A ride on the Bernina Express, a link between northern and southern Europe, is one of the most scenic
railway journeys on earth. Not only is the Bernina Express the world’s highest long distance train route, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that combines masterful engineering and stunning landscapes.
I took a day out of my non-skiing schedule and went from snowy Switzerland to sunny Italy in 4 hours, experiencing the beauty and splendor of the Alps along the way. I booked ahead and was able to get a seat in
the panoramic coach. This trip is all about the journey, so the panoramic coach is the way to go.
I must admit that taking pictures was a bit of a challenge because of the reflection off the windows, but I managed to get a few. There is also multilingual commentary over the train’s PA system, giving you a guided tour so
that you know exactly what you are “oohing” and “aahing” over.
The journey begins in the morning in Chur, the oldest town in Europe, and the awesomeness begins
immediately as the train goes through an area with Europe’s highest concentration of castles, before traveling over the Solis Viaduct and into the Albula Valley where the Landwasser Viaduct, another amazing feat of civil engineering, is found.
As the Bernina Express continues its ascent, icy glaciers come into view. The majestic glaciers around Lake Bianco are the height of beauty, and at more than 2200 meters (7391 feet) above sea level, also the highest part of the trip.
The train then snakes down, heading towards sunnier climes, by way of the Circular Viaduct of Brusio. 122 kilometers (76 miles), 55 tunnels and 196 bridges and viaducts later, palm trees herald our arrival into
southern Europe, replacing the snow-flecked pine trees of the north.
Bernina Express ends in Tirano, a tiny city just over the Swiss border in northern Italy whose strategic location and the medieval gates built to protect it are what put it on the map. After the long train ride, I was ready to stretch my legs, soak up the sun and scope out Tirano before I had to take the train back to Switzerland in about 3 hours.
This was just enough time to grab a bite to eat, walk around and see what there was to see, which is basically, a church. Ok, not just any church, but Madonna di Tirano, a pilgrimage basilica built where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared in 1504.
In Tirano’s historic city center, you can see the ruins of the medieval gates, and a number of palazzi where the area’s nobility once lived, including the Palazzo d’Oro Lambertenghi, which is now a museum.
Also in Tirano, is the San Martino Church. While this little church didn’t receive any visits from the Virgin
Mary, it was built in the 10th century and has a distinctive looking bell tower, and if you’re already in Tirano, why not go see it?
After a wonderful, but short afternoon in sunny Tirano, it was time get on the return train to Switzerland. I sat by the window, trying to get a few more pictures before the light was gone. When it was finally too dark to take pictures or see much of anything, I‘d occasionally press my face as close to the glass as I could and try to make out the landscape.
It wasn’t long before the train reached its final destination. When I got off the train, I was back amidst the snowy mountains and snow-flecked pines. I zipped up my coat, pulled on my hat, and made my way back to the hotel and my winter holiday.