Wednesday 2 April 2014

Climbing the Swiss Alps - part 2: Italy and the Glacier Express

Market Place at Locarno
Wednesday was a free day with no outings on the schedule, but Glyn our tour manager had prepared a list of suggestions, complete with train times and other helpful detail and we decided to visit the town of Locarno, on the shore of Lake Maggiore in the Italian-speaking area of the country. Indeed, we were to change trains at a station in Italy on our way there, adding a fifth country to the list of nations we would have visited on this trip (six if you count France through which we pass without stopping). This day turned out to be the only one on which we had rain, but the experience was still very well-worthwhile. The journey itself was interesting, which was a major part of the reason for making the trip.

The Eurocity train to Venice
 It began with the journey through the Simplon Tunnel into Italy, and the border guard on the train wanted to know where my luggage was (on a day trip) and how much money I had with me … less that €1000 did not seem to be a problem, though, and as we were staying in Switzerland I had very few Euros, just for coffee on the way there and aperitifs on the way back. Odd, but then this was a through train, probably from Berne or even Basel to Venice, so smuggling into, out of or through Italy may be a major concern. Alison did not seem to be a problem, so I wondered if they were looking for a particular man, especially as a handful of others in the group had been through the same line of questioning. All good fun – at least we knew we'd been to Italy!

Passing a Centovalli Express
At Domodossala we left the main line and downstairs found the single-platform terminus of the metre-gauge Centovalli railway, the Hundred Valleys line. Even in the drizzle this was a spectacular line. We were now well short of adjectives to describe the amazing scenery we were encountering. We happened to be on a Panoramio train formed of coaches with huge windows and had to pay a small supplement to the conductor for the privilege. The train also had a trolley refreshment service and as we were in Italy we had to have the espresso coffee, in tiny disposable cups! The train, electric like all the others we had been on, left on time and after travelling a short way through the valley in which the town was set began to climb into the hills, turning back on itself several times as it gained height. We soon found ourselves looking out on snow-covered towns, villages, hills and gorges. The architecture was totally different from what we had seen just a few kilometres away in Switzerland, and even more interesting was that when the Centovalli lines crossed the border back into Switzerland none of this changed but the flags at the stations changed from the Italian tricolour to the Swiss cross. You would never know in one of these towns that you were in Switzerland.

Lunch in Locarno
The last few kilometres of the line were underground and again we found ourselves in the basement of the station at Locarno, and emerged right in the town centre a short walk from the lakeside. It was raining but we could walk around quite well. The town was obviously a summer resort with boat trips (not operating) and outdoor dining etc (also not taking place). We sought out a decent Italian restaurant in the town centre away from the tourist area of the lake and had the most wonderful pizza and could easily imagine we were actually in Italy. We returned the way we had come but it was an ordinary train that took us back to Domodossola, so no supplement to pay but we sat on the other side of the train and still enjoyed the ride. Back through the Simplon Tunnel we were also on a regional train and not a long-distance through service, and there was no border guard looking for middle-aged men carrying luggage and lots of cash. Home to the second session of James Bond.

Thursday was to be the centrepiece of the package but it was hard to see how what we had already done could be surpassed. We packed our bags and the large cases were taken away to the station to be transported separately to Chur for the next few days of the holiday, while the group walked together after a lighter-than-usual breakfast to the street platform outside Brig station to board the famous Glacier Express.

The train actually runs from Zermatt to St Moritz, and a complete First Class panoramic dining coach had been reserved for our party, complete with tablecloths and folded napkins, glasses and cutlery all ready for lunch. Once we had sat down orders were taken for coffee or aperitifs (we had coffee: it was still not yet noon!) and we gazed out at the landscape as our train began climbing into the hills. This is another metre-gauge train and most of the time moved along smoothly like a normal train, but in a few places the rack-and-pinion system was used to take it up and over some steep climbs: it would have been used most of the way down from Zermatt before we boarded. Each of us had a pair of earphones which could be plugged into a socket on the seat to listen to commentary at selected points of interest along the journey, announced by an audible alert and a speaker icon on the information display, and we each had a map showing the location of these points of interest. So much to take in: the meal, the scenery, the route map and the commentary.

Lunch was wonderful when it came, and was enjoyed among deep snow-covered landscapes just as we had imagined. A highlight was the serving of Grappa after the meal, served by pouring from a great height to aerate the drink, into a glass just a couple of centimetres in diameter, on a moving train! I think several people only bought the Grappa to photograph it being served. We were climbing out of the Rhone Valley and about to descend into the Rhine Valley for the second half of the holiday. Once the lunch was cleared away we enjoyed the last part of the journey along “Switzerland's Grand Canyon”, a deep flat-bottomed gorge of one of the Rhine tributaries. Arriving in Chur we were taken to our hotel (on foot this time) and welcomed by the owner with a glass of wine. The cases soon arrived, dinner was consumed and we reflected on yet another fantastic day. What would this new stage in the tour bring tomorrow?

The hotel in Brig had been modern and fairly small: this one in Chur was huge and old-fashioned, with dining rooms all over the place. Breakfast was in a room that looked like it might have once been a Masonic temple, and dinner in a panelled dining room. Waiting staff were in traditional costume and every effort was made to help us feel that we were truly in Switzerland. From here we would explore the eastern Alps. Some of the more “connected” older members of the group were horrified to discover that the wireless internet at this hotel was not free-of-charge and we all adapted to a few days offline!

The Landwasser Viaduct on the Albula Line
Friday we started with the Bernina Express, the metre-gauge train into Italy, as far as Poschiavo just short of the border. The train travels along the WorldHeritage line in the Albula valley with its spectacular engineering including winding tunnels in solid rock and many curved viaducts by means of which the train climbs over the mountains without the use of rack-and-pinion. It was lunchtime when we arrived at Poschiavo but a short walk around the town revealed that most places which might sell suitable food were closed for lunch, so we settled for a snack back at the station: we can recommend the Kiosk chain of rail station shops for their refreshments if you are ever in Switzerland.

While waiting for our train onwards to St Moritz we saw a snow plough brought out of its shed and all its equipment tried by the staff after their lunch break. It looked brand-new and we could imagine them working through the handbook and trying everything out, or they may simply have been checking it over before the forecast snow later in the afternoon - snow which began on our way back to Chur from St Moritz.

After an hour in Poschiavo we boarded the train which climbed its way to StMoritz. Again we had about an hour there and were able to see the frozen lake on which had been created a horse racing circuit with stands and all the usual paraphernalia. The contrast between the cold and snow at St Moritz and the sunshine and relative warmth of Poschiavo, just a short distance away but much lower, was striking. Our train back to Chur from St Moritz soon rejoined the line by which we had come and we experienced the same winding track again. It is really confusing to pass the same landmarks twice on the same side, or on opposite sides, or both, sometimes several times. By now it was snowing and really atmospheric: difficult for photography but great to experience. The following day was another “free” day and on arrival at Chur we shopped for food for the day: we were not sure what we might do but we'd need a snack either at lunchtime or in the evening.

At dinner each day Glyn gave us our briefing for the next day and because we would not be dining together on the free days we had the briefing for the following day, too, in this case the day we were to start travelling back via Germany. By now we had travelled, in sections, all the route of the Glacier Express between Zermatt and St Moritz and he was able to hand out to us a certificate to show that we had achieved this.

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