Lugano At Night

 

Lugano was beautiful at night and the weather was warm enough to enjoy a stroll.  We walked down to the city past the San Lorenzo Cathedral and enjoyed the view. The steep, narrow streets head up from the Old Town to the San Lorenzo Cathedral.  We walked past it on the way to the hotel and paused to enjoy the view.

 

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Ciao Bella Lugano

We took the Bernina Express train and bus around Lake Como to get to Lugano. Lugano is the largest and busiest town in the Italian part of Switzerland.  Depending on who you believe, it’s Switzerland’s second or third most largest banking center.  In his book on Switzerland, Rick Steves’ says George Bush is rumored to pop in yearly.  If it’s true, I can’t blame him.  Lugano has better weather than Geneva or Zurich.  While we were enjoying the sun, it hailed in Geneva.

Looking at Lugano, you can tell it has some money.  High-end boutiques and private banks line the lakefront.  Luckily for us, it is also lined with parks, statues, flowers and shaded walks.  While that is all pretty standard for Switzerland, its Italianate Lombardy style buildings let you know you are south of the Alps.

Lugano isn’t magnificent, but it is pretty and interesting.  Surrounded by mountains, Lugano has a traffic-free historic town center, and wonderful Italian food.

Piazza della Riforma is Lugano’s liveliest square.  As the name of implies, Lugano has a progressive spirit.  The region (Ticino) gave Napoleon the finger by creating the independent Republic of Ticino.  Italian revolutionaries met in Lugano (near Milan but safely over the border in Switzerland) to plan Italian unification.  From teenagers joking with each other, to couples strolling, to children chasing pigeons to flashy Italian sports cars in garish colors, there was always something happening in the square.

Via Nassa is one of Lugano’s main shopping streets.  Like Geneva, that are lots of places to spend your money while killing time before your meeting with your private banker.

Lugano isn’t flat.  If you aren’t up for climbing some hills, you can take the funicular.  You can ride it for free with your Swisspass train pass.   Please note that I mentioned free in a post about Switzerland.  It doesn’t happen every day.

We strolled through Parco Civico Ciani on the shores of Lake Ceresio.  It has subtropical plants, loads of flowers and ancient trees.

With its Italian influenced culture, the smell of Italian food wafting through the air and mild climate, it is easy to forget that you are not in Italy.  Lugano put up signs on how to cross the street in Switzerland.  I am not sure whether it is for the pedestrians to learn how it is done in Switzerland or to provide guidance for dealing with the many Italian drivers.

Lake Lugano (like many of the lakes in the region, including Lake Como) is polluted and swimming isn’t advised.  This is unusual for Switzerland.  How can you not want to jump into this baby?

Chur, We Can’t Pronounce It But We Liked It

Chur, the capital of the Graubünden canton (state/province), is Switzerland’s oldest city.  It has been continuously inhabited since Roman times, but archaeological evidence has turned up evidence of inhabitation in the bronze and iron ages (over 11,000 years ago).

Like many european towns, Chur’s old town is car-free.  This helps give it a great atmosphere.  In 1464, much of Chur burned in a massive fire.  It was rebuilt by German artisans who left their mark. The old town is rich with great architecture that looks a bit more German than the nearby Heidiland.

It is one the largest city with the most amenities between Zurich and Milan.  Better yet, it has hiking trails and ski lifts that leave from the city itself!  About 50% of the area around the city is forests.  In a matter of minutes, you can walk from the old town to mountain forests.  Love it!

Chur has the highest average temperature of all Swiss cities.  Its location in a protected valley at foot of important Alpine passes gives it the “Föhn”, (a warm wind from the Swiss mountains). and wins with his vineyards a special picture.  Graubünden, is famous for its fine wines.  Some of the more famous ones,  Gravedona, Menaggio, Dongo, are the names of nearby towns.

Wine isn’t the only thing to drink in Chur.  Mineral quality water flows from the city’s taps and fountains.  We tasted it.  They weren’t lying.  It’s pretty darn good.  The water comes from the springs in the nearby Rabiosa Gorge (4 km/2.5 miles from Chur).

Although we had a wonderful meal filled with local specialities, Chur is cosmopolitan enough to boast over 130 divers restaurants that include French, Italian, Spanish, Thai, Japanese, Greek, Portuguese, Indonesian and Chinese.  That’s not bad for a little town in Heidiland.

We visited Chur in eastern Switzerland because it was the starting point for the Bernina Express, one of Switzerland’s epic train journeys.  After a visit, we’ve deemed it worthy of a return trip.  It’s a cute town and a great starting point for outdoor activities.  It is also a convenient place from which to travel to the more expensive St. Moritz, Davos and Klosters.

Chur is not pronounced like you might expect.  To complicate matters, it is pronounced differently in Swiss German, French and Italian.  In French (don’t quote me not this) it is pronounced like “Coire.”  In Swiss German, it sounds like “Kur.”  When in doubt, just point to it on a map, smile and pull our your best “bitte,” “mercy,” or “prego”.

An Interesting Bus Ride To Lugano

The Bernina Express deposited us in sunny Tirano, Italy.  It’s not a big town.  We planned to stay the night in Lugano.   Switzerland’s railway network provides bus transport from Tirano to Lugano.  Easy peasy.

It is a 2 hour trip through through the Valtelina Valley, past Veltlin‘s vineyards, along the banks of Lake Como, and climbs the mountain to Lake Lugano (Lago di Lugano or Ceresio).  While it’s not a naturally beautiful as the Bernina Express, it is interesting (and air-conditioned).

The bus route was operated by an Italian transport company. Rhätische Bahn (Rhaetian Railway) now has the Swiss Postbus operating it.  Postal buses serve more rural hard to reach areas in Switzerland (very useful for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts).

Our Swiss driver must have grown up driving narrow, winding mountain roads because he did a great job.  Several times, he had to honk heading into tiny towns.  This let cars on the opposite side of town know not to enter the town’s narrow streets.  The roads are not wide enough for more than one vehicle at a time.  I don’t mean one in each direction.  I mean they are only wide enough for a single vehicle.  Every once in awhile, there was a wisenheimer who thought he could make through.  They had to back out of town on the narrow roads because there was no way they were getting past our bus.

The experience confirmed that I should never take a bus tour.  It was all I could do not to get up and run from one side of the bus to the other taking pictures.

Note:  If you are interested in taking this route, please be aware that the bus doesn’t run year-round.

The Bernina Express Out Of The Alps And Into Sunny Italy

The Bernina Express Train from Chur to Tirano is so beautiful.  I oohed and aahed through the alps taking a ridiculous number of pictures.  As a result, I split the trip into three posts.  The first post tells about the Bernina Express and covers our depart from Chur to the Landwasser Viaduct.  The second post describes the journey from the Landwasser Viaduct to the glacier at Alp Grüm.

Leaving Alp Grüm, the train turns sharply in one direction then the other, winding its way through the Palu Glacier and out of the Alps.  It turns and loops to the Cavaglia station.  The train zigs and zags through dark forests of pine and chestnut.   Whenever the train passes through a clearing, you can see more the Poschiavo valley and its brilliant turquoise lake.

We hear that in the summer, wildflowers line this route.  Hiking trails wind up the mountain.  On a nice day, it would be an incredible hike.

The train descends quickly as it winds its way down the mountain to Poschiavo.  The view changes constantly and dramatically.  The dark, old forests open up to a lush, green valley.

The Poschiavo Valley is agrarian with tobacco plantations, vineyards, fields and farm animals.  We loved looking at it all on the way down.

Finally, we reached Poschiavo Lake.  Who doesn’t love a Swiss lake?  I still get excited to see them and can’t wait to start dipping my toes in them again.  This one is at  965 m (3,166 ft) above sea level.  It was so sunny and vibrant, we felt Italy approach.

This view reminded me of Maine

Just before Brusio, the train descends the famous Brusio spiral viaduct.  These circular viaducts are used to allow trains to gain and lose altitude extremely quickly without the help of a cogwheel mechanism.   In other words, their only purpose is to adjust the line’s altitude.  It was pretty cool to be able to see both the front and back of the car curving toward each other like a bracelet.  From there, the train continues its descent into Tirano.

Just after Brusio is an enormous 36,000 h.p. hydro-electric power-station. It produces current for the Bernina Railway and industry in northern Italy.  The Bernina Express skirts Poschiavo, but not the towns near Tirano.  There, the train inches between buildings.  They were so close that we felt as though we could reach out and touch them.  For Americans who were raised on wide open roads, it was definitely different.

Upon arriving in Tirano, some people will turn around and catch the train back to Chur.  Others continue to Lake Como or Lugano.  We hopped on a bus to Lugano.  I was happy with our itinerary as some say the views heading south are even more spectacular than traveling north.

Our route – Map courtesy of Bernina Sud

Note: If you are thinking about taking a panoramic train in Switzerland, be advised that you need to make seat reservations.  You can do this at any train station in Switzerland and at most Swiss Travel System sales points abroad. You’ll just need your Swiss identity card or passport.  Since you leave Switzerland and enter Italy, be sure to pack it too.  Bon voyage!

Epic Ride Through The Alps On The Bernina Express (Part Two)

The Bernina Express is the only rail line through the Alps without a major (meaning kilometers long) tunnel.   That translates into stellar and diverse views.  There are so many amazing pictures that I’ve divided this train ride into a few posts.

After passing through the famous Landwasser Viaduct, we continued to climb toward Bergün/Bravuogn with its  onion-shaped 17th-century “Roman tower.”  We got a great look at it because the train continued climb, looping around the valley.  And climb some more.  And more.   After all, we were crossing the Alps.

After Bergün/Bravuogn, we gained more than 1,365 feet in altitude on the way to Preda.  To gain that much altitude required some clever engineering.  The train loops up through five spiral tunnels, passes through two other tunnels, crosses nine viaducts and travels under two galleries in almost eight miles.  The spiral tunnels allow trains to  ascend and descend steep hills.  It was amazing to look out and see the train we were riding on curving up the track through the stunning scenery.

Albula Pass the train enters the Albula Tunnel immediately and spirals down to Bever on the way to Samedan.  It’s another outstanding piece of engineering with more spiral tunnels, looping viaducts, galleries, and bridges spanning the Albula Gorge.  The views change.  It is more sparsely wooded with Arven pine and larch trees.  The train follows a river bed that was filling with snow melt.

The train continues through increasingly dramatic scenery, with steep cliffs and Val Bernina’s deep gorges on to Pontresina (1,774 m) and its view of Piz Bernina (the highest summit of the Eastern Alps).

I wish we could have gotten off at Morteratsch station (1,896 m), to do the one-hour hike to the edge of the  Morteratsch Glacier.  Apparently you can hike past posts that track the glacier’s recent retreat.   Our seats were reserved through to Tirano so we stayed put.  If I’d been smart, I would have booked seats  on a later train or stayed over in Pontresina.  Our day turned out pretty stellar anyway.  I even caught some glimpses of blue glacier ice like we saw when we were skiing in Saas Fee.

Continuing on, we saw Lago Bianco and its a broad riverbed.  The Lago Bianco dam marks the watershed between the Danube and the Po.

We even saw some frozen waterfalls.  They must be spectacular in summer when they are filled with snow melt.  This stretch is the highest public railway open year-round.  You have a great view from the Alp Grüm station.  Auf Wiedersehen Deutschsprachigen!  Ciao realtor italiani!

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Switzerland’s Panoramic Train, The Bernina Express

When you look at advertisements for Swiss trains, you often see pictures of a train crossing an imposing stone viaduct through the mountain wilderness.  This photo is on the Bernina-Express, the Rhaetian Railway, from Graubünden to Veltlin.  The portion between Thusis and Tirano is a UNESCO world heritage site, the third train to receive such an honor.  It received the distinction for its combination of engineering and impressive scenery.

Completed in 1910, you can take it from Chur (on the Albula Railway), St. Moritz or Davos, to Tirano, Italy.  On the way, It passes through 55 tunnels, crosses 196 bridges and overcomes gradients of up to 7%.  Incredibly, it does it all without the benefit of a cogwheel drive (rack and pinion).

The Bernina Express, which is one of Switzerland’s special panoramic train journeys.  The cars have larger windows to for a better view of the amazing scenery.  I hear that in the summer there are open air trains.  They would be great to avoid the glare.

The best part about the Bernina Express is the dramatic change in scenery during the four-hour ride.  It starts in  near Heidiland in Chur.  You pass farms, cows and even vineyards.  Not long after, the train hits the Domleschg Valley (famous for Turner’s romantic paintings of it).  The valley is strategically positioned on the route to three main Alpine passes (the Splügen Pass, the San Bernardino Pass and the Julier Pass) and is rich with castles that were built to control these trade routes.

For at least 20 minutes, there is always a castle in view.  We oohed and aahed over the castles, having no idea just how much cooler it was about to get.

Landwasser Viaduct

Landwasser Viaduct (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rhaetian Railway Glacier Express on the Landwa...

Rhaetian Railway Glacier Express on the Landwasser Viaduct entering the Landwasser tunnel Français : Un train franchissant le viaduc de Landwasser et entrant dans le tunnel du même nom, sur la ligne Glacier Express des Chemins de fer rhétiques. Español: El tren suizo Glacier Express cruzando el puente Landwasser y entrando al viaducto del mismo nombre. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the Domleschg Valley, the train climbs to the famous Landwasser Viaduct shown above.  Constructed from stone, it is one of the world’s most famous railway viaducts and in most Swiss tourism brochures.  Built in 1902, it necessitated the development of new construction methods.  They didn’t use scaffolding.  Instead, they built steel towers and covered them in stone.  Notice the sheer drop exiting the tunnel?  Construction started there!

Unfortunately, these were the best shots I could get.  I love to take pictures and hate to sit still, but was worried about being rude leaning over people.  The guys above had no problem leaning over groups of four to film or get their shot.  After seeing everyone else out of their seats snapping away, I decided to get up and stand in an empty area.  My pictures improved dramatically.  I’ll post more about the journey tomorrow.