Travel Date 24th May 2011.
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I decided to spend the evening between the two Alpine Expresses in Chur, rather than St Moritz. The timing worked out better and I thought it may be nice to stay in an ordinary small Swiss town rather than a tourist resort.
I arrived shortly before three pm and was picked up by Jacqueline, from Backpackers Planaterra, at the station. She seemed pleasant, but I did not see her again after that. The “hotel” was not a long way away, but I was pleased to be picked up because I would never have found her lodgings on foot. I have written a review on Booking.com here: Backpackers Planaterra. If you're a backpacker or looking for el cheapo digs, fine, if not find somewhere else.
Chur is a pleasant small town in the mountains with nothing particularly spectacular about it apart from the surrounding scenery. But I have to admit, that scenery is pretty spectacular.
I found the nearest coin laundrette, one of the essentials of travelling for me, and enjoyed wandering around the surrounding district while the washing machines did their work.
Despite being in the German-speaking region of Switzerland the town seems to have a French style to it's architecture. There are a profusion of cafés and tiny squares and spaces complete with obligatory statues and fountains. I wasn't driving, so I decided to try the vin rouge ordinaire, or more accurately, gewöhnlicher rotwein, in all of the cafés near the laundrette. It became an enjoyable afternoon; I believe I had a fascinating conversation in one of the bars but can't recall a word of it.
Next morning I walked from the hotel to the station and left at 8:30 on the Bernina Express. For me, it was a better experience than the Glacier Express. For the first few kilometres we retraced the route I had arrived on yesterday, but then we headed off to the South towards Italy.
The scenery slowly became greener and less snow-covered than the previous day, but was more rugged and spectacular to my eyes. Then it got mountainous and snowy again as we reached the peak before becoming green again as we descended towards Italy. The train track engineering was impressive and at times breath-taking when looking out of the window at the rugged gorges and slopes we were passing over or through.
The Bernina Express suffered from the same window-glare problems as the Glacier Express, but I found a solution. At the end of each car, opposite the door to the toilet is a small openable window which allowed me to take unobstructed shots of the passing scenery.
For a little while I got some odd looks from passengers who seemed a little concerned at this odd bald sextagenarian hanging around the toilets, but eventually the others worked out what I was doing and I found the main problem became sharing the window with the other amateur photographers in the car. After a while I moved up a few carriages until I found another vacant window, although by that time almost every car had other photographers doing the same.
We reached the highest pass in the Alps in the only train that crosses them by going over instead of through a tunnel. The pass is known as Ospizio Bernina at 2,253 meters or 7,380 feet. It is also marked as the Wasserscheide or Watershed, defined by the Lej Nair (Black Lake) with an outlet flowing north to the Danube and eventually the Black Sea, and a few hundred metres on the Lago Bianco (White Lake) with water eventually flowing to the Po and the Mediterranean.The colour comes from "glacier milk", the suspended fine white fragments of rock ground up by the glaciers.
Shortly after this we stopped for a short break at Alp Grüm with wonderful views down to the distant valley and to the slopes at the side. Once again the smokers were very grateful for the stop.
The train repeatedly followed snaking circuitous tracks around steep mountains, often doubling back under or over itself as it lost or gained height. Unfortunately, one of the most dramatic loops is being totally renovated so it is covered in protective hoardings. At this loop the train does a very tight turn and goes under the track it arrives on.
After a very pleasant morning I arrived at Tirano, a town divided by the border between Switzerland and Italy. I stepped out of the Swiss Railway Station, wandered across the square and bought a ticket for the local Trenitalia train from Tirano to Milan. Departure time was a bit unclear. I felt there may not be enough time for lunch at the nearby café so I bought a chunk of baguette with ham and cheese and boarded the train. It glided away from the platform as I sat down.
The train was a few levels down from the luxury of the Glacier and Bernina Expresses; it was also fairly dirty and the air-conditioning was not working on a very warm afternoon. But it was still reasonably comfortable and the passing scenery was interesting.
Slowly we left the Alps and the mountains became hills, with terraced slopes of grapevines and orchards. Villages started to flash past, then glimpses of lake Lugarno, then eventually the industrial outskirts of Milan.
I spent a little time at the station, using the ticket machine to buy a ticket for the next day from Milan to Venice and also to print out my pre-arranged ticket for the following night on the train from Venice to Zagreb. Everything worked as advertised.
Train travel, compared to air travel, may be slower between A and B, but it is so much more relaxed at the points of departure and arrival. No queues for check in, no security queues, no need to be there hours before and you depart and arrive in the middle of town.
I was staying at the Hilton (at an incredibly cheap rate via Priceline bidding) which was only a short walk from the station, so I strolled to the hotel after that.
Cheers, Alan, Australia