Saturday, 4 August 2012

On Board the Bernina Express to St.Moritz

Part of the fun of sitting out on our balcony overlooking Lake Como is watching the various activities of the lake … ferries of different shapes and sizes, small motorboats, seaplanes and occasionally traditional Italian rowing boats (in which two oarsmen stand as they row). While the lake is a watery stage for a myriad of activities, the backdrop to all this is the magnificent mountain range of the Alps which straddle the border between Italy and Switzerland. In anticipation of even more spectacular scenery, Jules and I were keen to explore them further by heading toward the border and hopping on the Bernina Express that heads towards St. Moritz.

We boarded the weekly tour bus that leaves from Menaggio to find that many other tourists (mostly Brits) had a similar idea, particularly as the weather forecast promised a clear and sunny day in the Alps. These sort of group tours are not normally our type of thing, but for economy of time and the opportunity to travel on one of the highest (over 2000 metres above sea level) and most picturesque railway journeys of the world, we were prepared to be herded along.

Travelling by coach toward to the northern end of Lake Como, we pass through the little lakeside town of Dongo and are reminded by our tour guide that this was the location for the dramatic capture of Benito Mussolini and his mistress toward the end of World War II. Heading for the neutral Swiss border and with the Alps in sight, ‘il Duce’ must have thought that he was just about safe, until partisans stumbled upon him and swiftly delivered their vengeful justice. In thankfully more peaceful times, this area is now one of Italy’s major wine regions with vineyards stretching high into the slopes of the nearby hills. Arriving at the border town of Tirano, there was time to view the elaborate Basilica of the Madonna, which is said to have been the site of an apparition of the Virgin Mary in the 16th century and continues to attract pilgrims each year in search of divine miracles. However, what is more significant to us is that it is here that we get our first glimpse of the Bernina Express, which literally cuts through the centre of the town.

We cross the Swiss border and in order to save some time, board the train in Poschiavo to begin a slow winding accent toward Bernina Diavolezza. This is a spectacular run that sees us traveling over viaducts toward the extraordinary Bernina Pass with its snow capped peaks, milky blue lakes and ancient glacier. Not surprisingly, the pass and the railway line that threads its way through it are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites and even in summer it is a remarkable landscape that had both ourselves and the Brits continually snapping our cameras. The time passed quickly and we were soon back on the bus for the final run into St.Moritz, a place that has long been regarded as a winter playground of the rich and famous. While the town provided some nice scenic outlooks, a pretty alpine lake and of course the end point for the legendary Cresta Run (a three quarter of a mile toboggan racing track), we felt that as a town it was somewhat of an anti-climax. Similar to cities like Monaco, there is artificiality and a manicured nature to such places that make them somewhat cold and impersonal. As we were warned, the shopping was outrageously expensive and the best we could manage was a vanilla custard slice (quite delicious, I must say) and an ice-cream (not a patch on Italian gelato). No doubt St.Moritz is a winter wonderland when the snow falls and you’re cashed up for the season, but for now, we were just happy to head back to Italy.

On our return however, we had an unexpected surprise when we crossed over the Italian border and made a brief stop in Chiavenna. Nestled in a mountainous valley, this beautiful medieval village exuded all the charm that we have come to expect when venturing outside the major tourists spots. Narrow laneways, picturesque buildings and piazzas complete with water fountains, which can all be summed up in one simple word ... ‘character’! Running through the heart of the town was a rocky stream that flowed with icy clear water of melted snow from the mountains above, which was spanned by an ancient arched bridge. As we looked down, a local man who clearly sensed that we were visitors, came alongside and began to throw bread into the stream, encouraging excitable trout to the surface. Not to be out done, Jules reached into her bag to bring out a bag of dried bread sticks and did the same. At that point we both wished that we had more time to spend in Chiavenna rather than in St. Moritz. While we had thoroughly enjoyed the trip, in particular the wonderful scenery of the Bernina Pass, it had again reminded us about which side of the border we preferred and for us this time there was no simply comparison.

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