Bernina Express To Cavaglia (Glacial Garden) And Total Alpine Bliss

‘Are you sure we are not lost?’ These were the first words I said to my driver when I first saw Swiss St Moritz come into view across the famous Silvaplana. We were not. ‘It’s not about how long it takes, it’s about the journey itself’, several years later I overheard an Italian father telling his unruly children as we rode the incredible Bernina Express train up from Italian Tirano. ‘Poi quando arriviamo e una palla’ – then when we get there it’s boring as. It appears I am not alone in sharing a sense of disappointment with this most famous of Swiss resorts. Several visits later, I confess still don’t get it.

Top of The World, reaching the snow even in May

Top of The World, reaching the snow even in May

However this is not a story of disappointment. I also have nothing personally against St Moritz which in 1987 took out a trade mark on the phrase ‘Top of the World’. I have never skied there, something said to be an amazing experience. It was in fact here a famous bet in 1864 between a hotel owner and four British tourists lead to the ‘birth’ of the ski season for tourists. No, this is in fact the tale of one of the most beautiful rail journeys one can take anywhere in the world, getting more off the beaten track than I can remember achieving in years and in the process falling in love with a tiny Alpine village by the name of Cavaglia. It’s a simple easy to follow recipe I would suggest, to a wonderful day out. It maybe be a cliche, but the Bernina Express comes as close to a ‘miracle of modern engineering’ as can be. Well, 20th century engineering at any rate. Its construction, completed in July 1910 must have followed one of those moments in history I often ponder – some sort of ‘meeting’, decision or inspiration when someone for whatever reason, prompted by who knows what first thought up the idea.

Get Off Train When This is Your View

Get Off Train When This is Your View

And what an idea. It’s the only Swiss train to operate on top of the Alps. My journey takes me from Tirano 429m above sea level across the border to Cavaglia at 1693m and up still to the highest station, Ospizio Bernina at 2252m. The gradient on this gravity defying journey is often as steep as one in seven. Today, hundreds of paying tourists crammed into beautiful red wagons, it makes some sort of sense, but in 1910? However, after this ‘moment’ of inspiration or madness, others must have agreed. “Build it and they will come”…

The commentary, as the rails snake their way up the Engadina valley, is in German and Italian. It’s early May, still the winter season in the eyes of the R railways, and as such any English speaking guests have another week to wait before their language will also be piped from the loudspeakers in the specially glazed floor-to-ceiling ‘panoramic’ wagons; designed with maximum ease of photography in mind. The train is packed. Departing promptly at 8:50 there follows an hour of interrupted Kodak moments, left and right. Realising I am a guide, people ask me if there is a better side to sit on. There is not.

Special Exhibition This Year

Special Exhibition This Year

Then, at 9:57 and more than 1200m higher; heaven… I, and only me, step off the train onto the ‘platform’ at the tiny unattended Alpine station of Cavaglia and into total solitude. After letting the downward bound 9:59 to Tirano pass, my train, cameras still snapping from behind glass slowly pulls out and continues its laborious, electrically powered, quest seemingly for the very peaks themselves. And I am alone. The beaten path just left for St Moritz, where most groups will spend two hours, at this time of year – off season – wondering at just how ‘dead’ it is, marvelling at the cost of food, drinks and souvenirs and strolling by the lake, checking the time frequently, afraid to miss their departing tour bus.

Cut back to Cavaglia. I have walked five minutes along the tracks in the direction from which my train has climbed. I am in a beautiful glacial valley, a handful of typically Swiss stone and wood houses nestled along a brook, snow capped peaks forming a 360 degree panorama in the blue sky above. These are the high pastures, but the animals of the spring and summer have yet to be ‘transhumanced’ up from the fields of the valleys below. It’s quiet, save for the rushing water. I spot a red jeep across the other side and close by a solitary angler. For the next two hours he is the only soul I’ll see.

 

Giant Glacial Potholes

Giant Glacial Potholes

My destination is the Glacier Garden of Cavaglia, the sign, attached to a rock, which advertises its presence I have passed several times. These have always been occasions when, due to the constraints of work I have been required to remain firmly in my seat and escort my groups, non-stop to St Moritz. Today I am groupless and determined to stop. Armed with a sandwhich which Marco from bar Margi – a regular stop of mine – down in much cheaper Tirano has prepared that morning, I make my way, up through the glacial garden, past ancient glacial ‘pots’ and through pines to the lookout point, it’s obligatory bench and a picnic with such a view, I can recall few more stunning venues for such a culinary event.

The only way to be sure of catching a train is to miss the one before it. – G.K Chesterton Maybe it’s time to miss a few more trains in my life…

It should be obvious from the above, but I can thoroughly recommend this as a day out. Get off at Cavaglia, go for a walk, bring a picnic and enjoy the thrill of watching all the ‘sheep’ head off to St Moritz. The ‘garden’ has a fabulous website with downloads, worth bringing. Have a look here

~ by 2ndcupoftea on May 27, 2013.

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