Monday, 17 June 2013
Phil takes the cool German High-Speed service from Brussels – and encounters a typically British delay...
I’ve been going to Germany for years. My Grandad was German, so a quarter of me has its origins in the European powerhouse. From the moment I first visited the country as a 10 year-old on a coach holiday with my parents, I’ve loved the place – especially the beautiful Rhineland-Pfalz area, including the wine growing region of the Mosel Valley.
Those early years involved road trips. 12-hour affairs that still required you to have some Belgian currency alongside the German Marks in order to access the toilets, ruled by fearsome women on Belgian service stations. Paying to use the loo has always been a European tradition that us Brits still haven’t really got used to.
My parents own property in the Mosel area, and they still do the trip the traditional way, via car and ferry. In more recent years, I’ve used the offerings of Ryanair to take me to Frankfurt Hahn – as usual nowhere near where people presume it to be (Frankfurt itself is over a 100km drive), but Hahn – a former American air base – is conveniently located around 20 minutes away from the Mosel river.
The cheap and cheerful service at one time flew from Birmingham, and was ridiculously easy to use for a quick getaway. More recently, flights from Birmingham and Manchester are no more, and the altogether more inaccessible Stansted is the only choice. The outrageously cheap tickets are also a thing of the past – and of course my green credentials were shot to pieces whenever I flew the O’Leary way. I’ve never subscribed to the Ryanair-bashing that appears from some quarters – I’ve usually received decent service from them – but I’ve increasingly fancied adding a little “romance” back into the journey; the idea that the journey itself is all part of the fun.
So I decided to make the journey via rail. Stourbridge Junction to Bullay. 6 trains, 1 large tunnel and a whole load of merriment!
First stop was the DB website. DB were hoping to run services direct from London to Cologne from 2011, but that’s still looking some years away yet, due to all sorts of wrangling. In the meantime, they offer a “London-Spezial” ticket that includes Eurostar, ICE (Inter City Express) and whatever other DB services you need to complete your journey in Germany. Mine cost 129 Euros, but it was a First Class ticket, and I booked it relatively late, so there are larger savings to be made if you go Standard and book further in advance.
My first two trains are reassuringly “normal”. London Midland from Stourbridge Junction to Birmingham, then Brum to London Euston. We’re passed regularly by Mr Branson’s tilting beasts – the nearest thing we have to High-Speed trains at the moment – but I’m happy enough tootling along at our slower pace, as I’m one train ahead of myself!
There’s even time to eat my own body weight in fat from a well-established burger outlet in Euston – I’m starving but conveniently ignoring just how many calories are in their breakfast offering, scrummy as it is...
Crossing the road outside Euston is not particularly for the feint-hearted. Who knows where the next vehicle of varying numbers of wheels will appear from? I could just wait for the green man to appear, but does anyone still do that? And is there actually a phase allowing this?
I ponder this as I pace past the supposedly haunted Fire Station on Euston Road and head for the splendour of St. Pancras. I promise myself one day to stay overnight in the restored hotel that adorns the front of the great station, and head inside, past the embracing couple and Betjeman – still gazing skywards.
Last month, my tickets failed to open the gate to passport control – and this month it’s no different.
“Ah, Deutsche Bahn” declares the Eurostar man, as if this isn’t the first time it’s happened. He waves me to a friendly lady who takes one look at my ticket, stamps it firmly in the most reassuringly non-technology-based way and smiles. Nothing seems to fluster the Eurostar staff at St. Pancras, who have probably seen everything all before.
Through passport control and into the waiting area, there are eyes fixated on the departure screens. The train to Disneyland Paris is slightly late. Smartly-attired ladies and gentlemen slip into the Business Lounge whilst I join the great unwashed with only the option of WHSmith to consider.
In the event, the Disney Train is only a few minutes late departing, and my Brussels departure is on time.
A breakfast offering presented on board as I gaze across the Kent countryside as we descend effortlessly under the water, rudely interrupting one lady’s phone call to the office (which is resumed a mere 20 seconds after we emerge (“I was under the channel – carry on”)
I’m still slightly nervous that I only have a 20 minute connection in Brussels for the ICE, but I needn’t have had concerns. The Eurostar is on time, and the on board announcements advise that my ongoing journey will be departing from platform 6.
In a few moments, I’ve made it up to my platform and the ICE is already there, with a digital screen announcing that it will begin boarding at 14:15. Time to join a handful of equally impressed travellers taking pictures of the handsome Siemens-built chariot. Like the Eurostar, its base colour is white, but unlike its channel-hopping cousin, the Germans somehow manage to keep it clean. My Eurostar was again rather down-at-heel dirty looking, by comparison.
With typical German efficiency, the doors are released at 14:15 precisely.
inside First Class on the ICE...
First class at first appears quite minimalist. But it portrays a huge sense of space and has easily the most legroom I have ever seen on a train, anywhere. The leather seats are very comfortable, but I can’t see any powerpoints to charge up my phone – my Eurostar journey had a continental powerpoint that not even my adaptor could adapt to!
I am actually “the man in seat 61” (with reference to the popular traveller/writer) on this trip!
This train is bound for Frankfurt ultimately, but I’m doing the Brussels – Cologne section – a route shared with Thalys. DB is disposing of its minority share in Thalys and seemingly a falling out has ensued. DB won’t be selling Thalys tickets through its outlets – something that I would see referred to in Cologne (more anon).
A screen informs us of all sorts of information, from upcoming stations, route information (in various languages, including English) and the fact that various styles of music are available through the headphone socket at your seat (is Virgin / CrossCountry still doing this?), but surprisingly, the time displayed is actually 4 minutes late.
Information...but the clock is late!
Free German newspapers are available and 2 smartly-attired DB staff join the equally well-presented train manager who is checking tickets. They enquire if we would like anything to drink. I partake in a sparkling water, wondering if this is part of the 1st Class offering. Alas, one of them returns 15 minutes later with a 3 Euro bill to confirm my suspicions that they’re merely an extension of the on-board bar.
We pass through the architecturally-interesting Liege station and on to the German border at Aachen.
The on-board announcer informs us that this is where all train will “await”. I wonder if I’ve slightly lost something in translation and ponder if trains would actually “await” (or “wait”) if we were running late (which we aren’t) – something of course we don’t do in Blighty.
More suited Ladies & Gents join the ICE at Aachen, many with suitcases. Maybe they’re heading off for flights as this service will also serve Frankfurt’s main airport later in the journey.
Entry into Germany is greeted by a heavy downpour, but the spirits are soon lifted by the appearance of the buffet car staff again, this time bearing tiny packets of Haribo sweets. Free.
The Greek bailout clearly hasn’t bankrupted the Germans. Yet.
My first glimpse of Cologne Cathedral is through the heavy rain, but if anything it only adds to the imposing, dramatic image. Many years ago, I first saw a black & white image of a devastated Cologne, bombed almost flat in the second World war – only Cologne Cathedral had somehow survived. Cologne is now, for many, a City of modern buildings that perhaps lacks in parts a sense of history due to the fact that it was mostly flattened, but the Cathedral surely gives it its sense of being. It is one of the great European sights. The man opposite sleeps with his mouth open. He’s obviously seen it too many times before.
Cologne Cathedral dwalfs the station...
I have 35 minutes connection time here before my next train to Koblenz, so I risk the downpour to stand outside the Hauptbahnhof and snap the beautiful building, which towers over the station. A notice outside the DB travel centre informs of the divorce from Thalys. Enquire within.
Thalys travellers - DB doesn't love you anymore...
It’s now the evening peak and the natives appear to be getting restless. I soon discover why.
“Overhead line damage” is a phrase unfortunately all too familiar to users of the UK’s West Coast Main Line, but I never expected to hear the dreaded words here! What’s more, it has delayed my connection by “around 55 minutes”. The smart-suited DB officials are being besieged by Cologne’s commuters, as the rain continues to lash the station roof.
Delays - German-style!
There’s only one thing for it – I go in search of sausage!
The Germans of course are famous for their sausages, but the bratwursts have sold out, so I partake in another variety that I can’t pronounce whilst I consult my Thomas Cook European Timetable book and the big yellow station ones to plot my next move. You can play with a model railway for 1 Euro...
Stress-buster! 1 Euro gets you a play with a model railway!
There’s an alternative Koblenz departure in 15 minutes, but it is a stopper, already itself delayed, and I wouldn’t have a reserved seat. And is my “Spezial” ticket valid? AND....there’s Kolsch (Cologne’s speciality beer) on sale....Decisions, decisions....
The queue to lambast the DB officials has subsided, so I decide to try my German – or more likely his English...
I decide to play safe.
“Do you speak English?”
He’s a helpful man, even after half an hour with irate fellow countrymen. He explains what I already suspected. The next Koblenz departure is a slow train and is delayed itself. It will take longer to get to Koblenz using this service than waiting for my own heavily delayed departure. I can use my “Spezial” ticket if I wish, but shrugs his shoulders, grins and says “It’s up to you” in his best English. He does assure me that my original train is on its way though. I decide to wait.
I’m surprised the Germans don’t show estimated arrival times of delayed trains, updated in real time. Here, the screen has doggedly not changed. 55 minutes late. That’s it.
I decide against the German beer possibility, just in case the 55 minute delay suddenly gets shorter. Instead I play my favourite game of “hunt the toilets”. I’m amazed to find Cologne’s station toilets cost 1 Euro – the most I’ve ever paid. The people of Walsall are up in arms at Centro’s proposals to charge 20p to use the bus station toilets – there’d be a riot if they charged the equivalent of 1 Euro there! The toilets though are very well-appointed and, dare I say it, almost worth 1 Euro. You can also take a shower – but that costs a breathtaking 7 Euros! Someone is getting rich quick here, deep in Cologne’s station toilets....
At least the Germans can do delayed trains with precision. My delayed train finally appears on platform 7 exactly 55 minutes late! This is a far uglier loco-hauled Inter City service than its glamorous ICE sister, but the First Class carriage is kitted out identically, with a cool blue interior and leather seats. And the ceiling is incredibly high – even I feel in proportion on this train!
German Inter-City - with high roof!
This carriage has power sockets to charge your phone, although there is only 1 to a double seat – what happens if you both need to charge? I guess there must be some protocol...
We finally depart Cologne a full hour late. The weather is fowl. Maybe this is part of what has been sweeping Central Europe recently. Either way, I’m not surprised there have been infrastructure problems.
We pass through the former capital Bonn, and then out towards the Rhine. The train skirts along the mighty river in the gloom of the early evening cloud and rain, but it’s still an impressive sight. Huge industrial boats pick their way along the water, carrying all sorts of freight, as they have for hundreds of years. We arrive at Koblenz, where the Rhine meets the Mosel around an hour or so later. I have around 40 minutes to wait here for my final connection – a regional service to Bullay.
Good information at Koblenz...
...but the weather problems have meant some services are still heavily delayed...
The station has a large newsagents-cum-bookshop, which I peruse to kill a few minutes. There is a special section on war books. It is only in more recent years that Germany has seemingly felt more able to publicly refer to the Second World War. It was a topic you never saw referred to, or spoken about even as recently as, I would say, 10-15 years ago. Now, bookshops have many items on the subject. The more recent event in German history has been the reunification of East and West. The Country’s leader Angela Merkel hails from the East, and, despite the economic crisis that has seen the Germans bailing out the Greeks to the tune of around 45bn Euros, and the resulting unease of the German taxpayers, the word on the street is that Merkel remains favourite to win a third term later this year in the election.
Having flipped through the German war books, I wander up to the platform to find my train already on the platform, a good 20 minutes before departure time. This is the Regional service that will cross over the border near Trier into Luxembourg.
The impressive upper-deck of a Regional DB train
Upstairs or Downstairs?
There’s no First class on here, but the train is still impressive. Spotless as ever, it is a double-deck vehicle.
It departs spot on time and we’re soon clinging to the side of the picturesque Mosel, although the view from the upper deck is one still of gloom and rain.
Next up, a Fawlty Towers moment with the ticket inspector!
I show him my self-printed ticket and he asks if I speak any German.
“A little”, I reply, and we ascertain that he can’t speak much English. He points out that I’m running over an hour late than the printed schedule, and I shrug my shoulders, explaining that the very English-esque “overhead line damage” had delayed me in Cologne. He flaps his arms gently like a new-born chick. He whips out his phone and starts to attempt to use the inbuilt calculator, and I suspect he is bizarrely going to attempt to try and charge me an excess fare, although I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t be paying for one.
He soon gives up on his calculator and whips out a pen instead.
“do you....er....know....er....the word ‘percentage’?” he offers?
He eventually writes down the number “25%” and points at it to me.
I then realise that, far from trying to charge me extra, he’s trying to tell me that I’m entitled to a 25% refund, due to being late!
“Compensation?” I offer.
He smiles and nods his head tentatively, and we both seem to agree on what he’s trying to say.
More smiles and he walks away, then returns and tries to zap my QR code on my ticket. He fails miserably, shrugs his shoulders, smiles again and wishes me a “gute fahrt” – a “good journey”!
Soon we travel through the “Kaiser Wilhelm Tunnel” between Cochem and Ediger-Eller. At over 4200 metres long, it was, until 1985, the longest tunnel in Germany.
And then its journeys end.
Bullay is a small, inconspicuous station on the Mosel, but an important interchange for the local service to Traben-Trabach, and for local bus services – a small bus station is adjacent.
From here, it’s a mere 2km or so to Zell, where I find one of favourite Restaurants.
Pork Schnitzel and BitBurger beer is a fine way to end a day’s Euro rail-travelling!
What to do in Mosel-land....
Whilst the mighty River Rhine is acknowledged as a World Heritage Area, it’s smaller sister the River Mosel is, for many, an often more picturesque experience.
Fairytale castles nestle amongst vineyards first introduced to the area by the Romans. Half-timbered houses are a feature of many of the small villages and larger towns that are dotted along the river.
Cycling along the river is a popular past time, and taking a river cruise is a must – a really relaxing way to spend a few hours, or even a full day, depending on your preferences.
The Germans are a big meat-eating nation – a traditional pork schnitzel is found on virtually every menu in this area, although fish and some vegetarian meals are increasingly on offer.
Grab a sausage in a bap from many of the snack bars on offer and sample the excellent wine – for which the area is famous. BitBurger and Warsteiner are just two of the excellent beers on offer too.
Public transport is adequate, although high frequencies aren’t a real feature. Bullay is the rail hub for this part of the Mosel, and you can get onto the wider network easily and quickly from here. There are a bewildering amount of day, 3-day and other public transport tickets available, depending on how far you want to travel – on weekdays, off-peak is after 9am.
The Mosel River is a mix of vineyards and fairytale castles. This is the larger town of Cochem.
Half-timbered buildings, Centuries-old, are a feature. Here in Cochem, the Shuttle bus linking the bus station and castle squeezes through the streets.
One of the best ways to experience the Mosel Valley is via a boat trip! There are small 1 hour trips, half-day, and full-day versions.
Historic buildings in Bernkastel
Smaller wine villages are also popular to explore. This is Beilstein.
The best way to see the Mosel - on a river cruise with a beer!