The Swiss public transport system is not only the epitome of the nation's famed reputation for good organisation and cleanliness, but also extensively covers what is one of the most beautiful parts of Europe. Therefore, it seemed to me that making a scenic railway excursion was an obvious thing to do whilst in the country. In fact, one of my primary motivations for going to Lugano was that I could return from the city on the Bernina Express, one of the routes intended to provide visitors with almost unrivalled opportunities to enjoy the spectacular mountainous backdrops.
The first leg involved leaving Ticino and traverses the pleasant rolling hills of Lombardy towards Tirano, spending a lot of time on the shores of Lake Como in the process. Under normal circumstances, the countryside outside would definitely be worthy of a few superlatives, but on this particular occasion, it simply could not compete with what was to come later. Therefore, I was extremely pleased to have started in the south rather than finishing there, as that would have probably proved to an anticlimax.
Unfortunately, the connection left no time to explore after arriving in the town, which is supposedly a fairly picturesque little place, as the main part of the journey was due to start almost immediately. The first noticeable thing after boarding was the carriage itself, the design of which enabled the maximum possible appreciation of the outside world. The unbelievably large windows extended almost to the very top of the train, and ran its entire length with the minimum possible interruption.
It did not take too long after getting underway and crossing back over the border before encountering the first real point of interest. The bridge at Bivio is an eye-catching and highly unusual structure that loops 360 degrees whilst gaining height. It is a fine example of the sort of ingenious devices used to handle steep gradients as an alternative to the more usual cogwheels. Due to such innovative feats of engineering, the act of constructing the line is quite possibly almost as impressive as the terrain that it passes through. In fact, the builders did not seem daunted when faced with the immense obstacle that is the Alps, but rather, they rose to the challenge with considerable aplomb.
The climb into the mountains then continues through a series of tight bends up towards the icy heights of Alp Grüm, and it was then that the spectacular vistas associated with the region came into view for the very first time. In addition, the true uniqueness of the experience became fully apparent. After all, how many other railways transport people from lakeside palm trees to snow covered peaks in the space of just a few hours?
Having eventually reached the highest point, over 7,000 feet, the train travels through the rugged landscape that has enabled the ancient Romansh language to survive to the present day, and which is home to illustrious ski resorts such as St Moritz, Davos and Klosters. It then follows the time-honoured path through the Bernina and Albula Passes that has facilitated a link between northern Italy and the heart of Switzerland for hundreds of years. Although the former is undoubtedly lovely and obviously inspired the evocative name of the express, the latter is more interesting, mainly because of the viaduct over a deep gorge that curves majestically whilst linking the mouth of a tunnel and a section of track along a narrow ridge.
The final stretch, the descent towards Chur, was literally, and also somewhat metaphorically, downhill all of the way. But whilst admittedly not quite as aesthetically spectacular as what had gone before, the views were still very nice, and it proved to be a fine epilogue to a wonderful few hours.
The only real drawback of the trip is the price of the tickets, which was not far short of 100 francs one-way when the compulsory reservation fee is included. However, I would still wholeheartedly recommend doing it to anyone who does not find the cost to be too off putting, as it is definitely an unforgettable way to experience truly wonderful panoramas.