The day started in Lugano. Though the language and the cuisine are still Italian, the clean tidy and orderliness of the streets and buildings suggests that something has changed. The white cross on a red background fluttering from buildings and every boat on the lake below and the Francs in your pocket confirm that you are in a different country, Switzerland.
The panorama of high mountains dropping into a beautiful large lake below only confirms that this is Switzerland (in summer). It is beautiful and as I gazed up on the houses perched on the green mountainsides overlooking the peaceful lake below I could hear my mum say I could live here as that was always her description of a perfect house site, and who wouldn’t.
What brought us to Lugano though was to catch the Bernina Express, which is first a bus (with large viewing windows) trip back into Italy hugging the edges of Lake Lugano and Lake Como an then following the Adda River valley up to a the pretty Italian town of Tirano. The trip along the lakes was a continuation of the same beauty that began in Lugano of mountains dropping into peaceful waters below with clusters of houses and churches nestled along the edges. However the memory that will probably remain with us of this stretch of the trip was the extremely narrow winding streets. So narrow in places that oncoming cars had to back up and pull their mirrors in to allow our bus to progress with only centimetres to spare. I will never get Belinda to travel in Italy by car now!
In Tirano we ordered some pizzas for lunch but had to eat them on the train as we ran out of time. The Panoramic windows extending up and into the roof of the carriage, gives you a fantastic view in that it helps retain perspective and appreciation of the magnitude of the landscape. About two kilometres north of Tirano we passed back into Switzerland and started to climb up a narrow gorge along the Poschiavino River, and from the outset the views just grew more captivating. Early along this section we came to a unique structure called the Brusio Circular Viaduct which has been described as combining both beauty and practicality into one. This sloped viaduct structure with it stone arches describing a 360 degree curve, enables the train to climb quickly in a very short space.
From her we continue to a climb up the valley to the town of Poschiavo with its white houses and church towers contrasting with the surrounding green pastures nestled in a beautiful valley. The mountains on either side growing in grandeur as their slopes change from the lush green pastures to the dark green pine forests, to the lighter alpine grasses giving way to the bare rocky peaks.
After Poschiavo we begin to climb in earnest. With the line twisting up hair-pin turns, through several tunnels and over bridges enabling us top hug the side of the mountain, we climb through 1000m (3300 feet) over a distance as the crow flies of only 5km. This translates to 70m being climbed for every 1000m travelled, one of the steepest gradients in the world by a conventional train.
Towards the end of this climb we stopped briefly at the station and restaurant building of Alp Grum, enabling us to take in the awesome view. With the mountains rising to nearly 13000 feet being crowned with snow and the head of the valley with a gleaming glacier. Despite some broken cloud at the crest of the glacier making it difficult to appreciate fully the grandeur of this sight, it was never the less simply awe inspiring for Aussie desert-dwellers like ourselves. As we continued on to the highest point of the Bernina line of Ospizio Bernina Station at 2250m (7381 feet)we passed through real alpine country of short grasses, herbs and rocky outcrops and best of all grazing cattle! Immediately to our left was a small lake of milky water fed by a glacier just a little further up the slope.
This is also a watershed with the waters behind us to the south running into the Adriatic Sea via the Adda and Po Rivers and the waters to our north running into the Black Sea via the Danube River.
We now start to descend gradually initially through alpine country with a few Stations which obviously serve as popular ski destination in the winter going by the chairlifts. As we descend further trees start to be incorporated into the landscape and at one point as we crossed a valley with milky water cascading down its bed, we had a grand view of the pine tree lined valley giving way to the Monteratsch and Pers Glaciers and snow capped mountains rising to 4000m(13000feet) forming the distant horizon.
UP to now I was like a little boy let loose in a lolly shop popping around the carriage trying to photograph everything, as every turn provided fresh inspiration. Though the panoramic windows were fantastic for viewing they did give some reflections that frustrate budding photographers. So when I discovered in a small closed off portion of the carriage where we had our bags that I could pull the windows down, I was like a kelpie dog in the back of a ute driving through a mob of sheep, darting from one side to the other, photographing the ever changing view with each turn or exit from a tunnel. I think I have to blame my father for this desire to photograph everything!
As we descended we passed through Samedan which I remember as having the highest airport in Europe at around 5500 feet. From here we passed through a six kilometre tunnel into a new valley where the rivers run into the North Sea via the Rhine River, and we actually crossed the Upper Rhine a little further on.
The journey from here continued to amaze as we continued our descent via same amazing engineering feats. Tunnels that completed full circles into the mountain side enabled us to descend even though we emerged no further along just much lowmer. As we emerged we passed over high viaduct style bridges to the other side of he valley. This was repeated a couple of times down the valley, as well as passing over stone viaduct bridges as high as 300 feet that can only really be appreciated as an onlooker not from the train itself.
However the most striking feature as we continued was the picture perfect landscapes. The white steeples in villages nestled in green valleys. The backdrop of pastures merging into pine forests which peter out into alpine grasses giving way to bare rock speckled with patches of snow contrasting with the vivid blue sky. The postcards are true after all!
After settling into our hotel in Chur built in the 1400s, we enjoyed a lovely meal of Ravioli and Gnocchi in an open air restaurant and all agreed that it had been an amazing day of taking in God’s creation and that it would be hard to top.
Or so we thought…………