Sunday, 15 September 2013

Six Days in Basel; Day 5 - The Golden Pass trains

We’d paid slightly extra for a Swiss Flexi Pass, so that we could take a break between our 3 x day long 'around Switzerland by train' adventures.

The cheaper equivalent class Swiss Pass could have used for three consecutive days, but we didn’t want to be spending more than eight hours on trains three days in a row.
So this was supposed to be a day off from the slightly manic itinerary, a day for exploring Basel and relaxing.

But I found myself wide awake before 8 in the morning, so I called Paul to wake him in his room and persuaded him that the day of leisure could wait, thereby making having paid extra for a Swiss Flexi Pass slightly pointless.

If we were to do the trip again we agreed that we actually would opt for a 3 day Swiss Pays and use it consecutively on days 2-4, followed by a day of leisure on day five and day six would have been for the trip to Strasbourg.

Having been woken, Paul’s mood darkened further when I told him he’d better take a travel sickness pill with his breakfast. Tilting trains make Paul’s stomach turn and the first train of the day was the tilting ICN train from Basel to Lausanne.

So Paul loathed this journey but I loved it. The train went through a spectacular gorge between Delémont and Moutiers and then along the shores of both Lake Biel and Lake Neuchatel for mile after mile.

We changed trains at Lausanne for the short, but spectacular journey by IR train on to Montreux, this is by far the most spectacular stretch of railway along the north shore of Lake Geneva - frequently the train is right upon the shore.

Montreux is where we changed for the MOB train, which shares the station with the mainline (SBB) trains.
I’d spotted in the Thomas Cook timetable (praying btw that its compilers find a new publisher) that our particular train from Montreux was described as a ‘Golden Pass Classic’ train, but wasn’t sure what was meant by this.

To our delight the train was actually a replica of the trains that originally travelled the line and resembled a scaled down ‘Orient Express’. 

It also travelled on a rack railway as it climbed out of Montreux for amazing views of Lake Geneva - sit on the left of the train as it departs from Montreux to make the most of these.

Despite the sporadic screams of delight from the Chinese tourists sharing our carriage, the experience of being conveyed in the equivalent of a comfortable armchair sent Paul off to sleep. 
He now probably holds the distinction of being the only person to have ever slept his way from Montreux to Zweisimmen.

I had to wake him because we had to change trains at Zweisimmen on to our second Golden Pass train of the day.

As per usual we simply crossed the platform from one train to another.
Unlike all of the other scenic trains we had travelled on, the train from Zweisimmen to Interlaken Ost isn’t on a narrow gauge line, so we were soon speeding along with the wind rushing through the open windows, which helped wake Paul up.

Sit on the left of this train, particularly when it departs from Spiez, the railway line hugs the shore of Lake Thun as it makes its way to Interlaken.

Confusion set it in again at Interlaken Ost station. I scanned the departure sheet looking for the ‘Golden Pass train on to Luzern. It’s branded as a Golden Pass train in the Thomas Cook timetable and on the Swiss Rail Map, but it I couldn’t see it listed.

The penny gradually dropped, ZB, who operate the route between Interlaken and Luzern has evidently decided to not use the ‘Golden Pass’ branding on its trains. Instead the train was listed as the Luzern-Interlaken express -  even though we were about to set off in the opposite direction from Interlaken Ost station to Luzern.

Of all the trains we took, the difference between 1st and 2nd class was the most minimal on this train.
We decided to have a meal in the restaurant car, the food was reasonably priced in comparison to any other meal in Switzerland, but all the seats had been taken. 
If you wanted to eat on this train, then the lesson learned was that you have to take your seat in the restaurant car as soon as you board.

Sit on the right of the train as it departs from Interlaken for incredible views over Lake Brienz 

and also to make the most of the spectacular ascent from Meiringen.

The train was on a rack railway here, so if you want a rack railway experience in Switzerland, you don’t have to seek out trains, such as the RB line, that ascend mountains.

The ZB trains pull into the main station at Luzern/Lucerne, so it's platforms are beside the mainline trains, so it was  an easy on the one level transfer to the train back to Basel.

Trains taken:
10:03 ICN train from Basel to Lausanne
12:20 IR train from Lausanne to Montreux
13:44 MOB train from Montreux to Zweisimmen (Golden Pass Classic)
15:37 BLS train from Zweisimmen to Interlaken Ost
17:04 ZB train from Interlaken Ost to Luzern

19:54 ICN train from Luzern to Basel arriving at 20:55

Six Days In Basel; Day Four - RB trains up Mount Rigi; MGB trains to Brig and The Lotschberger

The first train of the day from Basel to Luzern/Lucerne, was an IR train and it had an observation car accessible to 1st class ticket holders. 

There were paper notices on the door saying ‘reservations’, which we didn’t have, but we peered inside hoping that we’d get lucky. There were tickets above each seat indicating between which stations the seats were reserved for and there were actually plenty of spare seats available, so having a 1st class Swiss Flexi Pass had delivered another  unexpected benefit.

We only had five minutes at Luzern to catch the paddle steamer across the lake to Vitznau, but walking in a straight line out of the station took us right to the boat. 

The Swiss Pass was valid on the boat and being 1st class ticket holders we had access to the upper deck for the optimum views.

Vitznau is one of the stations where the Rigi Bahn (RB) rack railway to the summit of Mt Rigi departs from. Paul particularly wanted to go on a rack railway to a mountain summit and as a very general rule InterRail passes only allow give discount on rack railways in Switzerland. This rule often applies to Swiss Passes too, but the Rigi Bahn is free to Swiss Pass holders.

We only had 5 minutes from the boat’s arrival to the departure of the train, so two minutes before arrival at Vitznau, we made our way to the boat’s exit and found dozens of people ahead of us. The charge for the train was on as soon as the gang plank was lowered, so without stepping on anyone’s toes, we deftly made our way through the pack of pensioners, in order to bag a window seat overlooking Lake Luzern on the left of the train.

Mission accomplished, we soon found ourselves heading into the clouds. It wasn’t a particularly cloudy day in Switzerland, but some sort of weather phenomenon was evidently turning Mt Rigi into a cloud factory. However, we didn’t have that much time to linger at the unexpectedly gloomy summit, as the train that we were going to take back down the other side of the mountain to Arth-Goldau, was already in the station.

At Arth-Goldau it was a 5 min walk to the main station from the RB station and the IR train to Goschenen was already in the platform when we arrived.
It was lunch time, so the passengers in this train’s observation car had a grand stand view of us charging through the station shop like demented lunatics buying sandwiches against the clock.

We found seats in the observation car (the train had commenced its journey in Basel) for the thrill ride through the Gotthard pass. The observation cars are only found in the slightly slower IR trains on this route, the faster EC, IC and ICN trains don’t have them, so the IR trains are  worth seeking out if you have a 1st class ticket.

You don't have to go out of your way to have an incredible journey in Switzerland, this mainline route on either side of The Gotthard Tunnel, used by trains on Basel/Zurich - Lugano - Milan journeys, has to be one of the spectacular taken by express trains anywhere in Europe.

We had to take the IR train, as they’re the only trains that call at Goschenen, where we changed for the short but spectacular trip on the MGB train, through a gorge in the mountain up to Andermatt.

We needn’t have bought sandwiches in a frenzied rush at Arth-Goldau, the station café at Andermatt is a retro delight, looking like something beamed down from a 1950s holiday park and serving food straight out of a Fanny Craddock cook book.
With half an hour before the next train, we couldn’t resist the bright pink raspberry meringue pie.

The MGB train took us to Brig and the scenery on this route either side of the Furka Tunnel was inevitably wonderful, 

but we’d opted for the Swiss Pass partially because it was valid on the MGB trains and InterRail passes aren’t. 
However, this route is arguably not as spectacular as the RhB routes around Chur or‘ The Golden Pass’ route, and the cheaper, InterRail pass, is valid on these lines. 
The point being, is that you don’t have to buy a Swiss Pass to have an amazing experience on Swiss trains, InterRail passes can save you money while also delivering access to the train journeys of a lifetime.

And then the unbelievable happened, we missed a train because of a late arrival into Brig!

To be fair three minutes to change trains at Brig was always going to be ambitious. As we discovered, the MGB train station is located in the road outside the main SBB station and we were at the wrong end of the train, furthest from the SBB station entrance.

We had arrived in Brig two minutes late, but Paul set off like a sprinter, with me trailing behind wailing ‘we won’t make it’. I was proved right, the train disappeared off the departure board while we still in the station subway, so at least we were spared the effort of running up the stairs to the platform in vain.

This left us an hour to explore Brig and to our mutual delight we found an ice cream parlour in the town square. 

Yes dear reader, we’d already scoffed that raspberry meringue pie only a few hours before and now it was double scoop time!

On the Swiss rail map eight routes are singled out as the best trips of all and one of them is the Lostchberger.

It only receives a fraction of the attention dished out to the likes of The Glacier Express and The Willhelm Tell Express etc, but it is fantastic.

All trains between Brig and Spiez were once routed through the old Lotschberg tunnel , high in the mountains, but the express EC and IC trains are now diverted through the Lostchberg Base Tunnel. 
Being three times the length of the old tunnel it’s highly impressive engineering achievement, but if you travel through it, your missing out on a journey with 10x the wow factor.

Anyone with a fear of flying who’s wondered what it must be like to see the world from a plane should take the ‘Lostchberger’ train between Brig and Spiez, these are the only trains that still take the old line.
Sit on the left as the train leaves Brig for an incredible view as the train climbs the side of the valley.

This was my No.1 of all the journeys we made on the trip!

After we boarded the IC train to Basel at Spiez we decided to treat ourselves to a meal in the restaurant car. 

Paul set off to find a menu, but was brusquely informed that they’d sold out of food long ago. It didn’t seem that unreasonable a request, it was 19:40, and therefore very much dinner time. 
The conclusion we drew that hot food was only served at lunch, but to be fair this was the only occasion that the SBB trains let us down.

The trains  taken:
10:04 IR train from Basel to Luzern/Lucern
11:12 boat from Luzern to Vitzanu
12:15 RB train from Vitznau to Rigi-Kulm
13:00 RB train from Rig-Kulm to Arth-Goldau
13:53 IR train from Arth-Goldau to Goschenen
14:53 MGB train from Goschenen to Andermatt
15:37 MGB train from Andermatt to Brig
18:36 train from Brig to Spiez (we missed the 17:36 train)

19:54 IC train from Spiez to Basel – arriving in Basel at 21:29

Six Days in Basel; Day 3 - A trip to Strasbourg and the Cité Du Train in Mulhouse

As Michael Portillo pointed out in an episode of  his splendid ‘Great Continental RailwayJourneys’ TV series, a quirk of Basel station is that it’s shared by Swiss national railways, SBB, and French national railways, SNCF. 
The platforms used by the SNCF trains are in French territory, so the border crossing is in the station itself.

To board the train to Strasbourg we had to pass through the sliding doors under the entrance marked ‘France’. 
Why this is necessary we couldn’t work out, as the Lyria trains to Paris depart from the SBB (Swiss station).

We didn’t have much time to ponder this quirk of international relations, as we only had 5 mins to catch the train to Strasbourg. 
My French language skills were just about good enough to work the SNCF ticket machine, we’d already wasted valuable minutes working out that you couldn’t buy tickets to  Strasbourg on the other (SBB) machines at the station - and there never seemed to be less than 50 people queuing at Basel SBB’s main ticket office.
Though in contrast the very posh international and reservations ticket hall – which would be a great bonus for rail pass users,  always seemed to be empty.

As we raced for the Strasbourg train I screamed out that we’d forgotten to stamp our tickets – I always forget to do this in France, Italy etc despite all the advice I dish out on ThereByTrain along the lines of ‘never forget to do this’.

We then rushed from one stamping machine to another like headless chickens, to the great amusement of the  guard on on the platform who kindly helped us by showing me something else I’d forgotten - namely you have to insert the ticket to the left hand side on the SNCF ticket stamping machines and not in the middle.

Strasbourg was a perfect day trip destination from Basel, its beautiful city center was an easy 10 mins walk from its magnificent station.

We meandered through its lovely streets 

and then even though there was no need, we couldn’t resist hopping on to one of its futuristic trams, which enable the entire city centre to be car free, for a ride back to the station. 
If they ever hand out awards to cities for ‘world’s best public transport system’, then Strasbourg would be a contender for the prize.

We cut our visit to Strasbourg short because in a late scan online of ‘things to do near Basel’ I'd discovered that Europe’s largest railway museum, the Cité Du Train, is located in Mulhouse.
The train from Strasbourg to Basel goes right passed it, 

so we had to get off and take a look.

We’d asked at the SNCF railway information desk in Strasbourg station if our ticket back to Basel would still be valid if we got off the train at Mulhouse, but my French wasn’t up to making the staff there understand and then the guy manning the info desk at Mulhouse couldn’t speak English at all.

It may have been a tad presumptuous to assume these staff would speak English, after all I doubt whether many station staff in the UK can speak French.
But this is a good example that unless there’s a specific international desk at a station, don’t assume that you’ll always be always to receive an answer to a question about train travel if you’re not fluent in the local language.

The fortunate citizens of Rotherham will be first in the UK to benefit from a tram/train system, but Paul was thrilled that it was one of these that delivered us to the museum from in front of Mulhouse station.

The Cité Du Train comes highly recommended, the English language audio-guides were great and it soon became clear that the TGV is no fluke, French trains have always been at the cutting edge of design.

However, the museum’s shop was a bit of a let-down, I’d have loved to have purchased some reproductions of the posters that were on display within the museum, but most of the items for sale only promoted the museum itself.

We left the museum as it was closing, but 99% of the other visitors had obviously opted to get there by car, but the tram-train soon had us back at Mulhouse station and within an hour of leaving the museum we were back in Basel.

Six Days in Basel; Day Two - Rhb Trains including the Albula Line

In order to extract as much value from the Swiss Flexi Pass as we could, without going into obsessive money saving territory (completely), we wanted to make the most of the three days of travel that our particular choice of pass allowed us.

Being on holiday we didn’t want to leave the hotel much before 9:30am and also didn’t want to be in a state of mild hysteria rushing from one train to another. 
The latter wasn’t a factor, as tight connections between trains are wired into the Swiss railway timetables, but the reputation for punctuality turned out to be no myth - you won't miss the trains!

Traveling over as many scenic railway lines in the  Switzerland as possible, in a relatively short time period, meant that spending leisurely hours in beautiful locations had to be sacrificed, but we had trains to catch!

The 11:33 train from Basel to Zurich was a double decked TGV Duplex, 

so we headed to the upper deck, always a minor thrill as we don’t have this option in the UK.
However, double deck trains do tend to feel a tad cramped and this TGV was no exception and of course I succeeded in caving my head in on the ceiling as I left my seat. I always manage to pull of this trick when I’m on an upper deck.

The Swiss Pass (and other rail passes) can be used on any international train within Switzerland including this Lyria train that was on its way to Zurich from Paris.

Reservations aren’t necessary in Switzerland, despite being compulsory on the Lyria trains in France, which also makes using the Swiss Pass so simple, you just can hop off one train and on to another - on trains where the Swiss Pass entitles you to free travel.

We could have taken a direct IC train from Basel to Chur, but decided to break our journey in Zurich.

I wanted to take some photos of the station for use on ThereByTrain, which was a tad pointless as the front of the station is currently a building site.

But my research did uncover a top travel tip to share with the world – it costs 2 Fr to use the loo at Zurich station, which puts the grumbling about spending 30p to access the toilets at some London stations into context – it’s 6x more expensive in Zurich!
So the tip is to try and hang on until you’re on the train – brilliant travel advice right there folks!

A cursory glance at ThereByTrain will tell you that sitting on one side of the train and not the other is a minor obsession of mine, but it is rooted in fact. If you sit on the left on the Zurich to Chur train as the train leaves Zurich station, you’ll experience one of the world’s greatest train journeys, but if you sit on the right you won’t.

Initially, for more than five minutes the train will be in a tunnel and you’ll be understandably wondering what the fuss is about, but  then for 20 mins from the left side of the train you will be gazing upon the splendor that is Lake Zurich.

While  on the right, you’ll only be looking at the admittedly, to-die-for homes, that line the shore.
All that yoghurt and muesli have obviously had a positive effect on the Swiss population, the journey was akin to traveling through a Calvin Klein commercial, thanks to all the bronzed bodies that occupied every spare yard of ground between the railway line and the lakeside.

15 mins after leaving the shore of the Zurichsee behind us, we were travelling along the right bank of the Walensee

which was even more incredible, and this was only the prelude for what was to come.

Cue minor panic at Chur station. As we exited the IC train from Zurich, on the opposite platform was The Glacier Express to St Moritz.

It was due to leave at the same time that I thought our train would be departing and my heart began to sink. I must have mixed up the timetable and our tickets weren’t valid on The Glaicer Express.
But then we heard a station employee shouting and Paul’s language skills enabled him to decipher that the Glacier Express coaches had been attached to the back of our ordinary (RhB) train, which was waiting for us further along the platform.

The last minute purchase of our Swiss Pass had been due to Paul making a case for opting for the 1st class pass, while I was resisting paying the £100(ish) difference in price.
I knew that that 2nd class would be  fine on Swiss standard trains and was struggling to see what difference it would make on the independent Swiss Tourist trains – after all what we’d come for was the view out of the windows, not to be sat in a comfortable seat.

Paul won the day and we were soon very glad that he had, in our opinion the 1st class pass proved to be worth every penny.

In the 1st class on the RhB train on the route through the Albula Pass, the train was half empty.

In contrast in 2nd class (with only 5 mins between the arrival of the train from Zurich and the departure of the Rhb train to St Moritz), we’d have been lucky to find a window seat at all – not ideal for a once in a lifetime journey on a railway line so spectacular that it’s a U.N.E.S.C.O World Heritage site.

Being in 1st class also meant that we didn’t have to ask a couple of dozen people if they minded us opening the window, so that was another tick in the box. (though yes we should have asked the two or three people that were actually sat behind is, but we forgot our manners in all of the excitement)..

The Glacier Express cars at the back of the train had extra-large windows, but we loved having nothing between us and the spectacular view.

We left the train to St Moritz at Samedan, because rather than heading back in the opposite direction to Chur we’d opted to loop back to Landquart, from where we could pick up a train to Basel.
This involved taking two other RhB routes  and Samedan is the junction for the first of these trains, which heads up the line towards Scuol-Tarasp.

As we the left the train at Samedan we spotted that a direct train to Landquart was about to depart, so we rushed for it.  I grabbed and opened the door when Paul cried out ‘Stop’. 
In typically English fashion, we then debated whether to get on the train or not, which incurred the wrath of the driver, we’d made the train 30 seconds late and we’re very sorry.

Paul was hungry and getting on the train to Landquart would have meant the possibility of no food or drink for another two hours.

Generally on the trip the close connections at stations didn’t allow us the luxury of proper meals between trains, which wasn’t a problem because we couldn’t afford it in any case. Also many Swiss stations have sandwich counters that wouldn’t disgrace the food hall in Harrods. Samedan’s station kiosk, wasn’t one of these, but the pizza slices were fine, particularly as the station was rather lovely.

20 mins later we were heading up the line towards Saglians,

 a station which has the sole purpose of allowing travellers to change trains on to the line to Landquart. Of course the connecting train was waiting for us as we arrived.
We struck up a conversation with the charming young guard, who urged us to return in winter when we wouldn’t believe we were in the same place – so that’s been added to the ‘to do list’.

The other Rhb lines tend to get eclipsed by the attention that the UNESCO routes receive, but with the sun beginning to set on the train to Landquart, we were mesmerized.

On the train back to Basel, Paul said it had been one of the greatest days of his life, so mission accomplished!

The trains taken;
11:33 TGV train from Basel to Zurich
13:37 IC train from Zurich to Chur
14:58 Rhb train from Chur to Samedan (final destination of this train was St Moritz)
17:08 Rhb train from Samedan to Saglians (final destination of this train was Scuol-Tarasp)
18:03 Rhb  train fro Saglians to Landquart

19:19 IC train from Landquart to Basel – arrived back in Basel at 21:27