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Holidays to Switzerland Travel Podcast Episode 73 Transcript

May 18, 2024 Last Updated on May 18, 2024

Bernina Express Train Switzerland: From Glaciers to Palm Trees

You can see the full show notes and listen to this episode > here.

Are you dreaming of visiting Switzerland? Planning a trip to Switzerland is very exciting, but it can also be overwhelming. How do you choose which are the many scenic cities, towns, and villages to visit? Which mountaintop excursions should you take? And what’s the best way to get around Switzerland? And of course, how much of the country can you realistically see within your time frame? If you’ve asked yourself any of these questions, this is the podcast for you. 

This is the Holidays to Switzerland Travel podcast. And in each episode, your host, Carolyn Schonafinger chats with Swiss travel experts to answer your most commonly asked questions, provide practical tips and take you on a virtual visit to the most popular destinations, and of course, some hidden gems to help you plan your dream trip to Switzerland. You’ll hear plenty of conversations about Swiss cheese and chocolate, too. Are you ready to plan your trip to Switzerland? Well, let’s get started.

Grüeuzi, and welcome to episode 73. You don’t need to be a train enthusiast to appreciate the engineering prowess that was required to build some of Switzerland’s railway lines. Just knowing that tunnels had to be carved through mountains and viaducts built across deep gorges, and all this over 100 years ago, it’s enough to impress anyone. The railway line and its famous Panoramic train that we’re going to learn about today is one such example. 

Connecting Chur in the German-speaking part of Switzerland with Tirano in Italy, the Bernina Express is one of Switzerland’s most well-known trains, and that is thanks to the line that it runs on. On its 122 km journey, the Bernina Express passes through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges, and is a true engineering masterpiece. In fact, In 2008, one section of the line was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the highest railway line across the Alps, and it offers spectacular scenery from glaciers and bordures to lakes and palm trees. 

To tell us more about the Bernina Express, I’m joined by Camille Hardy from Reichen Railways. Camille has lots of great info to share, including the highlights of the ride, what to expect on board the Bernina Express, How far in advance you should book seat reservations, the best side of the train to sit on, and much more.

Before we hear from Cami, I’d like to say a huge thank you to the folks from Switzerland Tourism for sponsoring the podcast. Take a look at their website, myswitzerland.com, for heaps of great tips and inspiration to help with your Switzerland trip planning. If you need the train ride of a lifetime, you need Switzerland, and you need a ride on the Bernina Express. So let’s hear all about it from Cami.

Thank you very much for joining me today and coming on the show to talk all about the Bernina Express.

Yeah, good morning, good evening. I’m very happy to be here. It’s episode 73, isn’t it? So you must be a Switzerland expert by now.

Well, you can never know everything, but it’s great to be able to chat to people like you and learn even little bits that you may not have been aware of before. So can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your job with the Rhaetian Railways and what that involves?

Yes. My name is Cami Hardi. I work for Rhaetian Railways, which is a railway company in the eastern part of Switzerland. Anything, any train for commuters But other than that, we operate two panoramic trains. One is the Bernina Express and the other one, the Glacier Express. I mainly look after the European market, so I’m excited to step out of my comfort zone and do something else a little bit. But yes, I look after the European market, trying to get as much international guests on our beautiful trains.

Fantastic. For the people who are listening who haven’t heard of the Bernina Express, or Or they’ve perhaps heard of it, but they’re not exactly sure what it is, can you explain what the Bernina Express is?

Yes. The Bernina Express is a panoramic train. It’s one of the most beautiful panoramic trains in the world, I would say. It’s one of three railways that have a UNESCO World heritage. It’s an unforgettable experience, really. The train runs from Chour or Saint-Moritz to Tirano, connecting Switzerland to Italy, so you already have a cultural experience, different countries that you would get to. It’s a four-hour journey from Chur to Tirano and two hours from Saint-Moritz to Tirano. 

Panoramic trains for guests or travellers who are not familiar with panoramic trains, the only or the main difference to a regional or any other train are the windows. The windows are way larger than on normal trains, which allows all the travellers and guests to take in as much as possible from the view and the scenery that they get to see on the train.

Fantastic. You mentioned there where the train connects, and then it’s one of the three in the world that run on a UNESCO World Heritage Line. What are some of the highlights that people can see along the route?

That That’s actually a difficult question. Well, there are many, many highlights. I would say what makes the trip spectacular is all of the different ones working together. Actually, let me go a step back. We have actually two different lines. We have the Albula Line and the Bernina Line, and on both lines, you see many different highlights. You will see glaciers, mountain tops, tunnels. You’ll go through tunnels over viaducts. 

All of that rail construction work was considered UNESCO World Heritage, embedded in the landscape. For the Albula Line, we have the Landwasser Viaduct. Obviously, this is… It’s really hard to explain highlights without pictures. The Landwasser Viaduct is our landmark. It’s a It’s a bridge, really, the viaduct, going in a curve into a tunnel. That’s really impressive. Then we have the Montebello Curve, where you have the Morteratsch Glacier in the background. 

The train really takes in a curve and you really have a lovely view in the background of the glacier. Then you’ve got villages that are really lovely that some would also name as a highlight. You’ve got Bergun, which is a lovely town. Then there are helical tunnels afterwards. That’s the Albula Line.

That’s the first part if you start from Chur. Then on the Bernina Line, you’ve got Ospizio Benina, which is the highest crossing of the Alps at 2,253 metres above sea level by rail. There’s no other train that goes higher, crosses the Alps higher than that. That’s really lovely. There, you also have three lakes, but one lake that that will capture your attention probably most is the Lago Bianco, which is really nice to see. 

Then we have Alp Grüm, which is a place that you can only reach if you walk or if you take a train. Alp Grüm is a little hotel, little restaurant. Then in the backdrop, you have another glacier and a lake, and you can actually go and see the valley of Valposchiavo, the Italian-speaking valley, before descending by train and going towards Italy. So there are many different highlights that you can see and experience.

Absolutely. So you said before that the whole journey, if you’re going from Chur to Tirano, takes four hours. But if someone was interested in looking a bit closer at some of those highlights that you’ve mentioned, how many stops does the train have along the way Is it possible for people to get off and have a look and hop on a later service, or is that not possible?

Yes. So when you travel on the Panoramic train, you will need to have a seat reservation. So a seat reservation is compulsory. On the Panoramic train, we try to tell guests to stay on the train as long as possible because it’s quite an experience. But we have regional trains that travel, do the same journeys as the Bernina Express. 

These trains have smaller windows, but the view remains the same. But these are easier to take if you want to hop on, hop off. That’s a possible way to do it. We usually suggest that one way you might take the Bernina Express and your return journey, a regional train, and you can stop along the way as you wish, really.

Yeah, that sounds like a great idea, because obviously, you can sit back and relax and just take in all those views on the Bernina Express and perhaps decide, okay, on the return trip, I’m going to get off here, and I’m going to get off here, and spend a bit more time at those places. Now, I’m guessing that my next question is going to be a bit tricky for you, because with all those highlights, I was going to ask you, what’s the most picturesque section of the trip? But I’m guessing that maybe they all are.

Yes. Well, it’s also a personal question, right? What is your personal highlight on the trip? Picturesque in that sense, I’ve Every section is beautiful, really. I think that really is a conjunction of all the different highlights and the railway construction works. You’ve got viaducts, a circle of viaduct, which I have mentioned before in, all of that together really makes the journey very special and a railway experience in a way. 

But what I’ve put down as the most picturesque, in my opinion, is my personal favourite is actually when the train descends from Alpesgrüm into the Italian-speaking valley, so Valposciavo, because it really… You can see from far, you can just see the valley across you. I don’t know. I can’t even really explain how it is, but that is definitely something that I love, the view from Alp Grüm going downhill to Valposciavo. 

It’s also a section that allows you to witness a climate change If it might be snowing, cloudy on top, and then once you go further, further down towards the Italian border or towards Poschiavo, really, it can feel much warmer, and that’s something really nice It’s to witness as well.

It’s a bit like, it could be like coming out of the clouds.

Yeah, you could say that.

Okay. What can people expect when they’re travelling on board the Bernina Express? Are there different classes of travel and what services are on board the train?

Yes. We have first and second class. The main difference being the space you have. The seats in first class are a bit wider, maybe a bit more leg room, but normally, really, there’s not a big change. The services that we have on board is the same for first and second class. It doesn’t matter which class you travel on. We have snacks and drinks that will be served at your seat if you wish to purchase anything. 

We do not have a meal service. For people familiar with the Glacier Express, this is probably the biggest difference, but that is due to the travel time, really. Within four hours, you will reach your destination. By either lunchtime or dinner time, you will be in Tirano, in Italy, and you can have your Italian meal, pizza, pasta, or whatever you’d like. That is one difference. 

Other than that, we also have information that you can… Well, info We call it InfoTrainment. It’s entertainment and information in one, which is quite nice. You have this app on your phone. You can download it and you can listen to more information about different sections, different viewing points that you’ll see on the journey.

It’s also great because you can choose when you want to listen to more information, you don’t have to listen to the whole thing. That’s another service that we’ve got on the train.

All right. What about luggage? Because I guess a lot of people would be travelling on the train and they’re just doing it one way as part of a grand tour around Switzerland. Is there much space on board the train for storing their luggage?

Yes. We have space to store luggage that’s usually at the entrance or at the end of the coach. There is a shelf where you can put your luggage or sometimes in between seats also. So there should be plenty of space for that.

Fantastic. Lots of our listeners who visit Switzerland and travel around by trains purchase a Swiss Travel Pass. And I know that the actual journey on the Bernina Express is covered with the Swiss Travel Pass. But if they don’t have that and they need to buy an individual ticket for the ride, how far in advance can the ticket be bought?

Tickets can be bought two months in advance, normally. But the ticket is normally, that’s not, let’s say, the issue, or you can even buy the ticket 24 hours before you leave or on the same day. The ticket is easily purchasable. On the app, on the Swiss railway app, you can easily purchase a ticket, even if If you haven’t planned a trip beforehand or a particular train journey. 

What is more important for us is the seat reservation on the Bernina Express. The earlier that you book your seat, the better for you. That is the difference. But the ticket, that’s normally that. On the day, you could also get a ticket. That is no problem.

Basically, for anyone who is travelling on the Bernina Express, they need a seat reservation, even if they have a Swiss Travel Pass. As you mentioned, that’s the most important thing because you’ve got to get that before you know you can actually board the train. How far ahead do the seat reservations open for booking?

That would be three months in advance. Three months in advance, you can actually reserve your seat. The Swiss Travel Pass is, as you said, valid on all of our network, actually. For all of the ration wear away network, you can use the Swiss Travel Pass. This is not really my job, but I would just like to say that it’s a really good product. It really helps to travel throughout Switzerland, it gives you a lot of flexibility and other add on that you can use. Travelling with Swiss Travel Pass is definitely recommended in Switzerland.

Good. We should also mention where can people buy those seat reservations?

On our website, you can go on to Bernina Express and book the seats there. But there are other… It depends how travellers are organising their trip. If they go for a travel agency or a tour operator or even the Swiss National SVB, you can also book seats there. So there are different options to get seats.

Okay, that’s good to know. How many different services of the Bernina Express run per day? Because I know with the Glacier Express being such a long trip, there’s only mostly a couple of services a day. Is that the same with the Bernina Express?

As the demand grows, our main season also expands a little bit. In summer time, I would say summer time, but starts mid-May to end of October, that’s when we have more That’s when we have five departures a day. Two from Chur and the other one from Saint-Moritz. From Chur, there is always a morning train and an afternoon train, and then three departures from Saint-Moritz. Five a day. So between May, October, normally, there are plenty of seats.

Then wintertime, we have just two departures, one from Saint-Moritz and one from Chur. Also, if we compare to the Glacier Express, we also run the trains all year round. So there is no longer break without trains. I mean, yes, there are less trains, so It’s circulating, but you will find seats all year round. Every season also on the Bernina Express is just gorgeous, whether it’s spring, summer, autumn, or winter. The scenery always changes and always beautiful.

Yeah, I can imagine. When you say in the summertime, there’s five services a day, is that the same in the other direction as well? From Chur to Tirano, and then also back the other way as well?

Yes, exactly. We also have the trains from Tirano, or the other way around. Actually, that would be 10 trains a day.

Something for everyone. When you’re travelling, let’s talk about the direction from Chur to Tirano. Is there a best side of the train that you think people should sit on, or doesn’t it really matter?

Yes. Normally, that would be the right side, on the right-hand side, because that’s also when you see the Landwasser Viaduct just going on the curve. But any window seat really is perfect. Even if you’re on the left side, if you have a window seat, that’s amazing. Because also the The tunnels and the curves, the scenery changes. The village might be on your left at one point, and then it’s on your right later on. But normally, that would be the right side.

Okay, well, that’s a great tip to know. What other tips do you have for someone who is planning a ride on the Bernina Express?

Yes, I would say to keep in mind to book your seats early, to have not unpleasant surprises there three months in advance. Then again, to maybe take the benefit of taking a regional train also. I quite like the regional trains because some of them, you can still open the windows and take pictures through the window, which is great, really. 

Then again, for international travellers, not based in Europe, take your passport because you will be crossing the border. Hopefully, you will be crossing the border to Italy. Everything is really close and you can travel by rail easily. Do your research online. There’s lots of information to find. Switzerland’s tourism has a great website, also with tips, general about Switzerland and then our website about the trips or what other train journeys you can do with Russian railway. That’s always a good thing to keep in mind. 

Also, keep in mind there are travel agencies, operators that can take the work for you. If you rather want someone else to plan your holiday, we have quite a lot of specialists in the field that are happy to organise everything for you. And then my other tips for once you’re in Switzerland, just enjoy, lean back and enjoy the ride.

And yeah, switch off a little bit. That’s my personal tip.

Yeah, that’s a very good one. So just before I let you go, I just wanted to ask you if someone has been listening to this and they’re really keen now to take a ride on the Bernina Express. They’re a bit short of time, so they perhaps need to go do the journey to and from in the same day. What timings would they be looking at? Let’s say if they’re leaving from Chur What time would they leave? And then how much time would they have in Tirano, for instance?

Yes. So if you have a day only to do the Bernina Express, we have quite a lot of guests doing this, actually, which works quite well. You would take the train around 8:30 in the morning from Chur, and you will arrive in Tirano just before one o’clock, I think, around one o’clock. Then there’s another Bernina Bernina Express. 

If you want to take the Bernina Express twice, which is perfectly feasible, that train would leave around 2:20. It gives you an hour and a half in Tirano, which is not much time, but most restaurants also know are travelling back. So the service in restaurants is quite fast normally, which is not a problem. But also, if you don’t have much time and you don’t mind changing trains on your way back. 

So if you want to take the regional train, you could stay a bit longer in Tirano and take any train back to Chur, really. So yeah, it’s definitely doable, and it’s definitely a great way to just spend the day on the train and to experience something new.

Excellent. And one more question for you. What is your favourite, I guess, your favourite site along the If you were going back on and taking a regional train, which is the first spot that you would hop off to have a bit of a look around at?

It’s actually different. But any highlights that I mentioned earlier would be great. If you take a regional train just to stop in Filisur, just after the Landwasser Viaduct, and then walk to the pillars of the Viaduct. Just to see it from a different point of view, or there are two platforms where you You can see it. Just stand there and watch a train and go over the Viaduct. You’re not on the train this time, but you’re observing the train. That is quite nice to do. 

Another one of my favourites is the circular viaduct, Brusio. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but when I’m on a regional train, I pop my head out and I enjoy the curve. But yeah, Brusio is also very nice. The circular viaduct, maybe even from the outside, quite more impressive than once you’re on the train because you feel the curve, but you can’t really see what the construction looks like. And when you’re from looking from the village or the town itself, you can really witness And I start and see that. So that’s great to experience.

So many highlights. Not only are you on a UNESCO World Heritage Site line, and there’s just all those highlights, both manmade and natural, too. So you get You get a taste of everything, really the best of Switzerland. Thank you very much, Cami, for coming on and chatting all about the Bernina Express. I’m sure plenty of our listeners are very eagerly awaiting their ride on it. And for those that didn’t know about it previously, I’m sure they’ll be planning a ride on it as well.

Yeah, thank you so much. Thank you for having me, Carolyn. And to any future traveller or people who’ve already experienced I was happy to share this with you, and I look forward to welcoming you on the Bernina Express.

Thank you very much. Bye-bye.

Thank you. Bye.

Can you imagine sitting on board the Bernina Express, gazing out the panoramic windows as glaciers and lakes roll by and you cross over the famous Landwasser and Bruscio Viaducts? It’s certainly a train ride you’ll never forget. And if you’ve listened to episode 71, you’ll remember that riding on the Bernina Express was a highlight for Nicole and her family when they visited Switzerland in January this year. 

I can still vividly remember my ride on the Bernina Express. It definitely leaves a lasting impression. And I just love that guests have the possibility to travel one way on the Bernina Express and return on the regional trains, if they wish. And it’s possible to do a round trip in one day. 

But if you’d like to spend more time in Southern Switzerland, you can continue your trip on the Bernina Express bus from Tirano to Lugano. Connecting with the train, the bus journey takes you past vineyards and picturesque little villages alongside Lake Como. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? 

With so many manmade and natural wonders awaiting you on the Bernina Express, it’s no wonder that this route is included in the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland. It really is the a train ride of a lifetime.

As we mentioned, you can buy your seat reservations on the Bernina Express website. I’ll include a link to the website in the show notes, and there’s lots of great info about the trip there, too. But if you’d rather have someone else arrange your tickets and seat reservations and your accommodation, have a look at the variety of itineraries on offer from Switzerland Travel Centre. 

Packages start from two days, one night, and can be modified to suit your exact requirements. Switzerland Travel Centre have also generously offered our listeners a 5 % discount of all their scenic rail and grand train tour packages. All the details, including the discount code, are in the show notes too, which you’ll find at holidaystoswitzerland.com/episode73. Thanks so much for joining me today. Until next time.

Tschüss. 

If you’d like more great resources to help you plan your dream trip to Switzerland, there are lots of ways to connect with us. Visit our website, holidays2switzerland.com, sign up for our monthly newsletter, or join our friendly, helpful community of past and future travellers in our Switzerland Travel Planning Group. You’ll also find the links to connect with us in the show notes for this episode. Show notes and the list of all previous episodes are available at holidaystoswitzerland.com/podcast. Don’t miss out on your fortnightly dose of Swiss Travel Inspo. 

Hit the subscribe button on your favourite podcast app so you never miss an episode. If you enjoyed the show, please leave a rating. That’s all for this edition of the Holidays to Switzerland Travel Podcast. Thanks for joining us and happy travel planning.

You can see the full show notes and listen to this episode > here.