TAKE THE BERNINA EXPRESS
The Bernina Express, a UNESCO World Heritage site, connects Italy with Switzerland across the Albula and Bernina passes, and is often considered to be the most scenic train journey in Europe. Simon Buckley joins the train at Tirano...
I was on a train from Milan Central to the Italian town of Tirano, on the way to join The Bernina Express, which chugs daily between Italy and Switzerland.
Whilst watching the carriage shadows stalk the shore of Lake Como, it occurred to me that, after eating cheese, I used to have a dream in which a train would push through streets like a nosey, oversized centipede, the carriages brushing past people's windows, and I'd want to reach into their homes and touch their lives, before the coaches would suddenly burst out into the open, under skies so large a million birds couldn't darken it.
A sharp afternoon sun was above me when I arrived at Tirano's simple station and checked into the nearby Hotel Bernina, before idling through narrow, chiaroscuro streets where I found the Rivetti & Lauro Cantina, housed in the 16th century Torelli Palazzo.
Beneath the vaulted ceilings I tried red wines from the local Valtellina region, which has had vineyards since Roman times, and experienced for the first time, Bitto, a hard cheese so local that it's not readily available even in Italy.
Shaved gossamer thin, the initial slither melted into my tongue, its strong, magical tang causing me to close my eyes and only vaguely listen to the guide in the shop, who was explaining about the cheese not being ready until it cries, or produces a tear, or something, and that the taste is affected by what the cow eats, and how high up the meadow it grazes. I didn't care, I just wanted to keep eating it.
With the Bitto continuing to stimulate my tongue like a jazz pianist was playing on it, I returned to the hotel, ready for my trip through the Bernina Pass to St.Moritz.
"I awoke in a fug, causing Tirano to appear to me like a medieval Trumpton..."
I awoke in a fug, causing Tirano to appear to me like a medieval Trumpton, with its clock towers and small market squares and, after an espresso in Caffe Merrizzi, I drifted over to the modest Rhatishe Bahn station, where the bright red Bernina Express rested in a mountain's shadow.
Instead of travelling on the official tourist service that goes to Chur, and which you have to reserve in advance, I'd decided to take the hourly, local train, as you can get on and off, book on the same day and, most importantly, lower the windows, allowing photographs to be reflection free.
We trundled away from the platform, up the middle of town centre streets, passing within feet of shops and houses and, as I stood dozily at my open window, I felt as if I'd been shrunk and was part of a table top model railway.
I wondered if I should reach out and shake hands with the locals, or maybe wave, as if on a fair ground ride.
After only ten minutes or so the train began its ascent, the single track now bordered by vineyards and orchards, and seamlessly slipped into Switzerland.
We then reached a vast valley, which lay under mountains and fluffed white clouds, and at the top of which was an astonishing, spiral viaduct just outside a place named Brusio.
Having boarded to the rear of the train, I was able to lean out and gaze at the scarlet carriages curling before me above the cattle strewn meadows, as the coaches looped safely up the steep hillside.
The upwards endeavour was ceaseless and, after passing Lake Poschiavo to the right of the train, and the coloured dots of distant hikers making their way along the banks of an exuberant river, we stopped, at Poschiavo, just 40 minutes after leaving Tirano.
I got off and discovered misplaced Spanish villas, a medieval house called Casa Tome lived in, unchanged, by 2 sisters until 1990, and in which the only modern item was a kitchen tap from the Seventies, and the remarkable The Hotel Albrici, opened in 1848, where I had lunch and marvelled at the many antiques on show.
From Poschiavo the train zig-zagged its way up the mountainside around apparently impossible hairpin bends, and I heard other passengers gasp after we emerged from lightless tunnels and appeared to teeter above opulent lakes and spire spiked villages far below us.
Although, on the northward journey, sitting to the left mostly provides the greatest views, I now found myself scampering from side to side to witness the overwhelming wonder of the fairytale landscape that is Switzerland.
"The fresh air rushed into my nostrils like I'd snorted an extra strong mint..."
Finally, the train could climb no further, and we reached a plateau, and Switzerland's highest station, Ospizio Bernina, 2,253 feet above sea level, where some people left the train and disappeared into the red shuttered building, maybe to another century for all I knew.
In this remote landscape Lej Nair - Romanish for Black Lake - and Lago Bianco (White Lake) fill the ground beneath an ancient glacier that unwillingly hosts, across its icy rocks, a dusting of sand blown in from the Saharan desert. The fresh air rushed into my nostrils like I'd snorted an extra strong mint.
From here we descended through more tunnels and pine woods to the ski resort of St. Moritz, where we came to a peaceful halt. I pulled up my window, rubbed my eyes and stared at the new view now before me of somewhat ordinary modern buildings, and reflected on all that I'd seen in the past few hours.
I closed my eyes again and considered that, just maybe, it was the Bitto cheese that had caused me to conjure it all up.
THIS FEATURE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE MARCH 2015 ISSUE OF BITTEN MAGAZINE
The Bernina Express is operated by the Rhatishe Bahn company. It has 55 tunnels, 196 bridges and inclines of up to 70 per mille. At the highest point, the Ospizio Bernina, it reaches 2,253 metres above sea level.
The Bernina Express tourist service, which had panoramic carriages, departs once a day from both Tirano in Italy and Chur in Switzerland, and runs directly between both destinations. It takes just over 4 hours to complete.
The local train departs hourly and travels between Tirano and St.Moritz. You can buy tickets on the day and the RHB station is right next to Tirano station.
Both are small and fully accessible. The journey takes just over 2 hours.
Tickets from £21
If travelling from Italy there are regular connections from Milan Central ( a 2.5 hour journey )
From Switzerland you can connect from Zurich via the Glacier Express.
The stations at Chur and St. Moritz are easy to take connecting services either to or from Zurich.
Take a picnic as there's only a trolley service for refreshments.
Make sure other passengers are ok with you pulling down the windows on the local train. It's a single track service, so there will be no oncoming trains to worry about, but the train does get very close to houses, trees and tunnel walls.
Take a seat to the rear of the train for a great view of the train curling round the bends in front of you.
If going from Tirano, most of the best views are on the left and, obviously, on the right if travelling south.
We stayed at the 3* Hotel Bernina in Tirano
If you want to spend more time in the area around Tirano take the train from Milan to Sondrio and stay at the wonderful Wine Hotel Retici Balzi, which has amazing views down the valley across the vineyards.
The best prices are often on Booking.Com, and cancellation is often free.
To book full packages we travelled with Activity Breaks, who run excellent holidays to the area. Prices from £178pp
You can also call Railbookers on and speak to real person, who will book everything for you 020 3327 2402
Prices start from £829pp
The journey is beautiful all year round, so there is no "best time" to go...