ROGER COX Gallery images

Bed and Board

Published: The Scotsman (Section: TSMAG) 14 Mar 2009

Travelling by rail means you can sleep easy in your bunk and still reach one of Europe’s top ski resorts in time for breakfast.

IT’S DAWN ON A CRYSTAL-CLEAR January morning and I’m lying in bed, watching France profonde flash by outside my window. Mostly it’s forests and farmland, but every now and then the Munich to Paris sleeper rumbles past tiny villages – clusters of grey buildings huddled around illuminated churches. It’s easy to forget how sparsely populated France is when you fly straight into one of its cities; when you take the train across it, though, you realise how much of it is countryside. Even a couple of hours later, as we click-clack past high-rises on the outskirts of Paris, it’s hard to shake the impression that, at heart, this is still a rural nation.

For the last two weeks I’ve been travelling around Europe by rail, taking advantage of some of the best snow conditions the Alps have seen in years. I’ve been dreading this final leg of my journey – a 27-hour epic from Schladming, Austria, all the way back home to Edinburgh via Salzburg, Munich, Paris and London. Lying in my cabin, though, watching smalltown France gradually turning its lights on, I realise I don’t want it to end. Not until I’ve had my continental breakfast, anyway.

To fly or not to fly? It’s one of the defining questions of our age, an ethical grenade. Want to spice up a dull party? Simply lob the flying question into the middle of a conversation, then stand well back and enjoy the fireworks.

Most people seem to have worked out where they stand on the issue and have their arguments well rehearsed. The frequent flyers point out that the aviation industry only accounts for about three per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions every year, so what’s the big deal? The deep green, trains-only brigade counter that air travel is the world’s fastest-growing source of CO2 emissions and that nobody really needs to fly anyway. Back and forth it goes, until someone gets a drink in the face.

This winter, as an experiment, I decided to give long-distance rail travel a try. A group of friends were flying to Austria for a week’s snowboarding – I’d take the train and meet them there. Then an opportunity came up to spend a week in Chamonix with Neil McNab – legendary mountaineer and backcountry snowboarding expert. Perfect: I could combine the two. And as I’d be passing through Switzerland anyway, why not stop off in Zurich, pick up a skiing buddy and take him along for the ride? This was going to be easy – now all I needed to do was book my tickets.

My itinerary involved 17 connections spread over five different rail networks. The prospect of making all those phone calls was daunting, so thank goodness for Rail Europe – a one-stop-shop for all your European rail travel needs. Simply tell them where and when you want to go and they’ll do all the hard work. No need to phone the SNCF head office to enquire about early morning trains between Chamonix and St Gervais Les Bains in schoolboy French – Rail Europe has it covered.

The first leg of my trip, from Edinburgh to Chamonix, begins in style – first class on the National Express East Coast service from Edinburgh to London. There’s a slight hitch, though: an unscheduled change in Newcastle due to engineering works. Skis and snowboards have to travel in the guard’s van on UK trains, so this necessitates some hasty running up and down platforms. Still, there’s free tea and biscuits to make up for it, not to mention more legroom than I know what to do with.

I leave Edinburgh at 10am, get to King’s Cross at 3:45pm and walk over the road to the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras. It feels like an airport, only more glam. Security’s less of a hassle here too. There are no queues, nobody frisks me and nobody orders me to take my shoes off. The Eurostar leaves bang on time at 5:35pm and arrives in Paris, as advertised, at precisely 9:17pm. After the inevitable delays that seem to come as standard on budget airline flights, all this punctuality comes as something of a shock to the system. Still, I cope.

A serious eco-warrior would have taken the Metro from Paris Nord to Paris Austerlitz to make the next train, but given the amount of gear I’m carrying – and the amount of CO2 I’ve already saved (a little over 0.2 tonnes, according to www.co2balance.uk.com) – I decide it’s OK to take a taxi. I have a nice chat with the Moroccan driver. He’s much better at chatting than driving, so we almost die twice. On the plus side, he drives very fast, so we get to Austerlitz with time to burn.

The sleeper from Paris to St Gervais Les Bains is made up of six-berth compartments, but hardly any of them seem full. There’s just one guy in mine – a physiotherapy student returning home after attending some lectures in the Big Smoke. We leave at 10:46pm, get a good night’s sleep and arrive at St Gervais Les Bains at 9:11am the following morning. From there, it’s just a quick hop to Chamonix on the spectacular TMB mountain railway. I arrive at the tiny station at Les Houches, a short walk from the McNab chalet, at 10:01am – 24 hours and one minute after leaving Edinburgh.

That might sound a long journey, but bear in mind I’ve been asleep for a good chunk of it and, in snowboarding terms at least, it has hardly lost me any time at all. Had I left my flat at the same time on Saturday morning and caught a flight, I would have arrived in Chamonix too late in the afternoon to get on to the hill. True, I would have been able to catch the first lift up on Sunday morning, but as it is I’m checked in, changed and at the ticket office at La Toule just after midday. I’d never noticed before making this trip, but many of Europe’s top ski resorts have excellent rail links. This is more than just a happy coincidence – the history of skiing in Europe is intimately bound up with the history of rail travel.

As Wayne Johnson explains it in his recent book on skiing, White Heat: “The international ski racing scene as we know it today began in Europe with the expansion of rail service in the 1880s. Rail access to mountain areas popularised the sport of downhill skiing, the rail companies aggressively advertising and glamorising what had been, until that time, a pastime of the superwealthy.”

Thanks to our Victorian forefathers, then, many of France’s premier ski resorts – Chamonix included – are surprisingly easy to get to by train. In Switzerland, though, it’s just ridiculous. In fact, some Swiss resorts – like Flumserberg, where I’m headed next – could not be more train-friendly if they tried.

Zurich Main Station, Saturday morning, and there are skiers and snowboarders everywhere. And why not? With several resorts less than an hour away by train, a quick morning ski here is about as much hassle as going to the gym.

Flumserberg is only 45 minutes from Zurich, but it’s by no means a token suburban ski hill: in addition to a good mix of groomers it offers an extensive off-piste zone which includes the “Terza” ski route – a 6km blast from Seebenalp (1,622m) all the way down to the valley. The train from Zurich drops you at the pretty lakeside village of Unterterzen, and from here it’s no more than a 100-metre stroll to a high-speed gondola which whisks you up to the slopes in less time than it takes to put your boots on.

I’m assured that Flumserberg can get hellishly busy, but this Saturday it’s quiet, so we spend a full day on the hill and then head back to Zurich for an evening meal. If we’d really wanted to, however, we could have woken up early, squeezed in a few hours in the morning and made it back to the city in time for lunch. For about five minutes after realising this, I seriously consider trying to wrap my head around the intricacies of Swiss-Deutsch so I can move to Zurich.

Still, there’s no time for language lessons: my next stop is Schladming in Austria’s Dachstein Mountains, where the rail links are only marginally less impressive than those in Switzerland. Not only is Schladming itself on the main line from Salzburg to Graz; some smaller resorts in the same valley, such as Galsterberg, are linked up by regular train services. Planai and Haus – the two ski hills directly above Schladming – offer a huge mixture of terrain between them, but when there’s a big dump of snow, nearby Galsterberg is the place to find steep, deep powder.

Even though some of its best tree skiing has recently been bulldozed to make way for a downhill race course, there’s still plenty of off-piste terrain to enjoy off the top of Kalteck (1,976m). And if you’re prepared to do a little hiking, the drop off the side of nearby Pleschnitzzinken (3,111m) is worth the effort. On a clear day, the views from the big wooden cross at the end of the ridge are breathtaking, and the steep, wide-open descent on the mountain’s east face takes you almost directly to the door of the Galsterbergalm Hutte for a nerve-settling schnapps.

Galsterberg has a real backwater feel: most of the time there are only a handful of cars in the car park and skiers on the slopes. Strange to think, then, that the railway that passes through the little village of Pruggern at the bottom of the hill runs uninterrupted all the way back to Edinburgh. All that lies between this Alpine paradise and platform 11 at Waverley is a couple of thousand kilometres of track. sm

FACTFILE EUROPEAN SKIING BY RAIL

HOW TO GET THERE

Return fares from London to Schladming with Rail Europe start at GBP 251 per person (London to Paris, Paris to Munich overnight, Munich to Salzburg, Salzburg to Schladming). Or, an InterRail pass offering five days of travel in a ten-day period costs GBP 229. Tel: 0844 848 4070, visit www.raileurope.co.uk Advance returns from Edinburgh to London with National Express East Coast start at GBP 33 Standard Class (GBP 95 First Class). Tel: 08457 225225, www.nationalexpresseastcoast.com or ask at any staffed station.

WHERE TO STAY

In Chamonix: Hotel Chris-tal (www.chris-tal.com) in Les Houches is just a ten-minute walk from Les Houches railway station. Rooms start at ¤75 (GBP 66.50) per night.

In Zurich: The Hotel du Theatre (www.hotel-du-theatre.ch) is centrally situated, five minutes’ walk from Zurich main station. Rooms start at 295 CHF per night (GBP 177).

In Schladming: The traditional Alte Post hotel (www.alte-post.at) is situated in the main square. Rooms start at ¤79 (GBP 70).

AND THERE’S MORE

To find out how much greener a train is than a plane, see www.co2balance.uk.com/co2calculators

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