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!

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Summer Alpine Adventure 1: Via London to Cologne

Last year's proposed trip to the Swiss Alps had to be called off when Great Rail Journeys cancelled the one we'd planned because of too few bookings (that's how we ended up going to the French Riviera in 2016 instead, so no hard feelings!) but we booked again a slightly different tour in 2017 which promised an even better holiday. Great Rail Journeys offer one of their “Signature” tours to Sankt Moritz and Zermatt in the summer, with day trips out to Tirano and other places in Italy and southern Switzerland, travelling out via Cologne and back via Colmar, all First Class and with the services of a tour manager throughout. We booked the tour and asked Great Rail Journeys to book our tickets to and from London and a night in London before the holiday as well.


And so on a Tuesday morning we packed our cases and made our way to Stamford station for the 13:00 train to Peterborough. Our tickets were valid on any train so we just went when convenient and caught the next main line train to London and looked for free seats in the almost empty coach L. There was one other passenger in the half of the coach that we joined, and it was someone we knew, so we moved along and joined her. The catering team seemed understaffed once more but our First Class hostess coped very well. Although she had run out of sandwiches she fetched us copious quantities of crisps, bisuits and cake, and plenty of wine. An odd lunch, but OK for our purposes. Amazing how quickly a journey passes in good company and with two glasses of wine, and we seemed to be in London in no time at all.


We made our way to our hotel, the Ambassadors Bloomsbury, just a few minutes along the Euston Road, and after check-in we went to Sloane Square to have tea and cake on the top floor of Peter Jones department store – it is a John Lewis branch and we each had a voucher for free tea and cake during June. We returned to the hotel by bus to Oxford Circus and walking from there, dodging the occasional shower. It is always a joy to walk through Bloomsbury.

As it happened, our tour manager was staying in the same hotel, as were eight Australian guests who were booked on the same tour. Although we made brief acquaintance on the Tuesday evening we made our own arrangements for a light supper, salad at the nearby Prezzo Euston, and met the whole group for the Champagne reception at St Pancras International station on the Wednesday morning. The Champagne start is one of the features of the Signature tours: we checked in at the Great Rail Journeys office on the Grand Terrace at St Pancras and were taken across to the Searcy's Champagne Bar where Ray, our tour manager, was waiting with the first few guests. Soon all thirty-two were gathered and we were all given our Eurostar tickets and made our own way through check-in and to the waiting area for the train to Brussels.


Soon we were called to board the train and were on our way. Ours was a refurbished original Eurostar set, known as a E300, just like the one we went on to Marseille last year. As we passed through the Channel Tunnel we were enjoying the hot lunch provided in Standard Premier Class, with wine and coffee.






The atrium of the Maritim Hotel at Kiln
The dining room is separate from this huge banqueting area!
There was a change of train at Brussels and we had some time to browse around the shops at the station before we went on to our first hotel at Cologne. Our connection was a Thalys high-speed train which was indicated thirty minutes late. More browsing and back to the platform and we were on our way, but further difficulties meant that half an hour from Cologne we had to be diverted and after a short excursion into the Netherlands arrived two hours late at our hotel. Our tour manager had booked ahead and had dinner put back but it did mean that we had no time to stroll through the city before bed, which was a pity as there are some pleasant walks to be had. 

At dinner we met some of the thirty people with whom we'd be spending the ten days of this holiday, and we slept well in a very comfortable room overlooking the spacious atrium of this huge hotel. Back to the station in the morning and we were on a Swiss express train to Basel where our adventure in Switzerland began. The ride to Basel was an adventure in itself, much of it along the west bank of the Rhine with wonderful views of castles, vineyards and towns as we made our way south. We had seen it from the other direction on our return journey in winter three years before and it was great to see it in the sunshine now.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Another local adventure planned

Following the recent successful trip to the Grainstore Brewery in Oakham, I am arranging a trip to Spalding this summer for friends and neighbours in Stamford.
  • Train trip to Spalding and Return (standard class)
  • River Trip on Spalding Water Taxi
  • Free time exploring Spalding
  • Supper, probably at Prezzo
It will be on Tuesday 4th July, and travel arrangements are:

Depart Stamford platform 1 at 9.00am with change of train at Peterborough, departing platform 1 at 9.35am, arrive Spalding 9.55am.



Depart Spalding, platform 1, at 9.05pm,
arrive Stamford 9.44pm (last train: do not miss it!)




Return rail fare is £17.00 (£11.20 for railcard holders)


Please sign up by Sunday 4th June indicating whether you have railcard, or contact me via mark@warrick.photography .



If 8 or more people sign up the boat trip will be a special hour-long excursion at £5 to £7.50 per head depending on numbers. Fewer than 8 the trip would be the standard public 35-minute trip at £3.

UPDATE:

We have eight people signed up for this trip and will be taking the hour-long "cruise" on the Spalding Water Taxi. There is room for four more to join us. Please contact  mark@warrick.photography if you would like to come.

UPDATE 2:

Tickets are now bought for this trip. Anyone still wishing to join us can do so if they buy their own train tickets, and up to 4 can join us on the boat by paying me their share of the cost on the day.