Picture - Rhaetische Bahn Davos
John Lancaster Wigan MP
Travels in Time 2010 - An account of two journeys, made by an inquisitive and impressionable teenager looking for adventure and fifty years later by his silver haired alter ego. Still inquisitive and impressionable but this time looking to indulge an increasing tendency for nostalgia and hopefully enjoy some good food along the way.
How times have changed! It's now a pleasant Thursday morning in February 2010 after a long and cold winter and we are standing on the platform of Wigan North Western Station waiting for the 9.09am Virgin Trains service to London Euston. We are setting out on a short city break to Strasbourg but for some strange reason which I'm bound to regret I seem to have persuaded other members of the party to agree to a day trip to Basle before the return journey. The route we are to travel will be very similar to the one I took almost fifty years ago and to my mind an opportunity to compare the two transport experiences, little realising at the time how pleasant memories can sometimes be embellished as they sit in the cellars of the brain ageing like wine of good vintage. Modern road transport I imagine will be relatively cheap and good value as it was all those years ago, and because of the motorway network would nowadays take perhaps only five or six hours without the need for overnight travel. However we are travelling by train this time, marginally more expensive but relatively good value if you book well in advance and are flexible with the arrangements, and with only one stop the journey time is a stunning 2 hours 3 minutes. We're in London by 11.15 and have ample time to wander down the road to St Pancras International to catch the Eurostar service to Paris using the new high speed link across Essex and Kent to the channel tunnel. A previous journey with Eurostar to Perpignan from the old terminal at Waterloo was made tedious by having to use the existing Southern Trains local network as far as Folkestone and suffering delay due to a signal failure close to Clapham junction. The new line by comparison is a giant step forward into the twenty first century and a vast improvement over its Victorian predecessor, Eurostar now regularly achieves speeds of 180 mph on both sides of the channel a fact verified by my GPS. In little more than two hours we are leaving the train in Paris and setting out on the short walk from Gare du Nord to Gare del Est and the train to Strasbourg. On previous trips we have experienced the French transport system's predilection for striking without notice at the most inconvenient moments and have screamed in frustration but you can't help admiring them for their foresight and courage in building such a magnificent high speed network which is the envy of the world. This time everything is going to plan and we are soon setting out on the third and final leg of the journey another two hours or so to Strasbourg. This section is even faster than the Eurostar the train maintaining speeds of 190 mph for most of the journey and at one point touching 201 mph, sounds a bit geeky I know to be interested in these things but the French railways are so good, they're like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
Even allowing for the time change to European Standard Time we arrive in Strasbourg less than ten hours after leaving Wigan and much fresher than if we'd flown O'Flaherty's Airways via some far flung airport in no man's land. Discounting transfer times between connections actual travelling time amounted to between six and seven hours and within fifteen minutes of our arrival we were checked into the hotel and seeking out a good restaurant, although it's not the main purpose of our five day visit we do like to sample good food and the local wines for which Strasbourg is certainly well served. There is plenty to see and do in this fine city, a visit to the astronomical clock in the cathedral is a must do experience, climb the cathedral spire, take a trip on the river, visit the European Parliament buildings and other European Institutions such as the Court of Human Rights located here, visit the old town and the many museums. The city is well served by trams and buses and good value day tickets are available but be warned don't under any circumstances be tempted to visit Pont du Rhin it's like Platt Bridge on a rainy day in November, I think we confused it with the Botanical Gardens and felt slightly foolish as we decided not to stay and re-boarded the bus we arrived on, the driver welcoming us back with a knowing wry smile, he'd obviously experienced similar mistakes by other English tourists.
The last day of our stay in Strasbourg is to be my nostalgic visit to Basle, an opportunity to renew acquaintance with a city I haven't seen for nearly fifty years and to retrace the last leg of a journey made previously as a youthful seventeen or eighteen year old. The atmosphere is rather different to the earlier journey as we now join a few early morning commuters on the local train calling at Selestat, Colmar, Lutterbach and Mulhouse and terminating at Basle. The weather is sunny and the sky blue as the train makes it's way through the pleasantly flat countryside of France with the outline of the Vosges mountains over to the right in the distance. Stepping from the train onto the platforms under French jurisdiction it became apparent that although little had physically changed over the years somehow this side of the station looked a forlorn shadow of its former self with customs posts and restaurants empty and abandoned. The contrast between this image of a slightly neglected backwater and the bustling centre of activity I remember in the sixties with hundreds of happy holiday makers jostling for position on the platforms for the journey home or disembarking from boat trains on arrival weaving their way with heavy suitcases through the waiting crowds couldn't possibly be more pronounced. Basle has obviously lost its status over the years as the prime gateway to the Swiss alps for travellers from Britain, no doubt due to the ever increasing popularity of flying, Zurich and Geneva having gradually taken over this role. Like an England football supporter after the world cup, slightly deflated and more than a little disappointed, I realise my expectations were never going to be met, but it still took some time to pull myself together. On the positive side, if our experience is anything to go by, the recent improvements in train travel with Eurostar and the advent of the truly high speed link between London and Paris, overland services to Europe may yet become fashionable again as new destinations become more practical and widely advertised. A quiet revolution has been taking place over the past decade or so and the new European rail network which is gradually emerging will prove increasingly popular as environmental issues play an ever more important role in decision making, with this in mind I begin to feel more confident that one day Basle will be restored to its proper status as a major hub. These optimistic thoughts lift the gloom brought on by the initial shock of arrival and I cheer up as we make our way smugly but unmolested through the customs hall to the other side. (The picture above left is the same buffet bar shown in part 1 but taken in February 2010).
The Swiss side of the station has retained its place as a major hub in the superb Swiss railway network and still has a certain cosmopolitan glamour, the architecture a dominant landmark high above the other significant feature of the city the river Rhine. The city too hasn't changed much, in fact it probably looks even more prosperous and well kept than previously. Take a tour of the glamorous shops, visit the old town hall, the cathedral quarter of the city and lunch at Restaurant Spillman overlooking the Rhine, you won't be disappointed (exchange rate permitting, that is).
Footnote with reference to Restaurant Spillman: September 18th 2019 - Sadly on our most recent visit we found this special eating place has closed, possibly as early as 2013-14. The building on the former site however still bears the legendary name, high above the river. We found a worthy replacement at the Brasserie Steiger - part of "Hotel Basel, Muenzgasse 12, CH-4001 Basel", try it you'll like it.
Basle Now and Then 2010 - 1960
Palfreyman July 2010