NEW VIDEO! To see Europe’s greatest train ride in under 4 minutes, check out my new video – filmed on the Bernina Express on 30 July 2019.
The greatest train ride in Europe starts under the cavernous vaults of Zürich’s main railway station, where the 7.07am to Chur is about to depart. Grab a breakfast sandwich and coffee from one of the snack stalls – remembering to breathe deeply when they say “and that will be €20, how would you like to pay?” (the correct answer is “with a deep pain in my heart and wallet, thank you”).
You can spend the next hour or so recovering from the shock, because nothing much happens until the station of Chur, where you simply cross platforms and change trains for the shiny red Bernina Express, which is the largely unheralded prince of all European rail journeys. Others have more cachet or fame, perhaps, but there is, quite simply, nothing like it – a ride on the highest public rail line in Europe, across the glacier-scarred, lake-strewn Alps between Switzerland and Italy.
From Chur to the Italian border town of Tirano (where you change for Milan), it’s 144km and four-and-a-half hours of relentless scenery and extraordinary engineering. Extraordinary for any age – more so because the railway first opened in 1908, built with pick and shovel, the rocks and rubble cleared by dynamite and donkey.
Bridges and tunnels, you stop counting after a while (196 and 55, for the record). As for viaducts across deep clefts, you’re broken in gently so that by the time that the Landwasser viaduct comes along you’re entirely relaxed about that fact that it’s not only 65 metres high and curved – curved! how did they build that? – but it also disappears into a snaking tunnel at the far end as if it’s the world’s best fairground roller-coaster.
Levelling out at the top, you’re not just in the Alps – you’re on the Alps.
Glacial lakes glide by, the train carriages reflected in the deep, clear waters. Lago Bianco marks a watershed – south of here, water flows into the Adriatic, while east it pours, runs and trickles an unfathomable distance to the Black Sea. At the highest point on the whole line at Ospizio Bernina (2,253m – 7,391 feet) there’s a restaurant, with another stop a little further on at Alp Grüm, where there’s time for a stretch of the legs and a view of the Palü Glacier, hanging in a vast alpine bowl.
The scenery doesn’t let up on the descent into the Val Poschiavo, towards Tirano – gentler perhaps, as orchards and vineyards begin to appear, but with one last burst of hat-in-the-air exuberance at the remarkable Brusio Spiral Viaduct. If the question is “how do you control a train’s speed on a ridiculously steep ascent/descent?”, the answer is “build a massive 360-degree curved track – oh, and make it a viaduct”. (By this time, you are beginning to understand that the solution to any engineering problem on the Bernina line was ‘build a viaduct’.)
With superlatives long since exhausted, it only remains to trundle into Tirano – down the main road! I know, no viaduct, what were they thinking? Instead, they basically re-engineered the railway as a tram line for the last section, so you race cars through the centre of town, turn left at the junction and come to a halt in Tirano, where the onward train to Milan will be waiting at the adjacent Trenord station.
Seriously, how much?
There’s one final twist in the tale of the Bernina Express, which is that this stunning journey can be done for the scarcely believable sum of €30 each way, provided you book in advance and follow the careful instructions of the saintly Man in Seat 61 (for more on whom, see below).
Thirty euros – basically the price of a Swiss cup of coffee (I jest, but not much) for one of the most memorable rides of your life. To-do, bucket, must-see – whatever kind of list you have, I think you know what to do.
By the way . . .
Onward travellers to Milan, take note. Tirano is not in Switzerland, where everything has been working perfectly for the last four-and-a-half hours. It is in Italy, which means when you buy a ticket for Milan at the counter, and have only a few minutes to make the connection, the following conversation occurs:
“Here is your ticket, the train is on Platform 1. You must validate the ticket first”.
“Great, where do I do that?”
“There is a machine on Platform 1”. [vague wave of hand]
“But the machine on Platform 1 doesn’t work. You must go to Platform 2 [another vague wave of hand]. That machine may work”.
“Yes, quick, hurry, your train is leaving”.
“Can’t you just validate it here?”
“No, quick. Platform 2. Or perhaps 3. Hurry”.
All entirely normal, of course, for Italy, just thought I’d point it out.
Bernina Express – my quick tips
The Bernina Express is operated by Rhätische Bahn (Rhaetian Railways), and there’s more information and photos on their website, but don’t book the journey here!
Instead, The Man in Seat 61 has all the details and advice you need on how to book the Bernina Express. It’s an incredibly comprehensive website (right down to pictures of the seats you’ll be sitting in!) and he tells you exactly how to make the reservations.
Book early – and you can buy tickets from as little as €29.90 each way (plus another €16, if you wish, for a seat in the panoramic cars). Bookings usually open 6 months in advance, and I got this price by booking in March for a July trip.
There are special panoramic carriages with curving windows (you need a reservation to sit in these) but because it’s also a regular train route, used by locals, there’s an unreserved three-carriage ‘Allegra’ section for which you only need a ticket to ride – sit where you like, for exactly the same views. (And because these carriages are at the front or rear of the train, depending on direction, you get those amazing shots of the curving train on the circular sections of track.)
Sit on the right going south (ie, Chur to Tirano) for the best views – and on the left going north.
Take a picnic and a drink – there isn’t necessarily any catering (not in the unreserved Allegra cars anyway).
Onward connections are easy. At Chur you simply get off the Zürich train and cross the platform for the waiting the Bernina Express (attendants on hand to tell you what to do). At Tirano, come out of the Rhätische Bahn station and the Italian Trenord station is adjacent on the square, on the right – you’ve got roughly 15 minutes to find the ticket office, and buy and validate a ticket before the train leaves for Milan (though there is another train two hours later, if you fancy not shouting at a ticket office employee and having a leisurely lunch instead).
Note about the photographs: all these images were taken on a phone from inside the unreserved ‘Allegra’ carriage of the Bernina Express.