I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Hannibal Lester

The sleeper to Milan was a smart train. 4 person berths with pre-made beds, spacious, proper pillows. A real treat, the best rolling accommodation since Norway or so. Very pleasing and welcome. Unfortunately no water in the carriage, making loo visits a little precarious. Nightcaps were had - quickly, as it was almost midnight when we boarded, and we were scheduled to arrive at 0711, though obviously history dictated that we'd be in around 9am.

We got to Milan early. You heard. A sleeper train had arrived early. And not just on any day, but this, the day of days, the most important connection of our trip since the bus to Narvik.

Day 14. Lester was herding us across the alps, via a mere 8 trains.

First, the sleeper on which we awoke. Good accommodation, an early arrival. A portent of things to come?

A tube trip to Milano Centrale's grand architecture and the 0820 train which appeared on very few timetables. Splinter manoeuvres to retrieve coffee and platform information while surrounded by impossibly stylish and/or pretty people.

Train two, from Milan to the Italian/Swiss border at Tirano. Featuring Lake Como, some hills with delusions of mountainous grandeur, endless sunshine. An appetiser for what was to come across the border, the first glimpse of which being the valley opening to our left, just before our arrival. It looked kinda nice through there.

A brief stop for water, and for an open air observation carriage to be attached to the rear of the 1127 to St Moritz. A station which is actually split in two, platforms 3 and 4 being technically across the Swiss border. A train ride that is a UNESCO heritage site. We were about to board train three, the Bernina Express, star of our Facebook page cover photo and GCERC blog header.

The picnic started in earnest. Endless bread, olives, cheese, meats, antipasti. So much that we shared it with about 20 other people over the course of the day. We had way too much food. But enough about the food.

Train three starts by turning into a tram. The journey goes through the streets of Tirano, passengers in mobile Swiss territory almost able to knock on the doors of Italian Tiranista. A mad start.

We climbed. And climbed. And climbed. Starting at 400m above sea level, we were at 900 before we really appreciated what was happening. Jaws hit floors, repeatedly. We spiralled up. There were virtually no sections of track which were straight apart from at stations, each one a couple hundred metres higher than the last. See those mountains? No tunnels. We're going over them, not through, not around, but over.

I can't do it justice with words. The scenery was outrageously outrageous the whole way. World class. And a regular railway - no cogs, no pulleys, no other mechanisms but wheels on tracks pulled by engines - to take us to 2253 metres altitude, past glaciers and glacial lakes, beneath and above still, off-season chairlifts at ski resorts. There was snow. The spectacular nature combined with the height made it all so dizzying.

Our descent into the pokey sleepy backwater of St Mortiz coincided with the briefest of showers, sending some of us scuttling into the main carriage. I fell asleep for 10 minutes. Despite claiming not to be feeling the effects of the altitude, I arrived a bleary dizzy befuddled dazed mess. But it was worth it.

Train 4 goes through mountains. Right fucking through them. Viaducts built between opposing rock faces, tunnels with virtually no frontage, just a hole bored through so we can carry on carrying on. More spectacularly greenery and scenery. Stuff straight out of the Great Escape. A continually awe inspiring mix of nature's beauty and man's engineering feats.

Train 5. Which one was this? Christ, I can't even remember now. I think it was Reichenau-Tamins to Disentis/Muster, but I forget the features. It may have been just more ravines and gorgeous and mountains and nothing of individual note, because it was all great and we had already been spoilt.

Train 6, to Andermatt. An incident! We'd all dutifully filled out our interrail tickets with the start and end stations, only to be told they weren't valid. Oops. So we had to pay. It was no big deal, but a bit of a surprise.

We saw more mountains and lakes, and we wound down around mountains so steep it scarcely seemed credible, once we reached the town, to look back and up to see where we'd been. Because we'd climbed up to 2000m again first, before adopting roller coaster angles past belled-up cows. At some point we learnt that Australia were all out for 128. How fucking good was today?

A mundane interlude in our half an hour on the ground. Jason and I headed to a shop for drinks. The shop was shut. We bought 8 beers and 4 soft drinks from the station cafe, for about 35 bloody quid.

Train 7. A 15 minute journey to join up with the main line to Zurich. Nothin special...except the rock faces, and that most of it was as steep as some funiculars. Paul and I tested the angle by leaning forwards as far as we could without falling over. Must have been 45° or so. Lots of fun.

Train 8. Come on, Switzerland, take us to our beds. But if you can do it mostly while hugging a beautiful, still, blue lake as the sun sets, that'd be nice. Oh, you are doing.

You'll have to excuse me for the increasing brevity of each successive train's description. It was hard to keep track of everything. I took in so much landscape, so many amazing things, and caught 8 bloody trains while carting luggage all the way. Overwhelming and almost impossible to process or even believe. This was always promised to be something special. It delivered in spades.

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