on 19 January 2014
Slow Train to Switzerland is a most entertaining account of the author's three week visit to Switzerland, by train and lake steamer, following as closely as possible the route taken by an English party when they visited the country in 1863, being part of the very first Thomas Cook tour. It is written with a light touch, humorous and yet full of information about the history, geography and people. Quotes from the 1863 diary on which the tour is based reveal many interesting things; I was particularly struck by the poverty of the country which is now among the richest in the world. At every arrival point the travellers were besieged by raggedly dressed begging children and importunate porters and guides, as they would be in a Third World country today. Buy this book if you love Switzerland, as I do having made 54 visits over the past 59 years, or indeed anyone who enjoys travel--you should be tempted to follow in the author's footsteps.
There is something about this book which is incredibly pleasing. From the attractive cover to the helpful appendices at the back, this is a quality production doing credit both to its author Diccon Bewes and to its publisher Nicholas Brealey.
The idea of the book is to start with one of the first Thomas Cook conducted tours and then to follow the same route today, writing up a travel journal along the way. Diccon Bewes makes extensive use of an account of the original journey written by a young woman called Jemima Anna Morrell who with her companions formed the "Junior United Alpine Club", travelling from Newhaven, across the channel to Calais and on to Paris and then Geneva.
Switzerland was a very different place to the prosperous nation we know today. The people were poor and often hungry, the hotels and lodgings varied from small country lodgings to the newer grander hotels of the spas. The conditions of the roads made long journeys wearisome and the railway system was new and still patchy. The stamina of the early travellers was surprising as shown in an account of an ascent by foot up to the Mer de Glace, The Sea of Ice. Our modern-day author makes the same journey, making the ascent by a train not available to the earlier travellers, but alas, the sea of ice has disappeared, to be replaced by a "river of rubble".
Diccon Bewes's writing is easy to read and he obviously enjoyed travelling around in the company of his 150 year old travel guide. I was reminded of Michael Portillo's journeys around Europe with his ancient Bradshaws railway guide, the old being compared with the new throughout his journeys. It adds an additional layer on to current day experience and makes for a great deal of interest for the reader as he or she reads of how things have changed.
A very fine book - one I originally borrowed from the library but have since bought for myself, so much did I enjoy it.
1863 and members of The Junior United Alpine Club set off in a party of 130 to Paris, headed ultimately for Switzerland, in the company of Mr Thomas Cook, entrepreneur and travel aficionado. Miss Jemima Morrell was the unofficial chronicler of the tour, this, the first package holiday abroad organised by Mr Cook (following several failed attempts at home); his travel shops still appear on many high streets across Britain today, and he is still considered to be the genius behind the package holiday! Just look where his early endeavours have now landed - mass tourism today is 5% of global GDP, so Cook was a man with huge vision.
2013, and 150 year later, Diccon Bewes, who is the accidental ex-pat expert on Switzerland, retraces the footsteps of these intrepid (and intrepid they certainly were!) explorers. Armed with his Murray guidebook from the nineteenth century, nattily entitled A Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland, and the Alps of Savoy and Piedmont (all is revealed in the book as to why Savoy and Piedmont also featured), he sets off from Newhaven crossing the Channel to Dieppe. With further guidebooks at his disposal A Handbook of Travel-Talk from 1858, he delves into gems of useful translation, which perhaps aren't altogether useful in modern day parlance, but give a wonderful insight into the mores of Victorian travel: "May I not be allowed to carry ashore my carpet-bag?" or "Sit still, the train is moving" ... and extracts from Thomas Cook's The Excursionist beautifully evoke the flavour of the bygone era, which featured ships, trains, coaches and, of course, camels...
Contemporary and historical observations accompany the modern day traveller, as the hikers moved down through Paris, to Geneva and on to Chamonix, which was originally discovered by two British men in 1741. The book highlights how the British were ahead of the game in exploring the Alps: mountain peaks to be conquered, Union Jacks to be planted! The Swiss were just there, generally getting on with their lives, and living on the poverty line. This was truly the Golden Age of Alpinism. Nowadays Chamonix, for example, can boast 4.5 million overnight stays per annum, and is in so many ways removed from what Miss Jemima and her fellow travellers saw 150 years ago.
Mr Cook had been escorting the Package Pioneers, and soon came to leave the 60 remaining trekkers to their own devices. By Martigny there were only 8 hardy souls left (Martigny incidentally is the half way point between London and Rome).
Onwards from Martigny to Sion and Leuk and up to Leukerbad, where the Victorians observed the 'unnatural' behaviour of the bathers soaking in the pools of thermal waters. Diccon however is much more of a convert to the soothing and relaxing qualities of the bubbling waters and even rates the Walliser Alpentherme amongst his top 10 Public Spa (or should it be Wellness?) destinations "Lying neck deep in hot water on a bed of bubbles and looking up at the mighty cliffs, I realise why people travelled across Europe for centuries to do exactly this. It's not necessarily the water, which can be found in many natural spas, but the location 1411m above sea level and surrounded by natural splendour."
From Leukerbad it was then off to the top of the Gemmi mountain - a 2 hour trail that was actually built by Tirolean labourers from Austria. Imagine climbing a vertical cliff, in the warmth of a June Summer in Victorian garb, crinolines and formal gear; their alacrity over the boulders and their stoicism is something we cannot perhaps appreciate in our modern day. Then a further long trek over to Kandersteg.
On to Frutigen, where today they have tapped into the natural hot waters, sufficiently that they can grow exotic fruits (coincidence probably that the place name sounds like fruit?) - guavas, papayas, starfruit are all grown in this small backwater. The opening of the Lötschberg Tunnel in 1913, this time built by Italian labourers, changed everything for the region. From here via Spiez and on to Interlaken, the Paris of the Alps and base station for the Jungfrau, now a wonder of faded grandeur (and attracting quite a different kind of clientele from the days of Miss Jemima; but Cafe Schuh still provides a warm welcome to visitors). Finally off to Lucerne, and eventually Neuchâtel to round off the tour. The original tour group then headed back to Paris.
There is so much to cherish in this informative and charming travelogue, which for me proved to be quite an eye-opener: the determination of the Victorians to search out new places, hampered as they were by dress and manners, and limited by an array of transport possibilities, mostly of variable quality; the place the British played in bringing tourism to Switzlerand (including mention of George Stephenson who consulted on a railway project or two); and the grinding poverty of the locals at the time of the Thomas Cook trip - such a stark contrast to the booming economy of Switzerland of the present day. If you want to learn more about Switzerland then and now, in an interesting, informative and often entertaining way, then we recommend this travelogue to you.