My last holiday – by which I mean my last proper holiday, not a visit to relatives squeezed in between school and lockdowns – was a family trip to Switzerland in August 2019.
I didn’t know then how long those holiday memories would have to last me.
Thanks to the pandemic, much of the last year is a bit of a blur: a hamster wheel of meals, chores and a daily walk. Routine and familiarity dulls memories, whereas the novelty and variety of travel crystallizes them. That last holiday stands out like a string of fairy lights in the fog.
Well, to answer that, I have to go further back, to my very first independent journey abroad, when I travelled by train from London to Florence to study Italian at a language school there.
This was so long ago it was before the Channel Tunnel, before the Euro, before even the Northern Ireland peace process. I left from Victoria Station, just a few days after it reopened following an IRA bomb. I had to take some francs to pay for the Metro across Paris, and to buy a croque monsieur at the station. And, on the overnight train from Paris to Rome, the Swiss border guards tapped on the door of our compartment and woke us up to inspect our passports.
"That was the first time I saw Switzerland, and I never forgot."
I looked sleepily out of the window and saw it was a starry night. But half the stars were blocked out by what I thought at first were clouds. Then I realised they were mountains, silhouettes reaching further up into the sky than any mountains I had ever seen. The train juddered into motion again, and I went back to sleep. That was the first time I saw Switzerland, and I never forgot.
My second visit to Switzerland would be longer, and considerably more comfortable. But would it be as memorable?
We took the train to London, then the Eurostar to Paris, had a sneaky night in Paris (you don’t get that when you fly on holiday), then spent an afternoon whizzing through the French countryside on the TGV to Lausanne.
We arrived in Switzerland late afternoon and easily found the last train to complete our journey. It was a double-decker commuter train, which whirred along the softly glamorous north shore of Lake Geneva to Vevey, the town where milk chocolate was invented. We spent a few days there, staying in an Air BnB at the top of a very old house near the lakeshore.
We wandered among the vineyards, took a cooking lesson at Alimentarium, the food museum, and caught a paddle steamer along the lake to medieval Chateau Chillon. We also made a day trip to Geneva to visit CERN, the site of the Large Hadron Collider and, more importantly, a witty multilingual visitor centre and gift shop.
That was part one of our holiday.
For the second part, we loaded our bags on to a train again to travel past the end of the lake, up the Rhone valley to Visp and, from there, into the mountains. Our destination was Zermatt, close to the Italian border. As the little mountain train wound higher and higher up the valley we found ourselves looking down on hamlets of sturdy cottages, each with a roof of overlapping sparkling stone tiles that looked like dragon scales.
At the second to last station there is a huge car park, because cars are not allowed in Zermatt. We saw the beauty of that as soon as we arrived – no traffic noise except the whine of electric bikes and trundling electro taxis, and the fresh and sparkling air. We walked up the middle of the high street where huge Swiss flags flapped against the blue sky, and took the first of many photographs of the Matterhorn.
"Cars are not allowed in Zermatt. We saw the beauty of that as soon as we arrived."
Are memories the real point of summer holidays?
I have recently realised that I tend to enjoy a holiday far more in retrospect than I do at the time. When I am there I’m worrying about finding my accommodation, boarding the wrong train, or making mistakes in a foreign language. Or I’m arguing with other family members about what to see or where to eat.
When I look back on the holiday, all that fades into the background. Minor disasters become funny stories, the itineraries we fought over seem inevitable with hindsight. The best moments come to represent the holiday, like thumbnail images.
"I enjoy a holiday far more in retrospect. The best moments represent the holiday, like thumbnail images."
Here are a few of my Swiss favourites:
- Taking my breakfast, of an espresso coffee and a chunk of Toblerone, out onto the balcony of our apartment, and breathing in the diamond-clear air.
- Thunder echoing around the alpine valley as rain trapped us in the cable car station at Füri.
- Learning that gravity is such a weak force that, when you drop your toast, it takes the mass of a WHOLE PLANET to make it fall to the floor.
- Eating a sausage with a beer outside a Zermatt butcher’s shop. Drop one crumb from your bread and you have a little fan club of sparrows.
- Finding brilliantly coloured wildflowers among the gravel and scree and realising for the first time why the Alps have given their name to a whole section at the garden centre.
In Zermatt I saw my first glacier, the Gornergletscher. This is reported to be the glacier whose year-by-year retreat convinced Theresa May, a Zermatt regular, that climate change was really happening. Is it thanks to the Gornergletcher that, as Prime Minister, she, in 2019, committed the UK to net zero, and brought COP26 to the UK?
Usually, I find the journey home from a holiday rather forgettable. Not this time.
To travel home, we had chosen a different route. Winding carefully down the valley again to Visp, we switched to a train that swept us right across Switzerland from south to north in a couple of hours. I had been hoping for a view of the Eiger, but we went into a long tunnel and when we came out the mountains were behind us.
We spent an afternoon and night in Basel, before catching a train that followed the Rhine Valley to Köln (Cologne). That was the first of four trains that had to connect up, otherwise we would not get home that day. Well, I will spare you my many German railway anecdotes: we made it home by bed time.
One holiday, five countries, three languages, many memories.
My tips for a train holiday in Switzerland:
- We travelled using Interrail passes giving 7 days unlimited travel within one month. Children under 12 can get an Interrail pass for free. But we still had to pay for reservations for the Eurostar, the TGV and the DeutcheBahn trains. No reservations needed in Switzerland.
- I booked everything online except the reservations for the TGV, where I needed to call a travel agent for help. Seat61.com was incredibly useful in explaining what I had to do.
- On a busy train there might be a lot of competition for luggage space. Take a squashy bag that you can lift to put on the overhead luggage rack if needed.
- Eating out in Switzerland is very expensive, so we stayed in apartments and ate a lot of picnics.
- Everyone we met in Switzerland spoke English, not for the benefit of British visitors, but because French-speaking Swiss people don’t like speaking German and German-speaking Swiss people don’t see why they should speak French. English is everyone’s neutral second language.
- Oh, but watch out – Swiss German contains lots of English loan words, including menu items such as burger and chips, that don’t mean the same thing in Switzerland that they do in Britain.
- To enhance holiday memories, keep a journal. On a miserable wet Sunday in January, get your journal out, and stick your photos and tickets in it.
- Swiss Watching, by Diccon Bewes, is a very entertaining guide to Swiss culture, history and politics. Recommended reading for the train.