Seven hours of train rides, two countries, rain, snow, fog, a mile of walking… and at the end the bar was closed.
Classes are done. The last week of them was a struggle, but they’re done. Yes, there are still six exams to go but that’s a tomorrow problem. Surviving the classes in itself was worth the celebration. And so I decided to get out of the country for the weekend.
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.
It took about an hour for the train to slowly wind along the lake, before abruptly turning right at its end into the Valtellina, a long, flat-bottomed valley with mountains on either side. We passed through town after town, with no end to the valley in sight, and after an hour, the train ran out of track at the town of Tirano. The sun had come out and the high mountain peaks were radiant with the first snows of winter.
I had a couple of hours before the train to Switzerland left, so I walked up towards the edge of the town, where the basilica was located. In the 16th century, a farmer had witnessed an apparition of the Madonna on that site, and the local residents had built a basilica on the site as a place of pilgrimage. Inside the basilica was ornately decorated with sculptures and frescoes, but most notable was the giant pipe organ, which was nearly as tall as the building, and took up nearly a third of the length of the basilica.
From there it was back into the town to have a meal of local food, a hearty bowl of pizzoccheri (buckwheat pasta) with potatoes, cabbage, and an unhealthy amount of cheese. There was not much time to linger over the meal, because the train to Chur was about to depart.
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.
After that we reached lake Poschiavo, hidden in the valley, before the incline kicked up once more as the train climbed the steep Bernina pass, winding back and forth with multiple hairpins. As we got higher and higher, the landscape started to be dotted with snow, at first just a few patches, but then the leaves of the conifers, and then the whole area outside the train became snowed in.
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.
We had already climbed well over a kilometer in altitude, and there was more to come as the train continued its journey. It reached its peak on the shores of a frozen lake in a mountain pass 2259m above sea level (that’s higher than anywhere on the Australian continent). A sign beside the railway marked the middle of the Alps, the point where water to the south flowed to the Adriatic Sea, and where to the north water flowed to the Black Sea.
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 stopped at Pontresina to wait for other trains to pass the other way (most of the line is a single track), before bypassing St Moritz and heading up another valley towards the Albula tunnel. The light was starting to fade as the valley grew narrower, and we dove into darkness.
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.
Chur is not well known to the rest of the world, but it is the birthplace of the artist H.R. Giger, whose fusions of the mechanical and biological are iconic as science-fiction art; his most famous work was on the movie Alien (and the sequels), where he designed many of the elements. In Chur, there was a bar that he had designed in his artistic style, and I wanted to see it. It was in an industrial area a mile away at the edge of town, so I walked out there in search of it.
I got to the door to find that the bar was closed, which was a disappointment. All I could do was peer through the window into the space, each bit of furniture an articulation of Giger’s unique style. There was nothing else around, so I wandered back to the hostel in the biting cold, and fell asleep. The next morning I went wandering through the old town area, enjoying the quiet of a Sunday dawn. The streets were near empty, but the fog of the previous night had lifted slightly affording views up the mountain that loomed directly above.
The train back revealed more of the landscape that was invisible the night before. We crossed green valleys, and ran alongside the headwaters of the river Rhine, which was an unbelievable shade of green. Having lived a long way further up the river in Bonn, it was hard to believe that this clear stream was the same water that was the wide brown river that passed by my old apartment.
Returning up the Albula valley, we saw an isolated landscape, with forests, fields and gorges. The train would cut in and out of tunnels in the mountainside, sometimes emerging into viaducts across deep gorges.
There had been overnight snow, and the cover was even thicker on the way back to the Bernina pass. The sky had cleared once more, and the sun reflected brightly off the white ground.
The train slowly climbed to the top of the pass, whipping up the powder. Clouds of snow crystals drifted over the lake at the top, catching the sunlight to form a rainbow (“snowbow”). Kite skiers darted to and fro on the lake, their bright sails full of wind as they skimmed across the surface.
We made another stop at Alp Grüm to play in the snow. From the top, it was possible to see all the way down past Poschiavo to the end of the line at Tirano.
Even so, it would take over an hour to get there. The train moved tentatively and slowly through the last of the snow, careful not to slip. After the forest ended, we moved faster between the villages, before finally rolling back into Tirano.
There, there was enough time for lunch and another wander through the old town, before getting on the train back to Milan. It was already getting late in the day, and as we passed along the shores of Lake Como, the sun set over the mountains, bathing everything in a pink twilight, before the fog swept in and made everything dark once more.
It had been a weekend mainly spent travelling and staring out the window, which was exactly what was needed ahead of exams. It was relaxing. In the end it didn’t matter that the bar was closed, the journey was more important than the destination.
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