The other day when Steve glanced at our tickets for the Bernina Express, his jaw dropped. “Oh my God,” he breathed. “Am I really in seat #61?” “Yeah. You’re in 61 and I’m in 63. So what?”
“But that means this morning I will literally be the Man in Seat 61,” he replied.
I grasped his wonderment then. Several years ago I became an ardent fan of a website called The Man in Seat 61. I subsequently read an article about the guy who writes it, and if I were home in front of my desktop computer, I could tell you his name and his background. But as I’m working from my iPad with painfully slow hotel internet, all I will say is: if you’re interested, Google him. What I recall from the article is that he’s a Brit who I think began by writing online about European train travel, with an eye to making it easier for newcomers to navigate. He has since expanded to cover the rest of the world. I think I used his information to take trains in Vietnam. I read him religiously before our trip to India three years ago, and I give him all the credit for enabling me to traverse the subcontinent on rails.
Today his website is a vast repository of information, wonderfully organized and copiously linked. Thanks to him, for this trip I booked seats online for Steve and me from Paris to Bordeaux and back, Paris to Luxembourg, Luxembourg to Zurich, Zurich to Sargans (the gateway to Liechtenstein), Sargans to Chur, Chur to Tirano, Tirano to Milan, Milan to Bologna, Bologna to Rimini (gateway to San Marino), and Rimini to Rome.
It was the Man in Seat 61 who inspired me to route us from Liechtenstein to Italy on the Bernina Express. Poking around on his website I stumbled upon his glowing descriptions of it. The train is one of only three in the world to have been declared a UN World Heritage rail line, and The Man could not praise it highly enough. It was complicated to book online, run by a private Swiss line (the Rhatische Bahn) and requiring two separate tickets. But I did what he said and it all worked.
Steve and I actually have ridden on one of the other two World Heritage railway lines while in India. The “toy train,” as it’s known, runs from Jalpaigur up to Darjeeling in the Indian Himalayas, and I can tell you: the Bernina Express is about a million times nicer. Like the Indian train, the Swiss one runs on a narrow-gauge track, but the Swiss cars have huge panoramic windows and comfortable seats. The Indian train arrived at its destination more than three hours late, after tortuous intervals of sitting and not moving. The Swiss one took off at 8:16 instead of 8:15 and arrived in the Italian town of Tirano at 12:51 instead of 12:49. Its roughly 4.5-hour-long route took us over one of the highest rail beds in the world, one constructed more than 100 years ago specifically for tourists. It posed devilish challenges to the Swiss engineers who designed it, but it helped make them into the pre-eminent experts on tunneling that they are today.Lots of tunnels on this run!
People say it’s a strikingly different experience in summer and winter, and that you really should ride it in both seasons. I can tell you it was beautiful in late summer, on a day that began enshrouded in mist……but turned golden long before we crossed the Italian border. We had spiffy headphones that told us (in English) about the line’s history and highlights.The route literally winds through Heidi country — the part of the Alps where the book was set and movies were filmed.Bridges like this and sections of track that corkscrew through the mountains and meadows are among the attractions.In this view, the train is going under a circular bridge that it just traversed.Views of glaciers and glacial lakes also triggered avalanches of camera clicks.And there was a short rest stop that included traditional Alpine entertainment.
Steve and I enjoyed it immensely, as apparently did all our companions in the full car.
Now we’re on our last train trip of the trip, taking us from Rimini on the Adriatic southwest to Rome. Although we have more than two and a half weeks left before we return home, we’ll get around on planes and rental cars from here on. That’s too bad. When it comes to transit preferences, I’m with the Man in Seat 61.