History in The Alps: Bernina Pass

When looking for breathtaking views, travel the Bernina Pass. It connects the Engadin Valley with the Pushlav Valley in the canton of Grisons in Switzerland. Travelling by train or car will grant you the experience of a lifetime. 

In the north, the Bernina Pass starts in Pontresina in the Engadin (translates to Gardens on the Inn River) Valley at an altitude of 1805 m (5900 ft.). It reaches 2328 m (7600 ft.) at its highest point before going down in the south to San Carlo di Poschiavo in the Pushlav Valley at 1093 m (3600 ft.). Both valleys are part of the canton of Grisons in Switzerland. 

The Bernina Pass has been in use since the Bronze Age. Finds of artifacts in the Engadin from that period link directly to finds made in Italy’s Valtellina Valley which is connected by a further mountain pass to the Pushlav Valley. The Bernina Pass was traversed on two distinct routes, the one running further east being the easier and more secure but much longer variant while the west route was shorter, more dangerous, and prone to be buried by snow avalanches. 

The western route was improved in 1552 after the Three Confederations (a confederation of confederations roughly covering the area of the modern canton of Grisons) had conquered the Valtellina Valley in 1512. Improvements to the eastern route were made in 1645. A real road was begun in 1842 and finished in 1865. It followed the eastern route. A railway was built after 1900 and finished in 1910. It followed the western route. 

Starting in Pontresina, you’ll pass from the flat and open valley of the river Flaz into the steep and precipitous cleft of the river Ooa da Bernina to come into the Bernina Valley at 2100 m (6900 ft.) where cable car gondolas offer you skiing in winter and hiking in summer. From the valley, the road ascends to the highest point of the pass and the Hospice Bernina overlooking two lakes: the Lej Nair (Black Lake translated from Romantsh) to the north and the Lago Bianco (White Lake translated from Italian) to the south. 

Take time for a break at the lakes. Looking down on the lakes from the restaurant Hospizio Bernina, you’ll see the Lej Nair to the right and the Lago Bianco to the left. Coming up to the Hospice, you followed the waters coming from the Lej Nair. The waters from this lake will flow into the Inn, the Danube, and end up in the Black Sea. Going down the south side of the pass you’ll be following the waters from the Lago Bianco. This water will join the Po River and end up in the Mediterranean. You are standing on a European water divide. 

The Hospice is also a language divide; the Black Lake is named in Romantsh, the language used to the north in the Engadin Valley, while the Lago Bianco is named in Italian, the language used to the south in the Pushlav Valley. 

Following the pass down its south side, breathtaking vistas open up at every turn. While the northern ascent leisurely covers 500 m (1600 ft.) of altitude over 13 km (8 miles), the southern descent covers 1200 m (3900 ft.) over 8 km (5 miles). At the foot of the pass you’ll arrive in San Carlo di Poschiavo. 

As the road and the railway use two completely different routes, it is well worth the while doing the journey twice. 

In winter, the snow might pile up to eight meters high (26 ft.), but all the same the road and the railway are kept open all winter. Compare this to London closing down over a handful of snow.