A Right Little Furka-Oberalp Bahn

High Speed trains are a wonderful thing. It’s now possible to leave Paris in the morning and be in Budapest before 10pm the same day. Indeed, with more sympathetic timetabling you would be able to leave St Pancras at crack of dawn and get to Budapest before midnight. In France, the service from Paris to Lyon takes just 2 hours. It runs all day and is an all but lethal competitor to air travel between the two cities. In Germany, Frankfurt is a mere 3 hours from Munich and just 4 hours to Berlin. Most Germans wouldn’t dream of getting a plane for any journey under 500 km.

There is alas a downside to all this from a rail tourism perspective. If you can get from Paris to Budapest in a day with just one change, why bother spending a full 24 hours on some epic sleeper train ?.  The effect of Western Europe’s ever expanding network of high speed track and trains, and combined with the more obvious economic issues in South Eastern Europe with railways either withdrawing from running  international passenger trains (Croatia), or just going outright bankrupt (Greece), has meant the continued loss of sleeper services throughout the map. I guess this trend will continue as long as trains are getting faster, or operators are just collapsing both financially and literally.

Over the last few weeks I have had to make a series of adaptations and extensions to the expedition due to timetable deletions for the coming year.  Navigating a critical route across 23 state railway timetables has been a feat of map and timetable analysis.  The rail mileage is now considerably more than a journey between London and Sydney, and is rapidly approaching the distance between the two poles. We’ve managed to get an extra night on a sleeper, and append our Swiss day with even more world class railway, and got 3 hours in the foodie capital of Europe, and a few other spin offs to boot.

In Bucharest, the connection to Sofia disappeared from the timetable. In replacement it transpired we could get a sleeper from Varna on the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria, to Sofia.  The route would be more convex, and give us an extra sea to see along with just about every other major sea in Europe. But the connection  would have been risky and leave virtually no time in Bucharest at all. Fortunately a sleeper direct from Bucharest has now appeared leaving at midnight. So we get to stay on the tracks instead of having to make camp in  Sofia, and also get 12 hours in the Romanian capital. I am researching what we are going to do with all that time.  We then proceed with my solution for the Balkans, including getting from Belgrade to Sarajevo via the Sargan 8 as described in the last post.

But there’s been a massive hurdle to overcome getting from the Alps to Iberia as a result of the abandonment of the Pau Casals Trenhotel from Zurich/Milan to Barcelona. You can no longer get a sleeper from Switzerland or Italy to Spain. This has had the result of having to spend an extra night somewhere in Switzerland. Finding cheap beds anywhere in Switzerland is a tough call but we’ve ended up at Hotel Biber, the City Backpacker Hostel in Zurich. As a result we have time to include the Oberalp on our way to Zurich, which is essentially the groovy part of the Glacier Express. This also includes a run on the Furka-Oberalp Bahn, pictured below, which all in all makes our “most gobsmackingly fantabulastic” Alpine day even more so.

The following day we get to spend over 3 hours in Lyon, where we can get the best picnic supplies of the trip in the famous Les Halles de Lyon. Lyon is, in the opinion of many, including me, the best candidate there is for the title of European Capital of Food if such a thing makes sense. Les Halles’ is perhaps the finest of the many fine food markets we will visit.

I tried all I could to avoid having to then go back up to Paris to get the sleeper from there back down to Barcelona, the only remaining one into Spain. But it’s impossible now as that sleeper no longer halts at Limoges. It takes just two hours to get up to Paris Gare de Lyon. Wherever you are in Eastern or Central Europe, if you want to get to Spain then the  quickest way to do it is via Paris. There are TGV services across the south of France, but with only one train a day to Lisbon from Madrid, and the requirement of the Bernina, we are consigned to having to ditch for the night in Switzerland, and then the quickest is via Paris with Lyon for free and sleepers now all the way home. From Milan, the quickest way to get to Spain is via Zurich then Paris.

At Gare de Lyon we can visit Le Train Bleu and cross the river to Gare d’Austerlitz which is directly across the Seine. Notre Dame is just a few hundred metres down the river so we might be persuaded to manage the obligatory famous building photo shoot.

From there it’s as you were all the way back, almost. We are now due back on Tuesday 23rd July, having left 2 weeks the previous Saturday, on the 6th. There have been changes though to the Sud Express, our sleeper from Lisbon  to Hendaye on the French-Spanish border. It now leaves 5 hours later from Lisbon, so doesn’t hit France till almost midday. Worse still, the lunch time TGV connection to Paris is cancelled for the next 3 months. If we were going next Saturday we wouldn’t get back till two weeks Wednesday, nearer three weeks now than two. But I am assured that the lunchtime service will return in April, and while we’ve lost a few hours now in Paris, we are now visiting the place twice. The route is still technically convex (bar Copenhagen-Malmo which we have to traverse in both directions). Gare de Lyon and d’Austerlitz are in the South East of the city centre. When we return to Montparnasse on the South West we will catch the Metro clockwise, via that large metal tower, to Gare du Nord.

Here’s a photo of the interior of Le Train Bleu

Photo by Jean-Michel Baud

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About Lester

Der Führer
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