Friday 25 April 2014

Climbing the Swiss Alps - part 3: Mountains and Valleys

There were several suggestions for the free Saturday and we had decided to wait and see what (a) the weather and (b) fatigue might help us choose. The weather was fine and sunny and we felt fine so we took another trip into the mountains to the famous resorts of Klosters and Davos: we took our provisions with us but kept an open mind about eating out for lunch if we saw a suitable restaurant. Again, we left Chur on a metre-gauge train which travelled slowly through the suburbs before climbing, at first slowly but later much more steeply, into the Alps: these narrow-gauge trains are much more able to take the tight curves needed to climb the hills than a standard-gauge train would be able to do. All are electric and many Swiss lines always have been, plentiful cheap hydroelectric power being widely available here, and railway-building having started relatively late. As the valley is left behind the trees grow more dense and the snow becomes more and more of a feature until we are again in entirely snow-covered landscape. There had obviously been overnight snow and the snow-ploughs, snow-blowers and brooms and shovels were hard at work clearing it away while the sun was beginning a slow thaw in places it could reach.

We left the first train at Klosters. The train was going on through the lengthy Vereina Tunnel to Tirano in Italy. We went for a stroll through Klosters: no sign of any British princes but we did bump into another member of our group who sensibly warned us not to stand under any trees as they were thawing nicely and dropping their snow in great lumps, although the temperature in the town was still a degree or so below freezing. Little attempt is made by the Swiss authorities to clear the roads and pavements of snow, reliance rather being placed on individuals to cope properly with the ice and snow. With our ice-grips on our boots we could walk quite normally on pavements covered in pack-ice and we had a very pleasant walk around Klosters before taking our next train on to Davos.

Davos was a much bigger place even higher in the mountains and from the town several cable cars, ski lifts and funicular railways took people up the surrounding mountains to ski or snowboard back down. We looked for the funicular to Schatzalp recommended by our tour manager, bought our tickets and rode up the mountain. At the top of the funicular railway was a huge hotel and a timber-built restaurant overlooking the valley with the town far below and mountain-peaks far above on the opposite side.

Those going up to ski could ride up further by ski-lift but we went to the restaurant for a delicious meal to a local recipe, a variation on the traditional rosti with cheese and ham – full of fat and calories but this altitude and these temperatures some sustenance is needed! Back down from Schatzalp we looked around the shops in Davos and returned to the station to catch a train down to Filisur and so home to Chur.

This time the weather between Filisur and Chur on the Albula Line was much sunnier and I was able to photograph some sights I had missed the evening before.

When we arrived back at Chur we had an evening stroll around the city – the oldest in Switzerland, apparently, and spent the rest of the evening in our room writing this article (!) and packing for the morning. In the morning our main cases were to be out for the porters by 7.30am for transporting to the station while we had our breakfast. By now all that was in the the cases was clothes for laundering, plus the winter boots we'd no longer be needing, for in the morning we were to leave Switzerland.

After breakfast on Sunday we all checked out and met at the agreed place to board the main line train for Zurich. Our cases awaited us on the platform and we went to our allocated seating on the top deck of a multiplex train. We soared through the Swiss countryside (for the first few minutes along the same route as we had taken on the metre-gauge train the day before) and beside two of the wonderful lakes that are as characteristic of this wonderful country as the mountains.

 In Zurich we changed trains and with half an hour more than we needed for this there was a chance to have a very quick look at the city centre while our tour manager kindly looked after our luggage on the departure platform for our onward connection. This was a through train to Cologne (Koln) where we were to spend our final night before travelling back on Eurostar to the UK.

A long journey along the Rhine Valley took us out of Switzerland and through Germany past vineyards, castles, factories and churches and the great river itself, through the former West German capital of Bonn and into Cologne with its distinctive gothic cathedral. We had brought our picnic lunch, bought from a wonderful baker's shop at Chur station, but beer from the trolley and hot chocolate in the restaurant car were also welcome as the scenery slipped by.

 Our hotel in Cologne was a short walk from the station and again there was a porterage facility to help with our cases. We went for a walk around the city and popped into the cathedral briefly (it was during the evening service so we could only stand at the back and listen to the marvellous choral music) before a buffet supper for the last evening with our new friends made on this tour.

In the morning it was an early start: we delivered our larger cases to the reception area for porterage to the station and consumed our breakfast, which this time was very similar to an English buffet breakfast. We set off to the station and awaited our through train to Brussels where we would change for London. This was a French “Thalys” high-speed train with inclusive light meal as part of the First Class offer, much like Eurostar. The interesting thing about the trip home was that we were served something to eat and drink at no extra cost on all four of the trains we used, even having a drink and a biscuit on the short hop from Peterborough to Stamford! So we needed to purchase nothing along the way, although we did have a glass of wine while we waited in Brussels: South station is well outside the city centre of Brussels and although we did go for a short stroll there is really nothing to see in the short time we had, apart from the amazing sight of taxis queuing for custom right around the entire station. The station site does include a shopping area and we looked around there and bought a thank-you card for our wonderful tour manager, in which we placed our tip for handing to him as we said farewell on the approach to London.

And so to the final stage of the organised tour, the Eurostar back to St Pancras International, with the light meal including wine, water and coffee. At St Pancras we made our way over to Kings Cross with over an hour to spare before the departure of the train on which I had reserved seats, but we decided to go for the next one to Peterborough, a Leeds departure which had plenty of room in First Class and there we had our third on-board meal of the day – a bit more substantial than the others with full-sized sandwiches, cake, crisps and wine.

At Peterborough we are now becoming used to using the new platform 7 for departures to Stamford, although building work is not yet quite complete. First Class is always at an end of the Stansted-Birmingham trains but one never knows which end, nor whether there will be three or only two coaches, but in this case First was at the front end, right where the refreshment trolley is loaded onto the train (there are no refreshment facilities between Stansted and Peterborough), so we were the first people the caterer visited and he had time to give us our included biscuits and insisted that as we didn't have time to consume a cup of tea before Stamford we take a bottle of water to take away – so we did!

Well, it was intended to be the trip of a lifetime and so far it has met that expectation. We have to go back, though, as soon as we can afford it and at a different time of the year, and I've a feeling that if we live long enough it will become one of many trips competing for that title. It is hard to specify highlights, but they have to include dining aboard the Glacier Express among snow-covered mountains and standing on Gornergrat and looking across at Matterhorn. The entire adventure was filled with exciting new experiences that were certainly not exaggerated in the tour company's advertising and will go on being a joyful memory for a long time to come.  

Thursday 24 April 2014

Making the most of a disappointment

Well, I advertised the parish trip to Canterbury for 31st May with a carefully planned itinerary and had a reasonable number signed up, but when I went to book the advance tickets the trains I wanted were not there. Weekend engineering work on the line between Peterborough and London had stymied us: simply not enough time to fit in a worthwhile trip. I asked around what people wanted to do instead and the answer was York, a much shorter and simpler ride but just as good a destination. So York it will be, and Canterbury will have to wait for another time, and I am determined there will be another time.

Meanwhile I shall shortly post the third and last chapter of the Swiss Alps trip, and we have also recently returned from a fantastic short break in Yorkshire which will be reported soon after that. Photos already at

Thursday 3 April 2014

To Lincoln for the Chrism Eucharist

Each year in Holy Week the Bishop of Lincoln invites us to the Cathedral for the Chrism Eucharist at which the Bishop, priests and deacons of the diocese reaffirm their ordination vows and the Holy Oils used for Baptism, Confirmation and Healing are blessed for use across the diocese.

The service is traditionally held on Maundy Thursday but after an experiment last year it will be held again this year on Tuesday in Holy Week, 15th April, at 11:00. All are welcome. A suiitable train leaves Stamford at 08:00 and after a change of trains at Peterborough you would arrive in Lincoln in good time for a walk up to the Cathedral with a coffee stop on the way. After lunch and/or other leisure in Lincoln after the service, the 14:46 train from there to Newark with an additional change at Peterborough will get you home in time for tea before the evening address and compline at All Saints! (There are other return options available, depending upon how you wish to spend the afternoon, and some require just the one change at Peterborough.)

This is much like the adventure that some of us enjoyed in the autumn but without the option of supper in Newark on the way back, and, as it is spring, daylight all the way!

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Climbing the Swiss Alps - part 2: Italy and the Glacier Express

Market Place at Locarno
Wednesday was a free day with no outings on the schedule, but Glyn our tour manager had prepared a list of suggestions, complete with train times and other helpful detail and we decided to visit the town of Locarno, on the shore of Lake Maggiore in the Italian-speaking area of the country. Indeed, we were to change trains at a station in Italy on our way there, adding a fifth country to the list of nations we would have visited on this trip (six if you count France through which we pass without stopping). This day turned out to be the only one on which we had rain, but the experience was still very well-worthwhile. The journey itself was interesting, which was a major part of the reason for making the trip.

The Eurocity train to Venice
 It began with the journey through the Simplon Tunnel into Italy, and the border guard on the train wanted to know where my luggage was (on a day trip) and how much money I had with me … less that €1000 did not seem to be a problem, though, and as we were staying in Switzerland I had very few Euros, just for coffee on the way there and aperitifs on the way back. Odd, but then this was a through train, probably from Berne or even Basel to Venice, so smuggling into, out of or through Italy may be a major concern. Alison did not seem to be a problem, so I wondered if they were looking for a particular man, especially as a handful of others in the group had been through the same line of questioning. All good fun – at least we knew we'd been to Italy!

Passing a Centovalli Express
At Domodossala we left the main line and downstairs found the single-platform terminus of the metre-gauge Centovalli railway, the Hundred Valleys line. Even in the drizzle this was a spectacular line. We were now well short of adjectives to describe the amazing scenery we were encountering. We happened to be on a Panoramio train formed of coaches with huge windows and had to pay a small supplement to the conductor for the privilege. The train also had a trolley refreshment service and as we were in Italy we had to have the espresso coffee, in tiny disposable cups! The train, electric like all the others we had been on, left on time and after travelling a short way through the valley in which the town was set began to climb into the hills, turning back on itself several times as it gained height. We soon found ourselves looking out on snow-covered towns, villages, hills and gorges. The architecture was totally different from what we had seen just a few kilometres away in Switzerland, and even more interesting was that when the Centovalli lines crossed the border back into Switzerland none of this changed but the flags at the stations changed from the Italian tricolour to the Swiss cross. You would never know in one of these towns that you were in Switzerland.

Lunch in Locarno
The last few kilometres of the line were underground and again we found ourselves in the basement of the station at Locarno, and emerged right in the town centre a short walk from the lakeside. It was raining but we could walk around quite well. The town was obviously a summer resort with boat trips (not operating) and outdoor dining etc (also not taking place). We sought out a decent Italian restaurant in the town centre away from the tourist area of the lake and had the most wonderful pizza and could easily imagine we were actually in Italy. We returned the way we had come but it was an ordinary train that took us back to Domodossola, so no supplement to pay but we sat on the other side of the train and still enjoyed the ride. Back through the Simplon Tunnel we were also on a regional train and not a long-distance through service, and there was no border guard looking for middle-aged men carrying luggage and lots of cash. Home to the second session of James Bond.

Thursday was to be the centrepiece of the package but it was hard to see how what we had already done could be surpassed. We packed our bags and the large cases were taken away to the station to be transported separately to Chur for the next few days of the holiday, while the group walked together after a lighter-than-usual breakfast to the street platform outside Brig station to board the famous Glacier Express.

The train actually runs from Zermatt to St Moritz, and a complete First Class panoramic dining coach had been reserved for our party, complete with tablecloths and folded napkins, glasses and cutlery all ready for lunch. Once we had sat down orders were taken for coffee or aperitifs (we had coffee: it was still not yet noon!) and we gazed out at the landscape as our train began climbing into the hills. This is another metre-gauge train and most of the time moved along smoothly like a normal train, but in a few places the rack-and-pinion system was used to take it up and over some steep climbs: it would have been used most of the way down from Zermatt before we boarded. Each of us had a pair of earphones which could be plugged into a socket on the seat to listen to commentary at selected points of interest along the journey, announced by an audible alert and a speaker icon on the information display, and we each had a map showing the location of these points of interest. So much to take in: the meal, the scenery, the route map and the commentary.

Lunch was wonderful when it came, and was enjoyed among deep snow-covered landscapes just as we had imagined. A highlight was the serving of Grappa after the meal, served by pouring from a great height to aerate the drink, into a glass just a couple of centimetres in diameter, on a moving train! I think several people only bought the Grappa to photograph it being served. We were climbing out of the Rhone Valley and about to descend into the Rhine Valley for the second half of the holiday. Once the lunch was cleared away we enjoyed the last part of the journey along “Switzerland's Grand Canyon”, a deep flat-bottomed gorge of one of the Rhine tributaries. Arriving in Chur we were taken to our hotel (on foot this time) and welcomed by the owner with a glass of wine. The cases soon arrived, dinner was consumed and we reflected on yet another fantastic day. What would this new stage in the tour bring tomorrow?

The hotel in Brig had been modern and fairly small: this one in Chur was huge and old-fashioned, with dining rooms all over the place. Breakfast was in a room that looked like it might have once been a Masonic temple, and dinner in a panelled dining room. Waiting staff were in traditional costume and every effort was made to help us feel that we were truly in Switzerland. From here we would explore the eastern Alps. Some of the more “connected” older members of the group were horrified to discover that the wireless internet at this hotel was not free-of-charge and we all adapted to a few days offline!

The Landwasser Viaduct on the Albula Line
Friday we started with the Bernina Express, the metre-gauge train into Italy, as far as Poschiavo just short of the border. The train travels along the WorldHeritage line in the Albula valley with its spectacular engineering including winding tunnels in solid rock and many curved viaducts by means of which the train climbs over the mountains without the use of rack-and-pinion. It was lunchtime when we arrived at Poschiavo but a short walk around the town revealed that most places which might sell suitable food were closed for lunch, so we settled for a snack back at the station: we can recommend the Kiosk chain of rail station shops for their refreshments if you are ever in Switzerland.

While waiting for our train onwards to St Moritz we saw a snow plough brought out of its shed and all its equipment tried by the staff after their lunch break. It looked brand-new and we could imagine them working through the handbook and trying everything out, or they may simply have been checking it over before the forecast snow later in the afternoon - snow which began on our way back to Chur from St Moritz.

After an hour in Poschiavo we boarded the train which climbed its way to StMoritz. Again we had about an hour there and were able to see the frozen lake on which had been created a horse racing circuit with stands and all the usual paraphernalia. The contrast between the cold and snow at St Moritz and the sunshine and relative warmth of Poschiavo, just a short distance away but much lower, was striking. Our train back to Chur from St Moritz soon rejoined the line by which we had come and we experienced the same winding track again. It is really confusing to pass the same landmarks twice on the same side, or on opposite sides, or both, sometimes several times. By now it was snowing and really atmospheric: difficult for photography but great to experience. The following day was another “free” day and on arrival at Chur we shopped for food for the day: we were not sure what we might do but we'd need a snack either at lunchtime or in the evening.

At dinner each day Glyn gave us our briefing for the next day and because we would not be dining together on the free days we had the briefing for the following day, too, in this case the day we were to start travelling back via Germany. By now we had travelled, in sections, all the route of the Glacier Express between Zermatt and St Moritz and he was able to hand out to us a certificate to show that we had achieved this.