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  • Writer's pictureKaren Bartlett

Bernina Express

Snow-capped glaciers...medieval alpine villages, & an unexpected Heidi moment



The Bernina Express crosses the Landwasser Viaduct | Karen T. Bartlett

 

The travel gods work in mysterious ways. Sometimes, as I was reminded recently, an unpleasant last-minute glitch can enrich the experience beyond all expectations. Here’s what happened…


Like many girls who’d read Heidi as a child, the grownup me still dreams of spending idyllic summer days running barefoot among the wildflowers at Grandfather’s hut high in the Swiss Alps. But when I made reservations for the Bernina Express, one of the most stunning scenic train excursions in the world, Heidi was far from my mind.



Church spire above the alpine village of Berschis, Walenstadt | Karen T. Bartlett

The famous red train slices through ice-age mountains and glides across 196 bridges and through 55 tunnels, snaking its way south from Chur, Switzerland’s oldest city, to the medieval alpine town of Tirano, Italy. For four jaw-dropping hours, one ooh-and-aah vista follows the next with barely time to breathe in between, as the landscape transitions from forests, gorges, waterfalls and emerald rivers to picturesque settlements with castle ruins and ornate church spires. The main event is the crossing of the Landwasser Viaduct, a single-track limestone-and-concrete bridge atop six 213-foot arches. There’s a whistle stop at St. Moritz to grab a photo op (and maybe stock up on some luscious Swiss chocolates), and a longer stop at the spectacular scenic overlook at Alp Glüm/Palu Glacier, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Approaching the southern terminus, the landscape narrows, squeezing right through the center of colorful Italian villages. In Tirano, noble palaces with lush semitropical gardens rub shoulders with crumbling medieval city walls along the cobblestoned, tree-lined boulevard, Viale Italia. The train tracks run so close to the magnificent Basilica of the Madonna di Tirano that one could almost reach out and touch the chapel where the Virgin Mary traditionally appeared in 1504. Sidewalk cafes line its piazza, and nearby, a rocky path through terraced vineyards leads to the 9th century hilltop Church of St. Perpetua. In Tirano, tourism is the ragione di vita and homestays are plentiful. Ours doesn’t come with meals, but as our nonna will point out, it’s stocked with the true necessities: coffee, pasta and olive oil.



Left: 16th Century Basilica della Madonna di Tirano | Karen T. Bartlett

Middle: Spectacular views reward ambitious hikers to the peak at Kurhaus Sennis near Walenstadt.

A bus takes summertime visitors to the meadow below. | C.Y. Bartlett

Right: Alp Glüm/Palu Glacier | Karen T. Bartlett


 

The glitch, the miscalculation and the Heidi moment

We’ve booked overnights at each end of our train trip to explore each of the two medieval towns. The day before our journey, our room reservations near the Chur train station fall through, but there’s an option just two short train stops farther north. Our hostess texts that she’ll collect us at the new station. We’ll stop for groceries in the next village, and then on to our lodging. The reason for the grocery run soon becomes clear: our very remote cabin turns out to be another half-hour drive straight up a mountain. Rustic enough outside, it’s artfully luxurious within. The tinkling of cowbells alerts us to the small delegation of Switzerland’s famous gold and white cows peeking between the cedars to check out the newly arrived humans. From our panoramic kitchen window, we’ll watch the sunrise glistening on a jagged range of snow-capped alps. At sunset the vast sky turns orange as the sun drops below the peaks. We have our wildflower meadow. In one direction is the trailhead to a near-vertical waterfall, and in the other, a challenging ascent through primeval forests to a soaring glacial peak that presides over a sparkling ice-blue lake and a vast summertime meadow awash in purple, white and yellow wildflowers. It’s all, in fact, very much like the very place where Heidi’s author spent her alpine summers. Which happens to be barely more than a bike ride away.

Thank you, travel gods.


The iconic Swiss cows that graze all summer on the mountaintops produce some of the world’s finest chocolates and cheeses. Each September, they return to their valleys in colorful processions, bedecked in greenery and flowers. | Roger Ganter, shutterstock

 

Train Details

Rhaetian Railway, est. 1889, runs The Bernina Express and her sister train, the Glacier Express. Both are included in the vast 33-country Eurail system but require confirmed reservations and extra fees. Most passengers start in Chur, spend the day or overnight at the southern terminus, and hop back aboard for the return to St. Moritz or Chur. First-class tickets (worth the extra cost!) secure luxurious private car seating with extra perks. Photo tip: for the perfect non-glare shot, stake out your spot at the open window at either end of your car as the train approaches the Landwasser Viaduct.

Glacier Express, which bills itself as the world’s slowest express train, takes eight hours to travel 180 miles between St. Moritz and the postcard-perfect town of Zermatt (the Matterhorn). It covers some of the same route as the Bernina Express, including the Landwasser Viaduct. An Excellence Class ticket includes a five-course meal with wine pairing.

See both at rhb.ch/en.

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