Today I leave Italy for France. On previous trips to Europe, all of my travel (from country to country) has been by plane. But I wanted to have at least 1 long trip by train (other than the overnight trip to Verona), so I am going from Venice, through the Swiss Alps and on to Selestat.
I decided to leave the hotel by 6:30am to make my 8:30 train from Venice Mestre as I needed to get the water bus first, and then take a train from Saint Lucia to Mestre. Since I was leaving before breakfast was available, my "personal bartender" Vennichio arranged to have a travel breakfast for me at the front desk (another reason to like Hotel Flora!) -- peach juice, water, 2 apples, and a freshly-baked croissant.
I love seeing Venice before the city has woken up. All the gondolas are still tucked away, covered with their blue tarps, and the only other boats you see along the Grand Canal are delivery boats -- taking vegetables, supplies and even newspapers to the various stops along the Grand Canal, only to be transferred to smaller boats to make their way to their final destinations.
It ended up that I had an extra 60 minutes to spare as the water bus to the train station was 30 minutes (rather than 40 or so during the rest of the day) and then you can take any train leaving Saint Lucia to get to Mestre -- €1 for the 9 minute-ride. What takes the most time is hauling the suitcase from the hotel to the water bus, off the water bus and up the station stairs, down the stairs to the subway (that is, the pedestrian route between platforms) and then up another flight of stairs to the train platform. Then, you have to get it from the platform up to the train, usually only 3 stairs, but steep and not a lot of room to negotiate both yourself and the bag. I think I’m getting pretty good at this, and I tell myself that this is a good weight-lifting exercise to supplement my walking regime. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I actually feel that my bag is getting lighter during the journey, and that my biceps are more noticeable!
Anyway, I had enough time at Mestre station to have a double espresso and 1 last marmelatta brioche. Guess I’ll have to settle for pain au raisins or pain au chocolate in France. Too bad, eh?
My train from Mestre to Milan left at 8:32am and arrived at Milan at 10:55. Along the way, lots of cornfields and vineyards. Then, haul the bag off the train (best get off first and then pull it down, else risk tumbling after it). Thank goodness the train platforms are on the same level as the station at Milan, so I just had to wheel the bag to the end of the platform, check the platform number of the next train, and head over.
I had reserved seats for the entire trip, and all were window seats, so I knew that I was not going to get a lot done in the way of writing along the way, but I figured maybe there would be an opportunity to at least get SOME done. But it ended up that my trip from Milan to Basel (left 11:20am and arrived 3:32pm) was the most scenic part of the journey, as well as having an interesting person sitting next to me.
The scenery included a few places that are now on my “list” of places to go -- Desenzano
on the western shore of Lake Garda, and Meina and Stresa
, both on Lago Maggiore.
By 1pm we had already reached Varoz, on the border of Switzerland. People kept on piling onto the train at every stop, filling the aisles and hallways, creating havoc for anyone else trying to get off as well as for the man selling coffee and snacks from the trolley. It seems that Sunday must be the day for “moving on” for every backpacker in Switzerland! But I could definitely see why they were traveling in this part of Europe, particularly the town of Thun
, with its incredible setting. And the river rafting there sure looked inviting, especially when it seemed that Italian Rail turns off the air conditioning on the train once they leave Italy!
I also saw a lot of brown cows, bicycles, golf courses and the Lindt chocolate factory. At 1 point we went through a tunnel that was 15 minutes long.
My seatmate for the journey was Luca, a young Italian man traveling to Basel to speak at a summer university course. He was traveling with his girlfriend and her mother, who were sitting together a few rows up. Luca’s talk will be in English, so he was writing up his speaking notes. Only 1 of the electrical outlets appeared to be working, and since his job is obviously more important than my blog writing, I wasn’t able to turn on my computer for more than an hour or so (having used up some of the battery charge previously). We were discussing some English words, and Luca was teaching me some Italian words (all of which I have now forgotten!) and he said that I spoke Italian with a Roman accent.
Since I was "trapped" in the window seat, Luca kept an eye on our luggage (there was absolutely NO space for larger bags, and the overhead racks were smaller than airline compartments), especially as they tended to get shuffled at each stop. Then Luca started talking about how I should write a blog from the view of my luggage -- that would be pretty funny, and a good idea for a future article I think!
Arriving at Basel, I knew that I was in Switzerland because they had escalators to and from each platform (hallelujah!) and pay co-ed toilets -- 1 direction to the urinals and 1 direction to the stalls. Of course, when you come out of the stalls, you can see right into the urinal section, so not sure why they even had the 2 separate directions.
The train from Basel to Strasbourg was the TGV (inter-city fast train), and left Basel at 4:02. I wasn’t sure why it was going to take until 5:11 to get to Strasbourg, and then realized that it was going south to Mulhouse and then north, zooming past Selestat to Strasbourg. Getting on the TGV, an East Indian man was helping his mother(?) onto the train, grabbed my bag and threw it up onto the luggage rack above the seat across from me. Now it’s great that I had assistance, but I spent the next hour trying to figure out how I was going to get a 45-pound bag down without killing at least 3 other people!
When the time came (well, about 5 minutes before I knew we were arriving -- the trains are perfectly on time), I gently suggested to the man directly under the bag that it may be best for him to move. He lent a hand and it ended up a lot easier to get the bag down than it would have been to get it all the way up there.
My last train of the day was the 20-minute local train from Strasbourg to Selestat. I was met in Selestat at 6:11pm by Cecile, who I knew in Vancouver from about 5 years ago. She is originally from Selestat and now has a restaurant there with her partner, Andre. As it happened, Cecile was entertaining relatives from Nova Scotia and Alaska for 1 more day. So I had a quick drink with all of them in the garden at her house and then walked the 2 blocks to Hotel Majuscule
. I was informed that I was on the 3rd floor (that’s the 4th floor to you North Americans) and there was NO lift! But, what’s 1 more time with hauling bags when I’m getting so good at it!?
I settled into my huge room with an even larger bathroom, tired from my travels for the day, but ready to explore Alsace. The main reason for my visit here is to look into my paternal great-grandfather’s family. But first, a little information about the area:
Alsace is located on France's eastern border and on the west bank of the Rhine adjacent to Germany and Switzerland. The name "Alsace" derives from the Germanic Ell-sass, meaning "Seated on the Ill", a river in Alsace. The region was historically part of the Roman Empire. It was annexed by France in the 17th century under kings Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Alsace is frequently mentioned in conjunction with Lorraine, because the Germans possessed the 2 regions and named the province Alsace-Lorraine in 1871. Alsace changed hands four times between France and Germany in 75 years during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Although the historical language of Alsace is Alsatian, a Germanic language, today most Alsatians speak French, the official language of the country they have been a part of for most of the past three centuries. About 39% of the adult population, and probably less than 10% of the children, are fluent in Alsatian. Most of the Alsatian population is Roman Catholic, but largely because of the region's German heritage, a significant Protestant community also exists today.
There’s your geography and basic history lesson for the day. For those of you who wonder if anyone of note came from Alsace, 22 miles from Selestat, in Kayserberg, Albert Schweitzer was born in 1875.
Alsace is a very well-respected wine region, with some of the best Rieslings and Gewürztraminer wines in the world.