I floated in a steamy, 38C rooftop pool, watching glints of the sinking copper sun reflect off the Rhäetian Alps. Located in the Canton Graubünden’s town of Samedan, the public, alfresco bath at Mineralbad & Spa is nestled under the 400-year old Reformed Church clock tower, so close that the glockenspiel bells cause ripples in the water.
Mineralbad & Spa is just one of the many alpine wonders found along the Rhäetian Railway, a scenic 240km passenger train route that runs from Thusis, Switzerland to Tirano, Italy – passing overlooked alpine villages, archaeological excavations and majestic mountain-perched castles along the way. Celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, the Rhäetian is, amazingly, not a tourist train. But it is one of only three inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage List, featuring 84 tunnels as well as 383 spectacular bridges and stone viaducts that cross the landscape’s lacework of glittering rivers and glaciers.
The first segment of the train line, a scenic two-hour, 60km stretch from Thusis to the town of Silvaplana, is short but spectacular. The track’s turns and twists provide multiple opportunities to witness the Upper Engadin’s surreal landscape, marked by cerulean waterfalls and lonely, weather-battered castles. From my seat, I counted at least five medieval castles perched high atop mountains like long-forgotten chess rooks.
After the train passes the town of Tiefencastel, it leaps onto the Hope Diamond of rail design: the dramatic six-arch Landwasser Viaduct, which was built entirely of local limestone in 1901. The 65m drop to the aquamarine Landwasser River below is both terrifying and beautiful. More scarily still, the train then plunges from the viaduct into the cliff face, following a svelte black tunnel through the mountains. The whole experience lasts 45 seconds – but it’s as thrilling as any rollercoaster and could induce vertigo in the most blasé of aerialists.
Exploring the Upper and Lower Engadin
For those wanting to take an overnight stop, the Upper Engadin region has hotels to suit every taste and budget. I bunked down in Silvaplana, just 5km west of St Moritz, where the Nira Alpina has direct gondola access to the 3,303m-high Corvatsh Mountain and 70 spacious rooms with balcony views of turquoise Lake Silvaplana. Its handsome head chef Marek Wildenhain even works the breakfast shift, churning out the canton’s best gipfeli (croissants), zopf (challah) and a tasty assortment of Swiss cheeses, meats, nut-spreads and homemade preserves.
Take the Rhäetian’s Engadin Line to the rugged and low-key Lower Engadin, a world apart from its flashy sibling. About 46km northeast of Silvaplana, the Swiss National Park celebrates its 100
anniversary in 2014 – making it the oldest national park in the Alps. The 17,000-hectare park is remote and undeveloped, a rarity in compact and highly developed Switzerland. Its minimally groomed hiking trails remain great spots to witness alpine animals such as ibexes, chamois, marmots, northern hares and even lizards, not to mention innumerable birds and wildflowers, many of which are endangered and on IUCN’s Red List.
Another endangered aspect of Graubünden is its language. The canton is the only part of Switzerland that speaks Swiss German, Italian and Romansch, a language close to Latin that originated in ancient Rome. Over the last 50 years, Romansch has diminished as the valleys here have become less agricultural and more economically – and linguistically – connected to surrounding areas. But the language, which sounds like Italian spoken through a mouthful of peanut butter, is beginning to rebound. Inside the Swiss National Park, the Hotel Parc Naziunal Il Fuorn is one place to hear the language in action. The hotel’s estate dates to 1490, but it likely served as a traveller’s hospice on the ancient Ofenpass for thousands of years before that. Looking at the wild Alps from the hotel, I couldn’t help but wonder if the view had changed much since Julius Caesar crossed the neighbouring Great St Bernard Pass in 57BC.
After sitting on a train for so many hours, you might want to get a closer look at the landscape on a hike. From Il Fuorn, a five-hour, 25km hike up the Ofenpass takes you to the Müstair Valley; better yet, take the 40-minute bus ride up and walk down. The Senda Val Müstair trail runs past churches and homes painted with pastel murals as well as the ruins of Iron Age ovens, from which Ofenpass (“Oven Pass”) gets its name.With minimal noise pollution on the empty trails, it is even easier to hear the birdcalls and smell the fragrant, colourful wildflowers. This region sprawls above the treeline, where uninterrupted sky illuminates the green, rock-strewn landscape with views to Italy and Austria. In the late afternoon the pinkish, alabaster light is so fragile it feels as if it could shatter. The Unesco-inscribed Benedictine Convent of St John in the village of Müstair dates back to the 8th-century Carolingian era. To witness its vaulted roof and Romanesque frescoed apses glow in such brilliance is like entering heaven itself.
Back on the rails
Back at St Moritz, the most awe-inspiring segment of the Rhäetian Railway begins. The 60km, 2.5-hour Bernina line features a series of switchbacks that cuts to Tirano over Switzerland’s glacier-chocked Bernina Pass and icy Lago Bianco before descending into the sun-kissed Val Poschiavo valley, where you can sample Switzerland’s regional pizzoccheri (buckwheat pasta) and anise-flavoured rye bread. On this line, the train’s altitude reaches 2,250m – making it Europe’s highest train crossing – with inclines up to 7%, the world’s steepest. Highlights include the picturesque medieval village of Poschiavo, which has unique Swiss-Italian cuisine and generously-spirited locals and Brusio’s nine-arched spiral viaduct, which forces the train to coil like a wurstschnecke (spiral-shaped sausage).
Crossing the border into Italy, the train leaves Switzerland’s dark green valleys, snow-capped Alps, peaceful, orderly churches and clock-watching train conductors behind. Descending the mountains with little warning, it suddenly emerges into a landscape of palm trees, crumbling ruins, gelato shops – and passengers gesturing to sash-wearing polizia (police), commenting on the train delays. They’re two contrasting neighbours, brought together by one of the best trains in the world.
Although scenic trains – such as the touristy Glacier Express, where passengers are stuffed with veal and wine while whizzing through the Alps – run along the same tracks as the Rhäetian, they are triple the cost. Instead, buy a Swiss Pass, which includes admission to 470 Swiss museums as well as unlimited rail access for four to 22 days, or purchase regular tickets through SBB or at any station kiosk in Switzerland. Once aboard, travellers can upgrade to a panoramic car for only five Swiss francs.
A SBB bus service from Tirano to Müstair will launch in July, making all aspects of the region much easier to access.