Saturday 25 June 2022

Neuchâtel via Paris and Le Locle, part 1: by train into Switzerland

Almost normal international travel

Since the last time we visited Le Locle we have wanted to return in the hope of seeing some water in the lake at Les Brenets and the reputedly dramatic falls on the Doubs river. We also wanted to visit Neuchâtel, the cantonal capital, where another (!) castle connected to my wife's Swiss ancestors had been identified and where the local records office is located. The revisit was delayed by pandemic precautions, but we finally took the plunge and booked hotels and travel for the middle of June 2022 and we were successful in one sense, in that by the time we left home all the travel restrictions had been dropped in the UK, in France and in Switzerland for those who are vaccinated against Covid-19. The only document we needed in addition to our passports and tickets was a vaccination certificate, available through the NHS app on our smartphones: no passenger locator forms, no test results. Although official websites still mention masks on public transport there were very few people wearing them and no-one asking us to do so: I kept a stock of high-grade masks in my case but never needed to use one.

In another sense we were unsuccessful, in that the water level in Lac des Brenets was no higher than in our  previous trip which had been much later in the year. We shall have to try again in an April! Indeed, in many ways there were little disasters all through this trip but it was still immensely enjoyable and full of delights and surprises. I am typing this paragraph several days into the adventure and it is the first time I have had the time to switch on the MacBook to do so - we have packed in so much. Until this morning (Wednesday) it has been hot, very hot, and now with light rain and temperatures "only" in the mid-twenties, it is a bit cooler and I have decided to take morning easier, sitting on the hotel balcony and writing up the adventure so far, while I can still remember it!

We left home on Saturday morning and that was when the "little disasters" began to happen! Our first train, Stamford to Peterborough, was on time, but it was very busy. As we had a lot of luggage (by our standards) we decided to stand in the spacious vestibule rather than squeeze into available seats with cases all over the place - there were seats even though several people were standing. We noticed that the train after ours was cancelled, and after that was the two-hour gap in Cross Country's "temporary" timetable. Not good, although it did not affect us, fortunately. The first little disaster was that when we went to wait in the coffee lounge at the Great Northern Hotel in Peterborough, which is what passes for the First Class Lounge there, staff shortage at the hotel meant that the lounge was unavailable. We sat in the easy chairs in the hotel lobby until it was time to go over for our train: the lack of coffee was not such a big deal because we knew we'd be served coffee on the train. The train was on time and although busy, again, we had our reserved seats and there was plenty of space on the luggage racks. The breakfast menu was still on offer but as we were planning an early lunch in London we took only coffee and a satsuma, with the biscuits and loafcake wrapped as a snack for later in the trip if required.

The second little disaster was that by Hitchin the train had slowed to a crawl: a points (and possibly signal) failure at Stevenage had caused problems and by the time we picked up speed again had lost 25 minutes which meant we were just a tad late for our midday luncheon appointment. It was, though, a great joy to see the family on our way through London and enjoy lunch together in one of the many new restaurants between the stations at Kings Cross and St Pancras. It was a very warm, sunny day and time passed all too quickly before we parted company at St Pancras as we made our way into the throng of international travellers waiting for trains to the continent. 

We were rather early and had to wait our turn to join the queue for the ticket barriers, priority being given to ticket-holders for the preceding train to Brussels. An hour before our train's scheduled departure we queued for the barrier, scanned our tickets and went through for the baggage scan - all over in a moment once we were through the barriers. I do wonder if the station is short-staffed because it seems to me that there could have been many more barriers open at such a busy time provided that there were enough security staff for the baggage scanning to keep up with the incoming passengers. In any case we were soon nodded through the vaccination pass, UK passport control and French passport control and into the waiting area. We were among the first few through, and the Brussels train was already loading so there was a huge choice of seats in the waiting area. Great.

The next little disaster was that, for what ever reason, it seemed to be taking a long time to get everyone through the checks - announcements said it was because of Covid precautions but really there weren't many - and we had been promised that the train would not leave until everyone was through, so the train left St Pancras over half an hour late. It was a refurbished E300, one of the original Trans-Manche Super Trains, and never made up any of the lost time. Normally this would not have been a big deal but on this occasion we had dinner booked at Le Train Bleu restaurant at Gare de Lyon in Paris and, taking into account that France is an hour ahead of the UK, time was a bit tight. I do not think we had ever been late on a Eurostar service before and had come to regard it as completely reliable (statistically, I think, it is 95% on time, so we are probably not alone in seeing it that way). There was the usual light meal served, and we did not consume all of it, knowing that dinner was coming soon. The buffet bar on Eurostar trains sells Paris Metro tickets in carnets of ten, so to save time struggling with the ticket machines in Paris I went and queued to buy our tickets in advance there: these would see us both ways on this and our next trip and still leave us with tickets to spare. a great investment.

On arrival at Gare du Nord we made our way swiftly to the Metro and too RER line D to Gare de Lyon. The heat was striking as we descended from the Eurostar train, and even more so on the RER station. It was on the RER train that we met the last British person we would speak to for many days, on his way to work in Italy from his home in England. Yes, things are getting back to normal! On arrival at Gare de Lyon we went straight to the restaurant to explain that we were running late and asking if we could delay our dinner while we went to our hotel to check in and change. They were really relaxed about that and said we could be as late as we wanted, they were not busy. So good; we could have been on time but would have had our luggage with us and been a sweaty heap after lugging it through Paris at 39 degrees! It was hotter in Paris than in Cairo on that day.

I had, I thought, booked the Mercure hotel next door to Gare de Lyon, but had done so through the Trains Europe agent who booked the train tickets, and he had mistakenly booked a different Mercure just a couple of blocks away, but we did not find this out until we had queued for ten minutes at the wrong hotel, which was the next little disaster! An understandable error: both hotels had "Mercure Gare de Lyon" in their names! In the event, though, once we had found the hotel in which we actually had our reservations, we were very happy with it (except that the lift had broken down and we were on the fourth floor ... next little disaster ... but the kind receptionist helped us cary our stuff up to the room). In future I shall book this hotel if we need a night or two at this side of Paris, so I was glad to have stumbled across it. But four floors up in 39 degrees I can do without! 

The room was air-conditioned (yay!) and we washed and changed and walked, free of luggage to Le Train Bleu and settled to a great dinner in great surroundings. It was all lovely, but in very hot weather my appetite is greatly diminished and in spite of the best French cooking and the relaxed (although hot!) atmosphere I could not manage the whole of my main course and declined the dessert. Alison just had to have the crêpes Suzette, though, with flaming Grand Marnier (just to add to the heat)! The staff were lovely and looked after us as if we'd been there every week! Like everywhere else, I think they were just delighted to have customers - not just because of the pandemic, but there were also major building restorations going on all around their restaurant.

And so back to our hotel and a good night's sleep with, I think, no further little disasters but an exciting day, and indeed several days ahead of us.

It was, then, Sunday morning when we returned to Gare de Lyon, calling on the way at a small Monoprix supermarket to buy take-away salads and fruit for lunch. By the time we had walked through to the correct part of the station ("Hall 2") and bought our coffee and croissants the TGV to Besançon had been announced and so we took our seats and had our breakfast on board awaiting departure. Fas at Trains Europe had done a great job with this reservation: a "club duo" pair of seats aligned with the window on the upper deck of a duplex carriage - just the perfect seating for a couple on this sort of trip. The first time we went to Le Locle we had come on this train travelling Second Class on the lower deck and it was a great experience, but this was even greater. After a suitable interval I went to the bar car to buy coffee - there did not seem to be an at-seat service on this train - and soon after coffee we arrived at Besançon TGV station where we had to change trains. 

That first time we did this we had been surprised to find that the local train waiting for us had been a through train to Switzerland which required no further changes, but this time it was as shown in the timetable, a connection to Besançon Viotte (the town's main station), where we had to change again for Le Locle. It was all very civilised and straightforward, although with temperatures still in the thirties and with luggage to handle it was as well not to rush - and we did not need to, the connections being very well timed. So we settled into our seats on this strangest of international trains: a three-car stopping train, second-class only and the only diesel-powered train we had used since leaving our local train at Peterborough, the rest having been electric throughout. No disasters this day: everything had been on time and had worked exactly as planned! We stepped off the train into the heat at Le Locle's international platform and so began the next stage in our adventure!

Well into the trip from Besançon to Le Locle, just after Gilley station. The train the turns and makes its way to Morteau, the French watchmaking town, before crossing the Swiss border to Le Locle and termination at La Chaux-de-Fonds.

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