Bernina Express - Part 2

Date published: 07 Jun 18

Riding in the driver’s cab of an express train is a dream come true. And it gets better and better when one of the self-proclaimed slowest express journeys in the world lives up to its billing and goes even slower to take in the sort of views that bring a lump to your throat.

View from driver's cabA stool might not the most comfortable place to perch, but that doesn’t matter a jot when you’re at the front of the Rhatische Bahn’s legendary Bernina Express, one of the most famous trains in the world, as it climbs out of the Swiss regional capital of Chur and heads for the mountains on the Albula line.

The express on the Albula and Bernina lines is famous with good reason, a wonder of engineering which is one of only three routes in the world to hold UNESCO World Heritage status, and although the phrase has become a cliche, a ride on this epic train really does deserve to be on any bucket list.

A ride with the driver - mine was Norton motor-bike enthusiast Andy - isn’t cheap, but then the memories of the trip are priceless mementoes that no-one can take from you. I couldn’t take the smile off my face the whole time I was riding with Andy, who grinned and  summed up the day and his 32 years as a driver in a typical, understated Swiss manner: “Yes, it’s a nice job …”

The ride was a thriller, following the river Albula after passing through Thusis, then crossing the astonishing Landwasser Viaduct before arriving in Filisur, before passing through the first of its spiral tunnels on the way to Bergün. As if the ride isn’t enough, our stop at the village of Bergün revealed an Aladdin’s Cave of treasures to delight any railway enthusiast. The Albula Museum's model layoutA rare preserved ‘Krocodil’ locomotive was the first clue as we arrived at the station, followed by an excellent light lunch at the adjoining Albula Railway Museum bistro, where we sat on plush seats saved from original railway dining and saloon cars. Then on to the museum itself, where  the story of the pioneering line was unfolded for us, along with a look behind the scenes at an astonishing collection of artefacts stretching back to when the route first opened. The interactive museum, with lots of hands-on things to keep youngsters occupied, is interesting enough in its own right, but ‘Hausmeister’ Martino Regli gave us a privileged look at another dimension behind closed doors, in upstairs storage and work rooms and a cellar built by the Swiss military. Virtually nothing has been thrown away over the years, and pallets, wire cages and racks contain hundreds items ranging from in size from tickets and the mechanical marvel machines that printed and dispensed  them,  to vintage telephones, lengths of rail line, rolling stock wheels and even a section of a historic railway dining car.

Biggest treat for the schoolboys amongst the visitors (all the blokes) is a massive, absolutely stunning model railway layout, with 1:45 scale RhB buildings, mountain viaducts and tunnels as they would have been between 1950 and 1960; along with meticulously-detailed freight and passenger trains complete with sound and lighting.

Detail of the model railwayThe fabulous set-up is model maker Berhard Tarnutzer’s 30-year labour of love and it is still a project in progress, with the man himself working on the  landscape as it continues to evolve, and operating the layout in the afternoons.

Visitors can watch Bernhard beavering away in his open workshop amid the tracks and can get very close to the action to marvel at the meticulous detail and even peer into the tunnels as trains operate to a realistic schedule.

While a couple of us lingered in the museum, a few other companions opted to use the full-size railway to ride the village of Preda, winding upwards over viaducts and helical tunnels to the 1,800 metre mark and the start of an epic sledge run back to Bergün. The toboggan run, the wonderfully-titled Schlittelbahn  in German, is a closed-off section of pass road and is almost as tortuous as the railway track it twists and turns and sometimes hurtles underneath - and it’s a darn sight quicker way down than taking the train.

The gorgeous church in BergunFrom the full-size and small-scale railway, it’s a short walk to the heart of the unspoiled village of Bergun itself, where some of us stayed in the Hotel Weisses Kreuz, a former farmhouse dating back to the 16th century, surrounded by ornate, decorated Engadine houses and near to the 800-year-old Romanesque church and Roman tower.

Our planned evening meal of an outdoor fondue was scuppered by a mini blizzard, so we duly fondued indoors at the Fonduestübli on the road back to the station, then as the snow slowed down we had drinkie-poos round a roaring fire under the stars outside Club 99 and then headed back to the open air Ice Bar in the centre of the village. Well worth a visit when you’re wrapped up warmly, this quirky distraction is a bar built from blocks of ice, where drinks are on the ice rather than the ice being in your drink. All the usual winter warmers on offer, like glühwein, jägertee and bombardinos, along with some more off-the-wall offerings like Swiss herbal infusions with a fair old kick, which proved to be somewhat of an acquired taste - my bio-green option tasted a bit like Ricola sweets on speed, and it was a taste I didn’t really acquire, to be honest.

Back to the Weisses Kreuz, run by the friendly familie Thomas Baer and Ursina Barandun, where we had a nightcap and a natter in a corner of the bar/restaurant full of happy locals.

The following morning we were back on the rails and spiralling up to Preda en route to the 6km (3.7 mile) Albula Tunnel, emerging into the Engadine plain and the railway hub of Samedan, where we passed the branch leading off to to uber-posh St Moritz and continued on the Bernina line towards glamorous, poetic-sounding Pontresina and on through scenery which has to rank as some of the most spectacular in the world.

A bit chilly at Alp GrumOn past the station at Bernina Diavolezza (I’ve skied the slopes there years ago, from the other side!) towards the highest point of the Bernina Pass and two bodies of water next to each other on the plateau, both with a covering of ice and snow as we passed and making a great playground for kiteboarders zooming across the surface. The view must be quite something after the snow is gone because of the lakes’ distinctive colours - the small Lej Nair, which is Black Lake in the Romansh  dialect because of its murky waters; and Lago Bianco, or White Lake, a much larger reservoir which is a milky colour due to glacier meltwater.

Next was another real high spot of our  Bernina experience - almost the highest spot at 2,091 metres - and certainly a memorable one at Alp Grüm, below the majestic peak of Puiz Palü and its glacier and accessible only by train or by hiking or biking.

From here, it was almost possible to see our destination, which is a treasure to be explored in Bernina Express - Part 3: Primo Poschiavo!

More information

For information visit www.MySwitzerland.com or call Switzerland Travel Centre on freephone 00800 100 200 30 or e-mail info.uk@myswitzerland.com; for packages, trains and air tickets sales@stc.co.uk. SWISS offers more than 180 weekly flights from London City, Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Dublin to Zurich, Geneva or Sion. All-inclusive fares from £74 one-way. Visit swiss.com or call 0345 601 0956.

The Swiss Travel System provides a range of passes and tickets for train, bus and boat, plus more than 500 museums.  Call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or visit www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Tailor Made Rail and Great Rail Journeys for holidays on the Bernina Express, as well as Railbookers (for a no-fly package).

Bernina Express – Part 1


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