Wednesday we travelled right across Switzerland to see our friends Heinz and Maria-Luisa who live in Grabs, close to Lichtenstein and to the Rhine, which forms the border with Austria at this point. The five hour journey took us through Lausanne, Fribourg and Bern to Zürich, where we changed trains, to go south in the direction of the Alps, on the Chur/Coire train for an hour to Sargans, where we changed to a local train for Buchs, then finally a bus to Grabs. It's our first visit here in twelve years.
As we crossed the country, we passed from warm sunshine and clear skies into cooler regions with rain. It was quite a pleasant relief after a fortnight of heat, and the mountains wreathed in cloud looked particularly dramatic. What immediately struck me was how bright were the greens of the grass and trees. The Suisse Romande appears parched, although this is not really the case, as grain crops are widely grown, and the huge fields are golden brown colour before and after harvesting.
Our friends trained with Clare in Stourbridge twenty years ago, and we've kept in touch since they returned home. Naturally, there was a great deal of catching up to do. We saw them at home last, during the first winter in their new eco-house, designed innovatively at that time to have a minimal carbon footprint. It was a old rural village house made largely of wood, and its interior was transformed to optimise conservation of energy, which means that all year round is is never too hot not too cold.
We were given a room in the roof with a picture window balcony view across the Rhine valley to Austria, wreathed in clouds. Its wooden walls and roof are one, like a large barrel a train tunnel, a beautiful and serene space in which to sleep, drummed gently to sleep by the persistent rain.
Having talked until late, we slept late. Sunrise was concealed un-noticed behind clouds. After breakfast, Heinz fetched a car to use for the day from the local 'Mobility' car pool - they don't need to own a vehicle, as they cycle most places every day, and for longer distances public transport is outstandingly good with plenty of provision for taking bikes on trains. These are well thought out sustainable options. The Swiss are way ahead of the field in making the ideal a reality when it comes to transport.
The reason for having a car was to get the four of us as conveniently as possible into the mountains for lunch and a trip around the inner and outer Cantons of Appenzell, with its spectacular mountains and green hills. It's a much promoted and popular tourist region, yet despite this it gives the impression of being unspoiled. That's partly because of careful ancient building conservation and planning of new accommodation in a style that reflects the old. Traffic is carefully managed, and coaches kept right away from the town centre.
The Canon of Appenzell is for historical reasons completely enclosed by the much larger Canton of St Gall. The town of St Gall is the transport and economic hub of Eastern Switzerland. A one metre gauge railway owned and run proudly by the Canton of Appenzell links the enclave with the main rail network. It has fairly modern rolling stock but is famously slow running because the track beds have not been upgraded since it was built a century ago. This is deemed to be bad for those who commute to work elsewhere, but it's great for tourists who won't mind a leisurely journey, to savour the landscape.
During the afternoon the rain stopped and the clouds broke up, although not sufficiently for us to be able to see the 2,500m Säntis summit which dominates the Alpstein chain of mountains running through the Canton. We drove up the pass to the point where the cable car departs for the summit. The views from here, just above the tree line are also spectacular, and made more interesting by the ever changing clouds.
Another time, when we have more time, we'll either ride or take one of the steep paths upwards, several hours climb at least, and weather permitting. There's a new rotating restaurant at the top. We've seen it already on CFF promotional posters in railway stations across the country.
Today, after another late night of talking and a late breakfast, we returned to Geneva, impressed by the punctuality and ease of connections punctuating our journey and even more impressed by the output of information in German, French and English broadcast over train and station public address systems. It's designed to made train changing as simple as possible. There are usually gaps between connections that are long enough to allow for platform changes in large stations, which could be accomplished with ease by someone pulling heavy luggage or in a wheelchair. Everything is so well thought out. It's no wonder the railways here are so well used.