Sunday, 25 June 2017

Summer Alpine Adventure 2: Top of the World!

Our train crossing the Landwasser Viaduct on the
Rhätische Bahn Albula Line en route for St Moritz
From Basel we continued the journey along the Rhine valley towards the south of Switzerland, on the top deck of a Swiss duplex train in great comfort. After more stunning scenery we changed trains again at Chur, boarding a Rhätische Bahn metre-gauge train for the ascent via the Albula line to St Moritz. We left the Rhine valley a little way out of Chur and began the climb along the Albula valley towards Thusis and Tiefencastel, across the famous Landwasser Viaduct, through countless tunnels and across even more bridges, then spiralling up the valley sides, looking down on the tracks we'd already travelled and passing some villages several times before plunging through the Albula tunnel to emerge in the High Engadine valley and into St Moritz which bills itself the "Top of the World". We had been here briefly between trains on our winter visit and knew it only in deep snow with the lake frozen, and now we were seeing it in warm weather, soon to become warmer, and with sun on the grass and woods, but still with snow on the high peaks all around.

View from our room at the Hotel Schweizerhof in
Sankt Moritz
Our tour manager, Ray, led us to the hotel via a route modified by recent and continuing building works, including improvements to the railway station. After checking in we found our room and were bowled over by the view of the lake and the mountains beyond (a lake view room was a paid-for optional extra on this tour and well worth paying-for). We had a little balcony which came into its own as the weather improved during our stay, but now was the time to go down for dinner. As usual with Great Rail Journeys holidays, all the breakfasts, most of the dinners and a few of the lunches were included in the cost of the holiday and we dined together with the whole group. We had a section of the hotel dining room set aside for the group and a menu with few choices and an excellent standard of food.

Nibbles and sparkling wine as the Bernina Express leaves
Alp Grum for the descent towards Italy.
Looking down on the Brusio Viaduct as our train approaches:
with much squealing from the wheels we would soon slowly
descend to the plain and pass under the same bridge!
The next day was an early start for a trip on the famous Bernina Express to Tirano, back in the European Union just across the border in Italy. We had done some of this line before, but not all of it. Now we would experience the dramatic helical viaduct at Brusio as well as seeing in summer the scenes we'd only before seen with deep snow. The Bernina Express trains had also recently been fitted with an "Infot(r)ainment" system 🙄 which allowed us to obtain commentary and follow the route on our smartphones as we travelled. We heard that the line was constructed to minimum curve radius and maximum gradient standards to allow trains to ascend and descend the Alpine gradients without the use of the cog and rack system used in many other parts of the Alpine rail network. This line took us back down from the Alps to the tiny city of Tirano and past much interesting scenery on the way. The train paused for a while to allow us to get off and enjoy better the scenery at Alp Grum, and there was sparkling wine awaiting our return to the train for the descent via Poschiavo into Italy.

Our tour manager gathering us together for the train back
to St Moritz
We had a lot of free time to explore Tirano. It was a very warm, even hot, day and we enjoyed a real Italian ice-cream in Italy at Italian prices - lower than in either England or Switzerland. Shopping was inexpensive because all the shops close for several hours at lunch time when we were there, but we did get some souvenirs at the shop at the railway station. Spending today was in Euros: all this border-crossing meant having three wallets with different currency, although the Sterling was put away until the day we went home so we were down to a choice of two. We also take a commission-free credit card from the Nationwide building society and pay in local currency for souvenirs, meals etc, just using cash for drinks, snacks etc.. We made a note of some of the offered Sterling prices and when we arrived home and examined the statement it was clear that we had saved quite a lot by opting to pay in local currency at Nationwide's exchange rate rather than in Sterling at some unknown foreign bank's rate with commission!

Our train back to Switzerland was an ordinary service train, still very comfortable but with no scenic stop at Alp Grum and no sparkling wine ... and soon we were back in St Moritz for shower, dinner and eventually an earlyish night after a busy day's exploration. I did pop out and get some postcards to send home to family and friends, in the hope we could post them to arrive at home before we did.

The following day was the "day at leisure in St Moritz" during which we intended to go and explore some places we had seen under snow on our last visit to Switzerland. It would include "leisure" but also more exploration!

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