Today, we are going on a train ride together. Not just any train ride. I believe it’s the most magical ride you can take — without a flying carpet.
In my prior post celebrating the Swiss Bundestag holiday, I introduced you to my Happy Place, the Engadine Valley in the spacious southeast canton of Graubunden. I’m fortunate to have been visiting this special and still fairly undiscovered part of the Alps since I was a child. Arrivals are usually by train through two main approaches — southeast from Zurich, crossing the Albula pass or northeast from Italy, changing at the border town of Tirano and mounting the breathtaking Bernina pass.
On this day, I’m traveling from Zurich and would like to invite you to join me on our train journey of a mere 90 miles, but an incline of over 4500 feet – to the alpine village of Pontresina.
Thanks to Swiss punctuality, our train departs the Zurich Hauptbahnhof (haupt means “main” or “high”, Bahnhof is train station) at precisely 9:37am. On our retreat from the city, we hug the shores of the Zurichsee, a lovely lake, passing lakeside restaurants specializing in fresh fish dishes. We then pass terraced green fields covered by grapevines, and the first sighting of brown and white cows , munching contentedly on abundant soft grass. Skies are overcast, threatening rain, but that cannot dampen my excitement which is fueled by overhearing conversations in heavy Swiss dialect occurring within the train car.
Swiss flags are waving proudly from atop buildings while far in the distance, the promise of the Alps appears. We pass a series of “wils”, locations named Richterswil, Adliswil, Thalwil and Wadenswil…”wil” refers to a little town. On the outskirts of villages, both red and saffron-colored construction cranes vie for attention alongside impossibly dark green forests which rise up into the hills; like teenagers becoming adults, these hills will transform into “serious” mountains very soon. I wonder what the forests are hiding – red squirrels, mushrooms, melodious birds, humans in search of solitude, fallen branches, foxes, wooden benches?
Majestic trees seem to be rooted in the lake water itself and there are fruit bushes and vegetable garden plots, old stone buildings and church steeples. Everything is symmetrical and organized as if laid out by mathematicians or engineers; it causes me to ponder whether there even IS a word for “unkempt” in Swiss German. (the closest I can conjure is “ungepflegt” which translates to “uncared for.”)
We now pass corn fields and hay bales and the first true mountains. A black and white cow chomps on fresh wet grass, seemingly undeterred by the large metal bell dangling and clanging around her neck.
Here’s a farmer’s cooperative and now the rain comes in great streaks across my window.
I see nothing but bright green. Green, green, green.
We enter the town of Schuebelbach-Buttikon and I think how grateful I am that this is not my last name. Imagine trying to phone in a reservation or sign an ipad receipt with that.
Our train bifurcates the wide fields where giant bales of hay have been wrapped in grey plastic tarps, preserved against the elements for winter fodder. Rain continues to patter on the window while an exuberant waterfall emerges from the rocky side of a mountain on our left side.
Another lake appears, its waters are greener than the earlier ones – perhaps due to the runoff from high above?
We see a very homemade-looking fence comprised of a couple of rough stacked logs.
Tunnels are plentiful in these parts as are lakeside red benches. And then the multi-tiered viewing begins – the fields which are level with the train and also, high above, the chalets, churches, and farms on thickly carpeted grassy mountains.
Is that a ray of sun of just a field of lighter green vegetables growing? Billowy clouds are reluctant to leave the mountainsides. A twinned red train comes barreling past us on the next track.
It’s just me, my trusty carry-on, and back pack (rucksack!) which gets me thinking about minimalism…isn’t this what the whole tidying craze is meant to help us do? I’m feeling gratitude for and contentment with my cozy sweatshirt, my jeans, my new, New Balance running shoes -they are all I have and all I need in this place and in this moment. Just those few things. And my thoughts.
Our train halts at the town of Sargans where huge piles of felled brown logs lie neatly stacked near the
station. They are shimmering from the rainfall. Inside our train car, a neatly-dressed man pushes a “buffet” cart. Should one be feeling a bit peckish, there are croissants, coffee, chocolate. I needn’t partake, I’ve already tucked away a typically Swiss breakfast of a freshly baked seedy roll, cheese, apricots, and creamy yogurt, all washed down with strong coffee and the ubiquitous accompaniment of hot milk (don’t get me started….why do we insist on adding cold milk to a hot beverage?)
We cross a river with slate gray waters; it tells a rough and tumble story of stone and minerals and movement that began way up high. Six brown cows stand seemingly unperturbed by the rain. I was always under the impression that cows lay down prior to rain and thus could forecast inclement weather. I’ve since learned cows, like humans, lie down when they’re tired and there is no proof of connection between their position and impending weather.
There is a vegetable garden with super-sized orangey-yellow squash blossoms protruding from beneath a leafy green canopy. Ahead, we can see a big truck painted with the “Calanda Brau” logo (excellent local beer which is brewed using fresh alpine water.)
We need to change trains in Chur, the oldest town in Switzerland (over 5000 years!) and the capital of Graubunden. Our new train belongs to the Rhaetian railway, easy to identify by its bright red color and high pitched whistle . Rhaetian refers to a period of time over 200 million years ago, but also to the local people and group of dialects (Rhaeto-Romanic) of which Romansch, Ladin, and Friulian belong.
Beyond Chur, and specifically at the station stop of Filisur, things get serious. At this point, we begin a 4000 foot ascent to Pontresina. We traverse the awe-inspiring Landwasser viaduct, which was built in 1901-2. At over 200 feet high, it’s part of the UNESCO world heritage railway. We can see the front cars of our very own train twist across this un-believe-able limestone construction. Look at how the tracks cut right into the rocky mountainside.
Way down below, the combined Albula/Landwasser river is our constant companion as we snake our way, ever ascending, towards our destination.
How many times have I stood here, at the pinnacle of happiness, face pressed against the glass (or head and shoulders hanging out the window) as the train loops through verdant forests of erect pine trees. This is God’s country.. even the rain can’t dampen the sheer beauty. Now rocky patches, stone castle remnants. There is no more preamble, we’re inching ever closer to the sky. We crisscross the valley four different times at the second highest penetration anywhere in the Alps. I’m perched on a bench that runs double sided down the length of the train car; there are floor to ceiling windows to maximize the breathtaking views.
I’m conversing in German with a Swiss woman; she has never been in this part of her country before and has come now to hike. As I patter on enthusiastically about the region, her excitement increases. My new friend disembarks at Bergun, a town so beautiful that earlier this year, the locals passed a law prohibiting photography there. They want people to focus on experiencing the natural wonders through their own eyes versus through a smartphone/camera lens. Violators are fined about $5 and all monies collected are used to preserve their mountains.
At the tiny village of Preda, we enter the imposing Albula tunnel. Initiated in 1898; it required 1000 workers 4 years to complete. There is a new tunnel currently being built which is scheduled for completion in 2020; at that time, the existing tunnel will be converted for security use. The Albula tunnel spans nearly 4 miles through solid-rock mountains and then all of a sudden, when you think you’ve already witnessed it all, we arrive in the Upper Engadine valley amidst craggy, snow-capped alps, glaciers, thickly carpeted green hillsides, cows, and the unmistakable Romansch language sounding on the train’s intercom system. We are here!
Next up – we’ll indulge in the wonders of this area including an elegant mid-19th century hotel. But first, it’s time for lunch (homemade carrot ginger soup, delicious fresh bread, butter from those local alpine cows). And the mandatory afternoon coffee and cake (chestnut torte and a cappucino). Mmmmmm….