Interrail day five – Leiden to Zurich via Cologne

2 May

This is quite an exciting day for me because I have never been to Germany or Switzerland (except airside at airports, which doesn’t count). Up until now I had at least been to whichever country I was visiting before, if not the particular city

I have a GCSE in German, which felt like such an achievement when I was 16, but which has little enough practical value now. Even so, I feel a bit more confident speaking German than Dutch, and there’s less gargling with phlegm involved.

Lots of bikes at Leiden Lammenschans, naturally.

It was a fairly gentle start to the day, as a bit of research had revealed that I could start from the station that is (comparatively) near my hotel, and it would save me time. That meant I had time for a coffee at Utrecht, and to use the confusing toilets, which gave me a couple of 50 cent vouchers for a vending machine that did not exist, as far as I could see. I suppose if they have these mythical vending machines in Germany, I can see if they work!

The international train looked very swish – all white and pointy. Much more like my mental image of an international train, rather than the two-storey, yellow, blocky ones I’ve been getting up until now. It also had WiFi and electric sockets.Despite knowing that I was on the correct platform and the train was at the correct time, I still couldn’t help a tiny wave of panic as the train pulled out – “what if I’m on the wrong one?!” So relaxing, this international travel ๐Ÿ˜‚

Another thing that stopped it being relaxing was that I didn’t have a reservation. That hadn’t been a problem up til now, and as well as not wanting to fork out the โ‚ฌ6, I also didn’t want to cross the barriers at Utrecht to get to the ticket office in case anything went wrong getting back in. Anyway, the train was packed and while I got a seat for the first stop, I had to spend the next two stops wobbling in the corridor until half the train got off at Duisberg. What’s in Duisburg? Not much, I think, but it seems to be an interchange station for Dusseldorf Airport.

Not wishing to make the same mistake again, I went to the travel centre to make reservations for the way to Switzerland. Doing it last minute meant I had to adjust where I change trains from Mannheim to Basel, but with an Interrail ticket this is not a problem, of course. (Not that they seem to be big on checking tickets in Cologne anyway.)

Interesting, my minimal experience of Germany so far indicates that people are much happier to let me speak the local language. While in the Netherlands, if I spoke Dutch to someone they would be more likely than not to answer me in English, whereas here I have to ask people to speak English when I get stuck, and then we switch back to German once the difficulty is resolved. It’s more challenging but more satisfying. And if my old language teachers were reading this, they would probably laugh, because I had a lot less enthusiasm for languages in school.

I had an hour and 45 minutes in Cologne, and four things to accomplish: make the reservations (โœ”๏ธ), eat lunch, see the cathedral, and buy some emergency jeans.

I noticed at the hotel yesterday afternoon that my faithful Levi’s had developed a hole in the thigh. Like a sensible person, I had bought a sewing kit with me, and so I neatly darned them. However, after going out to get takeaway, I  found that a hole had opened up just next to the original one. I got see this becoming an unpleasant theme of the trip, so I quickly Googled Levi’s shops and found that there is one within easy walking distance of Cologne Hauptbahnhof.

The thing about Levi’s is that, while they are eye-wateringly expensive, they don’t change their styles every season, so if you know your size and the style, you can just pick up a pair that will fit without trying on 32 different pairs. Within 7 minutes of reaching the shop I had found, tried and purchased the jeans. Hooray!

Cologne, or what I saw of it, seems like a busy, commercial, major city, and not especially touristy once you get away from the cathedral. It feels like a capital city, in much the way that Glasgow does, I suppose. I would hazard a guess that it was once the capital of whatever German kingdom it was in.

I got chips for lunch, as that seemed to be what the locals were eating. They came with ketchup, mayonnaise and a word that I thought probably meant mustard. It turned out to mean onion. Well, I suppose it’s a vegetable, and if I am harbouring covid germs, it will keep people away from me. ๐Ÿ˜‚

So that just left the cathedral. Wow! I had seen it on the way to the shop because you can’t very well miss it; it’s incredibly huge and right next to the train station. But to see it up close is something else. As well as being immense in size, it’s immensely detailed. It’s full of statues and carvings and gothic twiddly bits (which are technically called crockets, in case you had ever wondered). Photographs can’t do justice to the scale of it, but you’re getting some anyway:

And that’s just the outside! I also nipped inside and took a few photos while feeling a little disrespectful, as it’s clearly a working church, even though that’s what many other people were doing too.

I spent so long ooh-ing and ah-ing over the cathedral that I cut it a little finer than I would have liked, but I got there in time to find my seat and settle in before being whisked away in the direction of Switzerland. There was the odd tantalising glimpse of pointy castles on hills and a slender bridge over a gorge, but we were mostly in cuttings or tunnels with no view at all, and then we went through flat and boring agricultural landscapes and industrial cities, so I watched the snooker instead of the scenery. By the time the train reached Freiburg im Breisgau, dark and rugged hills had started to appear on either side, hinting at the amazing scenery to come tomorrow.

Arriving in Switzerland was a bit of a shock to the system, after the ease of EU travel. I had to quickly turn off my mobile data because roaming is not free here, and when I went to buy a bottle of water and a sandwich, the prices were all in Swiss francs – and I have no idea how much they are worth ๐Ÿ˜‚ I did realise that Switzerland isn’t in the EU and I thought they might check my passport or something, but no, they only checked my knowledge of international currencies. In fact, no one has asked to see my passport since the hotel in Brussels. But I did see the Red Cross out in Utrecht Station holding placards with Ukrainian flags, ready to welcome Ukrainians with or without passports and visas so, so that was heartening.

On the train to Zurich I saw a Milka-styke rolling meadow and a castle on a hill to prove I’m in Switzerland but apart from that it was all boring industrial stuff until I got to rather swanky, modern-looking Zurich. Google maps still seems to work without mobile data, so I managed to find the hotel and a Aldi on the way. There is a rather distinctive overpass across the railway lines (it has a lift!) so if I can find that tomorrow I’ll be ok.

Now I’m very tired after travelling through three countries in one day, and I have a big day ahead tomorrow, with a hideously early start, so I’m hoping that Ronnie o’Sullivan will kindly win the snooker final in good time so I can catch some zzzs. Good night!

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