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Il trenino rosso

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This is the name the Italians give to the Bernina Express, operated by the Rhaetische Bahn between Tirano and Chur / St. Moritz; it means the little red train. It crosses over the Bernina Pass in a magical landscape and is the highest railway over the Alps. According to Rhaetische Bahn the train negotiates 55 tunnels, 196 bridges and steep inclines. The highest point is at 2,253 metres above sea level and part of it (from Thusis – Valposchiavo – Tirano) has UNESCO World Heritage status.

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Two weekends ago, I took the train from Milan to Tirano at 10:20am to connect with the Bernina Express in the afternoon to Chur. The train left at 14:25pm for its steep climb to Alp Grüm and Ospizio Bernina. The weather was perfect and the surroundings were incredible. The train makes its way out of Tirano through the streets and shortly after reaches the spiral viaduct of Brusio. Not long after the Lago di Poschiavo is reached and the train runs along it until it starts its steep climb.

 

Looking back provides some neat vision

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It then climbs ever higher to Alp Grum and Ospizio Bernina, the highest point. From there it runs along the Lago Bianco, which at this time of year is covered in ice and snow. It is a spectacular landscape travel through, and even more so in the comfort of a train. It then starts its descent towards Pontresina, Samedan and Bever through some great skiing areas. The final stretch the train runs through the Albula viaducts and tunnels to descend steeply and eventually reaches the small town Chur.

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After an overnight in Chur I took the train back again and had another day of perfect weather. Travelling at a different time of the day, the light and the colour of the landscape was completely different. The sun on the snow made everything sparkle.

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Featured

Up on the roof

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The Duomo of Milan allows for visits to what are loftily called Terrazze, the roof. It’s a great opportunity for an unusual view over the city centre.

As a sunny Friday was nearing its finale, I decided to quickly head over to the ticket offices and buy a ticket to get up to the Terrazze. You can line up to buy your ticket at one of the counters, or you can buy them from an automatic vending machine, which was much quicker and very easy. Five minutes after securing my ticket I was in an elevator heading upstairs. You can walk the stairs as well, which is about 3 euro cheaper.

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The main photograph of this post was taken shortly after starting the itinerary over the roofs. From there you walk towards the front of the Duomo, where you cross to the other side and follow that side back to the descending elevator. Gargoyles and statues are everywhere and the whole Duomo feels like an over the top multi-layered wedding cake with sugary spires and decorations everywhere. It’s a very enjoyable experience and you can take it as fast or slow as you like, which will also depend on how many fellow tourists you are faced with.

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The ticket for the Terrazze also gives access to the cathedral itself, the archaeological area, the Duomo museum and the San Gottardo church. If you consider how much restoration work is going on, 17 euro is a pretty good deal, even if it isn’t cheap. And frankly, it’s a must do when in Milan.

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City hopping

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The network of fast trains in Italy has really opened up easy travel between cities. With Firenze only 1h40 by Frecciarossa from Milan it’s easy to plan a day trip there. There is nothing keeping one from making it a weekend either, but having been away all weekend the previous one, I felt a day trip would be enough and boarded the train on Saturday morning. My anticipated glimpses of Bologna came to nought, when I realised that the fast track is entirely underground and barely getting out of the spectacular tunnel system through the Apennine Mountains just before Firenze. Not a lot to see, but it sure is quick!

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The weather was cold and wet when I arrived in Firenze and I set off walking at a good pace to get warm. Firenze is full of history; every corner, every way you turn you find incredible historical buildings, churches and statues. I wished a few times I had access to Mary McCarthy’s book The Stones of Florence or had brushed up on my history knowledge to get more out of it. And in between the historical buildings there are tourists. Lots of tourists. Including me.

The first church you encounter is Santa Maria Novella, after which the train station is named; from there it doesn’t take long to see the telling shape of the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore, a giant dome covered in red tiles. Notwithstanding the cold weather, tourists were everywhere, lining up for a chance to see the inside or going up the steps to the Cupola for a view. I had decided to just go with the flow today, rather than try and cram it all in. So I skipped the lines and walked into less crowded streets and in the general direction of the Galleria dell’Accademia de Firenze, the home of the David by Michelangelo. Somewhere on a corner I ducked into a local cafe to grab a hot cappuccino. Suitably warmed up I joined the queue for admission, which looked quite manageable and within 15 minutes I was inside and in possession of a ticket. I think I was just lucky that most people were still in the queues at Santa Maria del Fiore or at the Uffizi.

I had on previous visits seen replicas of the David statue, but never the original. It was incredible, hard to believe that hard marble can be made to looks so soft and sinuous. I was particularly fascinated at how his hands were sculpted, every vein and tendon so visible and realistic that you want to reach out and touch it, to make sure it really is what you are seeing.

This cultural experience was followed by hedonistic one, given I was near the leather shop that had been recommended to me by a friend. Ciro and Sofia took good care of me and it didn’t take very long for me to walk out with two fine leather jackets to add to my collection. By now the sun was out and Firenze looked even prettier now, the white, pink and greyish green stones of Santa Maria del Fiore illuminated in their intricate patterns.

It was time to look for some food for lunch and I decided to find the restaurant that had been suggested by a colleague. The directions took me through Via de’ Tornabuoni, the luxury designer strip of Firenze until I arrived at the river Arno, just as the sun radiated on Ponte Vecchio, the perfect location for some photographs of the bridge itself, rather than from the bridge.

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The recommended restaurant was closed, but not too far from Ponte Vecchio I found another restaurant serving Tuscan food and had lunch there, before continuing my meanderings over Ponte Vecchio, briefly to the other side, Oltr’arno, and back towards Piazza della Signoria and from there to the Basilico di Santa Croce. By now the weather had deteriorated again and it started to rain and the light started to fail quickly.

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It was almost time to make my way back to the station through the small streets to board my train back to Milano, but not before looking at a few window and market stall displays: a cornucopia of gloves, chocolates and spreads.

On the train back I pondered that there is so much to see in Firenze and it is all so steeped in history that one day simply doesn’t do it justice. You could spend a lifetime here and still not see it all. And the tourist crowds don’t facilitate good sightseeing either. This is a problem not unique to Firenze; other tourist cities suffer the same and it raises the question how you keep tourism in balance, to provide income for a place, but not disrupt normal life for its residents to such a large extent. I have no idea how the Florentines live in this city, particularly not in the summer months, or at least from Easter onwards until September. Are we killing all the beautiful places in the world with our desire to see it all?