroCity train includes an Austrian restaurant car and one of the rare panorama carriages owned by Swiss operator SBB. There’s only one other international departure from Zurich which offers such panoramic delight: the EC8 at 10.59 to Hamburg. There are some fine scenic stretches on that route to be sure, most notably the hour-long cruise down the Rhine Gorge from Mainz to Koblenz. But that cannot compete with the EC163 to Graz which, if you excuse a few tunnels, offers over nine hours of first-class Alpine scenery on its journey of 325 miles (522km) to Austria’s second city.

EuroCity style

Sargans and Gonzen mountain, Switzerland.
Sargans and Gonzen mountain, Switzerland. Photograph: Makasana Photo/Alamy

The EuroCity train to Graz is called the Transalpin, a name which was historically used by the first train of the day from Zurich to Vienna, but since late 2013 references the daytime EuroCity from Zurich to Graz. Over the last 10 years, the Transalpin timings have barely changed. At bang on 08.40 we roll out of Zurich and are soon speeding along the south side of the Zürichsee. There are lakeshore views aplenty as we travel through a region which Thomas Cook described as “the Lancashire of Switzerland”. The mills are long gone. At Sargans, we make a sharp turn to the north and then, just an hour into our journey, we come to the station stop at Buchs. We then cross the River Rhine into mighty Liechtenstein.

I am suddenly overwhelmed by gratitude to the population of Liechtenstein who, in a referendum three years ago, decided that trains should run slowly through their diminutive principality. Good for them! They turned down a proposal to improve the single-track railway that the Transalpin follows through Liechtenstein.

So we enjoy a gentle trundle through six miles of Liechtenstein territory to reach Austria where we loop around Feldkirch’s hilltop castle to reach the town’s main station. For James Joyce, leaving Austria in the first world war, Feldkirch was his last stop on Habsburg territory. He was anxious that his manuscripts would be confiscated by the Austrian authorities. Revisiting Feldkirch in peacetime, he recalled “Over there, on those tracks, the fate of Ulysses was decided in 1915.” The German rendering of those words appears on a frieze in the booking hall at Feldkirch station.

The two-hour run from Feldkirch to Innsbruck is magnificent, after the Arlberg railway across the great divide separating waters which drain west via the Rhine to the North Sea and those flowing east via the Inn and the Danube, eventually reaching the Black Sea. Ten minutes of darkness in the Arlberg tunnel punctuate a stretch of 25 miles, where the railway is always over 1,000 metres above sea level.

The entire Arlberg railway is glorious and seen at its best from the comfort of the Swiss panorama carriage (the dining car is adjacent too, where apple strudel awaits). The crossing of such fierce terrain seems all too easy in a modern train. It was not always thus. My 1840 John Murray guide tells how early travellers perished in the snow on these mountains, their frozen bodies left by the path for scavenging crows.

Through the Tirol to Styria

Graz, capital city of the southern Austrian province of Styria.
Graz, capital city of the southern Austrian province of Styria. Photograph: Yating Kuo/Getty Images

From St Anton, it’s downhill all the way via Landeck and Innsbruck to Wörgl where we leave the Inn valley and climb east into the hills to reach Zell am See.

We slip down the Salzach valley to Bischofshofen, leaving it there and cresting a gentle col to reach the valley of the River Enns. The challenging gradients of the Arlberg are far behind, replaced now by the quiet charm of single-track railway through rural Austria. A steady drizzle sets in by Selzthal where we stop for 10 minutes. Then it’s just another 90 minutes on to Graz, where we arrive on time at 18.14.

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This journey offers a longish transect through the Alps from west to east. The much-celebrated Alpine rail routes run mainly from north to south; the Simplon, Gotthard, Bernina and Brenner railways are all very fine journeys, the Alpine stretches amount to no more than a couple of hours. The beauty of the Transalpin is that it offers a good day’s travelling where the entire journey is a festival of Alpine scenery, taking in many of the key landscape elements of the Alps, from the elemental drama of the Arlberg to the pastoral beauty of Upper Styria. Holders of first-class rail tickets or passes can enjoy the entire journey from the Swiss panorama carriage, though on a hot summer’s day the glaring sun and all that glass may not suit some travellers.

It’s interesting how these very special carriages venture so far from their homeland, for from Graz there’s now a Swiss panorama carriage on the daily EuroCity train to Przemyśl in the far south-east corner of Poland close to the border with Ukraine. I’m tempted, but after over nine hours on a train from Zurich, I need a day or two in one place before venturing further east. And Graz is certainly worth a night or two, offering a grace and style that rivals Vienna. Graz has a fine range of onward international rail connections. Apart from the direct train to Przemyśl, there are also direct daytime services to Berlin, Budapest, Zagreb and Prague.

What you need to know

The Swiss panorama carriage.
A Swiss panorama carriage. Photograph: Hidden Europe

The Swiss panorama carriage on the Transalpin is designated as first-class. Elsewhere on the train there’s a choice of first and second-class open-plan carriages and old-style compartment coaches. The Austrian restaurant car on the Transalpin is open for most of the journey (mains from about €10). One-way tickets on the Transalpin from Zurich to Graz start at €33.10 in second class and €70.70 in first. Buy online from ÖBB or from Rail Europe, or use an Interrail pass (from €258 for a four-day pass, which also allows free travel for two accompanying children aged 11 and under).

Nicky Gardner is a Berlin-based writer. The 17th edition of her book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide has just been reprinted and can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop

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