It’s a cold, December morning as I slink into Chur Railway Station within the southeast of Switzerland. Scanning the platforms, I finally spot it: that trademark crimson exterior with the curved panoramic home windows and the phrases Bernina Specific emblazoned throughout the facet. The opposite passengers have arrived and there’s a palpable pleasure within the air. We’re all right here for one motive solely—to take Europe’s most lovely prepare journey.
Incessantly named Europe’s most scenic prepare trip, the Bernina Specific is a romantic throwback to the golden age of European rail journey, when the journey was the vacation spot. In simply 4 hours, it takes you from the city of Chur, via the tight valleys of Switzerland’s Graubünden canton, previous glaciers and over the best railway cross in Europe, into the Italian city of Tirano, the place in summer time you possibly can even discover palm timber.
The origins of the Bernina Specific return to the late nineteenth century, when enterprising hoteliers and bold engineers teamed as much as forge a transalpine railway line, connecting the Swiss plateau to the up-and-coming resort cities of St. Moritz and Davos, after which down into the Italian area of Lombardy. It was an formidable plan—the canton of Graubünden is extremely mountainous and sparsely populated, even by Swiss requirements. However the emergence of Alpine tourism, the debonair angle of the period and the help of the Swiss authorities, which needed entry to the area’s pure sources, led to work commencing in 1898.
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Envisioned primarily as a sightseeing prepare, the route was chosen to be as lovely and dramatic as doable, passing glaciers, Alpine villages and crossing over the two,253 meter Bernina Move. To barter the unimaginable variations in peak, engineers designed an intricate community of curved tunnels and radial viaducts which crisscrossed the valleys and folded in on themselves like a double helix. This was not simply meant to be a daring feat of engineering however a murals too. By the point the ultimate observe was laid in 1910, engineers had constructed 196 bridges, 55 tunnels, and related 20 distant villages by rail for the primary time. In 2008, the route was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Web site.
For the primary a part of the journey, we observe the valley of the Rhine. We cross typical Swiss landscapes of snow-capped mountains dotted with greystone castles and pointy church buildings, villages of tightly huddled homes and valleys that appear to spiral into infinity. Often, we’re greeted by attention-grabbing information in German and English from the onboard speaker system.
At Bonaduz, we go away the snug environs of the Rhine and start our gradual crawl via the slim Domleschg valley. We cross the Solis viaduct, its looming porticoes—seemingly carved from the rock itself—carrying us over the quite a few gorges which have traditionally made this valley so impenetrable.
It’s adopted by the Landwasser viaduct, which curves elegantly on its steeply receding arches earlier than coming into the flat rock face via a tunnel, the place it continues to observe the curve of the mountain. Out of your seat, the curve permits you to watch the prepare coming into the tunnel, 65 meters above the valley flooring—a unprecedented, vertiginous spectacle.
We cease briefly at Filisur, from the place you possibly can catch a connecting prepare to Davos. The Bernina Specific actually needs to be skilled twice, as soon as in winter with snow and as soon as in summer time when the valleys revert to a lush inexperienced stillness. I’m positive autumn and spring even have their charms—that is Europe’s most scenic prepare trip in any case.
We now enter the Albula Valley which is thinly populated with just a few disparate villages, blanketed in snow. Right here the homes should not a lot clustered as strewn like ribbons alongside the banks of the semi-frozen Albula river. The panorama is rugged and the fleeting, barn-like stations seemingly deserted. The one residing sight is a person bravely strolling his black canine within the snow.
The bilingual station cease of Bergün/Bravuogn signifies that we at the moment are crossing a border of kinds, from German-speaking to Romansch-speaking Switzerland. Graubünden is the one trilingual canton within the nation, with German, Romansch and Italian all spoken, refracted into dozens of airtight dialects throughout the area’s remoted, insular valleys.
Afterwards you really start to get a way of what the architects had envisioned for this journey. Right here, on the shut of the Albula Valley, nature and engineering merge seamlessly into one miraculous organism because the railway line weaves alongside the contours of the mountain, via curved tunnels and helical viaducts, spiraling in on itself like a thread being pulled round a screw. The sample is so labyrinthine that you just quickly lose all sense of course, like attempting to observe the logic of an MC Escher portray.
After the 5,865 meter Albula tunnel, we emerge on the Engadin valley, like moles blinking into the daylight. In contrast with the claustrophobic valleys earlier than, the Engadin is nearly a plain, with massive villages stretching heedlessly into the gap. We cease at Samedan with its postcard-pretty heart contrasting with a fairly cruel sprawl, a lot of it in-built that solemn, grey cubism that’s typical of Alpine modernism and which nobody appears to really like. From right here, a department of the Bernina splits off to St. Moritz, nonetheless sustaining its fame as certainly one of Europe’s glitziest resorts.
We arrive at Pontresina, the place the prepare stops for some time, as if to psychologically put together itself for what comes subsequent. We’re particularly excessive at this level, the timber are thinning and the peaks turning into extra jagged. On our proper, the onboard speaker informs me, is Piz Bernina, the best mountain within the Japanese Alps, whereas under it lies the arresting sight of the Morteratsch Glacier. I stare at it in surprise. I don’t suppose I’ve ever seen a glacier within the flesh earlier than.
We’ve soared previous the treeline at this level. All the pieces is white apart from our little crimson prepare choo-chooing throughout the tundra. Even the jagged peaks of the mountains can’t get away of their snow-covered straitjackets.
We journey alongside the shore of Lago Bianco, which is completely frozen. It’s an impressive sight which briefly stops all of the chatter on the prepare as individuals gaze immobile out the window. We cease briefly on the lakeside station of Ospizio Bernina. At 2,253 meters above sea stage, that is the best level on the Bernina Move and the best railway cross in Europe. We’ve additionally crossed the Alpine watershed, from right here on we’re on the southside of the Alps, the place the waters—together with Lago Bianco—drain not into the Danube, however into the Po.
At Alp Grüm station, which hangs perilously near the sting of an enormous cliff, the prepare stops for quarter-hour to permit passengers to stretch their legs. I drop down out of the carriage, my boots stamping onto the snow under. The sky remains to be vivid blue and just a few wispy clouds hold round, shut sufficient to the touch. It’s minus six levels Celsius (21.2 F) based on my cellphone, however the chilly is refreshing and nice. I even really feel overdressed. I smile and start to frolic. I don’t see snow like this fairly often and judging by the joyous reactions of the opposite passengers, neither do they. From the cliff-edge you can also make out the verdant Poschiavo valley curling into view. Behind us, the Palü glacier trails blue. Above it rises the imposing mountain of Piz Palü, memorably referenced by Michael Fassbender’s character in Inglourious Basterds.
I get to speaking with the prepare conductor, a younger lady with strawberry blonde hair and huge, spherical glasses that fog up each time she takes a breath below her masks.
“Is it solely vacationers who use this prepare, or do some locals take it too?” I ask.
“Principally vacationers, however some locals use it as a result of it’s the quickest method between Chur and Poschiavo,” she replies. “Within the winter, the street may be closed for days as a result of dangerous climate, however we run day-after-day with out fail. We additionally want to gather individuals from the lodge within the station.”
I look again at Alp Grüm station. Certain sufficient, there’s a lodge emanating from its modest foundations.
“There’s a lodge within the station? A lodge? On a distant mountain high that’s solely accessible by a prepare which comes twice a day?” I splutter, with some confusion.
She shrugs. “Some individuals benefit from the isolation.”
At this level she goes quiet, her eyes transfixed on Piz Palü within the distance. I take a look at the mountain, then at her, then on the mountain once more, barely unsettled by her sudden stillness. Solely the laughs of the youngsters enjoying within the snow break the eerie silence.
“You understand, I work this route 10 days a month,” she says, “And the panorama shifts a lot between seasons. Even within the winter, the wind blows the snow round creating totally different patterns and ripples. I really feel like I by no means see the identical view twice.”
She blows her whistle and all of us scurry again onto the prepare.
Now we’re descending, first the mountain tops return, then the timber. The prepare zigzags down the mountain resulting in spellbinding views of Poschiavo and its namesake lake. We’re crossing one other language border, this time into Italian-speaking Switzerland. By the point we attain the valley, the snow has vanished from floor stage, leaving a lush inexperienced meadow dotted with grazing cows. Within the distance, the towering, snow-drenched Bergamo Alps present our first glimpse of Italy.
For a few minute, the prepare turns into tram, weaving via the tiny streets of Poschiavo, with barely a meter between you and the homes. If some idle villager had been to absent-mindedly open his window presently, it might possible smash towards the prepare. We then ply a picturesque path alongside the lake, previous the dinky hamlet of Miralago with nice views again in the direction of Poschiavo, then proceed snaking down the valley. Telephones are out and anticipation is constructing for the Bernina’s best showpiece—the Brusio spiral viaduct, which coils round itself, carrying you spherical then below its elegant porticoes, with the tail of the prepare nonetheless seen on the arches above. It’s a genuinely breathtaking second.
The sudden proliferation of gasoline stations implies that we’re now approaching the Italian border. We cross, imperceptible and unchecked, and head in the direction of our vacation spot, the Italian city of Tirano. It’s nonetheless blue skies, and the temperature is a cool 11 C (51.8 F). Once more, we weave our method, tram-like, via the winding streets of Tirano. We’re in a brand new valley now, the Valtellina, within the Italian area of Lombardy.
Tirano is larger than I anticipated it to be, however then for hundreds of years this was one of the crucial vital Alpine crossings and was ceaselessly contested between rival powers. In the course of the Thirty Years’ Warfare (1618-1648), a dizzying array of armies fought for management right here, together with France, Spain, Venice, Savoy, the Papal States, the Holy Roman Empire and the native Swiss contingent often called the Gray Leagues, which progressively got here out on high as a result of a mixture of brutal preventing and expert diplomacy. The Swiss misplaced the valley in 1797 to Napoleon’s Cisalpine Republic, which in flip ceded it to Austria in 1815. In the course of the Italian Risorgimento, it was integrated into Italy together with the remainder of Lombardy in 1861.
Tirano nonetheless advantages from cross-border commerce and the valley is among the richest in Italy, famed for its cheeses and hams and residential to a number of the nation’s snowiest ski resorts. Encircled by tall mountains, dotted with fir timber and the occasional dollop of snow, it has a solemn magnificence which grows on you as you wander spherical, its light outdated mansions hinting at a storied previous. I observe the outdated buildings to what I presume is the central sq. and slink right into a cryptic trying trattoria with a downbeat, mahogany inside. I order salmì di cervo, a venison stew typical of the valley, served with buckwheat polenta and casera, the native cheese. That is correct mountain meals, meant for reconstituting oneself after an extended day within the fields or on the slopes.
I amble my method again to the station and catch the following prepare to Milan. The Bernina Specific could be the most lovely prepare journey in Europe, however the Tirano to Milan regional prepare is not any slouch both. The Valtellina, remoted and doused in snow, its villages clambering up the edges of the mountains, is gorgeous. On the conclusion of the valley, we cross alongside the japanese shore of Lake Como, the sky darkening and the fog rolling ominously over the water.
After an extended tunnel we emerge into the pancake flat Po Valley and the sprawling satellite tv for pc cities of Milan with all their vivid lights and intense rushes of urbanity. One other world actually, from the glacial kingdom we’ve simply departed.
For the Bernina Specific timetable and reservations, go to the website.