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.