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.


Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Summer Alpine Adventure 3: Geography and Social History

Last time we visited the Alps, we spent one of the "free" days exploring the resorts of Klosters and Davos in the winter holiday season and we decided that we ought to return to Davos and see it in the summer. We left early in the morning in order to allow time for some activities at St Moritz later in the day, and in order to make the most of the day we made sure we also made the most of the breakfast at the hotel before we left! Making our way down to the station we took a train bound for Chur and changed trains at Filisur for Davos. This meant another thrilling ride on the Albula line with the train winding its way up and down valley sides between St Moritz and Filisur, where the three platforms provide a convenient interchange for passengers to and from all the destinations on the lines that converge at that junction.

In Davos we went straight to the Schatzalp funicular railway that we had used last time and were soon on our way up the mountain. This time we only stopped for coffee at the restaurant where we'd had lunch before, and we drank our coffee outside overlooking the town in the valley below. After coffee we walked further up Schatzalp and looked at the wild flowers and grassland that had been snow-covered ski slopes on our winter visit. This time no-one was toting skis, but there were several people with mountain cycles enjoying the slopes another way.

We eventually made our way back down on the funicular railway and with another change at Filisur arrived back in St Moritz early in the afternoon. When we boarded the St Moritz train at Filisur we discovered one coach fitted out for young families, with simpler seating and a built-in indoor play area on a railway theme: what a brilliant idea! We left it for those who needed it and went and sat in a more grown-up coach!

From the station in St Moritz we walked along the lake shore following the signs for the Engadiner Museum which we intended to visit. We were also going to walk around the lake later, so this would be one stretch we would already have completed ...

The Engadiner Museum, which would actually have been a very short walk from our hotel had we started from there, was well worth a visit. It tells of the social history of the Engadine valley before tourism changed it into what it is today, each room being a recreation of typical regional design with artefacts rescued from demolished farmhouses throughout the region. There was only one other visitor there when we looked around: information for visitors is displayed on a iPad which is supplied with the admission ticket and we were able to share one and use the loudspeaker in it as there was no-one to disturb.

As one might expect in a place like this, there was much emphasis on keeping warm, and every room had its stove of one design or another. On all our visits to any part of Switzerland we have always been struck by the enormous stoves in each home!

After an hour or so at this fascinating museum we looked briefly around the shops in the town centre - it had a similar range of upmarket clothes and jewellery shops as, say, Chelsea, many of which had not yet opened for the summer holiday season after closing at the end of the winter holiday season, but critically the Co-op supermarket was open and we bought provisions for a light supper on the balcony of our hotel room overlooking the lake.

After eating we set off back towards the museum and then resumed our walk along the lake shore, the very lake on which we had seen a racecourse set up on the ice on our last visit! Leaving the urban part of the lake we walked along the wooded side opposite the town and looked back at our hotel, and then continued to the short section we had walked in winter three years before and finally back to the station where we just managed to grab a hot chocolate at the café before it closed and then returned to our hotel for a shower and bed. Another great day, but a lot of activity! We needed a rest ...

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Tales of the Riverbank

A swan on the Coronation Channel at Spalding
South Lincolnshire is mostly fenland and is probably the most productive agricultural land in the UK. The southwest corner in which I live is rather different and its 19th and 20th century history has been more in engineering and heavy industry, although you'd never know it to look at Stamford now. Not far away is Spalding, centre of the regional food industry and until recently of the British flower industry.

A group of us took a day trip to explore Spalding, a very different town from our home in Stamford, although with some similarities. It is on the same river, the Welland,  but Spalding is a former port town, the river having been navigable by sailing ships as far as the the town centre where goods were transferred to and from barges. Spalding has not been used by commercial shipping for a very long time but in recent years a water "taxi" service has been operating on the river to take people to and from the Springfields Outlet Centre, an edge-of-town bargain shopping development on the site of the former bulb industry show ground.

Eight of us left Stamford on the 09:00 train to Peterborough and changed there for the 09:35 Lincoln train which took us on to Spalding. We had reserved seats together on the Cross Country train to Peterborough; East Midlands Trains do not reserve seats on their local services in Lincolnshire but we were among the first to board and were easily able to find eight seats together. From the train we could see many church spires on the flat fenland horizon, and of particular interest was Crowland Abbey in the east, a short, broad tower with a low spire, and beside it the vacant arch of the ruined part of the abbey. We passed the lakes at Deeping St James where the gravel was extracted for the building of the line and is now a wildlife sanctuary.

Boarding the Spalding Water Taxi
We soon arrived in Spalding and walked together to the Market Place where the Tuesday market was in full swing. We had an hour before our booked Water Taxi tour and most of us took a coffee break at one of the many cafés in the town centre. Some also made a start to their day's shopping!

We were met at the Water Taxi landing stage at the agreed time by our pilot Marcus who took us on an hour's tour of the river and the Coronation Channel, a flood relief channel dug after the 1952 east coast floods and opened the following year. The Coronation Channel has become a nature reserve and many waterfowl were spotted by the keen naturalists in our group.

The Water Taxi dropped us at the Springfields Outlet Centre and Festival Gardens. here we all went our separate ways until our agreed rendezvous at 14:30. Everyone found their own lunch at one of the many venues and many also did some shopping. The gardens are also worth a visit and in retrospect perhaps I did not allow quite enough time here. Some people took a bus back to the town centre (route 505 runs roughly every 20 minutes through the day) and most of us walked along the riverside which provides a very pleasant stroll through Spalding's mercantile past (and my teenage years - I lived here between the ages of 10 and 26!).

Back in town we relaxed over a pint at the Lincolnshire Poacher inn - formerly The Crane, named after the dockside hoist, not the bird - and then used a town tour booklet to guide us through some historic sights on the east bank of the river, Ayscoughfee Gardens in particular, and then crossed over to take in Welland Terrace and the Grammar School. By now it was time to gather at Prezzo where our dinner table was booked; Prezzo is located in Elsom House in Broad Street, a wonderful art deco building which used to be the head office and retail outlet for Elsoms Seeds, for whom I use to work in my summer holidays when I was an undergraduate student over forty years ago. It was great to be back enjoying a pizza where I used to collect my P45 every September!

After dinner we strolled back to the station and arrived on the platform just as the train arrived from Peterborough which would form the service back to Stamford. This was the last train of the day and was a through service to Nottingham via Melton Mowbray and took us direct to Stamford without a change.  Everyone seemed to have had a thoroughly good time, and for me it was really odd to be visiting a place I knew so well and yet seeing it as a tourist!

A word about tickets!

Half of our party had Senior Railcards and received discounts on their tickets. Two had a Two Together Railcard which only allowed a discount off-peak and we left too early to use that, so I tried an experiment before booking and split the journey at Peterborough, looking at prices between Stamford and Peterborough and Peterborough and Spalding.  It worked: I could get a discount for the Two Together Railcard holders for the second half of the outward journey (the return timing, well into the evening, was never part of the problem); to my surprise the price for everyone else was a bit less, too, with the the two part returns being cheaper than returns for the whole trip. So that was what I booked! It meant everyone had four ticket coupons but it saved everyone some money. The moral is that it is always worth looking at splitting the journey, even for very short trips.

Spalding Water Taxi

Taxi awaiting next turn of duty!
We booked a charter tour on the Water Taxi, £60 for an hour's tour for up to 12 people. We only mustered eight, so it cost us £7.50 per head.

If you just turn up on the day and use the public service, then it costs just £3 per head for a half-hour trip direct to Springfields. It is also possible to book a self-drive hire boat but I did not look into that possibility for this trip and cannot say what that would cost. The company is really friendly and I can recommend using this service for a relaxing and interesting trip on the river.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Summer Alpine Adventure 2: Top of the World!

Our train crossing the Landwasser Viaduct on the
Rhätische Bahn Albula Line en route for St Moritz
From Basel we continued the journey along the Rhine valley towards the south of Switzerland, on the top deck of a Swiss duplex train in great comfort. After more stunning scenery we changed trains again at Chur, boarding a Rhätische Bahn metre-gauge train for the ascent via the Albula line to St Moritz. We left the Rhine valley a little way out of Chur and began the climb along the Albula valley towards Thusis and Tiefencastel, across the famous Landwasser Viaduct, through countless tunnels and across even more bridges, then spiralling up the valley sides, looking down on the tracks we'd already travelled and passing some villages several times before plunging through the Albula tunnel to emerge in the High Engadine valley and into St Moritz which bills itself the "Top of the World". We had been here briefly between trains on our winter visit and knew it only in deep snow with the lake frozen, and now we were seeing it in warm weather, soon to become warmer, and with sun on the grass and woods, but still with snow on the high peaks all around.

View from our room at the Hotel Schweizerhof in
Sankt Moritz
Our tour manager, Ray, led us to the hotel via a route modified by recent and continuing building works, including improvements to the railway station. After checking in we found our room and were bowled over by the view of the lake and the mountains beyond (a lake view room was a paid-for optional extra on this tour and well worth paying-for). We had a little balcony which came into its own as the weather improved during our stay, but now was the time to go down for dinner. As usual with Great Rail Journeys holidays, all the breakfasts, most of the dinners and a few of the lunches were included in the cost of the holiday and we dined together with the whole group. We had a section of the hotel dining room set aside for the group and a menu with few choices and an excellent standard of food.

Nibbles and sparkling wine as the Bernina Express leaves
Alp Grum for the descent towards Italy.
Looking down on the Brusio Viaduct as our train approaches:
with much squealing from the wheels we would soon slowly
descend to the plain and pass under the same bridge!
The next day was an early start for a trip on the famous Bernina Express to Tirano, back in the European Union just across the border in Italy. We had done some of this line before, but not all of it. Now we would experience the dramatic helical viaduct at Brusio as well as seeing in summer the scenes we'd only before seen with deep snow. The Bernina Express trains had also recently been fitted with an "Infot(r)ainment" system 🙄 which allowed us to obtain commentary and follow the route on our smartphones as we travelled. We heard that the line was constructed to minimum curve radius and maximum gradient standards to allow trains to ascend and descend the Alpine gradients without the use of the cog and rack system used in many other parts of the Alpine rail network. This line took us back down from the Alps to the tiny city of Tirano and past much interesting scenery on the way. The train paused for a while to allow us to get off and enjoy better the scenery at Alp Grum, and there was sparkling wine awaiting our return to the train for the descent via Poschiavo into Italy.

Our tour manager gathering us together for the train back
to St Moritz
We had a lot of free time to explore Tirano. It was a very warm, even hot, day and we enjoyed a real Italian ice-cream in Italy at Italian prices - lower than in either England or Switzerland. Shopping was inexpensive because all the shops close for several hours at lunch time when we were there, but we did get some souvenirs at the shop at the railway station. Spending today was in Euros: all this border-crossing meant having three wallets with different currency, although the Sterling was put away until the day we went home so we were down to a choice of two. We also take a commission-free credit card from the Nationwide building society and pay in local currency for souvenirs, meals etc, just using cash for drinks, snacks etc.. We made a note of some of the offered Sterling prices and when we arrived home and examined the statement it was clear that we had saved quite a lot by opting to pay in local currency at Nationwide's exchange rate rather than in Sterling at some unknown foreign bank's rate with commission!

Our train back to Switzerland was an ordinary service train, still very comfortable but with no scenic stop at Alp Grum and no sparkling wine ... and soon we were back in St Moritz for shower, dinner and eventually an earlyish night after a busy day's exploration. I did pop out and get some postcards to send home to family and friends, in the hope we could post them to arrive at home before we did.

The following day was the "day at leisure in St Moritz" during which we intended to go and explore some places we had seen under snow on our last visit to Switzerland. It would include "leisure" but also more exploration!