Why Train? You may well ask! My son has decided he doesn’t like flying and, to be honest, airlines are not my favourite mode of transport either. I think it was the birth of the jet airliner that took the romance out of flying – that and package tours. No more stopovers to refuel at exotic locations. No more visits to the cockpit to see the pilots at work. Even the ‘trolley dollies’ no longer reek chic 😦 So, for the second summer break in a row we swallowed the extra cost and travelled by train.
In contrast, the rail journey remains firmly bolted to the tracks of history. Most stations have changed little in the intervening years since they opened. Steam may have gone and modern trains are faster but the view from the window remains as compelling as it ever did. The names of the passing towns and villages carry with them an understanding of the land through which we travel – though we cannot stop to stare for, as Robert Louis Stephenson so eloquently put it, they are ‘Each a glimpse and gone forever’.
Our choice of route to Roma was unusual in that we decided to go outbound via Zürich. This means an overnight stay in Zürich but brings the reward of a morning journey over the Gothard Pass through the Swiss Alps. But – I get ahead of my self… That will be for part 2!
Our journey began at St.Pancras on the Eurostar. Originally Waterloo was the international terminus – quite what French travellers thought about that is open to conjecture! I recall that the BBC comedy Yes, Prime Minister referred to the station when poking fun at the British Love / Hate relationship with the EU some years ago. Anyway, extension of the high speed route across the Thames and through East London ended that ignominy and trains from the continent now arrive under Barlow’s magnificent single span train shed. I have always loved St.Pancras. It was home to my favourite Class 45 ‘Peak’ locomotives – sadly now gone. The rebuilding of the station to accommodate the international services was very well handled, with the below platform area (which used to store beer from Burton-on-Trent) put to good use as a shopping mall and an international check-in and departure lounge. The cleaned up roof with its duck-egg blue spans gives an airy feel to the whole station.
We departed on time with Ebbsfleet and Ashford as our listed stops and with a mother and daughter from Arizona across the aisle as travelling companions. They commented, and I have to concur, that the train rode really smoothly. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of operations on the high speed line that Friday morning when, between Ebbsfleet and Ashford, we were reduced to slower running presumably because of a slower train ahead?!
The channel tunnel just happens… There is no fanfare and no announcement for the curious traveller – just a sudden plunge into darkness. The rail enthusiasts know it’s coming because they have spotted the freight yards with locomotives waiting patiently for a path through the tunnel but the ordinary passenger is left, literally, in the dark. So it was with our Arizonian companions for whom we had to confirm that they were indeed passing under the Channel.
The first view of France reveals a Sapeurs-Pompiers station and a wine warehouse called Franglais. As the train travels deeper into the Pas de Calais small towns and villages can be seen with their distinctive church towers and the watchful traveller may spot a lone windmill standing tall upon a hill. Passing into Nord the train threads the outskirts of Lille with its industrial estates before turning south towards Paris. Here, as we travelled through Picardie, we experienced another period of slow running which culminated in a dead stop. When we restarted the train manager advised us that the train would be 13 minutes late into Paris – no surprise there then!
A late arrival in Paris was not really a problem for us – we’d programmed in a delay before our train to Switzerland and Gare de L’Est is a short walk from Gare du Nord. So, after allowing those in a hurry to leave the Eurostar we drifted across to L’Est before tracking down a lunchtime mini-baguette. It was here that being vegetarian first proved impossible (I’d guessed it would be anyway during the course of the holiday – conviction vegetarians should avoid France/Italy!) As a Classique Italienne was not available I settled for an Atlantique which consisted of a very nice bread with salad and crab paste from the west coast of France. It tasted ok, though I must admit that as someone who doesn’t normally eat meat, and especially fish, I did need to wash out my mouth afterwards to get rid of the taste.
We boarded the train to Zurich and enjoyed a leisurely transit through northern France towards Strasbourg. As we passed through Vaires I was reminded of the 1964 movie ‘The Train’ starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Schofield, with its excellent sequence of a train running through the rail yards there in an air raid. It contains much superb railway footage and the story line is gripping. It was an unusual role for Paul Schofield as a German Officer but he carried it off with aplomb. Lancaster as the French Engineer and his support cast were brilliant! Forget Von Ryan’s Express (the most obvious counterpart) – this is a far better film with some excellent acting performances by the stars and the extras. Highly recommended.
We stopped at Strasbourg – home of the EU Parliament and, as a result, a city that doesn’t seem to be Belgian, French or Swiss. We’re in Alsace here and the name reminds me, at least, that this is an area that hasn’t made a choice between being French or German (at least that’s how it feels) There are some very fine wines from this region. I love Gewurztraminer – which immediately sounds German but is a French wine. I guess there would be another war due soon to resolve this issue were it not for the very open state of Europe now. It’s clear to me that there is a great element of mutual trust between the mainland European countries now that wasn’t there just 20 years ago. Long Live peace but, especially, Long Live Gewurztraminer 🙂
Though the trip into Switzerland via Strasbourg, Mulhouse and Basle is operated by a TGV train, it is definitely not a high speed route. The line winds along the valley of the Rhine before crossing the Aare and Reuss rivers and then joining the valley of the Limmat to reach Zurich. There are many views to be had of the towns and villages as the train passes through, but this is not an area for mountain views – they come with the crossing of the Alps.
The arrival at Zurich is almost a relief after so many hours travelling. It marks a turning point in our journey, for now we will be heading south towards warmer climes. The departure and arrival were on time and the journey smooth. I didn’t envy the airline passengers passing above – it was a 10 minute walk to our hotel. Ironically it was full of airline staff who had to catch the train back out to the airport the next day! Zurich is a modern city with some older churches – our final destination will be an ancient city with recent churches. What a contrast between the two!
There was one last shock awaiting me at Zurich and a welcome one – Standing on the Concourse was ex-London bus RML2511. A breath of home in a foreign country 🙂