Highlights: UNESCO Viaducts of the Rhaetian Railway (Solis Viaduct and the most photographed Landwasser Viaduct), the Carolingian church of St. Peter in Mistail , the church of St. Johannes in Stuls (not visited) , and the old village of Bergun with 16th-17th century houses decorated with the typical “sgraffiti”.
Route 6: Section 2 (Thusis 672m–Bergün 1,367m)
Stats from SwitzerlandMobility.ch ( https://www.schweizmobil.ch/en/cycling-in-switzerland/routes/route/etappe-0884.html ): 30km, height difference 950m (260m in opposite direction). Their site has the full profile.
A week-long spring biking trip in the Swiss Alps turned out to be an unusually cold one, with daily changes in weather forecast that forced us to make constant adjustments to our plans, splitting Sections in different days.
The goal: to bike the 130km stretch of Route 6 from Thusis to Martina (sections 2,3,4), at a very leisurely pace that would allow us also to visit historic landmarks or interject some hiking.
Two words on the Region:
This part of Switzerland sits at the convergence of 3 language cultures: one can equally hear people talking in Swiss German, Italian, and Romansh (official Swiss language), a Rhaeto-Romance language with origins in vulgar Latin, Etuscan and Celtic. This ancient Roman province was indeed home to the Rhaetian people and it bordered with the Helvetii to the west.
But what struck us the most was to find, in these remote Swiss Alps, historical hamlets and pristine villages with exquisitely decorated and perfectly manicured massive buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, sign of their importance in bygone times. In fact, historical commercial routes between Italy and the rest of Europe were traced over the alpine passes of Albula and Julier among others.
Additional cultural heritage is attested by medieval castles, towers as well as old churches dating back even to the Carolingian times.
But in contrast to natural and historical riches, the main tourist attraction here is the product of modern engineering with the construction of the Rhaetian Railway at the end of 19th century. The Railway, famous worldwide for the elegant and tall arched bridges of the Landwasser viaduct, is one of the three railways in the world to be part of the UNESCO World Heritage.
But enough with generalities and let’s “bike” into the trip!
With the uncertain May weather, we booked our first Hotel in Tiefencastel situated in the middle of Bike Route 6:02, and at the intersection between the roads over the Albulapass and the Julierpass.
It is an ideal departure point to visit the nearby iconic Landwasser Viaduct, the Solis Viaduct and the old St. Peter church in Mistail. Tiefencastle is also in the heart of the Albula district and Parc Ela, Switzerland’s largest nature park. The Albula river flows through the area to end its course into the Hinterrhein, one of the two initial branches of the Rhine river. Thus it is amazing to envision the wild waters of this Alpine stream traveling thousands of miles to empty into the North Sea! (see more on traveling the Rhine Route in Switzerland: Route 2)
Since this was the beginning of our trip, we biked it the easy way in the opposite direction.
From our departing point in Tiefencastel, we first took a 30 min train ride to Bergun via the typical red train of the Rhaetian Railway.
This offers an exquisite viewpoint of the scenery below and above: Landwasser Viaduct, Gorges and Alps. Incidentally, right at the Bergun train station, there is a little Railway museum (https://www.schweizmobil.ch/en/sehenswuerdigkeit-0695.html).
In Bergun (1376 m) (https://www.myswitzerland.com/en-ch/destinations/berguen/ ) we were in awe of the magnificent old architecture and “sgraffiti” decoration typical of Engadine houses, which pulled us in like a magnet. It was the first time that we saw this peculiar and exquisite decor, which together with the small, manicured and unspoiled village made it look like a scene out of a fairy tale.
If times allows, with a little detour from the cycling path (3km from Bergun and 200m elevation) one can visit the Romanesque church of St. Johannes in Stuls ( https://www.schweizmobil.ch/en/sehenswuerdigkeit-0583.html ). It is supposed to have beautiful 14th century frescoes painted by the school of Giotto but it was too late for us to venture there.
The travel downhill was pleasant and unusually low in traffic probably because of the Albula Pass still being closed.
The most spectacular stretch is just below Bergun with the narrow passage between vertical rocks on the Gorge at Igl Crap.
But the first real landmark stop is at the world-renowned Landwasser viaduct (see above) (https://www.schweizmobil.ch/en/sehenswuerdigkeit-0351.html). This is hidden from the road, so it is important to study the map to find the detour located Filisur along a 1 km gravel road.
From this location at the foot of the elegant arches, we stood admiring the 65-meter-tall soaring columns of the UNESCO viaduct (built in 1901), until the picturesque red train showed its head out of the tunnel. This viaduct is also the largest on the Rhaetian line.
Then, soon after Tiefencastel, we visited the old church of St. Peter in Mistail dating back to 800 AD. Just reaching the church is a mystical experience in itself. From the main road, a wide gravel trail descends through the woods for about 500m until the small white church appears, isolated, through the vegetation. A farmer and its dwelling stand as the sole guardians to this religious site. Well, save for some geese that stood put in front of the church, protecting its entrance and did not want to let me pass……..
This is a site not to be missed! It is an amazingly well preserved Carolingian church with the three typical apses. Some remnants of Carolingian paintings can still be spotted on walls, though the main frescoes belong to the Gothic period.
With the day coming to a close and rain creeping in, we retired to the Hotel for the night.
The following morning I tackled alone the remaining lower portion of Route 6:02. The 14 km from Tiefencastel to Thusis are all downhill with the exception of an initial short climb to the small village of Alvaschein.
Here starts a beautiful panoramic route through the steep Schyn Gorge (Schinschlucht), marked by yet another landmark of the Rhaetian Railway, the Solis Viaduct, at a vertiginous height of 89m above the gorge.
Just before Thusis, the ruins of Campell Castle right on the gorge precipice, come into sight (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campell_Castle), and this of course called for a little sightseeing into the hamlet of Campi.
At a close-up though the place was uninviting, overtaken by vegetation and locked. No matter, the exterior is a striking sight against the opposite mountains.
But I could not linger further as I had to run to Thusis (see Route 6:01)to catch the hourly train back to the hotel, just in time for the rain to start.
Links to Introduction and other Sections:
- BIKING THROUGH SWITZERLAND (with an electric bike)
- Route 6: Section 1 – Chur to Thusis
- Route 6: Section 3 – Bergün to Zernez
- Route 6: Section 4 ; part 1 – Zernez to Scuol
- Route 6: Section 4, part 2 – Scuol to Martina to Finstermünz Fortress
- Route 6: Section 5 – Thusis to Splügen
- Route 6: Section 6 – Splügen to San Bernardino
- Route 6: Section 7 – S. Bernardino to Bellinzona