We returned earlier this month from a trip that took us by rail to Pontresina, Locarno and Lausanne in Switzerland; the village of Aying just outside Munich, Vienna and, at the end, Zürich.
For those who think we travel only by automobile, our last four trips have been almost entirely by train.
You'll get a more complete rundown of what we liked and didn't like in subsequent issues, but here are a few quick impressions:
Italy's much ballyhooed new fast train, the Cisalpino (pronounced cheese-alpino), which we rode from Domodosolla in Italy to Lausanne (a segment covered by the Swisspass), was a bit of a let down. The ride is smooth but the coaches' windows are way too small and there is a permanent table between each set of four facing chairs and the sets of two facing chairs. You must deal with the legs of these tables each time you get in or out of your seat. And, though we didn't measure, leg room seemed a little cramped compared to cars of the Swiss, German and Austrian railways. Still, it was a good ride; comfortable and scenic.
When rounding a curve, Cisalpino coaches bank like an airplane but the ride on SBB trains and on the German fast trains is at least as smooth.
In Munich's Hauptbahnhof, just outside the Deutsche Bahn (DB) reservations and information office, is a computerized train info box. English is one of its languages and once you get the hang of the wheel and button which take the place of a computer mouse, you can, by entering origination and destination cities and countries, printout a desired itinerary. Very handy.
Arriving at the station about 11am via the Munich S-Bahn from Aying, we had no idea when the next train was to Vienna. This little machine, however, quickly gave us a trip plan. The next train to Salzburg was in about 25 minutes and there, after a 15-minute stopover, we could catch a train to Vienna.
Swiss trains are tremendous but I must say I like the practice aboard German trains of distributing little leaflets which detail the route and stops along the way. Also welcome are the notes on connections and other info such as services available on that train.
The new thing now in swank hotels is no check-in counter. We first saw this a few years ago at Albergo Giardino in Ascona. You sit in comfortable chairs at a desk and are poured a glass of champagne or a juice or mineral water while filling out the paperwork.
Though you'll hear more in later issues, here are a few recommendations from our just-completed trip:
1. For an inexpensive, exotic evening try Beograd (Mühlgasse 15/Schikanederg 7, tel. +43/1/587-4444), an atmospheric Vienna restaurant featuring Balkan food and Gypsy/Viennese music. It's the best place we've found since the Café Budva closed a few years ago. Reserve a table for 8pm and expect to pay less than $20 per person.
2. The Hotel Arlette (Stampfenbachstrasse 26, CH-8001 Zürich, tel. +41/01/252 0032, fax 252 0923) is a good value near the Zürich railway station. Double rooms on weekends are a reasonable-for-Zürich 175 Sfr. ($117).
3. A top value/top hotel in Pontresina is the former Atlas now reborn as the Hotel Saratz (CH-7504 Pontresina, tel. +41/081/939 4000, fax 839 4040). Great food, too. Doubles from about $125 to $225.
4. Villa Pauliska (Via Orselina 6, CH-6600 Locarno-Muralto, tel. +41/091/743 0541) offers more quality and charm for the money than anything else we saw in Locarno. Clean, airy double rooms with wonderful high windows and ceilings and good bathrooms go for from 130 to 150 Sfr. ($87-$100). Outstanding restaurant, too, with creative, five-course, fixed-price menus at about $35. One drawback; no breakfast, only coffee. It isn't that breakfast isn't included, it's simply not offered.
Europeans must prefer rough, not-very-absorbent toilet paper and bathroom tissues. Even at the best hotels, such as the great Beau Rivage Palace in Lausanne, these items are a very fine grade of sandpaper.
While we're at it, I might just as well have a say on showers. Whether there is scientific evidence on the subject, I don't know, but empirically I know one gets cleaner, faster, and uses less water than in a bath. However, in the countries we cover, rooms with showers are considered less desirable than those with just a tub. Hotel operators say most Europeans prefer a tub, Japanese guests must have a tub and Brits simply won't rent a room without one. With five-star joints you usually get both but most of the time, most of us shower lovers have to make the best of a tub with a hand-held sprayer. The trick is to get the majority of the water on you and not on the bathrooms walls, floors, ceilings and mirrors. In this, I have had but limited success.
And, finally, a domestic airline tale. Thursday, April 9: a 45-minute morning rain squall near the San Francisco Airport brings United Airlines San Francisco to Los Angeles shuttle service almost to a halt. Flight delays are as long as five hours; the terminal is jammed to overflowing; temperatures are at sauna levels; most of the trickle of information supplied by United personnel turns out to be wrong. An 11:30am flight that should have gotten us to L.A. in plenty of time for our 3pm Swissair flight is first announced as delayed 30 minutes, then 45 minutes, then two hours, then there is a mechanical and so on. We wait in three different standby lines for nearly three hours and finally wind up on a flight not the one we booked that gets us to L.A. at 4pm. We are lucky. Our Swissair flight has been delayed for 90 minutes and we make it just as the door is being closed. A little tip: Southwest does the shuttle thing far better.