A non-walking tour to Switzerland – railway station roofs

I often used to change trains at Birmingham New Street station. I believe there have been alterations there recently. I hope so. I can’t imagine anyone coming away from the underground 70s place that it used to be and saying, I like railway stations. Ditto Schiphol station, an underground 90s place. Ditto Bern, that we passed through on our recent Swiss tour:

station Bern train Basel-Visp 518.JPG

But in general I  like railway stations. Last week’s trip was a chance to admire quite a few. Looking over the photos I realise it is obvious what made them admirable: their glass roofs.

Why do big railway stations have such glass in the roof? Why aren’t other public buildings like this?

Thalys Gare du Midi 518.JPGBrussels, Gare du Midi

Gare du Nord Paris 518.JPGParis, Gare du Nord

roof Gare de l'Est Paris 518.JPGParis, Gare de l’Est

glass roof station Strasbourg 518.JPGStrasbourg

escalator Basel station 518.JPGBasel

roof station Chur 518 2.JPGChur

Cologne station 518.JPGCologne

Liege station train Cologne-Bxl 518 2.JPGLiege


A non-walking tour to Switzerland – Day 6, Zermatt home to Brussels

  • 592 km as the crow flies
  • walk-train-train-train-train-taxi
  • 46 kph door to door
  • 72 eurocents/km
  • 6076 steps

To avoid the train strikes in France we came back home from Switzerland via Germany. It was a soft misty journey.

castle Rhine train Basel-Cologne 518 3.JPG

It wasn’t cheap or quick. There was a great stretch in the middle, along the Rhine, though with castles galore.

Setting off from Zermatt we changed in Visp, Basel and Cologne. I hoped to get Saturday’s newspaper in Visp and Sunday’s in Cologne but no dice (unless we wanted the well-distributed Sunday Mail): we found Saturday’s Times in Basel and that was that.

man axe Basel station 518.JPG

At Basel we remembered a hot end-of-summer afternoon a few years ago, changing trains on the way back from Croatia. The café above the tracks wouldn’t take plastic. We had to change money to buy a couple of highly-priced Swiss beers. (At least we remembered to bring the coins that were left over with us on this trip.) This time there was a man with a cardboard axe.

The train we took onwards from Basel to Cologne was run by SBB, the Swiss national operator. It was going all the way to Hamburg Altona. I wonder if its Swissness explained the absence of friction at the border (unlike when we crossed the other way, coming from France).

There’s an odd-shaped bit of Switzerland north of the Rhine and then you’re in Germany; the only obvious difference in these old railway and industrial lands is that the abbreviation for Bahnhof changes from Bf to Bhf.

dining car train Basel-Cologne 518.JPG

Do buffet cars vary more between trains than ordinary passenger carriages do? This one had white table cloths and a mixture of square two-seater and semicircular six-seater tables. I ate pasta arrabbiata and drank Fendant white wine again. Just as they say, the wine we drank on holiday didn’t taste as good outside its home country. I blame the pasta.

cathedral Cologne 518.JPG

At Cologne station there is usually time to go out and have a look at the cathedral.

Cologne station 518 3.JPG

Like other big city, like Paris’s Gare du Nord on the way out, the structures near the station are interesting to look at.

Our last leg was an ICE train from Cologne to Brussels. We went to the buffet car again. My travelling companion and I sat opposite each other. What can I serve you? I spoke up (in my poor German) on both our behalves – and was reprimanded, let the lady speak first. Later, our order came. Move your laptop, Sir! This is your half of the table, that is hers.

Two Englishmen on their way to Aachen talked nearby. This countryside would be identical to England, I wouldn’t know where I was. Yes, except for the hedges. And the sheep.

A non-walking tour to Switzerland – Day 5, St Moritz to Zermatt (some reflections on the Matterhorn)

  • 170 km as the crow flies
  • walk-train-walk
  • 19 kph door to door
  • 165 eurocents/km
  • 10837 steps

On Saturday we set off for home, retracing our steps, putting me in mind of one of my favourite books, Sébastien Japrisot’s La Dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil (The lady in the car with glasses and a gun).

There’s not much to add about the reverse journey on the Glacier Express. Just like on Thursday, it was a treat.


Here’s a picture of the round table tennis table at Thusis that I saw on the way out. We could not think of an explanation for it. (Ideas welcome.)

Matterhorn train Glacier Express St Moritz-Zermatt 518 2.JPG

We came up the valley into Zermatt at the end of the afternoon. Even more than last time, we felt the grip the Matterhorn has on this little town.

toblerone Matterhorn Zermatt 518.JPG

The mountain, for example, seems to have inspired both the design of Toblerone…

pillows like mountains continental hotel Zermatt 518.JPG

and the presentation of the pillows in our hotel room.

Matterhorn plaque Zermatt 518 3.JPG

Out on the street, we noticed a plaque referring to the first ascent of the mountain. We googled it in a dark café, eating raclette and rösti and drinking Fendant wine. It wasn’t hard. If you type First ascent of the, Mr Google offers you Matterhorn as the first choice.

I didn’t know the story – the seven men’s ascent – Edward Whymper and Michel Croz’s playful run to the top –  the stones they threw down to attract the attention of their outsmarted Italian rivals led by Jean-Antoine Carrel 200 metres below – the inexperienced Douglas Hadow’s slip on the way down, pulling with him Croz, Charles Hudson and Lord Francis Douglas – the horror as, in Whymper’s words, For two or three seconds we saw our unfortunate companions sliding downwards on their backs, and spreading out their hands endeavouring to save themselves; they then disappeared one by one and fell from precipice to precipice on to the Matterhorn glacier below, a distance of nearly 4,000 feet in height – the assertions, from some quarters, that Whymper and the other two survivors, Peter Taugwalder father and son, were to blame

– but I realised that Zermatt assumes that everybody knows this story, and has a view, too, on the rights and wrongs of it.

chemists with Matterhorn memorabilia Zermatt 518.JPG

To give some examples: this chemist’s’s window display gives an account of the Italian team’s own ascent three days later.

Matterhorn plaque Zermatt 518 4.JPG

This plaque, with a picture of the same mountain as the other plaques but referring to a different peak, doesn’t explain why the particular ascent it mentions is of importance.

Matterhorn plaque Zermatt 518 1.JPG

This plaque doesn’t explaining that the two “1865”s are the same.

And the publicity for the local museum doesn’t tell you why it highlights the fact that the rope they have on show is visibly frayed.

Monte Rosa hotel Zermatt 518.JPG

The Monte Rosa hotel, from which the party set off for the climb, was unfortunately closed until next month.

Matterhorn plaque Whymper Zermatt 518.JPG


A non-walking tour to Switzerland – Day 4, St Moritz (non-rest day)

  • 10980 steps

St Moritz, when we got there on Thursday afternoon, was even quieter than Zermatt.

clothes wash hotel Soldanella St Moritz 518.JPG

It was the middle of the trip and time to do the washing.

Zermatt is enclosed , St Moritz is open. It has mountains, to be sure.

St Moritz 518 1.JPG

But the reason tourism came here in the 1860s seems to be that it also has a nice bite-sized lake.

Despite the doctor’s strictures, we couldn’t resist walking around it on Friday – this took an hour or so. It made me think of other lakes I’ve walked around.

When I was a boy I went to school camp at Grasmere, in the Lake District. At the end of our hikes we could go to Joe’s café to drink coke and milk shakes and trap wasps  – or we could drink tea in the Lakeside café.

For quite a few years my mother in law used to visit us in Brussels for her birthday, at just this time of year. We would take her for lunch at the Hotel du Lac at Genval, south of the city, then walk round the lake.

Once I had a work trip to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in the German alps, including a walk around a lake called the Eibsee.

By now I had persuaded myself that all these lakes were the same size, imagining that  a Goldilocks size of lake for bourgeois resorts. Not so. Grasmere and the St Moritz lake are similar, but the Eibsee is more than twice as big while Genval is four times smaller.

(But: the lakes’ circumference, if they were round, would be proportionate to the square root of their areas. So the time to walk around each of these lakes is probably between three quarters of an hour and two hours. This may make some sense as a Goldilocks stroll for people on non-walking tours.)

Baddrutt Palace hotel St Moritz 518.JPG

As we walked we looked at the buildings. There are some wonderful nineteenth century structures, like Badrutt’s Palace Hotel.

modern houses St Moritz 518.JPG

Most are modern, though, and not much to look at. We liked the houses in the middle of this picture…

public arty wood St Moritz 518.JPG

… and this, whatever it is.

On the lake were many coots (coot?) and a pair of ducks (duck?). There was only one lakeside café, Pier 34. After our walk I ate “house smoked” salmon, apple strudel and Fendant white wine. The coffee was good, which seems sometimes to be the case and sometimes not.

We spent the afternoon in the Hotel Soldanella. It is on the hillside, polished brown wood, translucent glass, warm carpets, old toboggans everywhere.

table setting hotel Soldanella St Moritz 518.JPG

In the restaurant they lay the table with forks offset. (They did the same on the Glacier Express.) You can get wine in 50cl “Gentlemen bottles”, which are not allowed in the EU.

egg boiler hotel Soldanella St Moritz 518.JPG

At breakfast you can boil your own egg (in the device on the right). A timing guide is provided. I think extra time is allowed to reflect the altitude, 1800 metres.

If you’ve ever been to Fowey in Cornwall, you’ll remember that all the accommodation down by the water is for tourists, while local people live higher up. In St Moritz it is the opposite. The hotels and the posh shops are on the slopes, while year-round residents seem to live level with the lake at a place called St Moritz Bad.

There are not many pedestrian links between levels, you have to zig zag as if the place was built for carriages not walkers.

public writing fake tags St Moritz 518.JPGThe only tags we saw were fake.

In fact, St Moritz is posh – and quite British. For example, polo is played on the frozen lake in the winter.

bar hotel Soldanella St Moritz 518 3.JPG

The hotel bar is decorated with mementos of the Royal Air Force bobsleigh team. While we were there it was mainly occupied by people sitting at the counter smoking fat cigars – leaving the lake view tables, which you’d think would be prized, for us tourists. I’ve been on holiday two months, said the barmaid. I’m not so uuused to this. We all have to do what we have to do, I said. I’m not happy with your rrreply, she replied.



A non-walking tour to Switzerland – Day 3, Zermatt to St Moritz

  • 170 km as the crow flies (east across the bottom of Switzerland)
  • walk-train-walk
  • 20 kph door to door
  • 165 eurocents/km
  • 8093 steps

The most expensive journey I’ve ever taken, since my records begin, is the 9-km ferry trip from Portsmouth to Ryde on the Isle of Wight, in 2013. It cost 166 eurocents/km. The door to door speed was 7 kph.

The Glacier Express from Zermatt to St Moritz  was only one eurocent/km cheaper and not much faster (“The slowest fast train in the world”), than crossing the Solent. It was more glamorous, though.

river train Zermatt-St Moritz Glacier Express 518.JPG

The carriage roof slopes in and the slope is made of glass, adding to the big clean windows. The train is narrow gauge (1 metre) but the carriage is as wide as you could wish.

Two or three times, the train stopped for long enough for us to stretch our legs. Otherwise the trip, which lasted for nearly eight hours, was an ideal way for a non-walker to spend the day.

You can feel the train holding back as it goes downhill. The runaway train went over the hill, said my travelling companion. As far as I know she is running still, I replied. Going uphill, cutlery fell off the table into my lap.

What is there to say about the journey?

mountain snow trees train Zermatt-St Moritz Glacier Express 518.JPG

We saw mountains, trees, and grass.

avalanche barriers train Zermatt-St Moritz Glacier Express 518.JPG

There were avalanche barriers. (Must have been a bit of a job putting them up, said my travelling companion.)

energy dam train Zermatt-St Moritz Glacier Express 518.JPG

A bit of hydropower,

energy mountain, pylons train Zermatt-St Moritz Glacier Express 518.JPG

pylons striding down the mountainside,

train Zermatt-St Moritz Glacier Express 518 golf course 3.JPG

a nice bit of high altitude golf.

stone houses train Zermatt-St Moritz Glacier Express 518.JPG

Higher up the houses were made of stone; lower down, of wood. There were freestanding chapels; churches in the towns. As we went further east, onion domes were commoner. 

There were dandelion fields that looked as yellow as the oil seed rape fields in the lowlands. The infant river Rhine in its gorge, grey with white icing. At 600 metres, at Trin, a camellia in flower.

What did we not see? Castles. Solar panels.

Abula tunnel train Zermatt-St Moritz Glacier Express 518.JPG

Intellectually, the most interesting bit is when the train climbs 400m in a few km. She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes, said my travelling companion. Going along you don’t have much idea what’s going on, and then you see your own track behind and below you:

Abula tunnel train Zermatt-St Moritz Glacier Express 518 2.JPG

What do I hope to photograph tomorrow on the way back, that I missed on the way here? The circular table tennis table at Thusis.

A non-walking tour to Switzerland – Day 2, Strasbourg to Zermatt

  • 282 km as the crow flies
  • walk-train-train-train-walk
  • 49 kph
  • 47 eurocents/km
  • 8286 steps – better than the day before

plane trees Strasbourg 518.JPGOn the way to Strasbourg station yesterday it felt like a good spring morning, not a summer one. The plane trees are coming into leaf. We walked past a big bicycle park. It’s a good thing – but having it at the station itself might be even more appreciated. I wonder who it is aimed at.

blue drink Strasbourg 518.JPG

At the station we had coffee and croissants at Paul. I don’t know how anyone could eat that blue thing, said my travelling companion, of a girl at the next table wearing a white woolly hat (with pompom) and a pink top. It matches her jeans I said.

Vosges train Strasbourg-Basel 518.JPG

Holiday people got on our colourful first train, watched over by solders. The blocky carriages were built in 1980 but felt older. The line ran between the Rhine (which we couldn’t see) and the Vosges (always visible, across a flat plain, and gradually coming closer). Probably the train keeps away from the river because, like the Danube and unlike the Moselle, this U-shaped valley is or was prone to flooding. The villages were close together, showing wealth.

onion dome church train Strasbourg-Basel 518 2.JPG

Most of their churches had thin spires but one or two, to my surprise, had onion domes like those of Bavaria and Austria.

water tower St Louis train Strasbourg-Basel 518.JPG

This is the territory of Georges Gorski, the protagonist of two novels by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Gorski, a detective, and other characters live in Saint Louis, the last stop in France before crossing the Swiss frontier to Basel.

steps Mulhouse station train Strasbourg-Basel 518.JPG

Mulhouse (above) and Strasbourg are where they go to drink and have sex. Often, like us, they go by train.

Basel station 518.JPG

Changing trains at Basel is not frictionless. The direct route to the platforms for further travel within Switzerland (on the right) is barred.

Basel station 518 2.JPG

Travellers from France have to leave the station and use a roundabout route, adding five or ten minutes.

Basel station train Basel-Visp 518 SD.JPG

Next, to a place called Visp, we caught a smart Italian train jam-packed with people heading for Milan. We jumped into the buffet and sat there pleasantly, eating reasonable food and drinking good coffee. The recorded announcements were in four languages (German, French, Italian and English), in each of which Visp was pronounced differently. The stations along the way were mostly quite ugly. In Thun a Manchester United flag flew out of the window of a modern flat.

Between Thun (whose river Aase drains into the Rhine) and Visp (on the Rhone) we crossed the watershed.

At Visp we changed onto a train up the long valley to Zermatt.

In 1932 the operator agreed to invest in avalanche protection for the railway line – on condition that no motor road would be built for 20 years.

When the motor road was eventually constructed, Zermatt, at the top of the valley, voted in a referendum not to have it run into the town.

Täsch, the next town down the valley, became a park and ride. Only electric vehicles are allowed in Zermatt.

(But: I remember visiting the island of Sark, where cars are also banned. The young men drove their tractors with abandon. Here, electric taxis joyfully whip round corners like there was never anyone on the other side. The police don’t like the electric cars to come, said the waitress at breakfast this morning.)

(And but: it has a heliport.)

The train was red and modern, electric, with seats mostly in facing pairs and big big windows. It coped well with steep inclines.

Sepp Blatter primary school football Visp 518.JPG

In Visp we passed the Sepp Blatter primary school.

soldiers train Visp-Zermatt 518 4.JPG

At Stalden young soldiers were having a beer. There is still conscription here (and women can volunteer). The valley was steep on each side. At Randa there was a long thin golf course.

As we went along we thought of the Reichenbach falls, where Holmes and Moriarty fall to their deaths. Seeing a hole in the mountainside, we thought of Thorin Oakenshield, the King under the Mountain. We thought of Fox’s Glacier Mints, with their polar bear logo.

accordeons yaks Kalpetun train Visp-Zermatt 518.JPG

We didn’t bargain on accordeon-swinging and yak-watching,

surf shop Zermatt 518.JPG

or on being able to meet our surfing needs in Zermatt.

On the Spanish side of the Pyrenees what’s striking is the continuing depopulation of the mountain villages. Here, you see traditional houses dated 1970, and lots of activity. It must be tourism, which has been going for 150 years, that makes the difference.

Zermatt 518.JPG

Zermatt itself felt weird, half closed down between winter and summer, overcast, overseen by that white line of mountains. Every other business has the Matterhorn (named after the town) as its logo. Being here made me want to walk, of course.

Our hotel had modern rooms (with more electric sockets than any I remember) and old fashioned public parts. A pair of visitors from Kuala Lumpur ignored an ordinary door with a handle and a small window, naturally enough, and could not find the lift.

raclette Zermatt 518.JPG

In the station café I had amazing raclette (cheese on toast to the Nth degree), good white wine (Fendant, local) and an awful coffee. My travelling companion liked her apple strudel.

Swiss trains are excellent, but seem to be pretty expensive (the French leg was cheap). This journey was nearly as expensive as yesterday’s.

logo Matterhorn Zermatt 518 2.JPG

A non-walking tour to Switzerland – Day 1, Brussels to Strasbourg

  • 350 km as the crow flies
  • metro-metro-train-walk-train-walk
  • 71 kph
  • 48 eurocents/km
  • 16588 steps – not good

My leg is recovering from a knee operation. On my Fitbit I am supposed to do no more than 6000 steps a day. Piano, piano, Monsieur Hodson, says my dashing doctor. When I told him that as a birthday trip I was going on a non-walking tour, to pamper and protect my knee, he grinned his wolfish grin.

route Brussels-Zermatt 518.JPG

The first night of our tour, last night, we spent in Strasbourg. In recent years, since the TGV Est opened, the service has become good, though it’s expensive (the average price of the trains I take is about 30 eurocents/km, this trip cost 48). The direct train was all booked, so our hopes for dinner in Strasbourg were dashed; we had to change in Paris.

Thalys Gare du Midi 518.JPG

We caught the Thalys from Brussels Gare du Midi after work in summery heat.

Wiels gallery Bxl 518.JPG

Swinging out of the station, on the left you can see the Wiels brewery. It’s now a gallery. A couple of weeks ago we went there to hear Gordon Sutherland talk about his unreally lit photos of Glasgow. From the gallery’s terrace we saw then how the Thalys track climbs and curves as it leaves the station, showing off the length and sharp thinness of the trains.

Heading for Paris, we saw on either side big Brabant Wallon farmhouses built for defence, like La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont in the battle of Waterloo. Wind turbines did not turn on this calm afternoon.

The train rolled on into northern France, low hills, woods and fields. As we got towards Paris a plane came in, parallel with the tracks on the left, heading for Charles de Gaulle.

Pierrefitte-Stains, a commuter suburb, freestanding houses. Then flats as we got closer to the city. Many buildings around Paris are white or whitish. At Saint Denis there was a dark bare tower on the right, though; but was that Sacré-Coeur over there?

flats near gare du Nord train Bxl-Paris 518 2.JPG

I like the tangles of structures and levels you get as you come into big city railway stations.

Paris Poste tags near Gare du Nord Paris 518.JPG

The tags get too much, though. Last year we went to a public meeting with the échevins of our commune, Ixelles. There was a complaint about the tags on our streets. I’m afraid its people who come up by car from Paris, said the échevine responsible. They come up, do their tagging, and drive back. Is that a tall story?

security check to board Thalys Gare du Nord Paris 518.JPG

They have kept up security checks in Paris when people board Thalys, even though Brussels and other stations in the PBKAL network have them no longer.

steps Gare de l'Est Paris 518.JPG

It’s only a ten minute walk from Gare du Nord to Gare de l’Est, via the Rue des Deux Gares. The best bit is the curved double staircase you descend at the end of the walk.

On the train east to Strasbourg I rolled the names of stations around my mouth – Rosa Parks, Noisy Le Sec. Down there, crossing a canal, there was a tram – I don’t associate trams with Paris.

C19 building leaving Gare de l'Est Paris 518.JPG

Ten minutes out of Paris, Le Raincy Villomble Monfermeil. How’s that for a name? There were nineteenth century villas there – then flats again.

When we got out in the country hills rolled once more. The wavelength of the rolls was less than to the north. I think it is not the countryside, but the direction of the route, that was different. I once cycled southeast from Brussels towards Luxembourg. Don’t do it! The Ardennes road follows none of the valleys. It cuts across each of them in turn. This train probably bounces across the same valleys, a hundred km or so to the south.

Strasbourg 518 3 CCTV station.JPG

We got to Strasbourg a bit after ten. The station was built in the 1870s when the city was part of German Alsace-Lorraine. I think this arch in the access tunnel recalls German railway architecture.

Strasbourg station 518 2.JPG

The front of the building, you can’t tell, because of its lovely façade.

playground adults bench hot night Strasbourg 518.JPG

It was still hot. People were still sitting out. It is not a city that stays open late, but we found a new bar, La Potence, on the street from the station to the city centre. They happily served us Flammenküche at eleven. Do you want a knife and fork, we were asked, or do you want to eat it with your fingers like a pizza?

Flammenküche Strasbourg 518 2.JPG

Good start!