Today is without doubt the planned highlight of our trip. A one way trip through and over the Alps on a scenic train from Switzerland and down into Italy. Echoes of Hannibal, Otzi and Edward Whymper. The Bernina Express, a panoramic train, takes four hours to travel just over 100 km, through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges. It climbs to 2250 metres. This part of the journey was pencilled in first and the rest of our travels effectively planned around it.
We check out of the Post Hotel in Chur after a good breakfast and make our way on foot back to the station to await the 8.34 am Bernina Express. It will be on time; this is Switzerland after all: regimented, just a bit anal, fussy, tidy, litterfree, well behaved and all in all a little too “German”.
The Bernina express exceeded all our expectations, the 4 hours went by so soon. There was good overall visibility but rather overcast during the first part of the journey along the Albula line as we saw castles and churches on precipices of rock with distant views of the approaching mountains. The railway climbed ever upwards until we reached the Landwasser viaduct , an astonishing feat of engineering which delivered the train on a sweeping curve into a tunnel entering a vertical rock face. The view from an open window was remarkable.
The section from Bergun to Preda climbs over 1500 feet in just a few kilometres , this increase in altitude achieved with a bewildering series of viaducts and tunnels, some of which are complete spirals, which constantly change your view of the valleys and peaks. At the end of this section the line descends to the valley of the Inn river and the town of Samedan. So far, Every corner has brought a new chocolate boxtop or jigsaw view, with green alpen fields, cows and swiss chalets all in an immaculate manicured landscape.
I realise later that as we started our journey on this train , any rainfall we saw would eventually end up in the Rhine and arrive in North Sea, at this point of the journey though the Inn river drains into the Black Sea and the odd flake of september snow that we saw at Alp Grum ( see below) would drain into The Po and the Adriatic Sea! The watershed of Europe.
From Samedan the train climbs ever higher to Lago Blanco, the high point of Ospizio Bernina ( 2253 m or almost 7400ft) and then a pit stop at Alp Grum. Here the passengers disembark to stretch their legs, photograph the train and the glaciers, and there, to the distant south Italy and its sunshine beckoned. The Italian peaks in the distance are highlighted with blue sky.
After the stop the train begins an incredible descent towards a distant blue lake at Poschiavo. We are still in Switzerland but the on-train audio guide has told us that Alp Grum represents the boundary of language and we are now in Italian not Romansch or German Switzerland. The houses are less tidy, graffiti appears and occasionally people are possibly late for work! Eventually we reach the last major landmark of this trip; the Brusio viaduct which is completely circular and reminds you of a snake swallowing its own tail.
The train arrived in Tirano, Italy had now taken over completely, joyously scruffy gardens, doing something tomorrow is a good excuse and laughing out loud is not punishable by a fine. We left the Rhaetian Railways station and entered the other Italian railway station across the toytown square. We bought 2 rail tickets to Milan for 22 euros, two and a half hours away. Don’t tell Richard Branson. A small cafe is a useful source for sandwiches, water and wine. The aged train with its 60’s rolling stock had possibly 15 to 20 coaches but only 60 people on board. Very inefficient, if this was run by the Swiss they would have a fit!
Signs in the loo tell you not to use the facilities at the station, there are dirty windows and it’s all a bit decrepit but after Switzerland, we loved it. The journey is warm and sunny, Mediterranean smells come through the open windows as we picnic on wine and substantial sandwiches. The initial part of journey is through Valletina borderd by the Rhaetian alps, vineyards and forests. From Colico to Lecco the train runs alongside 25 miles of Lake Como affording brilliant lakeside views, tantalisingly broken by tunnels of unknown length.
After passing through Monza, we arrive in Milan’s huge grand limestone edifice of a station. This must be a Mussolini legacy , all quasi-Roman Empire. We take a taxi to Hotel Berna as we were hot, bothered and want to avoid hassle. Ten euros for what was effectively a five minute walk. But our generosity to the local economy was repaid as the Hotel Berna gave us an upgrade! Our room had everything, a large bathroom, lots of mirrors, free soft drinks, jacuzzi bath and more pillows than John Lewis.
After a quick wash & brush up we get out to see city. Three stops on the underground, direction San Donato bring us to Duomo. A Perfect time to see this marvel of a cathedral as the late afternoon sun lit up the white marble western end in glorious luminance against a cobalt blue sky. Along the northern edge of the piazza ran the huge 19th century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Forget the Meadowhall and the Trafford centre, this is the original shopping mall built in 1865, filled with designer shops and expensive cafes and restaurants. After spending time in the piazza, we passed through the galleria into the Piazza la scala and sat in the little park below the statue of Leonardo da Vinci.
We wandered around the streets looking for somewhere to have a meal. We decided not to have the 19 euro sandwich in Trussardi despite the chic interior. After much debate, we ended up in a virtual takeaway eating gnocchi bolognese , aubergine parmigiana and chicken with fried potatoes. Water and two glasses of wine, 25 euros. Eventually found our way back to duomo where it was still busy and the cathedral was now lit by lights. Just by the entrance of the galleria was the stylish bar Camparino, which specialises in a drink not dissimilar to the name! Here I was obliged to enjoy a Negroni and the free bar top snacks whilst OH used the “facilities”. The things I have to do!
Back on the metro, and a last, somewhat overpriced, drink in a pavement cafe before bed. Venice tomorrow.
Stop that train: I’m leavin’ – today!
Stop that train: I’m leavin’ – anyway!
Stop that train: I’m leavin’. And I said:
It won’t be too long whether I’m right or wrong