Palm Express

By Jay Brunhouse

You’ve seen it dozens of times in movies and on TV: a bird’s-eye view of a red sports car screeching through hairpin curves one after another, racing down a precipitous granite mountain with a thousand-foot plunge below into inaccessible ravines. Don’t you wish you were driving the sports car?

Now the camera zooms down onto the sports car, but in this Mercedes commercial it isn’t a red sports car. It is a yellow postbus of the Swiss Postal Bus network negotiating with eardrum-blasting, trumpeting sounds the staggering curves of the Maloja Pass in Switzerland’s Canton Graubünden.

Board your Palm Express bus beside the St. Moritz train station. The original train station of 1904 was modernized in 1927 and has been periodically expanded since. Most recently it underwent a major renovation in preparation for the Alpine World Ski Championships of 2003.

The station will celebrate its hundredth anniversary on July 10, 2005. Together with the tourist board and the town of St. Moritz, the Rhaetian Railroad is planning a weekend festival for residents and visitors that will include historic rides and various exhibitions at the train station.

St. Moritz (at 5,939 feet; visit likes to think of itself as “Top of the World,” not for elevation but for quality and prestige. Sights include the Leaning Tower, the Engadine Museum and the Segantini Museum, but the overwhelming attractions of St. Moritz are the majestic Alps and the outdoor activities they afford both in summer and winter.

The 5-star hotels attract movie stars, crown princes and the jet set, but less extravagant accommodations won’t crack your budget and will still give you the St. Moritz experience of 322 sunny days a year, the most in Switzerland, plus the 6,000-foot Alps and 25 mountain lakes.

Visitors can board or alight from the Glacier Express at the St. Moritz terminus, and the station is about midway on the route of the Bernina Express, so connections north via Chur to Zürich or south via Tirano to Milano are easy.

Postbus express

The Palm Express ( is one of seven Swiss postbus scenic express routes that take you through narrow, winding valleys, past glaciers, through picturesque villages and across the most beautiful Alpine passes with spectacular views over snow-covered mountains. Reclining seats are like armchairs. You can relax to enjoy the wooden huts in the mountain valleys, the yellow-green glory of the meadows and the silvery mountain streams.

Along the smooth, asphalted highway, your Palm Express first takes you from St. Moritz along the shores of the marvelous Oberengadin lakes that are surrounded by bright larch forests and proud, snow-covered peaks. “The whole breathes tranquility and peace,” according to Friedrich Nietzche.

From the village of Maloja (5,945 feet), your driver attacks the Maloja Pass blasting the “pleasant musical triad of the postbus horn” (credit Erich von Däniken) around every 180-degree bend. Hugging the steep mountainside, your postbus twists down into the Bergell Valley via a succession of 13 hairpin turns.

The typical Bergell villages with their wonderful chestnut woods are clear evidence of the Mediterranean influence. You pass the home of the Giacomettis, a family of artists, which is now a museum. The painter Giovanni Segantini also found inspiration for his paintings while living in the wooden chalet near the Maloja post office.

Take your passport

Past the Bergell villages of Vicosoprano (3,514 feet) and Promontogno (2,700 feet), you cross into Italy at the frontier village of Castasegna (2,263 feet). Above the village you see the finest chestnut forest in Switzerland. A little later, after your descent of almost 5,000 feet, your Palm Express stops at the train station in the north Italian market town of Chiavenna (1,093 feet) at the junction of the Maloja Pass and the Splügen Pass. You may take a typical Italian espresso.

Once in Italy, highway travel is maddening. Traffic stops, waits and crawls when your bus meets oncoming buses and trucks in the tunnels and on the exceedingly narrow streets that are often obstructed by construction work.

From Chiavenna, the breathtaking views through the big windows are overwhelming. You relax and enjoy on your right the stunning Lago di Mezzola and shortly afterward the shore of the Y-shaped Lake Como. On the way you pass through a number of holiday resorts, including Gera Lario, Domaso with its famous windsurfing school, and Gravedona.

You scan the many villages lining the opposite shore trying to pick out storied Bellagio, and then your postbus miraculously twists through narrow streets into enchanted Menaggio. Past Menaggio, your postbus climbs and you enjoy a spectacular view over Lake Como and the red tile roofs of the lakeside port.

Waiting for you in the little market town of Porlezza (902 feet) is the next lake, the great Lake Lugano, about 560 feet above the level of Lake Como.

In Gandria (899 feet), on the eastern shore of Lake Lugano, you again cross the border back into Switzerland. Gandria, a picturesque Ticino village, is famous for its grottoes and its smugglers’ museum.

Tourist capital of canton Ticino

Only a few more miles and you arrive in Lugano (1,230 feet), the famous beauty spot flanked by Monte Brè and Monte San Salvatore. Lugano is a satisfying vacation destination because of its mild weather, excellent tourist facilities and its site on beautiful Lake Lugano with a funicular to Monte San Salvatore and a cogwheel railroad to Monte Generoso.

The Palm Express makes two stops in Lugano, the first at architect Mario Botta’s new bus station in the central Cassarate section of Lugano (local boy makes good) and the second at CFF’s Lugano hillside train station, where frequent trains can whisk you south to Milano or north over the Gotthard Pass to Zürich or Luzern.

When you step out of your bus at Lugano’s train station, you are face to face with the funicular to the center of the lovely city. The official language here is Italian, but in season you hear more English and German.

Travel on the Palm Express is free for holders of Swiss Passes, but reservations costing CHF15 (about $13) are required. You may make them at any Swiss train station. Adults without passes pay CHF67 ($58) and children 6-16 years, CHF33.50 ($29). Swiss Passes are available from Rail Europe; phone 888/382-7245 or log onto

Coming up

Railpass users will reap a bonanza in 2005. We’ll examine the new offerings in our roundup next month.