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The Bernina Express, Graubünden’s little red train

The Bernina Express, Graubünden’s little red train

Pierre-Brice Lebrun - 2010-01-19

Linking the Swiss alpine city of Chur to the Lombardy town of Tirano, completely unfazed by the mountains, wild sheep and ibex mountain goats, the Bernina Express passes through the most beautiful scenery in Switzerland and calls at Poschiavo, where an overnight stay is a must…

The Bernina, let’s be honest, is not really an express. No offence, but the only thing about it that says ‘express’ is its name and, at a push, its colour: Ferrari red it may be, but it travels about as fast as a moped. Even the Swiss cows, bells around their necks, concur in unison that they have time to watch it pass by. They hear it coming from the bottom of the valley, as punctual as a cuckoo clock.
 
Graubünden’s little red train is named after the Bernina, the canton’s highest peak, which towers above the valley at 4,049 metres.
 
Graubünden is famous mainly for its dry cured meat (great with Raclette cheese) and Heidi lived with her dog, grandfather and friends in the little village of Maienfeld, less than 15 minutes by train from Chur, the regional capital. This canton is Switzerland in a nutshell: the Bernina Express slowly crosses a picture-postcard Switzerland with its smart chalets, green grasslands, cascading rivers, snow-covered peaks and sleepy marmots. From the comfort of your seat you can watch the ever changing scenery pass by without ever getting bored. Nothing is missing: even the welcoming Saint Bernard is where you expect it, sitting with a barrel round its neck on the platform of Saint-Moritz station.
 
And it’s off
 
The little red train shoots off each morning from Chur. Despite the calm and serenity that reign over this town, the oldest in Switzerland, everything is an Express. The Arosa is a multicoloured, flowery Express that travels through town, sounding its horn at crossroads and stopping at traffic lights like an ordinary tram. The Glacier, with its panoramic carriages, is another Express that runs right through Switzerland to pull up neatly alongside the platform in Zermatt at the other end of the Confederation.
 
The Bernina Express takes 4 hours to reach Tirano, 144 kilometres further south. In fairness, it has its work cut out, crossing the Rhine and the three Solis viaducts, climbing a 2,253-metre pass, going through the Engadine, travelling down slopes with a 70% gradient and no rack rail, skirting the Lago Bianco (White Lake) and threading its way beneath the chairlifts at the entrance of the Val dal Fain… 55 tunnels had to be hollowed out of the mountains, and 196 bridges built, to make way for the tracks, which spiral in places enabling the train to climb more rapidly.
 
Between Bergün and Preda the train passes the same church three times: first on the right, then on the left, and then on the right again… As part of the spiral winds through a tunnel, travellers have the impression that they’ve gone in a straight line, resulting in much laughter in the carriage and plenty of photos.
 
The charm of the Bernina lies in its slowness. You can admire the scenery at leisure, lulled by the jerky rhythm of the bogies, stretch your legs at each station and breathe in the fresh air of the approaching peaks. It’s easy to imagine yourself having a relaxing holiday in this remote little village, picturing yourself sitting on a café terrace, leaning on one of the flowery balconies of the Hotel Walther in Pontresina, kitted out for a hike or, rod in hand, fishing for trout in the torrents of the Flaz…
 
For a glass of Nebbiolo
 
The Bernina Express links three cultures, three languages (German, French, Italian) and three climates, passing blithely from valley to glaciers to palm trees.
 
The Italian leg begins when the train starts its descent towards the valley. Gone are the chalets. The houses here have dry-stone roofs and colourful façades and the Palazzos of the peaceful capital of Poschiavo are dotted between the vineyards. The town is like a real stage setting, warm, amazing and vibrant, boasting a surprising art museum, a weaving shed, the Valley Museum and some superb churches. There is also a host of little restaurants where you can sample pizzoccheri (pasta) with mortadella from Poschiavo, and risotto with luganighetta (sausage) served with aniseed-flavoured rye bread and washed down with Nebbiolo or Braulio, a herb-based drink to aid digestion.
 
The stopover in Poschiavo will last as long as necessary. Time seems to stand still here but there will always be a Bernina to take you to the valley!
 
 
Address book
 
Rhaetian Railway
www.rhb.ch (for the Bernina Express and Glacier Express). From €38 for a single ticket from Chur to Poschiavo in 2nd class to €120 for a 1st class return.
The Albula (Thusis to Saint-Moritz) and Bernina (Saint-Moritz to Tirano) railway lines were added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in July 2008.
 
Stopover in Chur
 
Chur Tourist Office
Railway station
Tel: +41 (0)81 252 18 18
 
Hotel Freieck***
44, Reichsgasse
Chur
Tel: +41 (0)81 255 15 15
From €60 to €170.
 
Hotel Stern*** and restaurant
11, Reichsgasse
Chur
Tel: +41 (0)81 258 57 57
Rooms from €100 to €190. Excellent local food.
 
Süsswinkel
1, Süsswinkelgasse
Chur
Tel: +41 (0)81 252 28 56
Up-market brasserie. Rumour has it that the inhabitants of Chur were meeting in the Süsswinkel as far back as 1677!
 
Stopover in Poschiavo
 
Poschiavo Valley Tourist Office
Poschiavo station
Tel: +41 (0)81 844 05 71
www.valposchiavo.ch
 
Hotel Suisse*** and restaurant
Poschiavo
Tel: +41(0)81 844 07 88
Rooms from €50 to €120. Excellent local food.
 
Hotel Croce Bianca***
Poschiavo
Tel: +41 (0)81 844 12 70
Rooms from €55 to €120.
 
Hotel Albrici** and restaurant
Plaza du Cumün
Poschiavo
Tel: +41 (0)81 844 01 73
Rooms from €55 to €125.

Linking the Swiss alpine city of Chur to the Lombardy town of Tirano, completely unfazed by the mountains, wild sheep and ibex mountain goats, the Bernina Express passes through the most beautiful scenery in Switzerland and calls at Poschiavo, where an overnight stay is a must…

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