Standing knee-deep in snow at the top of a pass over the Swiss Alps was an amazing feeling, breathing in the refreshing, clean air and taking in an epic view between towering mountains as far as Italy away in the distance.
It was a feeling shared by a whole train-load of us, as we had just stepped off one of the most famous railway rides in the world to savour yet another high point in a classic bucket list adventure.
We were all passengers on the Bernina Express, operating on one of just three routes on the planet to have UNESCO World Heritage status, thanks to the stunning landscape it passes through, using 55 tunnels and crossing 196 bridges and viaducts – the wonders of nature complemented by a masterpiece of engineering skills.
Our viewpoint was at Alp Grum, the first station south of the Bernina Pass, just past the man-made black and white reservoirs of Lej Nair and Lago Bianco, and reachable only by train or a marathon trek on foot.
The lakes date back to efforts which started in 1911 to control the natural order of things, harnessing the power of waters which to the north of the pass flow into the Danube and then the Black Sea, while waters to the south flow into the River Po and on to the Adriatic.
On the bank of the Bianco is Ospizio Bernina, the highest station on the line at 2,253 metres, which marks the linguistic boundary between the Engadine district of Graubunden, where Romansh and German is spoken, and the Italian-speaking valley of Puschlav, where we were heading.
Nearby Alp Grum, the next station along, is in a fabulous setting overlooked by the majestic peak of Piz Palu (my big brother climbed that, back in the day!) where the Bernina Express makes a lengthy stop to let everyone get down and drink in the views stretching as far as the Italian Alps.
The distinctive station building, sitting above one of the sweeping panoramic curves on the line, dates from 1923 and houses the Ristorante Albergo Alp Grum, which features great food and accommodation as well as the heart-lifting views, which are simply beyond price and make this a small but perfectly formed destination in its own right.
After a session of happy-snapping, we headed inside for lunch, where my hausgemacht (homemade) gulaschsuppe must rank as one of the best I have ever had – and over the years, I’ve had a good many doses of a dish that could be classed as the Alpine equivalent of penicillin.
Our charming host Primo Semadeni presided over an excellent pit stop, then delightedly showed us round the sparkling, all-mod-cons accommodation, which had a wonderful away-from-it-all feel, miles from the nearest other building and so tranquil in the long gaps between trains. Jewel in Primo’s hideaway crown had to be what he called his ‘five-screen’ room, but there was no sign of any telly technology – just five windows looking out on the most sublime, picture-perfect scenery, taking in Piz Palu and the Palu glacier as well as the view towards Valposchiavo and the distant Bergamasker Alps.
It was an effort to drag ourselves away, but the more athletic members of our party girded their loins for a couple of hours on snowshoes to hike as far as the old village of Cavaglia, famous for its ‘Glacier Garden’ of rock formations and potholes formed by glacial action over thousands of years, as well as a significant, but tucked-away hydroelectric plant, with the visible part looking like mediaeval fortifications.
I opted to travel down by train, sparing the walkers a thought as I passed through Cavaglia station and then rejoicing in the dramatic ride to our destination at Poschiavo and its gorgeous, Renaissance-style architecture. It would be a big mistake to look at a map of the Bernina Express route and dismiss the town as just another stop on the way through to the terminus at Tirano, because it’s worth far more than a casual glance through a carriage window.
The lovely town at the head of an equally-lovely valley was earning favourable write-ups as far back as the 1700s and has long been a popular spot with Swiss and Italian visitors, with good reason.
That started to become obvious on the way from the station to the town square, after walking alongside the river, then cutting through a couple of narrow streets to my base for the night at the Hotel Albrici a la Poste.
Not the sort of place that deals in anything so common as a star rating, the Albrici is an old patrician palace that was built in 1682, converted into an hotel in 1848, and is now one of the standout Swiss Historic Hotels with the warmest of welcomes. The hotel has just ten rooms and is packed with original features and furniture, including a huge stone open fireplace with a roaring log fire in the bar and a wonderful, preserved baroque room, the Sala delle Sibille, where you can book in for a banquet and feel transported back more than 300 years, surrounded by rich panelling and portraits in oils of the 12 mythical Sybils, who were considered to be prophetesses.
Through the room’s majestic door there is also an ancient spinetta dating back to 1781, a carved mirror from 1710 and a novel clock showing the time, day and month; while elsewhere on a first floor dripping with atmosphere at the top of the time-worn stone staircase are portraits of the palace’s former owners from the 17th and 18th centuries.
My room, which overlooked the square and the neighbouring church (the bells were a great alarm clock the following morning!) featured a bed that dated back to Napoleon’s time, but before bedtime beckoned we had a real taste of local tradition at the nearby Ristorante Motrice.
We helped to create that taste, too, under the guidance of Ormella Iseponni, who patiently showed us how to make the buckwheat pasta that is the key ingredient of the classic regional speciality called pizzocheri. She then invited us into her kitchen to see her complete the dish with diced vegetables, loads of grated cheese – including proper Parmigiano and, of course, the legend that is Supertony, as enthused about in Bernina Express: Part 1 – before pouring on lashings of hot melted butter, sliced garlic and sage leaves.
The entire dinner hosted by tourism director Kaspar Howald was a tasty tribute to nature and a reflection of local values, with virtually all the farming and food products proudly organic, including excellent wine and beer.
Metre-long spaghetti is also a speciality and one stand-out taste along with the wonderful farmhouse cheeses is delicious, crusty ring bread, shaped like a large doughnut so that traditionally it could be threaded onto a horizontal pole or a stick to keep it beyond the reach of rats.
Kaspar is rightly proud of his valley’s heritage and its enviable, sustainable lifestyle and is keen for more of us to visit and appreciate all it has to offer, from simply walking and sightseeing amid the stunning scenery and indulging in the local food and drink, to mountain biking (no thanks, Kaspar!) and something that really appeals – fly-fishing in cool, clear mountain waters, especially the Lago di Poschiavo.
He gave me an express reason to get back there as soon as possible; and I can think of no better way than using the brilliant Bernina Express to get there!
For information visit www.MySwitzerland.com or call Switzerland Travel Centre on freephone 00800 100 200 30 or e-mail [email protected]; for packages, trains and air tickets [email protected]. SWISS offers more than 180 weekly flights from London City, Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Dublin to Zurich, Geneva or Sion. All-inclusive fares from £74 one-way. Visit swiss.com or call 0345 601 0956.
The Swiss Travel System provides a range of passes and tickets for train, bus and boat, plus more than 500 museums. Call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or visit www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk.