Before I had gotten to Italy I had wanted to take the famous Rhaetian Railway over the Alps, a winding mountain railway that connected the Italian town of Tirano with Romansh Switzerland and the Engadine Valley. With only two weeks left in Italy, this was my last chance to do so.
So on Saturday morning I began the day-long journey from Milan to the Swiss village of Chur. The morning was wet and grey in Milan; it has been that way for most of the past month, but as the train headed north from the city towards Tirano, the drizzle stopped and the sky began to clear. At Lecco, the train line began to skirt the side of Lake Como, with picturesque views across the still water to sheer mountain slopes on the other side.
The Rhaetian Railway itself is a network that covers the canton of Graubünden in eastern Switzerland, which is the largest of the cantons, but also one of the most isolated, defined by forests and mountain ranges. However, its most famous stretch is the World Heritage listed Albula and Bernina lines from Tirano to Thusis, which includes the highest railway in Europe. This was what I had come to experience.
The train headed north out of Tirano and immediately upwards, for the first part sharing the main road out of town, before moving across onto its own line. We quickly crossed the border into Switzerland, and then reached the village of Brusio, where the track wound around itself in a spiral in order to ascend up the valley.
Near the summit, the train stopped at Alp Grüm, and let us off to play in the snow for a few minutes and take photos of the Palü glacier across the valley.
The train then began its descent to the Engadine Valley, winding through snowfields. Skiers passed by the train on their way down, enjoying the fading light of the clear day.
We emerged into fog so thick that we could not see beyond the first row of trees. The light had nearly disappeared completely, as we headed down into the Albula valley. The dark fog was so cloying that it was possible to imagine that we had entered a mythical world of eternal night. The train conductor passed through the cabin and turned the lights down, further surrounding us with the nighttime. Every now and then we would pass through a village, a few lights here and there gleaming in the blackness.
After a couple of hours, we reached the final stop at Chur, a village at the north end of Graubünden. I wandered through the closed Christmas market in the old town, before making my way to the hostel just across the river. It wasn’t yet snowy enough for there to be too many people visiting the nearby ski resorts, so I had a whole dorm to myself.
It was time for dinner, and I headed back into town to find a place to eat. It was then that I remembered that Switzerland is one of the most expensive places on earth. Many of the restaurants advertised meals that were more expensive than my hostel room. Eventually, I found a quiet bierhalle, and had a hearty meal of leberkäse, blutwurst, and potatoes, washed down with a glass of the local beer.