The Bernina Express is arguably the best classic rail journey in the country.
Not only does the route incorporate some of the most spectacular sections of the famed Glacier Express, it also features alpine lakes at the crest of the world, dynamic glaciers and panoramic vistas of rolling countryside before reaching its final destination in Tirano, Italy.
Even National Geographic rates the Bernina Express as the second best rail journey in Europe. The first, also in Switzerland, is the Chocolate Train.
Chur, with its delightful old town, is a gateway to the alpine ski resort of Arosa.
At just over 5,000 feet, Davos has the distinction of being the highest city in Europe, and it is a haven for culture lovers as well as sports enthusiasts.
Jet-setting St. Moritz, with its series of three alpine lakes, has long been a favorite destination for the internationally rich and famous.
The four-hour, 38-mile rail journey follows a winding mountainous path over 196 bridges and through 55 tunnels over the Bernina Pass, which reaches its highest point at more than 7,300 feet. Two railways, the Albula Line and the Bernina Line, combine to form the route. UNESCO declared them a World Heritage Site in 2008.
Completed in 1904, the Albula Line took six years to build. The Bernina Line followed in 1910, but the railroads operated independently until 1940, when the Rhaetian Railway took over and merged the two.
The brightly colored red coaches feature arches of glass that provide a 360-degree panoramic view of land, water and sky. During summer, some trains even operate with a few open-air cars as well as the traditional enclosed rolling stock.
The combination Landwasser Viaduct/Tunnel is a highlight of both the Bernina and Glacier Express excursions. From the viaduct, where five pillars tower more than 200 feet above the Landwasser River, the 446-foot curved track offers passengers a clear view of the train as it enters or departs the tunnel. The 706-foot tunnel completes the architectural masterpiece by boring through seemingly insurpassable rock before opening upon the dramatic gorge and bridge across the river.
Shortly after the viaduct, the train reaches Filisur before continuing through the first of several spiral tunnels. The rails sing as the cherry-colored line of coaches moves through a lush valley en route to a change in elevation of about 1,300 feet in just over three miles. Spirals eliminate the need for rack-and-pinion infrastructure, and passengers are the beneficiary. The serpentine course twists and turns through towering woodlands past cascading waterfalls and rushing streams while climbing toward mountains of everlasting snow.
Outside Pontresina the journey heads for the Bernina Pass, where the tracks make a dramatic turn beside the Morteratsch Glacier. Lord Byron once described glaciers as “frozen hurricanes” and, at this place, it’s as though some omnipotent hand designed the terrain purely for rail visitors to observe all of its splendor. From here you can view the Piz Bernina, the highest summit in the Eastern Alps at nearly 7,000 feet.
In English “piz” means “peak,” which comes from Romansch, the least used of Switzerland’s four languages.
Before long, the Bernina Express discards its forested surroundings and yields to a moonscape of stark, intolerant terrain. Jagged, barren outcroppings of snow-clad rock hover over three glacial lakes, each distinguished by a different color. Here, at the rooftop of Europe, the watershed divides the flow of rivers toward the North Sea and the Mediterranean.
Once over the Alps, the train descends into another vast carpet of green where rural tableaus nestle between protective mountains that lead toward Brusio and its spiral viaduct. The uniqueness of this rarest of rail travel experiences lies in the fact that the track is completely exposed, allowing passengers to witness the logistical achievement of the design. The train travels over, around and beneath its own pathway as the coiled ribbon of steel guides the express into Italy. Proof positive that “one good turn deserves another.”
Before terminating in Tirano, rail travelers and motorists discover several places along the route where it almost seems possible to reach out and shake hands with each other, and in a couple of tiny villages, the train has barely enough room to pass between buildings on either side of the road.
At Tirano, the Bernina Express links with Swiss Postal Bus service, which journeys along the Italian shores of Lake Como before arriving back in Switzerland at Lugano. For Swiss Rail Pass holders, the only thing required is making a reservation and showing your pass.
While glaciers and palm trees may seem incongruous, the magic of the Swiss travel system makes it possible. All you have to do is “train” yourself.
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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