We don’t normally do guided tours apart from the occasional walking tour to get orientated with a new town or city. However we were keen to do a trip from Menaggio across the Swiss border to St Moritz having fond memories of a wonderful day out on the Bernina Express a few years ago (Railway Adventures : Bernina Express Switzerland). On that occasion we were staying in St Moritz and simply did a round trip to Tirano and back. However it isn’t as straightforward to get there by public transport from Menaggio. You have to cross the lake by ferry to Varenna and then pick up the train to Tirano, the Italian terminus of the Bernina (a scheduled service of the Rhaetian Railway). Whilst possible, it’s a very long day out on a tight schedule and you risk being stranded in Varenna if you miss the last car ferry back across the lake. Fortunately via Tripadvisor, I found a local travel agent called Il Porticciolo Viaggi who offer a range of guided day tours from Menaggio including a weekly (every Monday) trip to St Moritz. Partly by coach and partly by rail, you are taken on a magnificent tour of not only the Bernina Pass and St Moritz itself but also the equally spectacular valleys to the south of St Moritz including the jaw dropping Maloja Pass (sneak preview below!).
After an early breakfast, we were collected from the front of our hotel, the Grand Menaggio, and set off promptly at 8am. Our tour guide, Julia, was endlessly cheerful and had an encyclopedic knowledge of Lake Como and the Swiss Italian border country. Our coach, driven by the impressively named Hermes, was just over half full and so we had plenty of personal space, which made us feel more relaxed about being on a guided coach tour albeit for one day only.
The first part of our journey took us to the northern head of Lake Como where the pre Alps give way to the towering peaks of the Alps themselves. We followed the road that wends its way up the beautiful Valtellina (the valley of the River Adda). Populated since pre historic times (stone carvings have been found near Grosio, Teglio and Chiuro) the east/ west facing valley has a wide climatic range. On one side were abundant vines taking advantage of the sun and on the other dark and dense forested slopes. In this mountain paradise you can ski, enjoy wine tastings, or indulge in a spa at one of the many mountain retreats, which take advantage of the abundance of natural spring water. Teglio is famous for its buck wheat pasta, pizzocheri, which we enjoyed at the Menaggio restaurants along with delicious Valtellina wines (see last week’s post here).
Alas we breezed through the valley all too quickly – though definitely plan to go back and explore further for ourselves one day! Our morning coffee break was at Tirano, the pretty little border town nestling at the foot of the Alps and which we had visited briefly for lunch several years ago. Once we got out of the coach and got our bearings, we were struck by the difference in climate from Lake Como (a mere couple of hours away). The air felt crisp with a distinct alpine chill and there was a wonderful aroma of wood smoke.
We were dropped off in the centre of the little town, which naturally is well geared up for tourists on the Bernina route! Julia had suggested two cafes, one on the corner, which looked packed and apparently sold British newspapers and the other, a little bar down a side street where she assured us we would find the local men enjoying their first glass of wine for the day at 10am! We chose the latter and sure enough apart from three or four elderly gentlemen getting stuck into the local vino, we were the only customers at San Michele’s. No one spoke any English and we got by on the little bit of Italian we had acquired, some German and a lot of smiles and good humour on both sides!
Fortified by our teas and coffees (it was a bit too early for wine!) we set off to explore. Tirano is a small town dating back to Roman times and at 429 m it marks the lowest point in the Bernina Railway’s journey. There are still several gates remaining of the old city walls. In past times these provided an important defence given Tirano’s strategic location at one end of the Bernina Pass. Despite these efforts it was taken over by its neighbours from Graubuenden (now in Switzerland) in 1512 and they subsequently ruled the Valtellina for over two centuries.
The most striking landmark is the beautiful St Mary’s Church, built as a pilgrim’s shrine on the site of an apparition of the Virgin Mary to Mario Omodei in 1504. Consecrated by the Bishop of Como in 1528, the church was not completed until 1703.
The stunning Baroque interior is beautifully ornate and despite the large numbers of tourists is well worth a wander round.
Outside again the Bernina rumbles through the main street – just make sure you don’t get too close when it is coming by!
We had an hour or so in Tirano before heading back to the coach for the drive up to Poschiavo where we joined the train for the journey across the high Alps. More to follow!
Copyright © 2016 Rosemary Thomas Le Chic En Rose. All rights reserved