Magic Alpine Ride

Monday, March 14, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Traveling from Zurich to Venice, we had our first experience on a high-speed Eurostar train, which happened to be run by Trenitalia, the government operator of trains in Italy.  Unlike the intercity trains we had been riding, on the Eurostar, cars are numbered, seats are numbered and assigned, and reservations are mandatory.  And as we were to learn later, these trains move a lot faster, up to 186 miles per hour when the terrain permitted.

A change of trains was required in Milan, and when we purchased our tickets yesterday, the Swiss ticket agent warned us that Italian trains are notoriously late, and that the 15 minutes between the trains we selected would not be enough time in Milan.  He persuaded us to book the train that left Milan an hour later, giving us an hour and 15 minutes layover, or considerably shorter as he implied.

 Sure enough, when we went to the platform in Zurich  to catch the train, we found a special message listed below the posting.  The Italian train, which was coming in from Milan, had not arrived on time.  The Swiss, obsessive about punctuality, wanted to ensure that passengers knew this delay was not of their doing.  The message posted under the belated arrival time indicated that the reason for the delay was an event which occurred outside Switzerland.

Though it arrived a few minutes late, the Eurostar did depart on time.  As soon as we heard the first announcement on the train, it was clear that change was in the air.  Gone the gutteral German language we had been hearing on Swiss trains, exchanged for a lyrical Italian.

Leaving Zurich, we headed south and soon there was no doubt that we had reached the Alps.  Mountains along the railway quickly grew to heights that ensured perpetual snow-caps.  Far below, at the level of the tracks, we sped past picturesque villages of half-timbered houses, usually with an ancient stone church set at the highest point in the town and topped by a grand bell tower.  Even though our grime-streaked and often rain-drizzled train window prevented any photographic evidence, we found this route much more dramatic and impressive than the Golden Pass scenic route we had taken from Interlaken to Lucerne.

In and out of tunnels we rode as we climbed up into the Alps.  At Airolo, a popular ski area near the Gotthard Pass, we popped out of a tunnel to discover that we had climbed to almost 4,000 feet.  A collective gasp escaped from the passengers when we saw a the ground coated in white and delicate snowflakes dancing in the frigid air.  We were just a few feet below the snow line, and outside our window we could see a clear demarcation in the evergreens covering the rocky slopes.  Below the line, trees were all green; above it, limbs were heavy with snow.  We shivered at the sight of the snow-covered ground all around us even though, as we zipped through town, we had never left the comfortable confines of our train car.

As we climbed, the road climbed alongside the railway, treating us to fleeting views of ever more seemingly impossible feats of engineering.  Viaducts soared to dizzying heights to open this Alpine area to car traffic. Snow melt sent waterfalls plunging down the mountain sides, dwarfing the small cascades we see in the southeastern U.S.

Despite the Swiss agent's warning, we arrived in Milan on time at 2:50 p.m.  Though the station was extremely busy with lots of jostling and bumping, we easily made it to the 3:05 train to Venice a couple of platforms away.  As we were soon to learn, however, the Swiss agent's bad advice didn't end there.  His assurance that we could take the earlier train if time allowed ignored the requirement for reservations on all Eurostar trains.  Because our reservation was for the 4:05 train, rather than the 3:05, we were required to pay €8.00 each (a total of $23) for reservation changes when the conductor checked our tickets on the train.

As we were to learn when we arrived in Venice, this was only the beginning of our troubles on this ominous day.