It’s not a ride – it’s a journey, an unforgettable experience.
Glaciers, alpine lakes, big mountains, deep forests, traditional mountain taste, Italian dolce vita, gelato, cappuccino and so much more to find on the world famous Bernina Express!Videography:
Fabian Gattlen – fourthvisuals.com
A total distance of just under 35km, 400m uphill and some 2,100m downhill: these are the key figures related to the main Bernina route for mountain bikers, Switzerland’s GPX route that gets the highest number of downloads and has been a classic for many a mountain biker for years. However, there is much more to the trip across the Bernina mountain pass, from Pontresina to Poschiavo, than a mere ride on a mountain bike. It is a great way to experience a variety of landscapes, culinary delights, languages, and trails. Imagine a variety of climates, different cultures, breathtaking scenery and the world’s largest and most reliable shuttle service, and you will be thinking of only some of the highlights the Bernina Express holds in store for you. There are various ways of discovering and experiencing all of the above, but there is special appeal to doing it on a mountain bike.
It is an experience engaging all the senses of a mountain biker. Variety is the be-all and end-all. It is more than just a bike ride, it is a journey through landscapes transforming by the hour if not by the minute. You will stop at regular intervals, stunned by the beauty of new vistas. Upon arrival in Poschiavo, it will feel like an entirely different world although you will have covered “no more” than 1,400m going downhill from the mountain pass. And yet, the contrast with Pontresina, where you set out in the morning, could not be more tremendous.
Here is what you will experience in more detail:
Pontresina is the perfect place to start the trip. The village in Upper Engadin has everything it takes to satisfy a mountain biker’s needs. Great hotels, utterly beautiful nature, local charm and 300 days of sunshine a year. In the early hours, take a Rhaetian Railway train heading for Ospizio Bernina. This line is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a highlight in its own right. It will take you past the world-famous Morteratsch glacier, with giants Piz Palü and Piz Bernina towering in the background, across a plateau towards Diavolezza, affording you a glimpse of the trails that are going to lead you back to Pontresina in the afternoon.
On arrival at the highest train station in Rhaetian Railway’s network, you will need to make a decision: Shall I choose the classic route via Alp Grüm or the more recent one via La Rösa? The descent via La Rösa is 21km long, climbs 235m and descends an incredible 1,480m of finest downhill trails. Route 673 leads via Alp Grüm, beginning with either an easy ride across the gravel road to the end of Lago Bianco or a warm-up tour on single trails around the lake. Early in the morning, the atmosphere tends to be unique with the lake’s surface as smooth as glass. Then, there is an opportunity for very powerful mountain bikers to catch a first cup of coffee by taking a “detour” via Sassal Masson and a fairly challenging descent with brilliant views across Val Poschiavo and the surrounding glaciers. No matter which way you go for, you will end up at Alp Grüm. Insiders will choose the plateau behind Alp Grüm, where the trail gets you right into the blue sky, as it were, surrounded by a majestic backdrop. Alp Grüm is well-known not only for its train station and the views on Lej Palü and the Palü glacier but also for the fresh cakes and perfect cups of cappuccino served at Restaurant Belvédère. It is highly recommended to enjoy all of it at the same time.
The Alp Grüm train station is where the real trails only begin to take off with fast-flow stretches on the main route and highly demanding trails off it. You will get a first whiff of the Italian way of life arriving at Cavaglia, where rustic stone buildings and a well with spring water invite you to take a break. Your journey continues across the plateau beyond which you will reach a place that turns the clock back several centuries quite impressively. Here, nature created a few phenomena that have been uncovered meticulously as pieces of heritage now on display in the glacier garden. Take a quick break to get a close-up glimpse of the famous moulins (or glacier mills). It will be worth it.
Continuing on towards Poschiavo you will rapidly notice that the trail surface changes as you are taking bends on a variety of forest ground and cobblestones. Having been refurbished in 2017, these former pack-animal paths will no longer flatten your tyres and make your teeth chatter. Fast and flowy is more like it when it comes to describing these stretches today. In the midst of mossy forest, temperatures are starting to rise. You will have shed your windbreaker quite a while ago, and the downhill ride is taking its toll in terms of concentration to find the right line and cover more metres going down than most guys are accustomed to. You will literally be earning the culinary highlights awaiting you.
Following a steep descent, crossing the railway track five times, and upon a long and final bumpy ride, the trail will disgorge you above the village and reward you with a splendid view of Poschiavo and its landmark church tower. Enjoying the last bit going down on a gravel path in the company of your travel mates, and cruising through the narrow alleys leading to the piazza, you will definitely be looking forward to lunch coming up next. After all the peaks, glaciers, 1,400 metres going down, variety of trails and any number of stones, the time will be just right for a bit of Mediterranean-style relaxation over a lunch you will not forget all too easily. Poschiavo with its Italian appeal, wonderful culinary delights and Mediterranean hospitality is one of the prime highlights of the Bernina Express. Many of the excellent restaurants are committed to the ambition of being ‘Cento per cento Valposchiavo’. In other words, all ingredients of the meals served are from the region and, whenever possible, produced locally. Every bite of food feels like Slow Food the Poschiavo way. At Hosteria Dal Borgo, you are recommended to have a meat platter and then try the capunet, a kind of spinach dumplings with sage, butter and a special condiment. There is simply no better food than this. And, of course, you cannot miss the home-made gelato, which is as much part of the experience as Ferrari belongs with Italy.
A full stomach is bad for mountain biking and all the more reason to enjoy the trip back from Poschiavo to the mountain pass. You will have enough time to enjoy the views, to review the experience so far and to digest your unforgettable lunch. On arrival on the mountain pass, several flow trails are waiting to be picked by you. It will take some effort to get to Lej Nair, which is fair enough to bring you back to operating temperature. Past the lake, it will be smooth sailing provided there is no northerly wind. On trails devoted to mountain bikers, you will rush past Alp Bondo towards the Diavolezza lower station and further on to another outstanding trail in the forest approaching Morteratsch. Here, the municipality of Pontresina built a flow-trail section featuring berms and small jumps, easily navigated by anyone. Continue on back to Pontresina either riding leisurely through the valley along the river or via the Montebello bend. Once you have made it, celebrate your experience with a glass of local beer with fitting names such as Palü or Bernina.
You will have set out on a journey full of excitement including the ascent to Ospizio Bernina with its view of the Bernina mountain range, the first descent in the upper reaches of the Alps, the trails through woods formerly used as pack-animal paths, a challenging variety of trails, the Mediterranean world at Poschiavo, with excellent food and hospitality, the trip on the UNESCO World Heritage line, the ultimate flow experience on long trail stretches past cows, glaciers and the Engadin’s most beautiful mountains, trails built for everyone and a lot more still. The Bernina Express is not to be missed as a highlight full of options and variations.Riders:
Susi Huth, Oli Dorn & Dave SpielmannPhotography:
Fabian Gattlen – fourthvisuals.comText: