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January 29, 2011

Italy to Switzerland: Bormio to Bellinzona

Filed under: Europe 2010, Italy, Switzerland, The List, Travel, UNESCO World Heritage — anotherheader @ 10:08 pm

When our summer trip was being dreamt up the vague notion of traveling the spine of Alps developed.  But what would that mean in practice?  The guidebooks that help with the towns and the tourists destinations often fall short when it comes to telling you the best ways to link the sights.  There’s little chance that Lonely Planet would efficiently guide us along Europe’s vertebrae.  After all, how exactly would you travel along a spine in a car anyway?

Somehow our notion of traversing Europe’s “spine” evolved, at least for Switzerland, to traveling the famous Swiss alpine passes.  You know the routes.  They’re the spectacular roads through the high mountains that you’ve seen in movies like the James Bond classic Goldfinger.

A Google search helped us out.  We found a Frommer’s online article that suggested Switzerland’s Best Scenic Drives.  In the Frommer’s feature, every scenic drive coincidentally turned out to be a scenic pass.  Although the article’s title didn’t suggest it, “Switzerland’s Best Scenic Drives” was precisely what looking for.  It served as a template.  Our plan was now simple.  We would configure our Switzerland road route so that we would transit the alpine passes in the Frommer’s article.

Switzerland's Bernina Pass (panorama)

To reach the first pass we left Bormio, Italy and drove to Livigno.  At Livigno we turned north and crossed over the border into Switzerland.  Soon we would cross our first “Frommer’s” pass, the Bernina.

Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes,” as the UNESCO World Heritage designation reads, lauds the rail line that crosses the Bernina Pass.  UNESCO doesn’t mention that the Bernina Railway’s tracks, for a moment in Tirano Italy, travel directly in a lane of the city’s streets.   For a couple of blocks, we actually drove directly over the famous railway’s steel rails.  And, as a Bernina Express train passed, we were mere centimeters from scrapping the bright red paint off the side of a shiny red train.  It was a close call.  If our Kangoo had marred the side of the train, it would have been an international incident.

Even if UNESCO missed some details it does have the designation for the Bernina Railway correct.  The rail line is a complex and spectacular piece of civil engineering.  The fire engine red trains crossing the barren rugged alpine landscapes are beacons that emphasize the construction challenge.

From the Kangoo, we could not fully appreciate the magnitude of the railroads construction.  But down low, near the Italian border in Brusio Switzerland, we observed track feature that you rarely see in railroads, a spiral loop.  A spiral loop occurs when a railway passes over itself to minimize the gradient while climbing a slope.  Spiral railway loops are not common.  The only other one we’ve seen is the Tehachapi Loop which is marginally viewable from Highway 58 in California.

A trail winds through Bernina Pass's low grass

When we reached the Bernina Pass the trees were gone and low alpine grasses filled the spaces between the scrubbed boulders.  Glaciers scraping down the mountains feed a saddle lake, Lago Bianco or “white lake” in English, with light colored silt.  Waters from Lago Bianco flow to the Po River and on to the Mediterranean Sea.  The pass has a second lake, Lej Nair, whose waters drain to the Inn River and on to the Danube and then ultimately to the Black Sea.  Lej Nair is Romansh for “black lake.”  This lake does not receive the heavy silt-laden glacier run off.

From the Bernina Pass our road route continued past the posh exclusive alpine lakeside resort of St. Moritz.  Leaving St. Moritz we first crossed the scenic Julierpass followed by the barren landscapes of the San Bernardino Pass.    The character of the terrain is similar for all of the passes—rocks and low grasses in U-shaped glacier carved saddles.  Perhaps the pictures will impart the feel of the passes best.  (And if pictures do say a thousand words, it might save plenty of hard disk space.)  No matter what, this road route is indelibly scenic.

We ended our day with a hot night in Bellinzona.  As chance would have it, in the midst of a European heat wave, we had a room with no air conditioning.  Early in the evening the lack of AC in our hotel did not matter.  We could walk the old town, view Bellinzona’s UNESCO designated castles and ramparts, and join the locals outside watching the World Cup on a large screen TV during the warm night in short sleeved comfort.  Regrettably it barely cooled off later in the evening.  Opening our hotel’s windows only marginally reduced the temperature in the room.   Alas the open windows also let in the nighttime noise of the busy train station across the street.  The combination made for a hot restless night.

There was another curious thing about our room; none of our travel electrical adapters worked.  With the extensive or, as some would say, excessive array of electrical fittings and adapters that we travel with, it seemed impossible that we couldn’t plug in any of our electronics in this region of Switzerland.  But our room was typically Swiss in one particular way.  It was aseptically clean.  The electrical plugs confused us initially but, in the end, the room’s cleanliness left little doubt.  We were definitely in Switzerland.


Castello Grande in Bellinzona Switzerland

Outside the Castello Grande's walls


  1. […] .  It felt like dawn in the tropics.  It had been a rough and uneasy night of sleep with the heat and noise of our hotel room.  It was tempting to linger now and recapture the lost sleep in the cool morning hotel bed but we […]

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  3. […] in order to minimize the railroad’s gradient.  These railway features are uncommon.  We saw the Brusio Spiral Viaduct in Switzerland last summer.  Inspired we were determined to see the less ambitious Tehachapi […]

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