Monday, 28 August 2017

Summer Alpine Adventure 5: Sunshine and Rain

When I began writing up this tour, I expected it to need three episodes to take all that we had packed into the eleven days without (a) taking an age to write before I publish the first bit and (b) boring my readers, and myself. However, it was so action-packed that one of the other customers on the tour asked the tour manager on about the third day, "Do we get a holiday at some point?" and so after four episodes I find myself writing a fifth. I really must get on with this, because I've since been on another holiday - a rather interesting one which I am raring to write up - and a day out which is worth a few words.

So, where was I? Yes, the day trip to Italy! A reasonably early start was required from Zermatt because before we could go anywhere else we had to travel back down the valley to the main line at Brig. Here we had a few minutes to spare before our international main-line train to Domodossala and we had a little wander around this place where we had stayed for three nights on our last visit to the Swiss Alps. Little had changed and it was great to see it all again. Our train was a regional one, nothing very special, and although we were in First Class accommodation it was fairly spartan and not air-conditioned, although the windows did open very wide. Off we set and before long were in the Simplon Tunnel on our way to Italy. The train was signal-checked in the tunnel, tantalisingly close to the end but very dark and very hot, but eventually we were on our way. This is still mountain territory and although we were on a standard-gauge main line there was still a spiral tunnel, although you do not really notice it; so many tunnels and this is just another one. We arrived in a baking hot Domodossala and made our way to the bus station across the road where a coach waited to take the whole party to Stresa on the western shore of Lake Maggiore. I had been disappointed that we had to take road transport on this trip but it was a very smooth and comfortable coach and got us to Stresa reasonably quickly, and straight to the quayside for the boats to the various islands on the lake.

The brochure had described the boat trip as a "cruise" but in truth this was large motor boat providing a fast ferry to Isola Piscatore, a small island consisting almost entirely of restaurants, clearly intended for foreign visitors at mealtimes, just like us. We had brought a packed lunch, however, bought from a bakery at Brig station during the train change, and sat eating it watching the boats on the lake. It was warm hot and sunny and an almost idyllic place to sit.  We set off on a walk around the island (a few moments), visited the church and the market stalls along the lake shore (carefully watching our bags and pockets) and met the rest of the tour for the ferry back to Stresa. Some of the party had used the restaurants for a rather more substantial lunch than ours and perhaps when presented with a wide selection of Italian restaurants that is a reasonable course of action, but we prefer not to have too many huge meals per day. We'd had a great day out, but it was the one thing on the trip that looked like a mass-produced experience: it stood out amidst the very high standard of the rest of the tour.


Back in Stresa we had an hour or so before the coach back to our return train and we enjoyed a walk around the town and bought some souvenirs to take home for friends and family, and, of course, an Italian ice-cream!

At Domodossola station we boarded the train to find our empty takeaway cups exactly as we had left them on the tables when we arrived that morning: not only had the train patently not been cleaned (not a big deal: it had only been a short trip), but had not been used by anyone else either. It must have stood there, in the heat, at the platform, all day! We were soon back in Brig and on our metre-gauge cog-railway train back to Zermatt, and an evening meal in the comfort of our wonderful hotel.

The following day was a free day and we had been planning to go back to Domodossala to take the Centovalli railway across to Locarno on the north-east shore of Lake Maggiore. We had done it before in poor weather and wanted to see it in sunshine. A day like the one we had just enjoyed at Stresa would be really great, and Locarno would be in holiday season with everything open and available to enjoy. The weather forecast was not wonderful but we went to bed hoping that all would turn out well ... but no, the forecast in the morning was no better and the day was already murky. Given that even with our half-fare cards it was quite an expensive trip and that the visibility may be little or no better than last time, we decided not to go to Locarno and spend the day exploring on foot around Zermatt instead.

We walked out past the cable-car terminals which were taking some tourists high up into the mountains: one route went to a ski resort where it was possible to ski even in summer, and another went over the border to Italy. These cable-car routes work just like bus or tram routes and there are interchange points up in the hills where it is possible to change cars for other destinations. We were not tempted to pay the fares and see the world from even higher, but it was fascinating watching the cars coming and going as we walked along the roads and footpaths were the village was being expanded and more and more homes were being built. The road on which we eventually found ourselves walking uphill is a toboggan run in winter and a road when passable! Lower than that was a route for the electric bus service to and from Zermatt village centre.

After a good walk we repaired to a bar-restaurant for a drink (hotel breakfast - minimal requirement for lunch!) and sat outside in the sun looking across at the Matterhorn. From our table we could see the trains of the Gornergratbahn making their way up and down the mountain, crossing the valley in which we sat. Mental note made that this looks a great place to eat, too, and TripAdvisor seems to agree. We were just leaving, having decided our route back into town, when we felt a few spots of rain. The a few more and a heavy
shower began. There was a bus stop with a timetable, I checked and a bus was due, then I realised that the crowd standing across the road in the church porch was the bus queue! We joined it and boarded the bus. I paid the fare, forgetting in my haste and relief that we were entitled to travel free with our pass. Never mind, it was not expensive and it was dry. And an experience to travel on one of Zermatt's little electric buses! By the time we were back at our hotel a few moments later the rain had stopped and the sun was shining again ... and we were still wet! We spent the rest of the afternoon, as planned but maybe not quite so soon, in the hotel swimming pool, which was excellent, and ate our picnic "dinner" on our balcony, preparing to leave Zermatt the following day, when rather better weather was forecast.

Departure for the next stage of the tour was rather more leisurely than we had been accustomed to. There was no rush and we were able to pack at our leisure and make our way down to the station. Before then, however, there was the spectacle of the Corpus Christi procession which passed the entrance gates to the hotel. I thought how little my own parish would be noticing this important festival (although there would be a service in church) compared with the way that Zermatt people could not miss it! Almost all of us on the trip went down to watch the procession.

Our cog train took us back down the valley for the last time and we changed trains at Visp, buying provisions at the station, and bought the main line train for Basle where changed to a local stopping service into France for an overnight stop at Colmar.


Colmar is a beautiful town which looks more German than French and is well worth a visit. It was very hot when we stayed there and we were grateful for our hotel room's air conditioning. We had time to explore the town both on the evening of our arrival and briefly on the morning before we left.







Our train from Colmar was a little late, and we had one simple change of train at Strasbourg to catch the TGV for Lille were we changed for the Eurostar to London and thence home. It was the first time we had caught the Eurostar from Lille and we did have a little time to explore. Again, Lille is a place worth visiting and one day we must programme a little time there into one of our own European tours.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Home from another trip!

I am now home after a brilliant trip to the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth and Chichester. A blog post will follow in due course, and meanwhile my Trip Advisor reviews are available by following the relevant Helpful Link for Adventurers on the right >>>>



Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Summer Alpine Adventure 4: Glacier Express, Zermatt and the Matterhorn

Provisions being loaded into the kitchen of the Glacier
Express during its reversing stop at Chur
A feature of our Great Rail Journeys holiday this year is that it includes the complete route of the Glacier Express, all the way from St Moritz to Zermatt, the two Alpine resorts in which we stayed on this memorable adventure. We had done the whole route before, but in bits and pieces, only using the Express itself between Brig and Chur, so it was good to see it in one go.

Our party was all accommodated in a First Class car at the rear of the train leaving St Moritz, although there were a handful of other passengers in the same coach. The first part of the journey was back along the way we had arrived from Chur, some of it the same way we had travelled as far as our change of train on our free day, too. At Chur the locomotive was coupled to the other end of the train and hauled it in the other direction, retracing our journey for a few kilometres before taking the line straight along the Alps towards the east.

It is impossible to do justice to the scenery on the route of the Glacier Express; it is a journey you simply have to experience yourself. After leaving the line on which we'd arrived we traced the Rhine gorge for some distance, totally different from anything else we'd seen, and then with the familiar twists and turns we climbed up into the Alps. At Disentis the Rhatische Bahn locomotive was taken off and a Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn locomotive with cog-wheels was coupled onto the train to take us the rest of the way: this route is a collaboration between the two railways.


Soon tablecloths were brought and lunch was served. It so happened that we were waiting to cross an oncoming train in a passing loop overlooking a high-altitude lake as we were eating. A cooked meal was included in our holiday and we bought our own drinks, in our case an appropriate wine, and after the meal the Grappa liqueur which is worth having just for the joy of watching it being poured from a great height by a skilled waiter.

There was another brief pause in the journey at Andermatt and from the station there we were able to watch another Glacier Express train climbing up the way we had just come down, shuttling across the Alpine mountainside and weaving in and out of tunnels, the railway and the Oberalp highway criss-crossing one another in the landscape. Far beneath our feet was the Gotthard Tunnel taking a railway line north-south under the Alps, and a little to the west the Gotthard Road Tunnel on highway 2 which crosses the middle of Switzerland, north-south.

The tables were cleared and we descended into Brig, where we had begun our winter holiday in the Alps three years before, and then, turning south at Visp, the cogs were engaged once more as we began the climb to Zermatt. We were running out of words to describe the scenery, but in many ways the best was yet to come as we made our way to the Park Hotel Beau Site in Zermatt and then, after checking in stepped onto the balcony of our room to see the stunning view of the Matterhorn presiding over the village.

Zermatt had been a poor agricultural village until the penchant of rich young aristocrats, mostly British, for mountain-climbing was established just a century or so ago and the village decided to make an industry out of welcoming its visitors. Hotels were founded, railways and cable-cars were built and people came in droves and spent their money, and plenty of it. Outside the village is the settlement where the mostly foreign workers live who keep this expensive tourist attraction functioning, and the car park where everyone has to leave their cars, for internal combustion-propelled vehicles are not allowed in Zermatt.


We do not count ourselves among the rich, the young or the aristocracy, but with a little willpower and some savings is is possible for commoners of more limited means to enjoy a good holiday in Zermatt, at least with the resources of Great Rail Journeys to get a decent deal. On our first evening we just had to stroll down through the village on the route we had walked on our day-trip to Zermatt in winter, simply to see how it looked without a metre of snow having fallen the night before. Unfortunately the sky was not quite as clear this time, so our view of the Matterhorn was not as good as before, but it still, as always, looked stunning.

After an excellent dinner and a good night's sleep we were ready for the next day's adventure, to climb the Gornergrat by train and to enjoy a guided tour of Zermatt. We also planned to visit the Matterhorn Museum in the village, so although we were not off to too early a start this time, there was still a lot to pack into the day! The party walked down to the Gornergrat Railway terminal and boarded the next train to the summit. Last time we had done this on our own in free time in Zermatt but this time it was included in the tour. One of our party was an experienced geography teacher and author and gave us a most informative lecture on the glaciers we could see from the summit of the Gornergrat, an unexpected and worthwhile addition to the programme. We had not seen these on our winter visit, being deep under snow.

We did not avail ourselves of the expensive refreshments at the hotel on the Gornergrat and made our way back down to Zermatt a little ahead of the party then met them again for the guided tour, which took in both the English church (founded mostly for climbers!) and the local Roman Catholic church. Each was interesting in different ways.

We learnt something of the story of Zermatt and how it became the holiday resort that it is now. After tea at our hotel (tea and cake served every afternoon at no extra charge) we went to the Matterhorn Museum which taught us about the first ascent, how it ended in disaster as four members of the seven-man team died on the way back down, and how that tragedy started Zermatt's fame and fortune.

Another wonderful dinner and an early night, because we had another early start in the morning for the next excursion on our tour, a trip through the Simplon Tunnel to Italy and a visit to a lake island.


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