Swiss Fantasy

I saw a shop called Swiss Fantasy today, and that sounded like a pretty good way to sum up how I spent my day off in Switzerland. I stayed in the tiny village of Filisur at a place called Hotel Schöntal. I'm fairly certain I was the only person in the hotel (I'm also fairly certain I was the only person in the whole village), and that suited me just fine after a busy stretch of shows. The views of and from the hotel were unbelievable.

This area of the Alps is famous for being home to one of the world's great feats of engineering, the Rhätische Bahn. It's an electric narrow gauge railway that loops and climbs its way over and through some of the most dramatic and unforgiving mountains Europe has to offer. The entire route contains something like 55 bridges and 39 tunnels, but the most iconic of them is the Landwasser Viaduct. Completed in 1902, it's over 200 feet high and 400 feet long, and it launches straight out from a tunnel in the side of a mountain. I did the roughly 45-minute hike up the next mountain over to get a nice vantage point, and I thought I was going to throw up from the altitude. The view was worth the sickness, though, and a little further down the trail you could see another similarly mind blowing viaduct. I watched a few trains go by here around sunset and then made the arduous hike home in twilight (somehow it was uphill both ways).

I hadn't eaten all day, so I decided to search for dinner, but this proved more difficult than I imagined since I was the only person in the entire village. The only "restaurants" are part of the few small hotels, and they were all closed. So I got in the car and started driving until I found myself on the most hair-raising road I've ever experienced. It was 180-degree switchbacks all the way up the mountain with no lights and almost no guardrails anywhere. The GPS helped me know when it was time to turn, but the turns were so tight it often thought I was just backing up and going in reverse down the same stretch of road I'd come up. The route was so twisted it looked like the diagram of somebody's intestines. Finally, at the top of the mountain, I discovered the Hotel Belfort, a small, charming, taxidermy-filled lodge that served me a delicious dinner of wild mushroom ravioli and a local Swiss specialty for desert, which was somewhere between a cold apple pie and a fruit tart. I drove (very carefully) home back down the mountain without having to touch the accelerator--it was all gravity on those steep roads.

The next morning I got up at the crack of down to ride the Rhätische Bahn spur line to Davos for breakfast. Davos is best known for hosting the financial and political elite every year for the World Economic Forum, and sure enough, the town is night-and-day from Filisur. Davos is chock full of new buildings (hotels, condos, etc) and the streets are busy with cars. In a few short weeks, it'll be overrun with skiers and snowboarders, but for now it was still relatively sleepy. The train ride was unreal. The route snakes up through mountain passes, crossing bridge after bridge and entering tunnel after tunnel. At one point, we crossed the Wiesen Viaduct, which I learned was even higher than Landwasser (nearly 300 feet above the roaring river below). I did a little research and found out that if I took some roads even more terrifying than the ones I drove the night before, I could get to an access point, and from there I could cross the bridge on a walkway to a viewing area. I'm scared of heights, but I'm trying to push myself on this trip, so even though my legs felt like jelly and I'm pretty sure I blacked out halfway through, I crossed the damn bridge. I got to the other side just in time to photograph the train as it shot across. I said my prayers and headed back across and gave myself a pat on the back as I stepped off. Then I nearly had a heart attack when I turned around and an unscheduled work train was flying across the bridge just behind me. (The catwalk is separate from the tracks--I wasn't in danger of being hit--but if that thing had come over while I was in the middle of the bridge I'd still be there crumpled up in a ball right now.

After that, I hit the road for Italy and witnessed some of the most stunning scenery yet. It's hard to put into words just how amazing the drive was. I wanted to pull over and take photos so often, but the route is so narrow that it would be incredibly dangerous, so I had to settle for the safe spots. There were more switchbacks than I could count (in one place, the switchbacks were themselves stunning bridges), waterfalls, wild animals, and storybook villages. It was hard to keep my eyes on the road, but on roads like those, your life depends on it.