Moving on from my previous article about my Glacier Express experience, I ended that story with me losing consciousness the night before after indulging in some seriously boozy fondue. I must say it was a very sedate Valentine’s night … I passed out from a combination of sheer exhaustion and possibly too much white wine in my dinner. I slept very well tho … haha.
So, we’re still here in the Ferienhotel Julier Palace, Silvaplana and the next day I woke up feeling very refreshed; looking forward to breakfast. In the warmer months Silvaplana is meant to be a gorgeous lakeside resort boasting many opportunities for water sport and such. But in the winter months nothing of said lake remains, as you can see from the picture above. Just a thick layer of snow and ice.
After breakfast we packed up and checked-out. Made our way back down the road to wait for the shuttle bus at the post office. It was snowing that morning and I remember feeling very cold; I mustn’t have sufficiently warmed up at breakfast … Bircher muesli hadn’t kicked in yet. Today was to be the day we were to cross over the Swiss alps and emerge on the other side. Destination : Tirano, Italy. From Tirano we’d make our way by train to Lake Como.
Needless to say we got to the train station rather early …. and I HATE nothing more than waiting around, so I busied myself feeling miffed for about an hour. Eventually our train rocked up and we were asked to step up onto the platform, which looked particularly frozen. Men were manually digging out chunks of ice, trying to free the tracks. It was amusing while it lasted … I was anxious to board my train.
Just like its sister service the Glacier Express, the Bernina Express also has panoramic glass coaches, offering passengers spectacular views of the landscape. The Bernina Express connects Chur (and Davos) in the canton of Graubünden, via the Albula line with Poschiavo and Tirano on the Italian side by crossing the lofty Bernina Pass. Graübunden (or Grison) is the largest and eastenmost canton in Switzerland, stretching all the way down to the border of Italy. The journey takes about 2½ hours (if you board at St Moritz) and crosses the peak at a height of 2,253 m above sea level ~ the land of the permanent glaciers. I didn’t see any glaciers because the weather was a total white-out during our ascent. If you want perfect views then travel in the warmer months perhaps? In between St Moritz and Tirano there are numerous other stations, but the Bernina Express will only stop at the two major ones : Poschiavo and Tirano.
Depending on the time of year and distance you intend to travel, prices for the Bernina Express can vary, starting at just € 15 – € 90, one-way, in 2nd Class; or travel in style on a 1st Class ticket for anywhere between € 30 – € 135. People travelling with an all-inclusive Swiss Pass just need to pay the supplementary booking fee to reserve your seat. The Rhaetian Railway Co. (Rhb) owns, runs and manages both the Albula & Bernina lines that take you from Chur – St Moritz – Tirano.
Part of the route, up until St Moritz, is shared with the Glacier Express, yet still the Bernina Express passes through some of the worlds most picturesque landscapes in the Albula and Bernina region, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I cannot fault them there, really. These two historic railway lines, opened for use in 1904, come together in St Moritz. The Albula line in the north western part of the property is 67 km long. It crosses a total of 144 bridges and viaducts, and passes thru 42 tunnels and covered galleries on it’s way to St Moritz alone. The Bernina Pass line on the other hand is just a touch shorter at 61 km, yet still manages to cross an impressive 52 viaducts and 13 tunnels. Pretty, pretty, pretty!
We initially had no idea about the existance of the Bernina Express, neither did we have any inclination to venture over the alps into Italy, but thanks to R and his clever research techniques he got some awesome advice from the Thorn Tree travel forum. So this random guy online told us that it would be worth our while to venture over to Italy and spend a few days in Como, by the famous lake … where George Clooney has a villa. Apparently you can pay to go on a ferry tour of all the palatial lakeside villas belonging to these celebs; the Versace property is said to be particularly splendid … but all everyone can talk about is Mr Clooney. Possibly coz he is an American filmstar, and the Versaces are just considered local fashion moguls.
The Bernina Express rail journey, to me, seemed less glamorous compared to the Glacier Express ~ no fancy 3-course meals were served here; no smartly dressed hospitality officers in freshly pressed uniforms. What we did get was a dude and his very freaky “goat” coffee trolley going from carriage to carriage selling hot beverages in paper cups and light snacks. From what I have read, the mountain goat is a proud symbol of the Graübunden region … hence, its “obvious” why they’d opt to stick it at the back of a coffee trolley.
All things considered, poor visibility and all, once you get over the peak things get better and better as you descend into the valley. The train overcomes the steep gradient by graduating its descent with the cunning use of zig-zag tracks and spiral viaducts ~ the most notable of which is the spiral viaduct of Brusio … best appreciated from an aerial viewpoint. My personal picture does not do this engineering marvel justice. This hundred year old viaduct lies well within the borders of Switzerland and it opened in 1908. It’s sole purpose was to gradually allow the train to descend off the mountainside without crashing in a heap at the bottom. The going gets rather slow here, but on the plus side it means better photo opportunities for the avid snapper.
During the summer months you can take a bus directly from Tirano straight back into Switzerland via Lugano … which was what we planned to do but seeing as which we were travelling in icy February, the bus route was not open. So to Lake Como we headed.
We arrived in Tirano about 1pm and I was starving by then … but let me tell you about the stark difference we experienced on the Italian side : Nobody cared or took any notice of us. All the shops appeared closed; so was the ticketing office at the train station. We needed to purchase our ticket to Como but nobody was about. There was a sign at the office saying that they would be open again at 3 pm. Whatever happened to just an hours lunch?? So we ended up having a bite to eat in the only restaurant that was available to us : the railway station restaurant. Food was so-so but I couldn’t complain; I was HUNGRY!
We finally got our tickets to Como at 3 pm and boarded the local rail service, TreinItalia. Jezuz, what a difference it was! The windows wouldn’t open, there was barely any ventilation in there and along the way one of the doors got stuck and had to be man-handled back into place by a passenger. There was no direct train to Como so we had to go almost all the way to Milan, get off at Monza and switch trains. It was a very trying journey. We just got off a mountain pass and were dressed in thermals, yet here we were in the hottest and stuffiest train ever; I felt like I couldn’t breathe. This went on for 4 hours! Nobody wanted to open a window.
At 8 pm we finally stumbled out of that hellish ride only to discover we were not at the station we had anticipated. On our map it indicated that we should have been able to walk the 5-minutes to our hotel, the Metropole Suisse right on the lake shore. But it turned out that we were at the wrong station ~ if I recall I think we ended up at St Bartholomeo station. We could still walk to the hotel but we were not sure how long that would take so we simply jumped in a cab coz I was beyond bushed for the day. Took us about 5-minutes by cab for a cost of just € 6.
The Metropole Suisse is by no means the ideal hotel to put up in, but it was do-able for people like us who were just passing thru. I would say it is a mid-ranged hotel with the standard facilities that go with it : mini bar, WIFI service, cable TV, heating … etc. Service was pleasant and professional … and yes, they speak English. They put us up on the top most floor facing the piazza and with lake views from the balcony. WIN! The view would have been perfect if not for the construction that was going on to repair the pier.
The room was pleasantly larger than I expected. European hotels are not known for their space, and I have been in some seriously tiny ones that we paid the same price for. The bathroom was a decent size and the bed was comfortable too. But no time to rest just yet … we were in search of some nourishment, so back out we went to scour the piazza for a decent restaurant that would feed us yet not rob us with touristy prices.
What we found blew my mind. After spending over a week in Switzerland, living on supermarket sandwiches and crying over food bills, Italy was really a breath of fresh financial air … food was SO CHEAP!!! I went absolutely mental and we ate well for the first time in about 10 days. I ordered the set “Tourist Menu” and an entrèe of scamorzza , an Italian cow’s milk cheese similar to mozzerella that is smoked. It’s on my list of things to eat before I die, so I had to order it. I was not prepared for the generous portion tho … three thick sliced of grilled cheese with caramelized onions on the top. The Tourist Menu sounds bad but it couldn’t be further from my preconception. It was a 3-course meal featuring mainly lake fish. For the life of me I cannot remember what I had for my primi piatti but I know there was fish involved. For my secondi piatti I had the risotto of lake fish with tomatoes, and OMG! … it was the best thing on earth! It was just the thing I needed to recharge my tired spirit ~ a generous helping of creamy rice and bits of freshwater fish. Then I was absolutely stuffed and I don’t think I asked for my dessert … which was a scoop of gelati accompanied by coffee. The entire 3-course meal cost me just € 20. In Switzerland you’d get a cold ham and cheese sub with a cup of coffee for that price; I kid you not. We were so happy with that restaurant that we returned again for lunch the next day.
The next day we had a good sleep in to recover from all the hours spent going up and down mountainsides in trains. Unlike France, business seemed to start slow here in Italy. Not many places were open for breakfast so we took the first place that looked halfway decent. Nothing on the menu particularly appealed to I just had the wrap with ham and cheese. R just settled for his morning dose of espresso. Then it was off exploring the town. We didn’t have much time coz R had to head back to the hotel and work (he travels with his laptop at all times coz he gets calls from the office regardless, even when he’s officially on vacation). First stop was the funicular station.
Just like the first one we ever rode in Switzerland, this dual carriage cable railway enables people to get up steep hills in a relatively efficient manner. By using various cables, a pulley system at the top of the hill and the science of counterbalance these cars, each going in the opposite direction, move up and down the slope with minimal energy consumption.
Again, from what I gather from the various signs in the station, this funicular is over a hundred years old, and the façade has remained unchanged thru the decades. The service has been in operation since 1894 and is used to connect the city of Como on the lake shore with the village of Bruante at the top of the slope. Back in its infancy the pulleys were powered by steam but it soon switched over to an electrified motor in 1911. Tickets cost about € 5.50, round-trip.
Up top the views were spectacular. You get to take in all of the city and the lake below, and then far in the distance, just peaking out over the horizon are the Swiss – Italian alps … covered in snow of course. It’s hard to believe we were just there 24 hrs ago on the other side of the border, high up in the clouds. To have come down thru those mountains on a narrow gauge rail journey is even more mind-boggling, especially when you remind yourself that all the infrastructure was put in place at the turn of the last century, before todays modern engineering methods were conceived. For a better understanding here is a pretty informative article about the mountain pass railway : Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes.
It was pretty special up there. I really felt like I was on top of the world … and I was ready to rent a villa and move in that very day. I didn’t want to leave. EVER! On the way back down we passed quite a few empty villas and I was very tempted. Their owners probably use them as summer houses when the rest of Italy heats up to unbearable temperatures. Lucky bastards!
Eventually, it was time to head back to the hotel since R had scheduled some work. We did manage to make a friend en route tho … a mountain kitty! All lazy and cat-like, sleeping in the only patch of sun it could find on its doorstep. We saw it on the way up but it was fast asleep. On the way back tho, R could not resist and called to it thru the bars of the gate … and it responded lovingly to free pats. R was a happy man, for he loves kitties.
Once back down the hill, R and I went our separate ways … he went back to the hotel and I went to check out the local cathedral, also known in Italian as Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta; or simply Duomo di Como. Either way you can’t miss it, for it dominates the skyline and you can hear its bells toll for miles.
Construction of the cathedral first began in 1396 (geez, that’s a long time ago!) …. and building never stopped until three centuries later in 1770 when they finally hoisted the cupola onto the roof. The grand western front was built between 1457 and 1498 and features a beautiful stained glass rose window high above the front entrance. The doors to the cathedral are flanked on either side by two statues : Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger. The former was a general in the army of the ancient Roman Empire, while the latter was a magistrate of Ancient Rome.
Inside the cathedral the space is vast and cavernous. The vaulted ceilings seem so impossibly high up, one wonders how they were even built on manual labour. Two pipe organs dating back to the 17th century still stand in their original place. Some seriously old tapestries were on display.
Didn’t spend too long at the cathedral. Eventually I made my way back to the hotel via the bustling city square for a rest. Along the way I picked up a souvenir booklet or two and was quite content with myself. We spent one more night in Como and the next day we packed up again and headed to the train station for our trip back into Switzerland. We were so very happy to learn that the Swiss bullet trains come right into Como, so instead of getting buying a ticket on a rickety ‘ol Italian train with no ventilation, we flexed our Swiss Pass powers and boarded the SBB for free. Happy days! We passed Chiasso and got off at Lugano for lunch (risotto again for me), then onwards non-stop to Luzerne for Carnivale week.
It was one heck of a journey but I relished every minute of it. Travelling on the Swiss rail system was childs play; everything was so damn organized and streamlined that it’s hard adapting to lesser train systems across the border. However, you do pay the price for it. Conversely, in Italy you just have to put up with the no-so-great public transport … but in return things are cheap and with just a few euros you can eat like kings. So perhaps when in Italy just rent a car and be done with it ~ after all, food awaits.
~ THE END ~