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“I want to see the Alps by train, so I’ve the booked a ride south from Berne into Italy,” said Margot. We didn’t have the heart to tell her that a big chunk of the 90-minute run from the Swiss capital south to Domodossola in Italy is through tunnels. Of course, there is a lot of decent scenery too, but traversing the Alps by this Simplon rail route is hardly a great mountain experience.
Here’s our quick guide to your choice of north-south rail routes if you are traveling from central Europe through Switzerland to Italy. There are just three routes to choose from: the Simplon, the Gotthard and the Bernina.
The Simplon route
Our rating: **
Used by four daily EuroCity services from Geneva to Milan and by the thrice daily EuroCity trains from Basel to Milan. Not our favorite option as the best of the scenery is missed in tunnels. The Geneva and Basel routes converge at Brig, and then run through the Simplon tunnel into Italy. The trains from Geneva do offer some super views as they skirt the northern edge of Lake Geneva. But the Basel route south through Berne is pretty but unspectacular, and then plunges through the 34km-long Lötschberg tunnel to reach Brig, where you get a breath of fresh air before diving into the Simplon tunnel.
On the plus side, there are some super views of Lake Maggiore as the train cruises through northern Italy towards Milan. Sit on the left for the views. And it is those lake views which are the redeeming factor for the Simplon route. So we give it two stars.
The Gotthard route
Our rating: **
Used each day by seven EuroCity trains from Zürich to Milan (and also one from Basel to Milan). This route is also taken by domestic Swiss services from Basel and Zürich to Locarno and Lugano. Indeed, this is the main north to south rail axis through Switzerland. The approach to the north side of the Gotthard Tunnel is classic Switzerland. Sit on the right side of the train for super lake views with range upon range of mountains edging ever closer.
South of the tunnel, you’ll get an eyeful of sordid concrete as the train line tangles with a maze of fast highways. But the depression is relieved by some fine views of the castles at Bellinzona and then Lake Lugano.
If you are tempted to ride the Gotthard route, make the journey soon. In 2016, the new 57-km Gotthard Base Tunnel will open. Not a lot of views there so, in rating-agency speak, look for a downgrade. The Gotthard will surely not keep its two-star rating.
The Bernina route
Our rating: *****
Far and away the finest of the three north-south routes from Switzerland into Italy. No ifs, no buts. The Bernina knocks spots off the competition. If you are in a rush to get into Italy, take the Simplon or Gotthard routes. But if you want to see the Alps, the Bernina is the obvious choice. This is the only route that goes over the Alps rather than tunnelling through them.
The Bernina is served by Rhaetian Railway services from St Moritz (in the Swiss Engadin) to Tirano (in Italy). Local trains run hourly on this route throughout most of the day, although evening services are very limited. There are also some through trains from Chur and Davos to Tirano (branded “Bernina Express” and with a supplementary charge).
The beauty of the Bernina, particularly if you ride the local trains which stop at every tiny station, is that you have a real sense of engaging with the landscape. There are glaciers and Alpine meadows, with moments of high drama as the train drops down from high mountain terrain into serenely beautiful valleys. Beyond Tirano, the route runs south-west to Milan, skirting the east side of Lake Como for more than an hour.
The time question
So why does everyone not take the Bernina route? It seems to be really a matter of time. Sadly, most travelers are in a rush. And the lure of a direct train tempts folk to the faster Simplon and Gotthard routes. Journeys from the principal Swiss cities to Milan via the Bernina route require several changes of train. Here are some comparison journey times for Zürich to Milan:
via the Simplon route: 4 hrs 15 min
via the Gotthard route: 3 hrs 45 min
via the Bernina route: 10 hrs 05 min
The travel times speak for themselves. Yes, the Bernina journey takes more than twice as long, but it’s so very, very much better that canny travelers give the Alps the time they deserve. Indeed, there are a heap of places along the Bernina route which warrant an overnight stop, so why not spread the journey over two days?