I had travelled the route of the Bernina Express – or most of it – about 10 years ago in the summer, and it was on my to-do list from here. The route goes over the Bernina pass, then down into the Italian speaking part of Switzerland before crossing the border into Italy itself.
The route is an interesting one because of the spectacular scenery and the spectacular engineering. It was late May when I last did it, and there was snow about at the summit…
Let’s get the bad bit over first. This was nothing like the Glacier Express. It turned out to be one wagon on a standard train, and not even the timetabled buffet service. As the journey is over two and a half hours each way, and as I had expected the buffet, I didn’t have a drink with me…
But the rest was wonderful. I had chosen the day by the forecast, and full sun all day proved right. The weather couldn’t have been better…
The first part of the journey is about mountains. Lots of them, high on both sides of the valley. As we went up and up, the country got wilder and wilder until we even left the road behind. The top of the pass is at Ospizio Bernina (the Italian influence is here from this point) and at this point the snow was very deep.
After the top of the pass, the wildness continues, and the downward incline is at first fairly shallow. Then you begin to be aware that the line is twisting and turning, and you notice seeing scenery you have seen before! Basically the line comes right down the mountain, in and out of tunnels, looping the loop and going round tight turns. The squeal of the wheel rims on the rails on the tight turns is almost constant.
Then there are distant views way down into a snow-free valley with a lake.
As time goes by you realise that this the valley the train is heading for.
For a while the trees are in the way, then you come out below the forest into the high valley. The houses have a definite Italian flavour to them…
As the train travels on, it comes to the lake visible from above, and travels down the side of it.
You may think that the exciting parts of the line are now behind you, but that is not the case. After a fairly level bit, the valley drops steeply, and there are more bridges and loops. The final one is the Brusio Circular – a complete circle, mainly built out into the valley.
As the engineering becomes more usual, other things strike you. I hadn’t done this very last bit before, and it was fascinating to see the marriage of the Swiss and Italian cultures in the housing and general appearance of the villages.
Then we went into Italy itself – and this changed again. One of the main differences as far as the railway was concerned was that once over the boarder, the road and railway shared the same tarmac! While the train was passing, vehicles had to wait and travel along behind…!
Tirano is something and nothing. And definitely Italian – the shops had the run down look of a country in economic trouble. It wasn’t helped by the fact that we arrived at lunchtime, and everything, including most cafes, was shut!!
The journey back was over the same line, but you notice different things when travelling in the other direction.
One thing which I noticed was the fact that from the Italian side, you seem to be travelling up a blind valley until you are right up in the Alps. At the last minute you see the pass going off to the left behind a bluff. This route has been known and used since before Roman times, but one does wonder how they found it. Folk would have had to walk a very long way up a seemingly blind valley before the side valley became visible…
The sun was still shining as we came back into St Moritz station, getting lower but still above most of the mountains, and I got some lovely shots of the village. By the time I had climbed up to my hotel the sun had sunk that bit lower, and very soon it was dark. My hotel has an outdoor bar which is a big part of the Apres Ski scene here, and I had to fight to get in through the door! It was clear that folk who had stayed round St Moritz had also has a good, sun-filled day!