Europe 14 - Day 12


One of the odd parts of the train system in Switzerland takes you on the Glacier Express from Zermatt to Chur and then on to St Moritz (well, back to St Moritz would be more accurate as you bypass it to get to Chur). This would be a good idea if you actually wanted to go to St Moritz for a few days (and could afford to stay there for that long). But the next part of the scenic train journey is to take the Bernina Express over the Bernina Pass and into Italy. Problem is, the Bernina Express does not go through St Moritz, it bypasses it. When you look at a map you can see why - St Moritz is the end of that line. The solution is to get a local train from St Moritz to Pontresina, wait an hour and then get the Bernina Express when it comes past. So we did just that. From Tirano we had to wait an hour and then get a local Italian train to Milan where we stayed the night.

St Moritz to Tirano and Milano - The Bernina Express

From our hotel room with its view over the lake, we could see that the weather had not improved much. The heavy snow clouds were still around the hills but we had to take our chances with the train going over the Bernina Pass. But first breakfast. At a 3+ Star hotel in Switzerland I was looking forward to their breakfast, all part of the price of the room. What a disappointment - a few bowls of dry muesli (Not even Swiss Bircher variety), fruit some fresh some tinned, cured meats, cheeses etc that are standard all over Europe, and some breads that you could cut to suit, but finding the toaster was another mission. The pièce de résistance was the hot plate and frying pan available for guests to cook their own eggs. No waiting staff, no cook, no chef in the kitchen to take your order. As we were there in early May it was between the ski and summer seasons. Many local hotels are closed so I assumed the Hotel Waldhaus Am See had sent all the kitchen staff off for a holiday. But no! There are complaints on TripAdvisor about this - the hotel management replied that there is not the demand for cooked breakfasts at any time of the year and as the cook-your-own had become a tradition they thought it rather quaint and they liked it! Sounds like penny-pinching to me.

After a less-than-satisfactory breakfast, we walked the short distance to the railway station, We turned down the hotel's offer of a transfer, wondering if it was a drive-your-own on the same basis as breakfast. On the other hand, it is a short distance on a good path, so a few golf carts would be a great idea. Right on 0933 the local train took us the 20 minutes to Pontresina where we had an hour to wait. I noticed we were not the only people doing this trip from St Moritz to Pontesina for the Bernina Express. With an hour to wait I walked the short distance into the town. At this time of the morning most shops were still shut and the place was deserted. The road from the station climbs up the hill and then forks, you can go left or right to take the loop around the town. I went left, another couple from the train went right and we passed in the middle of the town. Back down the hill and you pass a small stream that has cut a deep gorge. The cliffs are used for rock climbing, but not at this time of year, the rocks were still covered in ice.

The Bernina Express follows a winding route over the Bernina Pass and then down a steep mountainside, round numerous switch-backs, round a complete spiral and then into Italy, to stop at Tirano just over the border. It is one of the most difficult rail routes in the world. Unfortunately most of it was buried in cloud, but we did get a good look at the spiral. Then on into Italy where it rained most of the time from Tirano to Milan. We stopped in Milan for just one night, deciding that we would be best coming back for a few days on another trip.

Glass sphere outside the Waldhaus Am See Hotel
Those clouds still have snow in them.
St Moritz.
Our local train to Pontresina.
There were only a dozen people on it.
The imposing station at Pontresina.
You get the impression that skiing is popular here..
Typical Swiss doll's houses with mountains behind.
Church in the middle of town.
Local buildings often have scenes drawn in the plaster.
Hotel Bernina.
, I think this translates into Devil's Hotel, or maybe not.
Tea Room sounds more attractive.
Ravine through the town..
It is used for rock climbing.
But not in Winter when it is iced up.
Private horse and carriages for hire.
Where the road splits left and right.
The railway is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
And here it is...
The Bernina Express.
They only use these carriages in Summer - wonder why?
The rail runs along the glacial valley.
Then starts to climb back into the snow.
A school group hoping for a ride?.
The DHL Courier going round in circles.
Now we were up in the snow and cloud.
Shuttle bus to the Engadin skifields. Not a single person on board, wonder why?
Perhaps the lack of visibility hinders skiing. This the highest part of the journey.
They need to remind people what it should look like.
But this was the reality today.
They certainly get some snow up here - and often judging by the layers.
Now we are over the top and heading down into the trees.
Visibility is no better though.
Going down.
Nobody was really interested in the view.
Plenty of trees on the southern side of the mountain.
And lots of bridges.
Finally we could see the valley floor a long way below.
But first a few switch-backs - we went over that bridge 5 minutes earlier.
Heading into Poschiavo.
A steep descent.
We stopped for a few minutes here to change engines. I think this thing is a snow blower to clear the line.
Then off again through the middle of the town.
Passing a mountain stream.
Hotel La Presse ****.
Passing Lake Poschiavo.
It was raining quite heavily, yet there were many fishermen out on the lake.
Lake Poschiavo.
The end of the lake and the small fishing resort of Miralago.
Now the train was heading steeply down through a narrow valley.
Passing Brusio
With plenty of rain on the windows.
Just south of Brusio and there is a bridge ahead.
Actually its a circle.
Where the train goes round in a tight loop.
And disappears underneath the viaduct.
We must be lower, there were plenty of fruit trees.
And soon there were lots of grapes....
Yes Italy, the architecture has changed and so has the language.
The train runs along the middle of the main street
And finally we get to Tirano and the Swiss-style railway station at the end of the Bernina Line.

Tirano to Milano

We arrived in Tirano at 1.10pm. Our train to Milan was scheduled for 3.10pm (but this was not Switzerland and Italian timetables are reputed to be a thing of mystery). What to do for 2 hours in a small Italian town and with heavy clouds and occasional showers. Well, lunch for a start. The meagre breakfast at St Moritz was a long time ago. Right next to the station was a cafe selling good-looking pizzas (the same could not be said for the waitress or the men crowded around the next table). After pizzas and remarkably good coffee we noticed the sign had appeared for Milano Centrale. Maybe our train is real. But we still needed tickets. The office in the station had not been opened in years, so after some investigation we found that the cafe sold tickets. Then when the train actually turned up (but not before, just in case...) you pop your ticket into a machine on the platforn, it makes a solid thump noise and you have the date and time on the ticket. Sure enough we got a train, hopped on board, plenty of seats and we were off past the Italian Lakes district to Milan.

We crossed over the piazza to the Italian-style station.
The cafe next door sold good pizza and coffee.
A knife and fork to eat pizza - actually it was a calzone....
Across the road was a ristorante, but nobody seemed to be eating there.
That's reassuring, there is some chance of a train after all our doubts.
No shortage of seats.
Heading west now towards Milan, passing more snow-melt streams.
Lots of small villages on the valley floor.
The largest of the Italian lakes - Lake Como.
Nearing the end of Lake Como.
The town of Lecco at the head of the lake.
Arrival in Milan - those trains look a bit better than our local one from Tirano.
Milano Centrale is a classic - one of Mussolini's grand designs.
The tram cars are of similar vintage.
Some of the ornate detail on the station. Pegasus the Winged Horse - symbolic of how trains might operate.
And a grumpy-looking eagle to remind railways staff to keep the trains on time.
Across the road a more modern building.
A view in the late afternoon over the rooftops of Milan.
Nearby, roof top gardens seemed popular.
A panorama from the small balcony of our hotel room.

Dinner at the Hotel Michelangelo

A postscript. We had booked into a hotel across the road from the Station knowing we would be arriving later in the day and leaving early the next morning. There are several good hotels closeby, but we chose the Hotel Michangelo, it had good reviews. It is a nice hotel, not the cheapest in the area. They have a bar and restaurant so, being tired we searched out a drink and then maybe some food.

The waiter was an older man who had obviously worked there for some time. Being close to the station we assumed he would have a few words of English, and we could try to help him with our few words of Italian. First request was for some drinks at the bar - so he showed us a table and shoved menus in front of us. This was not going well. I tried to order just drinks, but no we were sitting at a dining table so what food do you want. Keep it simple appeared best so pasta was ordered, then a glass of "vino rosso" and (very clearly) "vino bianco". He was back in a trifle with a bottle and poured my red wine, checked the lady wanted "bianco" and promptly came back with a bottle, poured it as fast as he could into the glass and scampered - leaving a glass of red behind. This was not going at all well for our first night in Italy.

Then came the "floor show". The restaurant was on ground level and had large windows that looked out over the street. There were net curtains and heavy drapes at the windows but on one of them the curtain tracks had collapsed. Waiter and maintenance man now attempted to fix the curtains. First problem: both were too short to reach. Solution, get ladder. No ladder in hotel. Get chair, but wait, we need to protect chair from dirty shoes, so the waiter fussed around getting plastic bags to put on the seat before he would let the other man stand on it. Second problem: the broken track was beyond their combined abilities to fix - but they did give us some amusement in their attempts to tie the curtain up. All failed so we were left looking out at the street, and the wet passersby looking in.

Within minutes of ordering, our pasta mains appeared so we ate and departed. No thoughts of dessert or a second drink. If the little man could get "bianco" wrong I did not want to find out what "tiramisu" might turn into. Strangely, while we waited for our pasta another couple were shown to the table next to us. They also ordered "vino bianco" - it was very plain to hear and understand, but the waiter turned up with a bottle of red for them as well. Fortunately the diner saw the bottle before it was poured and he was able to complain. He also had a few more words of Italian than we did. I think the little man did it to all foreign guests just to see what they would do.

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Last updated: 05/10/2014