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The longest train journey in a small country

The highlight of the Bernina journey is the unique spiralling viaduct of Brusio swiss-image

The longest train journey in Switzerland crosses two mountain ranges and travels through four language regions. As Markus Haefliger found, it also links two villages at either end, which are similar and diverse at the same time.

This content was published on April 26, 2001 - 07:41

I asked an official at the Swiss Federal Railways to tell me where I would have to start and end my journey if I wanted to take the longest possible train ride in the country. It took a while before he understood the strange request. "It depends where you want to go," he replied.

But with some persistence and the help of the railway's computerised timetable, he came up with a solution: The longest railway journey that never leaves Switzerland, and which takes the most direct and fastest route, lasts between eight and a half hours and 10 hours and 14 minutes, depending on the day and time.

It links Le Brassus, a watchmakers' village in the Jura Mountains north of Geneva, with Poschiavo, an Italian-speaking village in the southeast.

People in Le Brassus found it hard to believe me when I told them I would arrive by train in Poschiavo the same night, and I got more incredulous looks in Poschiavo when I wrote "Le Brassus" in the form where Swiss hoteliers expect guests to indicate where their day's journey began.

As much as the two villages at both ends of the trip are diverse, they also have a lot in common. Both count roughly 1,600 inhabitants and lie about 1,000 metres above sea level.

Both poorly endowed

Due to the harsh winters and the isolation that come naturally in elevated valleys at the periphery of the country, Le Brassus and Poschiavo were both poorly endowed. But both found ways to improve their fortunes and also benefited, albeit in different ways, from their proximity to the French and Italian borders.

"We thrive because of our friends in France," Fredy Capt readily admits. Capt, a watchmaker in Le Brassus and a local historian, has worked for several of the dozen or so watchmaking enterprises in the Vallée de Joux in which Le Brassus lies.

Capt, who oversees quality control at Robergé S.A., a factory that produces diamond-studded gold watches, lived through the crisis of the 1970s when many of the factories had to close down or were sold to outside investors.

But Le Brassus' watchmaking industry has made a remarkable recovery. In recent years, some of its enterprises have seen growth rates of between 20 and 40 per cent and most are struggling to expand their workforce. As a result, nearly two thirds of the workers are cross-border commuters from France.

The commuter train that links Le Brassus with the main line coming from France at Vallorbe stops at the engineering school in Le Sentier, Le Brassus' neighbouring village. The train driver, Richard Zurflüh, tells me proudly that the school is "world famous - at least among watchmakers".

After Le Sentier the train passes the Lac de Joux, which is known as the country's coldest non-alpine lake.

New tilting trains

An hour later I had changed trains twice and was sitting in one of the federal railway's new and faster tilting trains. As a passenger, it can be a bit discomforting getting used to the carriages tilting into the curves of the tracks, especially when being served a warm lunch with a glass of good wine.

The new trains link Geneva with Zurich along the western route that runs along the foot of the Jura Mountains. Here, in the towns on lakes Neuchatel and Biel, the national exhibition Expo .02 is set to be staged next year.

The ten-hour journey from Le Brassus to Poschiavo covers 568 kilometres and involves five train changes. The trains run through mountainous terrain for about half of the time - the Jura first and the Alps during the last four hours of the trip.

But in the middle between Yverdon-les-Bains and Chur, my train travelled through a semi-urban landscape, neither town nor village. It's a landscape well known to the Swiss, but maybe less so by foreign tourists who tend to spend their time in alpine resorts.

Multi-storey apartment blocks spring up in farmers' fields - far from urban centers. Large numbers of Italian and Portuguese flags, competing with the red and white Swiss flag, fly above allotments. The roads are narrow and you might think from the vehicles using them that they are reserved for new, middle-sized cars.

Beyond the densely populated industrial heartland between Olten and Zurich come the prosperous suburbs along Lake Zurich. From there, it isn't long before the Alps rise up on both sides of the valley before the train arrives in Chur in the eastern canton of Graubünden.

Mediterranean architecture

A long ascent into the Alps is followed by a steep and winding descent from one of Europe's highest railway passes, the Bernina, into the valley of Poschiavo with its Mediterranean architecture and vegetation.

Poschiavo's main source of income is tourism. The red, narrow gauge Bernina Express railway that runs from Pontresina near St Moritz through Poschiavo and on to Tirano is the most picturesque railway that links Switzerland and Italy. During the sharp descent from Poschiavo the track even curls back on itself in a narrow loop raised up on stone pillars.

It's ten o'clock in the evening when I finally arrive in Poschiavo. The village is quiet and in the dark appears medieval. The wet granite roof tiles of the houses, built along narrow lanes that converge on two cobblestone squares, reflect the full moon.

I take the next day to recuperate from the journey and with the intention of getting to know this village tucked away in the southeastern corner of Switzerland. I meet Antonio Giuliani, a teacher and the village archivist.

Poschiavo's citizens would be happy to share Le Brassus' shortage of skilled labour.

"There were several attempts to industrialise the valley, but sadly they all failed," Giuliani says. A garment factory had to close down, followed by an engineering firm, which had been established with government subsidies.

Giuliani, like many of his friends and neighbours, is torn between wanting his children to remain in the village and giving them the chance to try their luck elsewhere. "We invest a lot in our children to help them overcome the disadvantages of growing up on the edges," he says. "Unfortunately, few of those who leave for an education in the city wish to return afterwards."

Poschiavo's glorious past

Poschiavo now has only its glorious past to rely on. When the patrician families of what was to become canton Graubünden held political sway across the region in the 15th and 16th centuries, citizens of Poschiavo were granted privileges by the bishop of Milan to trade in wine produced in the fertile Valtellina valley to the south in Italy.

The wine merchants who struck it rich at the time built the palaces that make for the urban, Renaissance character of the village. A dozen or so families, the Triaccas being the most famous, have carried on with the tradition, and a sizeable portion of the famous Valtellina wine is still processed and stored in the Poschiavo valley.

Much later, in the late 19th century, a series of neo-classicist palaces were added to Poschiavo's rich and surprising architectural heritage. They belonged to the so-called 'Spaniards' - citizens of Poschiavo who had emigrated and made a career as pastry-cooks in Spain, Britain or Russia, and who returned home prosperous and with stories to tell.

"We live at the periphery of the country, and as Italian-speaking Swiss outside [Italian-speaking] canton Ticino we are a minority within a minority", explains Giuliani. "I guess this particular situation has instilled into us not only a strong community spirit, but also a sense of looking to the outside with curiosity."

Life on fringes

To a degree, the same could be said of Le Brassus. In both villages, some deplore the pettiness, rather than praise the prettiness, of a life on the fringes.

"If you don't speak the local dialect you remain an outsider forever", one young mother says who married into a local family. "When I collected signatures to help save the kindergarten from closure, I was told I wasn't 'even from here'".

Travelling from Le Brassus to Poschiavo is a good way to get an idea of how small, but also a glimpse of how diverse, Switzerland is.

The added attraction lies in sitting in various trains for around ten hours solid - with all of Switzerland's landscapes passing before the window, and with the attractions of modern train travel - like dining cars - thrown in.

by Markus Haefliger

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