Nestled in the valley joining Italy with Switzerland and Austria, Tirano is a tiny town of less than 10,000. It’s primary claim to fame is being the terminus of the UNESCO World Heritage Bernina Express, a picturesque rail journey from Chur in Switzerland which crosses the Swiss Engadin Alps, taking four hours and crossing 196 bridges, passing through 55 tunnels and climbing to 2,253 metres above sea level to cross the Bernina Pass.
The ticket options are: to go one-way, to do a day return after a lunch break or to follow the Chur-Tirano route with a bus ride to Milan past Lake Como.
We wondered whether it was worth an overnight stay instead, and so after four hours on the train staring at snow-covered villages and adventurous souls cross-country skiing and downhill tobogganing, we decided to explore the town to see what it had to offer.
The online travel guides all suggested that Tirano’s churches were the things to see, so after checking into Bed and Breakfast Sweet Home, we headed down the long long main road towards the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of Tirano.
A huge red board exulted the UNESCO World Heritage status bestowed upon the Bernina Express railway in 2008. It was an interesting example of a double axis line chart, showing both distance and altitude on the same graphic.
According to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to a local resident during an outbreak of the plague and told her that if a church was built in that spot (outside the walls of the old town) then the town would be rid of the pestilence. Lo and behold, by the time the church was built, there was no more plague.
The railway passes right beside the church, and whenever one or other of the trains passes through, the bells from the crossing compete with the church bells. I wouldn’t want to live near that intersection!
Inside it was a compact church ornately lined with frescoes in the Renaissance style, with a huge organ from the early 17th Century.
After a brief look around, we headed out to find something to eat.
We had a brochure from the Bernina Express which promised a discount at four restaurants if we showed our ticket. One of them was right beside the church and so we popped in for a late lunch.
After a brief discussion with the waitress on what was included in the burger meal (language difficulties around ginger beer being non-alcoholic), we settled in out of the cold to wait for our bacon burgers. We usually dont like to order the same thing, but in this case both Ange and I were drawn to the bacon burger.
Lollipop’s is a strange place: it looks like a bar, but specialises in desserts. We found out later that the chef had closed for lunch but had reopened the kitchen to make our burgers.
And they were well worth the wait! A good sized offering with a skewer to keep it all together. Strangely enough they came with the bacon skewered to the outside of the burger bun. Never did quite figure that one out!
When it came to pay the bill we mentioned the flyer and our Bernina Express tickets, only to be told that the flyer was old and the discount didn’t apply anymore. It sounded a little suspect but we should have checked before we ordered. It was only 10% which was less than €3, so really not worth worrying about.
After lunch we headed back down the long main road to the old town.
Old Town Tirano
We crossed the Adda, the river running down the Valtellina valley from Austria into Lake Como. Like most of the waterways in the valley, the walls of the river had been built up considerably higher than the current flow – indicative of the need for protection from the sudden increases in river size that spring melts would bring. One of the constants in the mountainous river valleys.
In fact, Tirano was pretty much built around the confluence of the Adda and the Poschiavino, which the Bernina Express follows out of Switzerland into Italy.
Cobbled stone roads, piazza and churches. The old town of Tirano has some special Renaissance palaces but these are not open unless you book a special tour.
The town walls had been torn down and there were only a few of the old gates into the city left, and to be fair they weren’t the most impressive.
With the light failing we headed towards one of the other restaurants we were supposed to get a discount on. The menu in the window had the prices which seemed a little steep even with the promised discount, so we decided to have a pizza from one of the restaurants closer to our hotel instead. We did find out that the local food specialty was the pizzoccheri, a buckwheat pasta.
Chiesa di Santa Perpetua
The next day we checked out of our hotel and wondered what to do with the next three hours before our onward train journey to Milan- we were running out of things to do in Tirano!
We decided to check out the church on the hill behind Santuario della Madonna di Tirano, or at least to see how steep it was in person, because on the map the tightly packed contours made it seem like a sheer cliff but a trail was clearly marked.
Finding the starting point for the trail from the square proved interesting with an alleyway seeming to dead end, before hanging a hard left and then heading towards the river.
A little ways along the path crossed a bridge and then headed straight up through grape vines to the Chiesa e Xenodochio di Santa Perpetua.
The initial going was relatively straight forward, a not so gentle incline with dirt path and vines close enough to touch.
The haze over the town was identifiable as the smoke from wood fires and no breeze coming down the valleys to blow it away, so it added to the altitude to make the hike more of a challenge.
The second of the three phases of the climb turned out to be stone steps beside a stone wall with a groove in the dirt beside where cyclists had wheeled their bikes up or down the hill. The gradient here was quite steep, but the steps were reasonalbly spaced and so it wasn’t too arduous.
The third phase of the climb was the most intense. The stone steps gave way to a path hacked into the rick with a safety rail made of thick wire stopping you from plummeting down the hill. Either my lack of fitness or the altitude training started to become more noticeable as my lungs started burning.
And so even though the path had become quite challenging, the wire or chain fencing made it manageable and it was with no small relief that we greeted the final steps leading up to the road at the top.
The view from the top was quite lovely, with Tirano laid out and the churches with their bell towers marking the clusters of housing in the outskirts. I wonder if you put up a church in a vacant area of the valley and then turned your back there’s be a fully formed village accumulated around the church by the time you turned back around.
Above the church (privately owned: no admittance) was a ruined building, the stone walls still in tact but the roof caved in and almost overrun with trees and bushes. I joked to Ange that it would be on some Italian real estate website advertised as a do-up or needing “minor repairs”.
We had time, so after a well deserved rest at the top we decided to take the half hour stroll down the hill via the road back to our starting point. We’d seen a few other people climbing the hill and a bunch had been at the top behind the church taking photos of one of the trains as it passed the church in the center of town.
We headed down the road, saying hi to the other trampers we saw and enjoying the much easier downhill section, the road making it safe to enjoy the view instead of where to place your next step.
In the distance a car approached and I will never forget the look of boredom on the face of the pretty young millennial in the passenger seat, clad in pink furs, as they headed to the top of the hill. I think they too were finding it hard to find things to do in Tirano.
But there were sights you can only see on foot, like the wide pipes heading under the road which I tried to pursuade Ange were Tirano’s answer to Dubai’s Aquaventure.
Before the westerly path switched back on itself, we found ourselves passing through the village of Ragno and I couldn’t help but wonder what people did for a living in the villages clustered at the base of the mountains on either side of the valley.
Back at the bottom of the hill we headed alongside the river and followed it back to the bridge. Along the way we saw a weir with posts to stop debris from flowing down river, and further along a warming sign in multiple languages indicating the dangers of flash flooding in the river from mountain meltwaters.
After our trek we wandered back past our hotel to the train station for a spot of lunch before our train to Milan. Along the way we tried to figure if Tirano was worth visiting and didn’t come to a consensus.
Ange raised a good point though: we’d done the Bernina Express as a Valentine’s Day present to each other, and so there very well may have been seasonal attractions that we were missing. Perhaps Tirano was a Mecca for skiers in the winter or a hub for hikers in the summer?
I must admit that as New Zealanders we were spoilt as far as winter wonderlands go: Queenstown being particularly well suited in all seasons to entertain. Maybe Tirano would be served by a gondola going up one of the mountains, with maybe a nice restaurant at the top and a luge to the bottom?
I had to admit that the struggle up the hill had given me a certain sense of achievement, so that even though there wasn’t a huge amount to do in a Tirano, I didn’t consider it a waste of time.
Abandoning any hope of getting a discount due to our Bernina Express tickets, we selected a restaurant overlooking the square in front of the train station and enjoyed our last meal in Tirano. Hotel Ristorante Bernina Tirano is one of the Saint Jane chain of hotels, and we arrived just before the lunchtime rush.
I had the local delicacy pizzoccheri (buckwheat pasta is almost as boring as it sounds) while Ange chose better with the bombalino. She let me try some of hers: delicious! The restaurant had quite a little booklet of desserts, not a dud among them, and so my millefoglie and her apple strudel left us waddling over the square to catch our train full and strangely content.