Tuesday 16 July 2024

Out to Lunch, by Train

Special Birthday Treat: Train Ride and a splendid French Restaurant 

As usual I had bought my wife's birthday presents well in advance: one she asked for and a small one as a surprise extra, and as they day drew near I twigged that we had nothing in the diary for the whole day, and as it drew nearer it looked like to was going to be a lovely warm, sunny day. Going our for a meal would be an obvious treat, but it would be good to make it an adventure and I knew exactly where to go ...

This is just the bread and butter on the side ...

There is an excellent French restaurant in Bury St Edmunds, La Maison Bleue. We had been there once before and thoroughly enjoyed it and I knew she wanted to return and I thought that now would be the time, so I booked the table on their website and then our booked train tickets. New trains had been introduced on the Greater Anglia service to Bury St Edmunds from Peterborough since we had last travelled this way, so it would be interesting to experience these trains. The weather forecast for the day was very hot and sunny: it started off only as very warm and a little cloudy when we boarded our first train at Stamford and changed at Peterborough, but by the time we arrived at Bury St Edmunds it was hot. As we were going to a special restaurant for a special meal we both wanted to dress, and this gave me a chance to use linen suit that I had bought five years earlier and hardly ever used - if it's hot enough for a linen suit it's usually hot enough for shorts - and I have certainly not used it again this summer yet!

I had allowed plenty of slack times there was no rush on the day and we could take the whole day easy, even if there were delays, which there were not: all four of our trains ran to time.

So, the new trains: these were three passenger coaches with a cab each end, all fairly normal, but instead of motors beneath all the floors like the train on our local route through Stamford, there is a sort of short locomotive between two of the coaches, with a corridor through it, making the passenger compartments much quieter and smoother (and presumably allowing a relatively simple change of traction if necessary at some point, but I am not an expert). The seats were comfortable and awards the end of some coaches the seats were on raised platforms above the wheels whereas in the middle of the coaches they were lower, allowing for better accessibility for the mobility-impaired. For us, the raised seats gave us a decent view from the large windows, and we had a really great ride. The section as far as Ely we know quite well, but after that we have only been that way a couple of other times.

The area around the station at Bury St Edmunds has seen a lot of building work since we were last there and it is much more attractive as a first impression of the city, and we made our way up through the streets to the city centre which was bustling with a market as well as many good shops and not as many closed shops as some places. We had time for some browsing and just as we were thinking that a drink before our lunch would be a good idea, The Nutshell came into view, the country's smallest pub, which had some very decent beer (although the birthday girl went for prosecco on this occasion) and outside tables under the shade of trees in the street - very continental.

After our drink it was time to make our way to the restaurant and it did not disappoint. They had taken in my message about needing a corner tablet help with hearing difficulties and there was a "happy birthday" message on the birthday girl's petit fours with which the meal ended. This is the only restaurant we have come across in England where we could buy Swiss wine (and even they only had one this time), so that was a necessary part of the decision-making when browsing the menu! The waiting staff here are attentive and the food and drink excellent, and although it was lunchtime on a very ordinary weekday, the place soon filled up, so I was glad we had gone for a fairly early reservation.

After the meal there was time for a bit of a stroll back though the city before making our way to the station, and it was now becoming very hot and very sunny! We visited the cathedral gift shop and stocked up on cards for friends' forthcoming birthdays, and one or two air-conditioned ladies' clothes shops where we bought nothing but enjoyed the cool air! And so, back to the station, staying in the shade where we could, almost like being in, say, Italy or the French Riviera, and as I type this on a cool day with the rain falling it is hard to believe that the weather we had that day really did happen!

The linen suit and linen shirt stood up well to the test, as did the air-conditioning on the trains home. It had ben a really great day out, the train rides through some great scenery looking ts best in the summer sunshine after the wet spring, the drink under the trees, the French lunch, and most important of all the birthday girl enjoyed it all! Wins all round.

Monday 1 July 2024

Tour of the French and Swiss Alps by Train, part 2

The Mont Blanc Express to Chamonix

Monday morning dawned dull and damp but with the promise of some sunshine later. It was to be one of the more exciting days of the Great Rail Journeys itinerary for this holiday, the train into France to Chamonix Mont Blanc, our first mountain railway of the tour. Because of our base being in Lausanne rather than Montreux we had a slightly longer trip to get to Martigny where our train ride into the Alps was to begin. It was drizzling at Martigny as we left the main line train which had taken us there and walked to the platform where our narrow-gauge mountain railway train would depart. These were short trains and part of a coach had been reserved for our party. We were shown by a railway official where to board to ensure that we were in the right place for our seats.

The Mont Blanc Express is not what you think of as an express train! It is not even just one train, for it is necessary change trains part-way through the journey. The scenery is amazing, though, and the train starts to climb a few moments after leaving the station. 

Now we have travelled on many an international train, high-speed inter-city expresses like the Eurostar and the TGV Lyria on which we arrived in Geneva, the little branch-line train from Besançon into Le Locle and, for example, the Centovalli line between Switzerland and Italy, but the Mont Blanc Express is the only one we've used where a change of train is needed at the border: at the first station in France we left our train and crossed the platform to join an apparently identical one which took us the rest of the way to Chamonix. Another interesting feature about this route was that at a station part of the way between the border and Chamonix  the overhead electrical line ended and the train's pantograph was lowered, with electrical pick-up being from a third rail conductor. It is just like the procedure at Farringdon in London where Thameslink trains transfer from the overhead to third rail and vice-versa, but you do have to wonder why it is done here for just a few short kilometres of third-rail running, especially where deep snow is regularly expected!

We had a few hours to explore Chamonix and began with a trip to the tourist information office for a map. The drizzle had stopped by now but the day remained cloudy with occasional sunshine, but a trip up to the mountain tops would have been disappointing with all the cloud cover, so we opted to stay in the town, beginning with coffee! We had an interesting stroll around the town, France but not very different from Switzerland; indeed you would never know from the domestic architecture where the border is when you cross it on the Mont Blanc Express. Although we opted not to travel any higher in view of the cloud cover, we did go and look at a cable car station and saw that it had a healthy queue of potential passengers, so there were plenty of people who did decide to go up higher. We returned for lunch to the café we had visited earlier and enjoyed the advertised croques monsieur.  There was sunshine at times and the clouds shifted, revealing glimpses of the mountains that we knew were surrounding us. Chamonix was the venue for the first Winter Olympic games and athletes from the town formed the French team. There was a fascinating display of advertising posters for the Winter Olympics from the first time until the present.

We made our way back to the railway station to join the rest of the party and take the train back down to Martigny, changing trains just before the border, where we almost had an unplanned adventure: everyone piled off the train from Chamonix and crossed the platform to a waiting train, but no, apparently this was not our train but the next one back to Chamonix; why they had such a complex operation for a simple branch line I cannot begin to imagine. "It is France," was the best any of us could come up with ... And so, a few moments later the real train to Martigny arrived, we boarded and were taken back down the steep hillsides to take the connection back to Lausanne where dinner was at the hotel again. After dinner we prepared our luggage as far as we could for the following morning because we were to leave for the Golden Pass Express, and as we were in Lausanne and not Montreux we would have to leave rather earlier than originally planned in order to get our connecting train. 

Saturday 15 June 2024

Tour of the French and Swiss Alps by Train, part 1

Away at Last!

It was not until we settled into our seats on the train to London that we took in how much we had missed travel since our last trip in autumn last year. Sitting at our "club duo" seats in LNER's First Class and browsing the menu it almost felt like we had come home from a long absence rather than the other way around! The familiar rattle of the catering trolleys being pushed into the coach and the friendly hosts taking our order brought back many memories of past train trips as the countryside slipped past. Late spring and early summer is a brilliant time to travel in England: the greenness of the landscape is just fantastic, especially after the wet weather we had had this spring. The cold drinks came first and we both ordered rosé wine but there was not quite enough left in the bottle on the trolley to pour two glasses, so I volunteered to have white … and the host placed the rosé bottle on our table so that we could finish the last half-glassful between us! We ordered the homity pie, a delicious vegetable pie which came with a “bean salad”, and meanwhile the crisps for a starter and the lemon and elderflower pot for dessert were delivered off the trolley. By the tine we arrived in London all of this had been consumed and we knew we’d need no supper that evening. 

We were on our way by train to London early on a Friday evening ready for a very early start on Saturday to check in for the 08:01 Eurostar train for Paris on our way to Switzerland on another Great Rail Journeys adventure. This one was new to the Great Rail Journeys catalogue, because it uses a train service which had only started a couple of years earlier, the Golden Pass Express which we were to use between Montreux and Interlaken. We had never visited Montreux before, or anywhere else on Lake Geneva, nor Chamonix in France which was included as a day trip by train in this tour. We had never really visited Interlaken, either, although we had changed trains there often enough, and although one of the day trips from there was something we had done before it still included lots we had not. Amazingly with a mix of four- and five-star hotels and First Class rail travel, this tour was not particularly expensive and I did not hesitate to book it as soon as I saw it advertised the previous year. It has been something to look forward to through all the health issues that have dogged me over the last several months, culminating in (yet another) cardioversion just two days before we left home. 

In London we stayed at the Hub by Premier Inn beside Kings Cross railway station. We have used this place once before: it is a touch cheaper less expensive than a proper Premier Inn, but to my mind is still very poor value. The room was very cramped and inconvenient and although this time we did at least have a room above ground (last time we were two floors below ground!) it was till very claustrophobic. We shall probably not use it again: the Premier Inn in Euston Road is also better located for St Pancras station and far more pleasant for just a few pounds more. 

We went to bed early but did not sleep especially well before we were up early and off to St Pancras International railway station to meet Richard our tour manager before going to the International Departures ticket gates to begin our continental rail trip. The station was extremely busy! Train travel has definitely resumed now and we look forward to more services being reinstated. After showing our tickets at the gates we were soon through the security checks and then showed our passports at both UK and French Passport Control - unusually it was the French controller who smiled and spoke to us and not the British one, very odd. Seeing that the preceding train to Paris was just boarding, we thought that if we made our way straight to the café area we might get seats at a table there for our breakfast: this turned out to be correct and while my wife looked after the luggage at our chosen table I went off and bought a couple of black coffees which we drank with the fresh fruit salads we had bought from the Little Waitrose at Kings Cross station before we went to our hotel the previous evening. Before long the boarding of our train was announced and we were off on the travelator to the platform to board the train.

We were in coach 3, towards the rear of the train, and our section of the coach was where the wheelchair spaces were located, separated from the rest of the coach by a partition with a couple of private coupes, so it was a cosy area with just nine people in it, and around our table of four there were just us and one other couple on the Great Rail Journeys tour, so we had met the first of our travelling companions already. Before long our Eurostar E320 train slipped out of the platform and began accelerating along High Speed One towards the Channel Tunnel and on to Paris. A continental breakfast was served soon after leaving, as usual in Standard Premier Class on a morning departure. We had finished breakfast by the time we emerged in France, and for some reason the train slowed down and even stopped briefly causing us to arrive a few minutes late in Paris. This was not a concern as we had about three hours to change stations and have lunch before travelling on. As always with Great Rail Journeys we were taken across Paris by coach to Gare de Lyon; if we had been travelling alone we'd have used the RER or Metro, but it would be hard to keep a group together that way. At Gare de Lyon we bought a salad lunch at Monop' Daily as we so often have and ate our lunch outside in the sunshine while we awaited the departure of our train, a TGV Lyria direct to Geneva.

The first part of the TGV journey is unremarkable apart from its high speed, soaring across France down towards Lyon. Here I began typing the first paragraph or two of this blog post, and paid a visit to the buffet bar for drinks. We were with the rest of the group, some two dozen others, on the top deck of a duplex First Class coach and it was all very comfortable. The journey came into its own once we left the high speed line and started wandering towards Switzerland. We were threading our way through the hills where the Jura and the Alps come together and where France, Switzerland and Italy start to share mountains and lakes, and it is all very pretty. At Geneva we were changing trains to take an Interregional service to Lausanne where we were to stay the first three nights. We had changed trains at Geneva before but had been travelling in the opposite direction and taking a French train out of Switzerland. As with going the other way, however, there was no passport control at the EU border (although the facilities were there) and no customs check (although, again, the facilities were there, and we did see someone having their suitcase searched but no-one even looked at us).

Lausanne turned out to be a very interesting city to visit, although it was not originally planned to be part of this tour. We were supposed to be staying in Montreux and for many of us on the tour, ourselves included, Montreux was part of the attraction, but for some reason the hotel there was not available and Great Rail Journeys had booked the Lausanne Palace Hotel for the group instead, a better hotel, apparently, but not quite where we had expected to be. The itinerary otherwise remained the same, although it was not quite as efficient and convenient, but I think we can put up with that as a trade-off for the standard of the hotel. Getting to it from the station was fun: it is a very short walk to the station from the hotel, but the walk to the hotel from the station would be up a very steep hill so we travelled just one stop on the Lausanne Metro. The hotel minibuses took our luggage (and had room for four passengers, too) and we were handed public transport passes for the city which the rest of us then used on the Metro, alighting at Lausanne Flon station opposite our hotel. Well, I say opposite, but it was still four storeys below the hotel entrance, but there is a public lift from the Metro station to the street and we eventually all made it up to street level and were checked into the Palace Hotel. Our room was fantastic. This was a five-star hotel and was well-equipped: unusually for Switzerland there was a coffee maker in the room and the minibar was free to use (although the only alcoholic drink there was beer, but still a great part of the standard offer). By the time we had sorted out our luggage (brought up to our room by the porters) and showered it was time for dinner at a hotel restaurant and then bed. It is always helpful when dinner on the first night is included in these packages especially on Saturdays (busy) or Sundays (half the places closed), and dinner at the Lausanne Palace was great!

On Sunday morning we set of to explore some of the city centre of Lausanne, taking the Metro just two stops to the opposite side of the ravine in which the city's shopping streets are located, from where we were able to cross a bridge to Lausanne Cathedral. As it happened we were there between the Sunday morning services and were able to pop in to look at the building. We did not have time to stay to worship as there was a programme of activities for the rest of the day, but we did spot a likely restaurant for a fondue and kept that in mind as a possibility for the evening unless something even better turned up. We walked back through the quiet Sunday morning shopping streets to our hotel and met the rest of the group for the first group tour. As we were not now staying in Montreux our capable tour manager, Richard, arranged for the group to take an earlier train than necessary for the included tour of the Château de Chillon. The ride along the shore of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman in the local language, French) was wonderful with an almost continous view of the lake, with hills beyond and a series of towns, villages and vineyards between the railway and the lake. At Montreux railway station, standing at the platform was the train would be taking later to Interlaken, the Golden Pass Express, looking very splendid.

Montreux, billed as "stylish Montreux" in Great Rail Journeys' publicity, was a lovely place to visit, especially on the waterfront. Some of the party were excited by the statue of Freddie Mercury along the promenade! We bought a take-away salad lunch from the local Micros supermarket and sat by the lakeside to eat it in the warm sunshine. It was an idyllic time, and like most of the group we opted to walk along the lakeside footpath to the Château de Chillon rather than take the train (the plan, had we been staying in Montreux, had been to take the trolleybus there, apparently). We all arrived eventually at the entrance to the Château for the booked guided tour in which we learnt the fascinating history of this building, built on a natural rocky island just off the lake shore by the Savoy family to claim duty on traffic on the lake and conquered by the Bernese a couple of centuries later. While we were being taken around the interior the rain came, and came heavily. By the time we were ready to leave, mercifully the rain had almost ceased, and soon did cease. We made our way to the nearby pier from where a paddle-boat took us back along the lake to Lausanne, with a view of "stylish Montreux" and a few other places where we docked on the way. the weather by now had turned quite good again and we were able to sit on the forward deck with a super view of the surrounding hills and mountains. Most of us then used the Metro again to return to the hotel. We showered and changed and made our way back to the restaurant we had discovered in the morning and enjoyed our classic Swiss cheese fondue with Swiss wine served by attentive staff at the Café L'Evêché, after which we returned to the hotel, with help of the Metro, through the rain which had returned, but was OK for the short times we had to be outside. 

And so our first, brilliant, day of this Swiss "adventure" came to an end. We had visited a cathedral and a castle in two different towns and enjoyed a traditional Swiss supper and we were staying in a wonderful traditional Belle Epoque hotel. We looked forward eagerly to what more new experiences the subsequent days would bring, beginning with the Mont Blanc Express, back into France for the day!