Alps are dangerous places. Take the mountain goat that had recently tumbled on an Austrian hiker, causing him a 50ft fall and more than a few bruises. That recent news story would have preyed on my mind more if I hadn’t been gulping large chestfuls of air to stop my heart pounding. I could sense our guide, an Aussie expat called John Webster, was already thinking “Pommie wuss”.
There’s a vertical distance of 5,994ft between the summit at the pale green lake of the Lago Bianco and its lowest point, yet a horizontal distance of only 38.4km between them.
Two thousand metres above sea level in Switzerland’s Upper Engadin Valley and before you could holler ‘Heidi, hi’ I was feeling as fragile as a wilting edelweiss in the thin mountain air (though you are more likely to wade through bellflowers up here than the increasingly rare “small and white” Sound of Music stalwart).
I was happy to hear that the region’s own mountain goat, the iconic but shy ibex, was summering far above us among the summits. No danger there then. And we were also unlikely to be savaged by any of the bell-jangling brown cows unless we approached their calves.
In truth, though, my only concern was taking it one step at a time for the first half hour. Blue skies helped my acclimatisation. And the crystal clear view down to distant lakes strung out like deep blue scarves. Picture postcard in HD.
After a car ride from our base at the Schweizerhof Hotel, in St Moritz, we had been deposited by cable car at the start of our high altitude Via Gastonomica. This local tourist board initiative had sounded like my idea of a satisfying hilltop saunter – refuelling en route at three different Alpine pit-stops for starter, main and pud. Instead, ahead lay seven hours of strenuous, steep trekking to the awesomely bleak tarn, Lez Sgrischus, followed by a knee-jarring descent of the Fex valley.
It had been such an easy start, too. We stepped straight out of the cable car station into the rustic La Chudera restaurant for Tagessuppe (soup of the day). This thin barley broth was a distant memory by the time we eventually hobbled into Hotel Fex. It’s idyllically situated. On this day full of families literally making hay while the sun shone.
Pity the food was not as spectacular. Really I should have gone for the local speciality Pizzocheri (buckwheat noodles and lots of greens), but I handed over my token in return for a plate of glutinous chestnut flour spatzle with pesto. Lead balloon stuff. More welcome was a large local Calanda beer.
Chesa Pool, final stop in our circular trek (for dessert) was the pick of the gastronomic trio offering succulent desserts from a modern menu.
We walked back to our car through the busy village of Silz, too tired for the cultural option of visiting philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s house/museum. Superman? I failed the test.
In contrast, St Moritz, despite its year-round arts festivals, still feels like a shrine to Mammon. There are more designer shops that can you can shake a Gucci handbag at. There are lots of imposing hotels, too, but the overall impression is sombre rather than blingy.
Our own lodging, the Schweizerhof has an impressive history (the Kaiser was a big fan)... and even more impressive views over the lake and some vertiginous mountain scenery. If its various basement bars carried none of the promised excitement, high summer is hardly apres-ski central. It’s a seriously well-run hotel, just a touch lacking in pzazz.
In winter, during the ski season, this whole region in the far south east of Switzerland must be stupendous. But summer also has so much to offer with outdoor pursuits from cycling to windsurfing and enough mountain walks to get even me fit.
The big draw for us had been the Bernina Express, this year celebrating its centenary. More than 700,000 passengers ride on it each year and a vintage steam-powered snow plough keeps the line open in winter. To celebrate 100 years there is a plethora of exhibitions, events and special offers (visit www.rhb.ch).
It’s not the only great railway journey starting from St Moritz Station – the long-distance Glacier Express to Zermatt outdoes it in swishness – but only the Bernina, powered by renewable hydro-electricity, transports you from glaciers to palm trees via the highest rail crossing of the Alps.
It was a pity steady rain and low cloud masking the glaciers marred our epic two hours and 61km in the Bernina’s first class observation car.
Our destination was Tirano just over the border in Italy. By the time we reached that oasis among vineyards and orchards (and a far better meal at Antica Osteria del Angelo) the train would be routed tamely along a road like a tram, but first we had to hit the heights.
The pass that gives the train its name feels like the top of the world but nothing prepares you for the dizzying rollercoaster down to the Italian-Swiss enclave of Val Poschiavo. There’s a vertical distance of 5,994ft between the summit at the pale green lake of the Lago Bianco and its lowest point, yet a horizontal distance of only 38.4km between them. Usually a rack system would be employed but the Bernina relies on an adhesion system to cope with gradients of up to 1 in 14.
Semi-circular bends through dense forest, sudden clearings offering stupendous panoramas of Poschiavo, create the kind of visual excitement that earned the Bernina Express Unesco World Heritage Status in 2008.
Wood smoke, pine smells, the earthy odours of sudden tunnels, in our case, the fresh wafts of damp mountain air through open windows and then...a unique feature for rail lovers. At Brusio there’s a a steeply-angled nine-arched spiral viaduct which allows the train to pass underneath one of the arches in an abrupt 360 degree whirl.
On the way back by more standard little red train we stopped off for a couple of hours at Poschiavo, a mountain gem of a village, Italian speaking compared with St Moritz, where Swiss German dominates.
It’s not a skiing centre, so there are no helpful cable cars to take you half way up a mountain to begin your walk (snow-shoe trekking is popular).
We were just happy to wander around its characterful backstreets and squares, with their hanging baskets and fountains, and clusters of churches and convent buildings. Little allotments, in abundance, gave it a feeling of plenty, particularly those fronting a row of stuccoed three storey villas dating back to the 1830s. These were built by returning emigrants who’d made their money in Spain, hence it is called the Spanish Quarter.
As intense sun briefly replaced the Alpine rain fret. Bees and butterflies populated the heavily-scented gardens again. It felt like some Swiss Shangrila. Difficult to credit we would shortly be traversing the wild, grey, glacier-packed highlands back to the boutiques and chocolate cafes of St Moritz.
Return fares from Manchester to Zurich bookable with Swiss International Air Lines on www.swiss.com from £134.
It is three hours by train from Zurich to St Moritz, chaning at Chur. Info on schedule and prices for Swiss railways can be found on www.sbb.ch
1st class one way: £60, return: £119.50. 2nd class: £ 35.80, return: £ 71.75.
Via Gastronomica walking trip: price per person with traditional menu: £28.30.
Recommended places to eat and drink in St Moritz, La Stalla and Pavarotti’s – both on Plazza dal Mulin, both charmingly eccentric, if not cheap.
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