So – after two nights in Zurich (it was supposed to be one but that’s a private story) – we headed Due South…. Now that’s a great TV series. It would be so easy to go off at a tangent and discuss the merits of a Canadian Mountie and his Wolf on our screens but perhaps I should leave that for another day.
It was an early departure from Zurich on a Cisalpina express train made up of an ETR470 multiple unit. Walking down the side of the train I explained to our Son the significance of the hydraulic damping mechanisms on the side – this was to be his first ride on a tilting train. The technology was first engineered in the UK and put into service trial by the then British Railways as the Advanced Passenger Train (APT). Unfortunately demonstration runs for the press resulted in too many drunken hacks feeling ill and they gave it such a roasting that the political will to complete the project was lost – another victory for the lions of Fleet Street in their war against British jobs. The technology was sold to Italy and resulted in the highly successful Pendolino trains – subsequently bought by Virgin Rail for the West Coast mainline (buying back our own technology!). However, all is not well with the ETR470’s. They suffer from passengers (not drunken Fleet Street Hacks but ordinary Joe Public) becoming sick due to their motion. They also have a record of in service failures and blocked toilets (which could certainly make people sick). Our journey from Zurich to Milano included a blocked toilet – not a problem for me with my hollow legs but not nice for my good lady who had to wander a bit further down the train to find a safe haven. None of us found the motion unpleasant – in fact the train rarely exceeded a moderate speed and I doubt that the tilting mechanism bought much in the way of time savings.
So, having had a gripe… what about the journey? The route over the Gotthard Pass is a beautiful one. The railway was here long before the modern motorway and uses less spectacular means of passage. There are few sweeping viaducts but at times the railway seems to defy gravity as it clings to the side of a mountain with views down into the bottom of a valley far below or into a lake that threatens to swamp the coaches in water in its proximity. The concrete flyovers of the roads add something else to the scene – they aren’t beautiful but they do emphasise the weakness of human tenure in these high passes. The railway follows the Glacial valleys as much as possible and often passes alongside the many lakes in this part of Switzerland. Soon after leaving Zurich we were alongside the Zugersee and as we climbed further up into the mountains we passed by the Urnersee (lake of Lucerne). At times, as we passed through narrower valleys, we saw overhanging towers of rock held up by nothing more than obstinacy. The sheer cliffs on the sides of the wider valleys looked like they had been cut by God’s angle-grinder and displayed the tortured lines of long laid sediments pushed up under pressure – but these were the near vertical slopes sliced through by glaciers – the slightly shallower slopes, perhaps at 75 degrees from the horizontal, were deeply forested. This scenery is so different from the concrete cliff faces of central London! The beauty was well worth the expense and extra effort involved in the journey.
The summit of the line is a long straight tunnel, only reached after one complete circle a couple of extreme loop back bends in the track to gain the last few metres in height. Then the plunge down into Italian Switzerland begins. The line south of the Gotthard tunnel is generally straighter and higher speeds are possible. Even so, we were still treated to beautiful views of Lake Lugano and Lake Como. Now the ETR470 flew and the views of the towns, villages and farmland were fleeting and passing. It was an on time arrival at Milano Central and a slightly sad farewell to the Cisalpino train as we prepared for the final stage of our rail Journey to Rome.
Milan station is an amazing relic of the Italy that Mussolini tried to build. To step from the platforms into the concourse and booking hall is to step into the pre-war world of the fascists. The architecture is very empirical, drawing heavily on ancient Rome but smoothed to ease the hardened edge of that society. Even so, the area close to the platforms is crowded with passengers desperately watching for their train on the indicators.
The run to Rome would be on a FrecciaRossa service – the Italian equivalent of Eurostar / TGV and expected to produce a quality high speed service. It didn’t disappoint on the smoothness and speed though the scenery failed to be inspiring. Much of the route to Bologna, Firenza and Roma is across a plain of non-descript farmland. Even I, as a convicted viewer of what passes beyond the train window, reached for the Kindle. It’s amazing how much reading a story set in the arctic can cool you down in Italy’s summer heat! What can I say about the FrecciaRossa – good ride and on time departure and arrival. But, poor service in the bar – FS need to train their catering staff to deal with people in the order they arrive at the counter which, as every good publican knows, is the right way to keep customers happy.
Roma Termini is probably one of the ugliest railway stations I have ever had the misfortune to visit. I can’t think of any redeeming features for this building other than it handles the volume of traffic reasonably well – I should add that when we left a week later several trains including ours were late leaving, so I’d have to question the efficiency of the Italian Railways here. That said, we had a wonderful journey. I enjoyed a chat with two Italian passengers who, fortunately, had better English than I had Italian. We mused on the beauties of Florence and Colchester! Isn’t that what makes train travel so different to airlines – people have the time to speak to each other? But, when you’ve travelled from a station with the elegance of St. Pancras through the majesty of the Alps, Roma Termini is a disappointing end to the jouney. The same can possibly be said of the city, but it remains one of the cradles of European civilisation – If you’ve seen the Holywood epics and then visited the Forum you will understand what I’m saying!
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 🙂