For the one week of vacation time that I had between leaving my old job and starting a new one, I decided to check off an adventure that had been on my Switzerland bucket list for a long time: taking the Bernina Express!
The Bernina Express is a well-known panoramic train journey that begins in eastern Switzerland and ends in northern Italy. It’s lauded as one of the best ways to take in the majestic landscapes of the Swiss Alps, from green hillsides to snow-capped glaciers.
So did the Bernina Express deliver on this incredible promise? … Sort of. I’ll share more detailed experiences and thoughts below, but in summary, I think the last two years of train trips across Switzerland have spoiled me immensely. I was expecting to be awestruck and overwhelmed, but the sights along the way were on par with what I had already seen before. So while I don’t think the Bernina Express is overhyped, I also don’t think it’s something that can’t be missed.
Here is a map, courtesy of the Rhaetian Railway website, showing the full route of the Bernina Express.
As you can see, the train normally starts from Chur, a city in Canton Graubünden in eastern Switzerland, and travels south, crossing the border to terminate at Tirano in northern Italy. While I could have completed that full route, I chose not to enter Italy for two reasons. One, I did not want to take a PCR test, which was required for entry. Two, I did not actually have a valid permit for re-entering Switzerland. On my last day in the office, I had surrendered my Swiss work/residency card to my old employer, and it will take a few days to get a card via my new employer. So at the moment, I’m basically a tourist, and I didn’t want to risk not being able to get back into the country.
All that to say, instead of getting off at Tirano, I ended my journey in Le Prese — the last stop in Switzerland.
Starting the journey in Chur
First, note that Chur in Swiss-German is pronounced Hhoo-er. Rough on the H, light on the er. Before I heard the correct pronunciation on the train, I was totally clueless and kept telling people that I was going to Chuhrrr, with the most cringey American accent ever. Explains the politely confused looks I got from everyone.
Chur is the oldest city in Switzerland, dating back not just centuries but millennia. It is also the capital of Graubünden, the only Swiss canton that has three official languages: Swiss-German, Romansh, and Italian. In fact, Graubünden is the only canton that has a significant Romansh-speaking population. It’s technically the 4th official language of Switzerland, but in reality, its status is quite sidelined. Most Swiss websites are not available in Romansh; government press conferences do not include Romansh; many people don’t even know that it’s an official federal language.
The train journey from Geneva to Chur was around four hours, with a quick transfer in Zurich. I departed at 10:40am and arrived at 2:50pm.
Where I stayed
The night before taking the Bernina Express, I stayed at the ABC Swiss Quality Hotel, in a small single room. The hotel is incredibly well situated, being just across the street from the train station.
Overall, I thought this hotel was good. Nice spacious room, view wasn’t bad, no noise, good breakfast, and the hotel manager was extremely nice when I checked out and gave me a bottle of sparkling water (this small gesture would save me later on; I’ll explain later). However, I did have one big issue — the bathroom was one big wet room. Meaning that there was no stall or door for the shower; the water ran all over the floor and nearly flooded the bathroom when I took a shower. I spent 20 minutes kneeling on the floor with a bunch of towels, trying to sweep the water back towards the drainage area. The next morning, the floor was still wet.
Interestingly, there were no photos of the bathroom when I booked the hotel, so I wonder if they were already aware that this was a problem. If I were to stay here again, I would definitely choose a different room type that had a standard shower stall or bathtub.
Walking around Chur
I did not get a chance to explore Chur in detail, but just walked around the old town for a bit and then climbed to a viewing point to take a good look at the city. It was very quiet and had a calm, small village vibe.
I had dinner at an Italian restaurant by the river that had a nice big outdoor terrace. The Euros football match was playing on a big screen in the background, but only one table was actively watching. The menu was only available in German (uh-oh) and I had to use the Google Translate camera tool to decipher it line-by-line. Which resulted in me ordering what I thought was a nice mixed salad, and receiving instead a giant vegetarian pizza twice the size of my head.
After dinner, I walked along the river without much of a destination in mind. Along the way, I saw that there was a church high up on a hill and decided to try to make it up there to get a panoramic view of the city.
It was an easy walk and soon the path was taking me towards lush fields of vineyards.
I was rewarded with a sweeping view of the city: a mixture of old Swiss cottages, versus modern buildings and a construction crane.
Taking the Bernina Express
The next morning, I had an early breakfast and boarded the 8:30am Bernina Express.
One thing that I should note: the Bernina Express is basically just a regular train that runs a regular route, except that it is painted red on the outside and has larger windows that allow for a better view. In the Chur train station, there is no special signage being like, here is the special platform where you take the Bernina Express! I had to look at the departures board and figure out my platform based on the time and destination.
It took about five hours to reach Le Prese. The train was fairly empty, and at no point did any staff come by to inspect tickets, which was surprising. I think Switzerland is going to open up its borders even more at the end of June, so I was probably a bit early for the big tourist season. I think this window (mid-May to mid-September) is the best time of year to visit Switzerland, even if the weather is quite hot; the mountains and forests are at their most green and lush, the lakes are a sparkling turquoise, and the views are unbeatable.
I think this route gives a good sense of the diversity of Switzerland’s landscapes, from your stereotypical cows grazing on a beautiful pasture to austere glacier scenery to sunkissed southern villages. I would not say that this was the all-time best train view that I’ve had in Switzerland. I would highly recommend these regional routes:
- The train between Montreux and Geneva
- The train from Bern to Interlaken Ost
- The train from Lugano to Lake Como in Italy
- The train from Zurich through Liechtenstein and into western Austria
However, the Bernina Express is an excellent introduction to Switzerland for those who haven’t spent much time in the country.
Stay in Le Prese
I arrived at my destination, Le Prese, at around lunchtime. Le Prese is a tiny village in the Italian-speaking region of Poschiavo built almost entirely around the train tracks. The main language here is Italian, but it’s within the more German-heavy Canton Graubünden, so the residents also speak German fluently.
It was too early to check in at my hotel, Hotel La Romantica, so I dropped my bag off with reception and then ate lunch at the hotel restaurant, Il Ristorante Giardino, which had an absolutely lovely outdoor garden. The waiter was delightfully sunny and cheerful, and literally walked around the restaurant singing loudly. The food was great (and cheap compared to Geneva), and the atmosphere was a dream.
I had gamberoni (shrimp), a big plate of fries, and a cappuccino to chase it all down.
At that point it still wasn’t time to check in, so I went for a walk by the nearby lake. And let me just say, what a hidden gem! Even though there isn’t much to do in Le Prese itself, just hanging out here in nature is therapeutic. A complete escape from city life.
I took my shoes off and sat on the rocks facing the water, basking in the sun like a cat. I thought about the job and people I had left behind, and the residual stress and resentment that I still carried with me from working in a difficult environment for the last two years. Then I reminded myself that I was free; that instead of giving in and resigning myself to the situation, I had rescued myself and started a new journey. I decided to look forward, not back.
Finally, it was time to check in at the hotel. When I opened the door to the room, I was met by a rather strange surprise: I had reserved a small double room, and instead they gave me a one-bedroom suite, with a bunk bed in the living room.
Here was the view from the room. Since the room was on the ground floor, I felt nervous (even if it is Switzerland) and opted to sleep with the windows locked rather than open, which made for a very warm night without A/C.
I had no idea that the next day, I would be in for the most ridiculous, convoluted travel day ever, involving three trains, two buses, and a boat — all because I wanted to go from one Swiss canton to another without having to physically cross into Italy. To be continued.