A long and convoluted travel day

Continued from my previous blog on the Bernina Express.

When I set out from Le Prese towards Morcote, I had no idea the intense travel day I was in for. The under-preparedness was a total geographical knowledge fail on my part, because I had no idea the two villages — despite both being very close to Italy — were actually very far apart. In different cantons, in fact. Here is a map of how I would have travelled between the two towns during normal times.

In this scenario, I would have continued south from Le Prese, crossed into Italy, and looped back up past Lake Como and into Switzerland. It would not have been a short journey (3 transfers across 5 hours), but it would have been a very pleasant one, with lots of fantastic views along the way.

Because I am not able to exit Switzerland for the moment, below is the route I opted to take instead, heading back north and then coming back down into Ticino. In theory, this journey involved 4 transfers across across 6.5 hours — but as I would later find out, reality was much more complicated.

In the morning, I took the B701 bus towards Samedan (pronounced sa-MAY-dan). Le Prese being a minuscule town, the bus and train stop was located right next to the hotel I was staying at. The bus was about 60% occupied, and most of the other passengers were retirees with hiking sticks.

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When I bought the ticket for this bus, I had NO idea what I had signed up for. Coming from the US, I tend to think of buses like affordable vehicles to get you from point A to point B. I expected this to be similar to a Greyhound service. But what I forgot to take into account was the fact that Switzerland has a. lot. of. mountains. And that I was in a canton that was basically all Alps, no flatland.

Which meant this was not an ordinary bus. This was a bus that took us WAY up into the mountains, as high as 2,250m at some points (!). The bus looped. It swerved. It came so precariously close to the edge of the road that I seriously feared we could potentially tilt and fall down into the valley.

Here’s a video I took during one of the calmer parts of the journey.

After just half an hour on the bus, I started to feel sick. The endless swerving and climbing was really getting to me. I felt nauseated, my stomach hurt, and my fingers began to tingle, eventually becoming nearly numb. I felt like I couldn’t breathe underneath the mask. I worried that I would throw up and cause a scene.

To cope, I squeezed my eyes shut, grabbed the seat in front of me tightly and pushed my shoulders back into the seat so that my body stayed as immobile as possible, and concentrated on my breathing. Every time we stopped, I would reach for the water bottle that the hotel manager in Chur had given to me and take a sip. The fizzy quality of the sparkling water acted as a small stimulant, allowing me to focus on the taste and stay present. These small things helped keep the motion sickness under control.

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When the view is stunning but you just want to puke

After two hours, at around 10:55, the bus arrived at Samedan train station. There was a sign proclaiming the station’s altitude to be 1,705 meters.

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At Samedan, I transferred onto the train towards Thusis, which was about an hour away. This leg of the journey was much smoother and more enjoyable.

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At 12:30, I disembarked at Thusis and switched back to the bus, this time the B171, which would take me to the historic village of Bellinzona in Ticino. (I visited two of Bellinzona’s three castles last year.)

The bus ride took two hours, but the views along the way were fantastic, and there was no motion sickness involved. The landscape gradually changed from austere glaciers to fertile valleys.

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At 2:20pm, I arrived in Bellinzona, where I was supposed to take the train to Melide, the last transfer point of the day. Since I had nearly an hour until the connection, I went to an Italian cafe-restaurant across the train station. Unfortunately lunch service had ended at 2, so I just had a cappuccino instead.

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Across the street from Bellinzona train station

At 3pm, I entered the station to wait for the 3:15 train.

I’m not sure if it was the long travel day or the motion sickness from earlier, but my brain completely short-circuited and went into auto-pilot mode. I saw that there was a train parked at the appropriate platform, and I got onto it, even though my train wasn’t coming for another 15 minutes. (The same thing happened to me in 2019, when I was trying to go to Brussels, and I had to spend hundreds of euros on a new ticket.)

Seconds after I boarded the train, the doors locked, and the train began moving. That’s when it clicked for me that something wasn’t right. I looked up and realized that this train was going to Como. In Italy. Which I did not have a PCR test for. Or a train ticket, for that matter. If the ticket inspector caught me, I would be fined over a hundred francs easily. I sat nervously by the door, biting my nails.

Luckily, the next stop, Giubiasco, was only 5 minutes away. I quickly slipped off the train at that station and waited there for the right train, which came along eventually. I boarded with a big sigh of relief, thinking that this would be the last mishap of the day.

… Until the SBB (train) app on my phone buzzed, and I saw that my train was cancelled. Yes, the train that I was physically on, that was driving through the Ticinese countryside at the same time that I was looking at the app, had been cancelled. The app cited a power failure. I looked around, confused. Were we getting offloaded? Should we get off at the next stop? But the train kept going. People kept getting on at the following stops.

Eventually, upon reaching Lugano, we were unceremoniously offloaded. The train lines were experiencing major disruptions, which meant I would have trouble getting to the nearest bus stop. So what else was left?

The boat.

I walked about 15 minutes from the train station, which sat at the top of the hill, to the dock at the bottom. There was a guy in the booth selling tickets. “You’re in luck,” he said. “The last boat to Morcote today is leaving in 10 minutes.” It was 4:10pm. (In reality the boat left in 25 minutes.)

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The boat was pretty empty, but there was a guy walking around taking drink orders. I got an iced tea.
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That’s Morcote with the pointy church and trees. On the opposite bank is Italy!

While the sun was blazing hot, once the boat was in motion, there was a cool, fresh breeze that made the journey immensely enjoyable.

By 5:15pm, I was finally in Morcote and could not have been more thrilled about it. Morcote turned out to be my favorite part of this trip, and I wished I could have stayed longer. To be continued.

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