Unless you are new here, you will know that I have a couple of passions I will not shut up about: mostly mountains and railways. I always struggle to compute why this came about. I do have clues though: the first holidays I remember as a young child were a summer trip to Chamonix, where my parents took me up to the Montenvers via its mighty rack railway. After that week, my bedroom had a new poster I would fall asleep to every night: a dreamy picture of the Montenvers train making its way up to the glacier. This may be why both mountains and trains remained a personal passion, and why I attempt to keep both themes in my professional and academic life nowadays.
So, if you want to make me happy, just invite me onto a mountain train.
This is what happened a few weeks ago, when I got the opportunity to travel on the Bernina Express (how come? that is a story for another day).
My journey started in Mainz, where I am still working as a postdoctoral researcher until the end of this month. Mainz is at the heart of a very developed regional and InterCity rail network (and if high speed ICEs are what you are looking for, there is always Frankfurt nearby). So I made my way down to Mannheim, another huge Deutsche Bahn hub, from where I was able to catch a direct train making its way all the way to Chur. Chur isn't a major town in the Germanic world, so I felt lucky to be able to enjoy this direct, comfortable ICE service.
After four hours travelling up the Rhine valley, I made it to Chur for dinner. As the oldest town in Switzerland, Chur seemed to be all I loved about Switzerland: a safe, quiet, historical place where tourism seems to have developed without ripping the place apart. The spirit of the Canton of Grisons/Graubünden was well established here, and public buildings displayed all three official languages of the canton (German, Italian, Romansh).
After a comfortable night's sleep, I was ready to hop onboard. From Chur, the only through-and-through Bernina Express is the 08.32 train to Tirano.
It was great to be here. The impressive panoramic windows allowed us to fully enjoy the landscape. It felt like unboxing a new phone and being in awe of the infinity, bezel-free screen. The train departed (on time of course, because Switzerland) and took us up the Hinter Rhein. The mountains would not leave us from that point onward.
The Bernina Express train, which started running Chur-Tirano services in the 1969, runs along the Albula then Bernina railways, two impressive railways which opened southeastern Switzerland to the rest of the country in the early 20th century. The works of engineering here are amazing - from high bridges to spiral tunnel. These will definitely impress any engineering fans.
I will not go into detail here, because images are certainly more necessary than words.
What I must say is how impressive and seamless this journey was. On one side, you have the feats of engineering; on the other, this train has no cogwheel and will keep on facing the mountain no matter what.
The altitude change is striking, starting in Chur at 590m, reaching the Bernina 2,328m, before going back down to reach its Italian terminus, Tirano, at only 441m above sea level. In other words, I left a freezing valley town at 8am, saw some skiers getting sun burnt despite -20C temperatures at 10am, and was ready for an alfresco lunch at noon. The Bernina Express, just like Switzerland itself, is an incredible mix of natural wonders, cultural singularities and linguistic variety.
There were tonnes of reasons to visit that region at the end of January. The WEF was taking place in Davos, the Skeleton & Bobsleigh race was up in St Moritz, and the skiing season was in full swing. I would have loved to visit all of these, but I opted for the train instead. As usual, the journey is the destination for me. And as the SBB slogan went a few years ago, I did feel unterwegs zu Hause (at home while on the move).
If you have an Instagram account, follow me @JordanGirardin and you can see an archived version of the Stories I posted whilst travelling on the Bernina Express. I can't leave you without a few pictures here, though!