Day 10 - 24 Sep
Hotel breakfast this morning and we met our first group of Aussies. They had been to some of the places we are going to, so it was good to get some current info. They were also about to go on to Lake Como in Italy, for a return visit, and it sounds really good. - maybe a future visit for us...
After brekkie, we geared up and set off for the 180 steps - up - to the train station. Strangely, it didn't take any longer going up today than down yesterday - perhaps we were more rested? Or maybe we kept stopping for pictures on the way down? Either way, we were at the train station in plenty of time to catch - the bus. Yep, the Lugano to Tirano leg of the famed Bernina Express is by bus, through Northern Italy, including alongside Lakes Lugano and Como. It took a few minutes to locate the bus stop which, unusually, was not well marked, but we had plenty of time to spare and were soon on board.
As we drove along the lakes, we were a bit bothered by the weather. It was persistently hazy, much as it had been around Lake Lucerne, but we were hoping it would improve as we were headed for higher altitudes and better scenery. - if we could see it. Fortunately it did, and by the time we reached Tirano, things we're looking up, in that regard.
After a short break at Sorico (one Euro or buy a coffee to use the loo!), a mother and son travelling in the seats in front of us engaged us in conversation. They had heard us discussing the best way to continue on to Pontresina and offered to share their wisdom with us. It was very useful! They - and the son in particular - are train nuts and seemed to know everything useful about train travel in Switzerland. They pretty much convinced us to bypass the panorama 'Bernina' coaches and travel in the local carriages at the front of the train, preferably in First Class (FC). Before we leave them, their story is worth relating. They left home in Basel around four in the morning and took the train to Lucerne and then Lugano. We obviously met them on the bus leg to Tirano, then they were going on to Chur, Zurich and back to Basel by the evening. A complete circuit of the country in a day! Now, we know Switzerland is a small country, but even so, that was quite some trip! Guess they love trains!
We arrived in Tirano right on time and crossed to the railway station, where we enquired about purchasing an upgrade to FC. Rejection! The clerk said it was not possible to buy upgrades from our Second Class (SC) STP for individual journeys. We were sure we could, but with the pressure of a crowd waiting to be served (by the one clerk) and a Regional train about to depart in ten minutes, we withdrew, temporarily defeated. We boarded the train - in Second - but continued our discussion on what to do. At the last moment, we decided to get off the train and have another go at the upgrade! There were plenty of trains going our way, so we decided it was worth a shot.
The next train was a Bernina Panorama and, as predicted by our local advisors from the bus, it was to be hauled by a three car local locomotive set. In this set, there was a small FC compartment behind the driver, and the rest was mostly SC. As a precaution, Angela boarded in the SC area, while Ray went off to renegotiate. With no other customers waiting, a firmer (but polite) approach, emphasising our certainty that an upgrade was possible, worked wonders. A phone call later, presumably to check the veracity of our claim, and we had our upgrade.
We relocated to the FC compartment and immediately appreciated the improvement. Fewer seats and no other passengers meant we could move around at will, to see and photograph whatever we wished. And we did, for the entire two hours!
Finally , we were on the way and the great sights came thick and fast. At times, the train travelled down the middle of streets; station platforms were almost indistinguishable from footpaths; and picture postcard views were everywhere, from classic Swiss cottages with cows at the front door, to an exquisite mountain lake where we stopped to wait for a passing train. And of course, as we reached the highest point of the Bernina Pass, we had long views of the beautiful Palu Glacier. And the icing on the cake? The weather had improved to fabulous!
Along with the natural beauty and rural icons, some of the best views were the engineering marvels of the region that have helped to make Swiss train travel so well reknowned. There are soaring viaducts and spiral tunnels inside mountains, the functionality of which become obvious when the train emerges from a tunnel several hundred feet higher above the same valley - repeatedly. We recall seeing one town in particular on at least four occasions before we finally cut through the mountain to the Bernina Pass. But for us, the outstanding engineering image is of the Brusio spiral viaduct, which gave us a visual impression of the magic that happens, unseen, inside the mountains.
We arrived in Pontresina, very happy that we had eschewed the Panorama carriages, and set out on the 800m uphill trek to our hotel, where we will stay for two nights. The hotel was in the middle of town and very good. In fact, it was clearly undergoing renovations and our room looked as though we were the first guests to use it since the reno. On check in, we were given a very valuable card for free use of the lifts and funicular rail in the area. Our STP gives us 50% discount on those transports, but it was very nice to have the rest taken care of.
Not much more to tell for today. We had a very nice stroll around town, met a couple who had recently been to Wengen and Zermatt - our next destinations - and planned our next day.
TTFN - RandA