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Report 915: Lake Como and Bernina Express

By SeaJay from VA, Spring 2002

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Page 8 of 11: Friday, April 19

CJ is up at 0630 and makes tea, eats breakfast and wakes Carol at 0700 with a cup of coffee in bed. We are heading north to St. Moritz. We make a quick stop at Gravedonna to get newspapers and CJ’s postcards. On Wednesday when we visited the newsstand closed for lunch before he could get the desired cards.

We are headed for Tirano to see if the train to St. Moritz runs at this time of year. It’s a flat drive down a valley with a number of boring industrial towns and villages along the way. We are traveling down the north side of the valley near the mountains. The most interesting aspect of the ride is the vineyards which appear to hang from the mountain walls. How they actually tend to and harvest from these vineyards is a mystery.

We arrive in Tirano desperate for a toilet break. A quick coffee and we find the train station. The information office is at the train station. The train to St. Moritz leaves from the station across the street. There is a special excursion rate for a round trip completed in one day of 45 Swiss Francs per person. After we purchase our tickets, we return to move the car. Along the way we pick up a couple of pieces of pizza for the trip. We try to determine if our car can remain where it is parked. We determine that it is illegally parked and is in a paid parking zone. While we are trying to figure out how much we need to put in the meter box, a cop comes by. He speaks no English and we speak virtually no Italian. We end up with a police escort to better, closer parking. When it becomes obvious that we don’t have enough change to pay for six hours of parking, we get another police escort to free parking. When we get stopped in traffic, the officer pulls a 180 in the middle of the street, motions us to follow him and begins a trek through side streets. The officer has been babbling away at us in Italian the entire time. A few “gràzie’s” and we cross under the tracks and board the train to St. Moritz.

We leave on the 1050 with a scheduled arrival time in St. Moritz of 1310. This is not a tourist train but a transportation and commerce activity. We have an empty logging car and a yard tender as part of our train. Along the way we will make 11 stops.

The train passes adjacent to orchards, farmers tending their fields, inches from buildings while passing through villages, adjacent to roads and actually sometimes occupying the road. The vistas are breathtaking. The drops simply take your breadth away. So how does a train accomplish the equivalent of switchbacks going up the side of a mountain? The track actually enters a tunnel turning directly into the mountain, continues its climb and eventually turns back out in the opposite direction and ends up directly above our original position. They make many of these loops inside of mountain tunnels. We eventually climb above the tree line and into the snow. We are in the company of a car full of Germans who had the foresight to bring beer. At some point we stop at a small station (about the size of a bedroom) to pick up a passenger. We are in the middle of the mountain with only a few houses scattered about thousands of yards apart and thousands of yards from this little station. On the descent we pass two ski areas (Diavolezza and Lagalb) across the valley from each other. Both are served by cable cars. There is snow here but few skiers. Some come by train.

Departing the train in St. Moritz, we hail a cab. The driver recommends the high city and for 10 Euros he deposits us at the top of the city so that we can walk back down to the station. We arrive at 1310 and must depart on the 1445. We would have preferred to spend more time in St. Moritz but we would not be able to return for our dinner reservations. It is lunchtime. All the shops are closed. We window shop and find a hobby shop with interesting model trains. We wait around until 1400 and find even toys carry an exorbitant St. Moritz price tag. Switzerland has not changed to the Euro. Our window-shopping determines that the shops of St. Moritz are overpriced and carry only the most elite brand names.

We depart on the 1445 with a scheduled arrival in Tirano of 1711. The church of San Gian is the first visible attraction outside of St. Moritz. We can’t see it from the train but the highest airport in Europe is just down the valley.

The actual start of the Bernina Line is in Pontresina. We must switch to a direct current engine at this point. Pontresina is a hiking, climbing and cross-country skiing venue. The Bernina Line is the only railway line that crosses the Alps above ground. We pass the ski area of Diavolezza Mountain cable car and its sister on the other side of the valley Piz Lagalb. On the way over we had spectacular views of mountain peaks of 12000 to 13280 feet. In this direction it is snowing and reducing visibility.

Unfortunately we have a car full of high school age children with another full car of them behind us. They are loud, constantly changing seats, changing cars and generally annoying to the two adult couples and one older lady in the car. We pick them up at a station in the middle of nowhere. No idea what is near that station but on the descent we had also noticed a bunch of teenagers there.

We reach Lago Bianco (white lake). Ospizio Bernina is the highest point at 7,381 feet. The vistas include the Sassal Masone and Piz Cambrena glaciers only two of the many viewed during the ride. At 6,869 feet the view at Alp Grüm is another high spot on the journey. Magnificent view across the Palü Glacier, which divides Piz Varuna 11,328 feet, and Piz Palü at 12,788 feet. It has been a clear day and we are treated to the spectacular views down the valley into Poschiavo and Veltlin. Here we have eternal snow and nothing but hardy plants but within an hour we will depart in Tirano amid palm trees and flowering oleander bushes. We will drop from 7,400 feet to 1,312 in Tirano. We are dropping 70 meters for every 1,000 meters traveled. In the next three miles we will descend 3,280 feet. In the town of Le Prese when the train stops, the traffic in the village comes to a stop since the train shares the main street. Near Brusio, is the famous circular viaduct and is the Rhaetian Railway’s most photographed structure. It is 350 feet long and completes a full circle. This is the only open-air example of the technique employed in the mountain tunnels.

Swiss customs is supposed to take place in Campocologno. We see no sign of customs agents in either direction. We finally depart the train at the station in Tirano at 1,407 feet.

We had some scattered sprinkles during the decent but the rain has stopped. Its 90km back to the apartment. There is heavy traffic. We have a quick cocktail in the apartment and depart for our 2030 diner reservations.

Tom and Kathy spent the day in Lugano and were quickly disappointed by the “big city” feel. They return to the serenity of the lake and nap and explore.

We have returned to the restaurant of Monday evening. We should have brought our last two pieces of firewood for the fireplace. We find it difficult to understand that only two tables are occupied. There are two Americans and an Italian woman at the next table. The Americans are living in Dublin and have had a home in Nobiallo for 13 years. They use it a month a year and never rent it. Must be nice! We start with escargot (not in shells), move on to entrees and end this evening with four orders of that wonderful vanilla crème of Monday evening. Carol extracts the recipe from the chef.

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