All the way on the Bernina Express
Well rested, we arose early to catch the 8:32am Bernina Express; another beautifully clear, sunny, Chur day greeted us as we set off for the station.
We arrived 25 minutes early to find the train was already at the platform. Being the first to board there were no problems with luggage stowage and as with the Glacier Express plenty of space under the seats for backpacks. Hint: There is limited storage as you enter, but more space through a door at the opposite end of the first class carriages.
It’s hard to define but somehow the Bernina has a more laid back feel compared to the Glacier. Maybe it had something to do with the people we were sharing the carriage with. Certainly the refreshment service was more laid-back with a jolly man intent on selling as much beer as possible wheeling his refreshments cart up and down the train.
One of our co-travellers turned out to be a train driver from Zurich on a train driver’s holiday. He must have done the Bernina route several times because he knew all the route and provided an entertaining addition to the standard on-board commentary. He was first to give us a heads-up to the approaching Landwasser Viaduct. The train slows down as it nears and crosses the viaduct but you still have to be quick, and on the right-hand side of the train, to get reasonable photos (see photo #1 for my rushed attempt). Never mind, there are a million photos on Google and elsewhere. I particularly like this one https://goo.gl/MrdJkD which must have been taken by a hiker from Filisur. There are plenty of other opportunities to capture further viaducts, especially between Bergün and Preda, as the track spirals ever upwards (photo #2).
The road (photo #3) follows the track quite closely in many locations and in winter forms a six-kilometre sled run (see https://youtu.be/LSYBq T8Y-pg and https://goo.gl/b9LcaS). Looks like great fun.
A guy in a truck (photo #4) was trying to burn us off but we got him at the next level crossing. As you approach the Bernina Pass the scenery just keeps getting better (photo #5, #6, and especially #7).
The train stops at Alp Grüm for about 15 minutes providing an opportunity for a leg stretch and to take photos (see photos #8, #9, #10). From there the descent into the the Poschiavo Valley starts with a sweeping 180° curve. Photos #11, #12, #13, #14, #16 and #17 were all taken on the descent towards Italy. The Brusio Circular Viaduct is a favourite with photographers (photos #18, #19).
On arrival at Tirano our first goal was to locate the bus that would take us on to Lugano. We had expected it to be directly outside the station - but no. Surprisingly there is no actual sign which says “Bernina Express Bus - This Way”. When I was a little lad I was taught “If you want to know the way ask a policeman”. So I started to approach a member of the Carabinieri, patrolling with a large alsatian, but had second thoughts when I saw how ferocious he looked (the bobby not the dog). Anyway the Bus is not that hard to find (see thread “Finding the Bernina Express Bus at Lugano https://goo.gl/NHQ2Bc). Later in that thread I have attached a couple of pictures, taken from Google Maps, marking out the route.
If you want to buy lunch in Tirano remember to take some Euros (thanks for the tip Lucas). We had planned to look for something to eat in the town centre but having carted our cases to the slightly remote Bus Station and found a shady spot to sit, decided to stay put. The vending machine in the Bus Station is well stocked.
I had wondered why our reservation on the bus said “Carriage 1”. Turned out there were two buses. The first, carriage 1, was the iconic red Bernina bus. The second bus was a yellow Post Bus model. Check your reservation - it pays to know which bus you are on in order to speed up the loading process.
It’s amazing how “cosy”, some might say cramped, the bus felt after spending so much time on panoramic trains over the preceding day and a half. Unlike the trains you can’t get up and wander about. Photos on the move are out of the question unless you have a window seat and a fast camera.
The first part of the trip is almost entirely on the flat covering miles and miles of mixed rural, semi-industrial and residential communities. The sameness is strangely mesmerising. Things pick up scenically and become quite entertaining once you reach Lake Como at about the halfway point of the three hour journey.
The “toilet stop” at the Hotel Europa, Sorico at the northern-most end of Lake Como was a welcome break in the journey (judging by the queue for the single toilet which took nearly 30 minutes to subside). It was hot and the little kiosk at the Hotel Europa did a roaring trade in ice creams and cold drinks. We thought later that the queue for the toilet may not have been so long if the toilets at the Bus Station in Tirano had not been so awful.
From Sorico the bus follows the north-western shore of Lake Como until turning west at Menaggio and heading for Porlezza at the eastern end of Lake Lugano. We had booked seats on the left-hand side of the bus to get the best views of the beautiful lakes - a good move.
The roads are narrow and winding and at many times pass right through the centre of small villages. Only a narrow sidewalk separates the road from the buildings. I was sitting in an aisle seat three rows back from the driver. This gave a weird perspective of the amount of space available to the left of the bus. On numerous occasions it appeared impossible that the driver could negotiate a fast-approaching and fast-narrowing gap. But he did and we sped on. If you want a really hair-raising ride try booking the two seats on the right-hand side of the bus alongside the driver (I think seats 14 & 16 but the seat numbering system is a little crazy). I’d love to see someone shoot a video from this vantage point.
We continued along the shores of the lake all the way to Lugano. There are many road tunnels and some of the villages have traffic lights at either end as there is only room for traffic in one direction at a time. At Gandria we left Italy behind and re-entered Switzerland.
The bus deposits passengers at the main station, high on the hill above Lugano. At the entrance to the station there is an escalator which takes you down one level to where you find the super-modern, fully-automated funicular which takes you down into the centre of the city (Lugano-TPL station).
A lot of people ask which is best, the Glacier Express or the Bernina Express. Having done them both on consecutive days we agreed that for us it was the Bernina. We had glorious weather on both days but the Bernina journey just seemed more interesting and the scenery more impressive and varied. But of course this is terribly subjective and others will arrive at a different conclusion. Adding the bus trip makes for a very long day of travelling and it does get a bit wearing towards the end. One tourist website says "In summer, Bernina Express passengers can prolong their journey by taking the red Bernina Express Bus from Tirano (Italy) to Lugano . . . . ". With hindsight their use of the word “prolong” seemed apt. I didn't try it, but if you have a smartphone you can install an app which provides an audio commentary (see https://goo.gl/jnaaXh).
Our first five days in Switzerland had been non-stop. Lugano was to be our first five-night stay and we were sure looking forward to a slower pace.
Coming up next . . . . Lugano and beyond.
For earlier editions of The Reluctant Traveller’s Swiss Adventure see
Part 1 - Initial Report (https://goo.gl/8bw51n), Part 2 - Basel to Brig (https://goo.gl/626K1i), Part 3 - The Glacier Express (https://goo.gl/K9hHfR)