Half-way to Heaven on the Glacier Express

Last time, we left our hero in Nice, having just had his passport, travellers’ cheques & Inter-rail cards stolen. With a sleep on the beach in prospect, read on.

On previous nights, I’d seen quite a few people sleeping rough – one of the beaches looked more like an open-air pop concert – I sort of envied them, at least until one night there was a massive thunderstorm, with lighting, torrential rain, the works – all of a sudden, I was glad to have a roof over my head! Luckily, the weather was good, and I managed a fair nights sleep, clutching tight to my ruck-sack,disturbed only by the odd vagrant, and the street-cleaning lorry.

The next day, I phoned the British consulate in Marseilles to see about getting a replacement passport – I couldn’t get a new Inter-rail card without one – but they were closed till Monday. However, American Express came up with the replacement cheques, and I managed to cash them using my drivers’ licence; I could now afford a room for the night and found one, through the Tourist Information Office, in the Hotel Sybill. Ha,ha,ha, I thought, as I went up to my room – even though it was a 2-star place, this’ll be just like Fawlty Towers. I was wrong. It was a LOT worse.

There wasn’t really a carpet on the floor. The mattress on the bed had been rolled up against the wall,perhaps to avoid the plaster that was falling from the ceiling. The floor was littered with empty wine bottles, as well as a couple of cans of empty bug spray. Someone had moved a large chest of drawers in there, and added a trunk to the top of it for good measure – this took up most of the floor-space. The bed-linen had been thrown on the bed, along with a few miscellaneous towels, none of which looked as if they’d been near a washing machine for months. The window didn’t close either, and there was a distinct sound of Something scuttling behind the walls…

It was NOT a nice room. I’ve stayed in some dives in my time – this was a Grade A, five-star pit. I did consider complaining but spending the previous night on the beach had lowered my standards a lot and, besides, my French isn’t quite up to ‘My room has been hit by an Exocet’. I spent the rest of the day back on the beach. It was at this point that Fate stopped kicking me in the head.

Bruce Campbell demonstrates how NOT to smuggle weapons through Customs.

At about 9 p.m I headed back, not looking forward to a night in a room with noises from the walls. By now the manager was on duty at the desk, and I asked him for the keys to my room, 509. He went an odd colour and asked if I was sure of the room-number. I assured him I was. He then asked if I had already moved in. I said I had. He flinched noticeably and said that he already had ‘one or two bits and pieces’ in there. I told him I’d noticed.

To cut a long story short, I’d been given the key to the attic by mistake. I should have been given the keys to 510 instead, which was a very nice room. I’d recommend the Hotel Sybill to anyone, though if you get put in Room 509, make your excuses and leave. To their credit, they WERE extremely apologetic – don’t know who was more embarrassed, them by their mistake, or me by their over-enthusiastic attempts to make up for it. “Would m’sieur like another croissant? Perhaps another cup of coffee? Or maybe he would enjoy the use of the managers’ daughter for an hour or two?”. Ok, I exaggerate – not much though!

Monday morning, I was up bright and early, to go to the British consul in Marseilles for my replacement passport. I had to BUY a ticket there, which cost me 130 Francs ; a pretty good illustration of how good value the Inter-rail card is, since it’s only about a 2 1/2 hour journey. I phoned up beforehand to check what I needed to take with me, and then got the photos required from one of those machines – as ever, they looked absolutely nothing like me, and I wonder how I ever got through the border checks with my temporary passport.

Didn’t think much of Marseilles. I found it very noisy, crowded and dirty especially after the comparative peace of Nice. There seemed to be cars EVERYWHERE. The British consulate was on the third floor of a building, just above a doctors’ surgery, and there were several other people there, most of whom had also lost their passports. It was a very quick and painless process; if I hadn’t been who I claimed to be, it would have been quite easy to get a passport, as long as I had some examples of whoever I was pretending to be’s signature, and could forge it. However, as it had to be handed in on my return to Britain, I suppose it wouldn’t have been much use.

Although the train I was catching went via Marseilles, it got there at about midnight – I didn’t fancy hanging around for seven hours, so I came back to Nice and spent the evening there, before finally catching the train for Switzerland. And this time I managed to go further than one stop!

On the train I met three totally lunatic Englishmen – by now it was nice to speak English again, no matter who it was with. They got off at about 4 in the morning, in Grenoble, looking unhappy. Given the temperature, I can’t blame them.

Lional Rajappa / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

I slept on for another few hours before arriving in Geneva. At first, it struck me as a dull place, with every second building a bank or other financial institution; when I got into the older parts, I realised it was really a very nice town. The view from the top of the tower in the cathedral was quite beautiful; you could clearly see the enormous fountain on the edge of Lake Geneva (above), which at over 400 ft tall, is far bigger than any fountain has a right to be. The weather had improved, it was another warm and sunny day, which always helps!

Spent the night in Basle, at the youth hostel. Apart from Amsterdam, it’s the only place to have been visited on all four Inter-rails, though I never see much of the city since it’s position makes it an excellent base from which to tour. This year was no different. One night there, and it was off into the Alps, heading to Zermatt.

Some people think Switzerland is a boring place. This may be true – you don’t go there for the nightlife – it’s more than made up for by the scenery, which is just superb. Words can’t describe how beautiful it is; huge gorges, towering mountains and little villages precariously perched half up the sides of them, rushing streams where the water is so pure it looks strange and a sky blue enough to hurt.

The main reason for the trip to Zermatt was to take the cable car up to the top of the Kleine Matterhorn (Kleine means small in German – at 12,500 ft tall, it’s quite big enough, thank you!) – I’d wanted to do this last year, but I didn’t have the time, and couldn’t afford the 40 Swiss Francs (about 16 pounds) fare. This trip, I’d come prepared. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived, I only just had time to go up and virtually straight down again – maybe some year I’ll get the chance to get out at one of the midway points and go for a stroll.

However, it was more than enough. The trip up was incredible ; I saw my first glacier (disappointingly grey) and the views of the Matterhorn itself were wonderful. At the top, the air was thin enough that I felt dizzy to start with and any exertion made you breathe hard. I filled a water bottle with the snow at the top – unfortunately, I left it on the counter of a bank when I went in to cash a cheque. Wonder what they thought of it?

The youth hostel in Zermatt was placed at the top of a long, very steep hill that no normal Inter-railer would have tried to climb with a rucksack on. However, “normal” is not something I get accused of being very often,so I struggled up there – unsurprisingly, it was half empty!

The next day saw me on the famed Glacier Express, which runs from Zermatt to St. Moritz. If it’s possible to overdose on beauty,I think I did it that day. For eight hours I just stared out of the window and drank it all in – by the end of the trip, I was just about reduced to thinking “that’s nice” having gone through the most beautiful landscape in the world, and run out of appropriate adjectives.

Хрюша / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

On arrival in St. Moritz, I dumped most of my stuff in a locker, and headed off to the youth hostel. Even though I’d lost my membership card, both Basle and Zermatt hostels had let me stay with no hassle, but to my annoyance St. Moritz demanded the police report! Of course, this had been left in the locker which meant I had to buy a guest card. Scratch three quid from my rapidly shrinking supply.

Zurich. The third last day of my holiday and I discover my German is more rusty than I thought – I ask for a hot-dog at a stand in the street and am given a bottle of mineral water! However, later I manage to find a special offer outside some store – a sausage, hunk of bread and a glass of beer for the equivalent of 60p, which for Switzerland (where things like food are very expensive) isn’t bad. I thought about going round twice – every wasp in Central Europe was also there, so I went and sat down by the lake instead, where they were slightly less numerous. Finished the day sitting listening to a concert of Swiss brass bands – not what I’d normally choose to listen to, somehow it was an appropriate way to end my time in Switzerland.

The journey to Amsterdam was probably the least comfortable of the ones I had – seven of the eight seats in the carriage were occupied. Still managed to get a fairly good night’s sleep – after a while you can sleep anywhere!

I don’t know why I always seem to go to Amsterdam. It’s a thoroughly maddening place – it’s reputation means that everyone ought to be spaced out of their mind all the time, however the Amsterdammers are the NICEST people in Europe. Even the drug dealers are polite – “Would you like to buy some acid? No? Oh well, never mind”. I want to claim a record – I managed to walk the whole length of the main street, the Damrak, without being offered any illegal substance. Any other questions as to what I did in my time there should be directed to my solicitor – I deny everything!!

The boat trip home was fairly dull – fortunately there was a cinema on the boat, which I spent most of the time in. Saw “Beetlejuice”, which was quite entertaining, although the poor sound system made it tricky to hear some of the dialogue, especially Michael Keaton’s. The other film on offer was ‘Robocop’ which I’d seen before and was just as good this time around.

Why do I always feel guilty going through the customs, even when I’m carrying nothing even remotely illegal? Clearly, I can’t LOOK guilty, as I’ve never been stopped, but it’s no fun. The train to Liverpool Street had been cancelled due to engineering work and they’d laid on a bus instead, which wasn’t as good. Did the job though. Timed my arrival perfectly – I caught the hourly train to Farnborough with just 6 minutes to spare. However by the time I struggled off it at the other end, all the taxis had been taken, which meant I had a nice two-mile walk, laden down with all the junk I’d accumulated over the two weeks…

Now I find myself back at work,with a chance to reflect. Did I enjoy it? Yes, for the most part. I did a lot of things I hadn’t done before, went to places I’d not been before, some of which (Monte Carlo) I’d like to go back to, others (Marseilles) I’ll avoid. Looking forward to next time – roll on Inter-Rail ’89!!