Just a couple of hours north of Milan lies the Italian mountain town of Tirano. No, not Torino the site of the 2006 Olympic Games, which is slightly confusing when planning a trip. The lesser known Tirano may not have held the world stage like its Alpine cousin, but it is just as popular due to a train route known as the Bernina Express.
The train route is one of several that runs along the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Bernina started in 1910 and today is one of the best ways to first discover this beautiful part of Europe. I had never been to the Alps or even Switzerland before and I couldn’t wait to first experience both from the famous scenic train route.
I partnered with Eurail.com for our adventures in Europe and we had use of a Eurail Global Pass, an indispensable travel tool. Not only is the pass convenient for normal, every day travel but it also includes the scenic rail routes. I paid a small reservation fee and along with the pass from Eurail.com we were ready to go. We pulled out of Tirano at 2:04 PM on the dot and almost instantly the mountains began to beckon. It was cool, but not nearly as cold as Milan had been. Someone told me that the Alps can experience peculiar weather patterns, and the temperate winter weather definitely proved that maxim. But there was plenty of snow covering the mountains creating a festive mood just a few days before Christmas.
The train is a scenic railway and all of the cars are equipped with extra large windows from which to admire the scenery as it passes by. There are several towns where visitors can stop and spend the night, but we took the train to its end in the mountain town of Chur. Again, it was another place I had never heard of but I quickly fell in love with this city. More on that later.
The first half of the journey was amazing. The mountains soared and the sky couldn’t have been clearer. Actually, it was a lot like living in a model train set. The villages looked just like Alpine villages should look like; people were skiing to the store; I even spied a mountain dog or two out with their masters. The train rounded bends, chugged past glacial lakes, went through long tunnels and even circled along a corkscrew aqueduct. If this isn’t the ultimate in model train design then I don’t know what is.
Then around 4:30 or so the sky darkened and the last long rays of sunlight bathed the tops of the mountains until they were gone and with it the beautiful scenery. So the last couple of hours to Chur were a lot less interesting than the first, namely because it was absolutely pitch black and the train’s insistence on bathing the train cars in large amounts of fluorescent light meant that I couldn’t see a thing. I later learned that the best trip of the day is the morning run, but I really wasn’t bothered.
Well before night fell I had decided that I was in love with not only the train but with Switzerland. I can’t believe it took me almost 37 years to visit for the first time but I can guarantee it won’t be the last.
At exactly 6:27 (Thank you Swiss people!) the Bernina Express pulled into Chur Railway Station. I no longer had to depend on my bad Italian and instead relied on my marginally better German language skills. But everything was different. The air was crisp and even though it was just a couple of days before Christmas the restaurants were packed and there was a certain festive atmosphere as I walked through town.
I couldn’t have planned a better day had I tried. The scenery, the food and the people made it extraordinary and I hope it’s not a once in a lifetime experience because I don’t think I can go that long without admiring those amazing mountains again.