Travel Story Zurich to London by train

Photo of Niall McIlroy

Taking the train is a great way to see Europe. The continent has a big, efficient network which often heads through towns and villages that the more modern motorways bypass. And with someone else doing the driving, one can sit back and enjoy the view.

I’ve flown over Europe perhaps a dozen times, from east to west, then back again. Above rivers, cities and forests, absorbing the names on the aircraft tracker in the seat-back in front of me. But high above the opaque cotton wool cloud that seems to permanently blanket the continent, there’s no way to feel a sense of place.

For the brief patches of clear sky that reveal forest, town or mountain range 38,000ft beneath are an itinerant tease, a glimmer of what lies below.

I’ve often dreamt of exploring Europe by train, on the myriad rail networks that crisscross the continent and both the internet and the existence of a number of travel companies has made it easier to combine train trips though numerous countries with accommodation close to a station each night.

I love the thought of not having to check-in two hours before departure. Hanging around airports drinking stale coffee doesn’t appeal to me. Neither does time spent delayed on a runway or waiting endlessly by a luggage belt for my case. But stretching out in comfort enjoying the European scenery sounds like a great way to travel.

But does it work in practice? Well, I’m about to find out for as I write these words, I’m looking across Zurich’s busy Bahnhofplatz to the grand Hauptbahnhof (Central Station). My train leaves in 90 minutes but I’m relaxed — in fact I haven’t even finished packing — for it will take me less than five minutes to check out of my room and reach the station.

I arrived two days ago on a one-stop Emirates flight from Perth and have explored Zurich’s beautiful Old City and its revitalised and chic west. I’ve eaten alpine macaroni in the city’s old arsenal and downed a whole caquelon of fondue in the pretty cobblestone streets of Niederhof. I’ve joined locals and expats at a pub to watch my football team play and I’ve still been in bed by nine on both nights. It’s been a thoroughly fantastic time and I’m raring for more — next stop Koblenz, some 339km to the north.

I’m dragging my case into the Zurich Hauptbahnhof and with a sea of people in front of me realise it’s a good first test of how well this cross-continental relay is going to work. More than 2900 trains pass through this cavernous station every day, the first one back in 1847 (I doubt it’s still running) and by some estimates this is the world’s busiest station. We’re right at the heart of Europe and this is the “pacemaker” for the Swiss network. Delays at Zurich HBF can ripple into waves nationally.

I’ve been cautious on the first leg of my trip and my Eurocity service to Koblenz isn’t even showing up on the big blue departure board. But with my pre-printed tickets, it all goes without a hitch and at platform 15 I take a seat next to a young Swiss Panzer officer. Gun slung over his shoulder, he’s slamming a sandwich into his mouth while jabbing furiously at his iPhone. Then he lights up and I break ranks.

The train to Bern eases slowly away exposing two sets of hard brown track and I’m instantly transfixed by the symmetry in these lines that disappear off further than I can see, always the same distance apart for hundreds of kilometres.

I find the correctness agreeable and comforting, as I do the sound of train on track and I relish the thought of hanging my thoughts off that repetitive clack. I enjoy that rail is gradual — no sudden starts or stops, I delight in the surprise of a dark tunnel and prize the feeling of adventure there is in exploring away from the roads. That I have five hours through the Swiss and then German countryside to look forward to exhilarates me with possibility.

The train arrives and I board the first-class carriage where the wide burgundy seats have plenty of leg room. They are all numbered and marked with the route information of the passengers. I spot mine, a single seat marked 41 — Zurich HB – Koblenz HBF, but quickly switch to a set of two doubles across the train.

I take them to be vacant and no one seems to mind. The conductor who checks my ticket in a mush of Swiss-German doesn’t raise an eyebrow and I am comfortable as we slink out of Zurich, north past squat apartment blocks through the foggy suburbs and into the forest.

Legs outstretched, as if in business class on a plane, I contentedly watch as we pass between the flowerboxes of Buchs, then through Aarau before I’m roused by portly N. Mohammed pushing a “mini-bar und café”. The $4.20 coffee is strong and just the trick as we pass through yet another rail yard, but the industrial belt soon passes as northern Switzerland shows off its beauty. 

The fog evaporates and the low forested Jura Mountains that straddle the German border appear. We cross a swollen river where a single Swiss flag has been hammered into the bank. Then all is dark and my ears pop before we emerge from a tunnel into green pastures around Tecknau. 

I’m always interested in the purpose or story of a place. Why a town is where it is. We sweep through Liestal, south of Basel, it is an industrial town that has had more glorious days. First settled by the Romans, it was of prime importance on the road between the first bridge over the Rhine and the St Gothard Pass which linked German and Italian-speaking Switzerland.

The locals cheered Napoleon and his armies as he passed through on the way to Austria in 1797. But although none of this is obvious from the rail line and I cannot see Liestal’s cobbled old city, I’m still pleased to know it’s there, that all this happened.

I’m very aware that we’re about to cross my first border but I’m wondering if I’ll even know when it happens. Growing up in a country with no shared borders makes it a bit of a novelty but as we leave the roads behind and the track traverses slopes of lime and purple vines, I have a feeling it’s been and gone. 

I buy a coffee and roggenvolkornbrot — a rye bread with ham, salami and gouda for about $10. The vendor’s guttural German gives way to cheery English and he tells me there’s tomato and mozzarella if I’d rather Italian. When he asks me for euros, I know we’re in Germany and my suspicions are confirmed as we slide through Bad Bellingen.

A succession of small angular roofed towns are separated by the vast vineyards of this area famous for white wines such as pinot gris and pinot noir, but also lesser known varieties such as gutedel. These Upper Rhineland plains have a milder climate, fertile soils and a cosmopolitan outlook. This little pocket is called Dreilandereck, or three-countries, for it is where Germany, Switzerland and France meet.

Railways often pass through rather insalubrious parts of a town but I’m pleasantly surprised by the moss-covered banks topped with cream, pink and soft orange houses with triangular roofs we see in Freiburg.

This soon gives way to cornfields where a pair of storks pick carefully near a river that threatens to burst its banks and, not for the first time, I find myself relaxed by the rhythm of the train and the autumnal swash of the passing landscape which broods under a grey sky.

As we sweep through Lahr on the edge of the Black Forest, I try but fail to photograph the Lutheran Stiftskirche, a late-Gothic basilica which casts a ghostly shadow in the Rhine Valley fog.

Factory towns come and go, not exactly easy on the eye but interesting nonetheless. This is the heart of Baden-Wurttemberg, one of the Four Motors for Europe — a heavily industrialised powerhouse where Porsche, Daimler and Carl Zeiss all have headquarters and, while not pretty, these towns are pistons of the German economy and make up one of the wealthiest regions of Europe.

Sunlight fills the milky blue sky as we spear northward between the Rhine and the Black Forest. A 737 finds its level fresh from take-off but I know its passengers won’t enjoy their journey as much as I am, especially now as the sunlight catches the late-October forest and the firs and conifers blush rust, golden, green and purple as we pull into Karlsruhe, a garden city said to be an inspiration for the designers of Washington DC.

On the horizon I see the steeple of the old church at Graben- Neudorf, a former trading centre that was reduced by war in the 1600s when the population plummeted to 42. This time it is forest rather than fog that stops me getting a clear shot at a church.

Amazingly, although we’ve followed it for hundreds of kilometres, it is only at Mannheim that I get my first (confirmed) sighting of the Rhine as we cross the wide river via a sturdy steel bridge.

Outside Worms, a city that lays claim to being the oldest in Germany, the afternoon sun dances on the low hills which usher us north to Oppenheim where gold and purple patchworks of vines grow almost perpendicular to the tracks, and the light casts shadows through Saint Catherine’s Church being renovated on the hill. It is a blissful scene and I want to stop the train and get out.

The river reappears on the right as we enter Mainz and then, without warning, we’re following the steep western bank of the UNESCO Heritage-listed Rhine Gorge. We pass a succession of gorgeous half-timbered towns. In each, a church steeple points to the sky in front of rows of vines which sweep, almost at right angles, away from the river and back up the eastern face of the gorge. 

Wine has been produced here for more than 1000 years and some towns such as Braubach were important enough to be protected by a castle — the fortress of Marksburg still stands above the village high on the gorge. It’s almost unspeakably beautiful as the sun low in the west glints off the Rhine waters and I’m aware that all eyes in my carriage are on me — as another castle comes into view and I bounce up to snap it.

For me this is a classic travel experience. For most of them, it’s a commute. I alight at Koblenz on the tributary of the Rhine and Moselle on time at 4.11pm. But I can’t help thinking it wouldn’t matter if we were late. Koblenz isn’t going anywhere — the city turns 2021 years old this year.

My new three-star hotel is just metres from the main station and with a few hours before nightfall, I set off through leafy Koblenz finding the Rhine within minutes. I head north along the towpath past beer gardens, cavorting couples, monuments I can’t read, and a group of young Italians feeding ice-cream to a pigeon. A woman eyes me suspiciously as I smile at her dachshund.

And within 20 minutes I’ve reached the confluence of the Rhine and the Moselle where the wide promontory of Deutsches Eck or German Corner was settled by the Teutonic Knights in 1216. Today it’s dominated by an imposing statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I on horseback and includes sections of the Berlin Wall.

And I watch as a riverboat carefully negotiates one of the prettiest corners in the world, turning from the Rhine into the Moselle.

Er, whisper it quietly, but I think the 10.43 from Koblenz to Cologne is a minute late. I check my watch twice to make sure it hasn’t stopped and then wonder if the world is about to. But none of the other passengers seem particularly worried and I board the Deutsche Bahn Intercity service. There’s even more room than on the previous train with footrests and tray tables and a waiter comes to ask if I’d like something to eat or drink. But I decline, for the 79km journey north to Cologne is only an hour long.

I have roughly half a day in Cologne where the weather is sunny and I enjoy a lovely fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants day that will live long in the memory, managing to climb the 509 steps of the cathedral belfry, taking a stroll by the beautiful Rhine and enjoying a couple of poles of the regional beer Kolsch. I even find time to visit a Mustard Museum — it’s fair to say Cologne leaves a good taste in the mouth.

The penultimate morning of my rail trip across Europe brings the crowning of a new favourite train station. Yes, grand old Zurich has been toppled, replaced on the gold medal step of the terminal podium by Cologne.

From the dazzling neon signs at either end of the station to the escalators that whisk passengers away to the clearly marked platforms, Cologne is the king of Hauptbahnhof. 

There’s even a coffee kiosk on the platform — and I’m immediately regretting buying the worst long black in history down at bakery Kramps in the main terminal. But best of all, the noticeboard on the platform shows the carriage configuration of every service stopping there that day. And this isn’t just useful for anoraks to fill in their notebooks, it’s incredibly practical.

I'm in carriage 29 which is a first-class compartment on the ICE 18 International 7.43am service to Brussels, and I can see from the board that I need to be on the far right of the platform which is about 100m long.

The train is the most modern of the trip so far with wide, adjustable leather seats with AC power for laptops and head pillows. My allotted seat faces back up the train which leaves me feeling a little queasy so I shift to a forward facer and have settled in nicely by the time the attendant brings me a slightly better coffee in a real mug. 

I spend the next hour and a half praying no one with a ticket bearing sitzplatz 54 turns up. A man gets on and holds a business meeting on his mobile phone and I consider sitting in one of the quiet booths where such conversations aren’t allowed. It’s incredible how sensitive one becomes to such things after enjoying peaceful phone-free days.

In fact, it’s only just occurred to me that, all the way through Switzerland to the far west of Germany, I haven’t had to listen to another person’s phone conversation. Unlike an in-the-flesh conversation, I can only hear one end of it, so even the pleasure of eavesdropping is removed. Someone else’s mobile rings the same as my alarm tone and my head almost explodes over the nice clean window.

We have another border crossing today and it’s one I don’t want to miss. Germany to Belgium — surely there’s a monument, a light in the sky . . . an announcement on the PA? Nothing. I do eventually spot some graffiti — “wolf arse” but that could be any of a number of languages. Still, I’m enjoying it on the train as we hurtle at 207 km/h across fields still cloaked with mist in the weak morning sun.

I finally have confirmation that I have again missed the border, when, not long after leaving Aachen, the train stops at tidy little Hergenrath where the platform timetables state: “Infrabel vous souhaite bon voyage.” It may as well mean welcome to Belgium and I know I’m in the lowlands when the straw fields sweep flat to the horizon on either side of the train.

My thoughts turn to Brussels where I have nothing planned. It’s another city that’s new to me and it’s all very exciting — a bit like Cologne but with more time to spend, so I might book a walking tour.

But all of that goes out the window. I realise quite late that my hotel is at Brussels Nord rather than the central station so I get off two stops earlier than planned and then at check-in it occurs to me that I’m at in the hometown of a childhood inspiration — Herge’s cartoon character Tintin — the boy reporter who travels the world solving mysteries. I head for the Belgian Comic Strip Centre and then spend the rest of the day exploring this compact and extremely beautiful city where the city hall and the guild houses combine to make the Grand Place a real jewel in the crown.

In the afternoon I drink Orval and Leffe, eat a lunch of Flemish beef and frites and watch what really does seem like the world passing through the square. 

Again my hotel is extremely comfortable and, contrary to my first impressions, quite central to both station and city.

The final leg of my trip is the Eurostar to London but it isn’t due to leave until 3.56pm and I’m grateful to the hotel staff when they give me a late 2pm checkout. I make the two-station hop from Brussels Nord to Gare Du Midi in good time.

It’s hard not to. There are services every three or four minutes at that time of day and I still arrive too early for check-in and passport control.

I have lunch at a pub outside the station, enjoying one last goblet of Orval. The clearly microwaved ravioli is not up to scratch, especially at $14. 

Back in the terminal I join my first queue of the trip, rather appropriate for a train bound for England. And it’s a long one, too, apparently made worse by the fact that only one passport control is open and this causes at least one temper flare-up among the passengers. Oh well, it’s better than missing the train.

I fill in a UK landing card, have my passport stamped and put my baggage through security. But one would never complain about customs at an airport if it were this quick, despite there just being the one passport control.

The train leaves on the dot and soon I’m in a comfortably large seat with my laptop plugged into the power. And here you find me tapping away again, live as it were, just as I was on that first morning in Zurich.

We’re hurtling at 296km/h west across flat Belgian farmland past Friesians, plump sheep and old red silos, bound for Lille and then London St Pancras. A meal arrives — salmon and salad, and rice pudding, a little chocolate and a bottle of wine. “It’s included in your coach class ticket, ” the conductor explains.

“I could get used to this, ” I think. The darkness of the Channel Tunnel, that 50km-long marvel of engineering, arrives and it is like a blank tapestry on which memories of the past five days are painted.

Of slicing through the pasture and low ranges of northern Switzerland, watching the rural idyll and industry of Baden- Wurttemberg pass by and of staring quite agog at the exquisite villages of the Rhine River gorge.

It is a true picture of Europe, one not spoilt by delay, sullied by stress nor obscured by cloud. It is Cologne’s famous Kolsch and bratwurst dipped in mustard made with beer, fondue and 509 steps to the top of the cathedral and of a comic book hero, too.

But I didn’t drive a mile nor spend a euro, franc or pound in petrol. I just turned up at the station when required and let Europe’s train network do the rest. And these flashes of memory will play and repeat as surely as the rhythmic clack of train on track.

Niall McIlroy visited Europe as a guest of Railbookers.

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