Travelling on Interrail south through Germany from Belgium (read about Belgium here), the trains never ceased to amaze me. German trains are a marvel of engineering precision, and comparing them to English trains would be like comparing a BMW to a pony trap. Yes, the pony trap is an important part of our heritage, and it will (usually) get you to where you’re going eventually, but the BMW is the more comfortable ride and, let’s face it, more appropriate for cross-country travel. The BMW doesn’t have to throw everyone onto a bus at Sheffield so it can go to sleep for the night.
Let me tell you about German trains.
The internal doors are made of sliding glass panels; there are small compartments containing conference rooms for business executives; the dining car has seats and tables so you don’t have to walk the length of the train with your food; the seats are reasonably sized and oh so very comfortable; but none of this is the best bit. The suspension likes to fool you into believing you must be travelling very slowly, to feel so few bumps and corners, but then you look out the window and realize you’re going at over eighty. But that’s not the best part either. The best part is, in front of you, wherever you sit, there is a piece of printed paper with the heading “reiseplan.”
And that piece of paper tells you when you will arrive at each of the stations between where you are and the train’s terminus. Not only that, but it tells you what trains are departing from those stations in the next hour or so after your arrival. On a longer journey, the stewards will bring more than one Reiseplan to you so that you know exactly what is going on at all times.
The train passed through several stations, I had a short stopover in Frankfurt (where I ate a Frankenfurter – aka hot dog) and I made a couple of changes onto other, equally well-endowed German trains, and thanks to the Reiseplans on the German trains, I was able to very efficiently plan a route all the way down to Zurich in Switzerland. I’d expected (when I awoke that morning in Brussels) that I might get as far as Stuttgart by the end of the day. Arriving at Zurich was a total coup and a sign that the trip was improving. Now, again, I had a shot at getting to Venice.
The scenery across Germany could be described as cloudy on top with fields underneath, punctuated with the occasional town or city. As we got closer to Switzerland, the clouds seemed to press together, accumulating, a crowd of clouds awaiting entry to some great event, perhaps a thunderstorm concert, on the other side of the Alps. This was a place which held onto the clouds with the first of the Alpine mountains, keeping them safe so the Mediterranean could enjoy sunshine.
I looked up accommodation in Zurich using the directory of hotels that I’d acquired in Paris, and I phoned them on the final leg of the train journey, making a reservation for a room in the Zurich Etap. I conducted the entire conversation in French, and from the train I took a taxi to the hotel, then went to the desk that had a picture of a French flag and started checking in. Out of the corner of my ear, I heard a conversation in English then realized the hotel also had an English-speaking check in desk. D’oh.
Being stubborn, I decided to finish check-in in French, handed over my passport so they could take a copy, then got my key and went to the room. It wasn’t fantastic, but there was an ashtray and a couple of beds, as well as a tiny plastic en-suite bathroom which had probably looked cutting edge in 1998. I had a shower, a smoke and a snack then went to bed. There was nothing to do in the hotel and I wanted to be up early because Zurich was just a hitching post on my journey into Italy.
The next morning, I intended to go straight to the central station. Somehow, this didn’t happen. That’s a story for next time.