Carriages to Kloster
Saturday FT, 5 April 2008
We were on a green mission: to travel from the streets of London to the snow-covered pavements of Klosters in twenty-four hours by train. But we didn't want to appear too carbon-footprint earnest and added four additional 'qualifications'. We should share a bottle of champagne in St Pancras, dine in Paris, travel by sleeper and sip our way through a bottle of hock as we crossed the Austrian Alps. Another unexpected pleasure soon became apparent - the intense irritation our intended schedule evoked. There were indeed a bewildering number of changes to be completed, zig-zagging our way through southern Germany and Austria in order to approach Klosters through the much prettier back door - the eastern frontier of Switzerland. My travelling companion was my uncle Nico. Both his girlfriend and his secretary were laying bets as to where and when we would first get lost.
St Pancras is a revelation of how Britain might get hooked-up into the ordered magnificence of European train travel. It is now the single most impressive station in Western Christendom (an important qualification for those who have passed beneath the arches of the Haydarpasha on Istanbul's Asian shore or the fairy-tale exuberance of Moscow's Kazansky and Yaroslavsky stations). Our decision to begin our journey in the mid-afternoon turned out to be inspired. For knocking back a whole bottle at the long bar allowed sufficient time to savour the wonderful iron and glass vault, the glazed tiles set against the newly burnished bright red-bricks. Less languid travellers are immediately sent into the underground vaults, a shopping mall architecturally mated with a tube station. So instead of last minute embraces on the platform from loved ones amidst whistle blowing guards you are faced with faceless ticket machines, security checks and plate glass windows. The assent back up into the vault of St Pancras, travelling on the ramped escalator up towards your waiting train, is however, a moment of cinematic grandeur.
Champagne should only really be enjoyed outside of normal drinking hours and can be a depressive in the evening. Never did this seem more certain than when travelling through the mudflats of the lower Thames, once the greatest harbour in the world and now the arsehole of England - used only by barges filled with litter and sewage. So we decided that a glass of sancerre would be the right response to arriving in Paris. We made this decision outside the porch of the Gare du Nord amongst a convivial blaze of lighters and cheroots, as smokers responded to the health legislation of new Europe. We had booked a table at Le Train Bleue, the high-table of station-restaurants. It is the last word in Fin-de-Siecle excess, a gilt vault filled with frescoes of southern France, hung with chandeliers and lined with mahogany. It was built as one of the spin offs of the Paris Exhibition of 1900 alongside the Petit Palais. I had peeked through its doors before and was thrilled to be finally checking in my bags with the concierge and being shown to a table. On one side of this first floor dinning room you look out over the lights of the station square, on the other over the station platform itself. I noted with approval how the waiters took large groups to one end of the long dinning room and allowed the locals to use the bar and the Salon Tunisienne without a reservation. This long awaited dinner was a double joy, for I was also determined to work on some Rogerson psychology during our journey. Uncle Nico had made a fortune in the City when he sold Dewe-Rogerson, in a similarly convincing manner to that achieved by my beer-brewing Victorian great-grandfather. My younger brother, an ex-cavalry officer turned mobile telephone entrepreneur, was also now threatening to also earn himself many millions. What had these three highly successful individuals in common - and more importantly what was I missing? A facility for foreign languages, a delight in sport and travel did not seem to create a totally convincing profile. I was however delighted with the anthropological anecdotes that came my way over dinner. How my uncle had been packed off to his various boarding schools, Cheam and Winchester because they were conveniently close to Newbury race-course that his father, Commander Hugh Rogerson, was fond of. How my own father, another Commander Rogerson, used to communicate in egg-language code to stop his grandmother's butler from eves-dropping. But most of all I was intrigued into how Uncle Nico had first got his first taste for the real world, working in his gap year as a trilingual courier on train-journeys to the Alps or the Rivierra in the cash-strapped Britain of the 50s.
It was also a relief to find I was in experienced hands as we left the opulent baroque turrets of the Gare de Lyon to make our way to the disciplined classicism of the Gare de L'Est. It was now the witching hour, the bars and cafes had closed and only outcasts, tarts and travellers paced the platform. It was much better company than you find in an airport. The sleeper-train was a model of efficiency, with showers and multi-lingual guards that seemed delighted with their job of showing you the fold-down dressing table, the shower and taking down your order for breakfast. It was all so un-British and you were even trusted to open the window if you cared. As the train rattled through the night I tried to guess from the noise when we might be crossing the Rhine but instead woke up amongst the forests of Swabia with a hot roll and a coffee placed beside my bed as we drew into Augsburg. Munich was not embellished with the Ludwig schloss-like station of my expectations. But we were delighted to find that this vast post-war concrete bunker took a very serious attitude to breakfast. Half a dozen buffets were open with a gleaming selection of hams, white sausages, breads and beers.
Later we boarded the Michelangelo, the direct train that links the Catholic cities of Munich, Bologna and Rome. I was impressed with the impeccable time-keeping, reflected in the printed timetable placed on each seat and the posters which could tell you which platform to go to rather than the English habit of making everyone wait until the last minute. Having chatted-up the Italian waiters in the train's café we got off amongst the spires of Innsbruck - where I was thrilled to find myself standing beside a whimpled Mother Superior who could have come straight from out of the Sound of Music. Uncle Nico did not share my pleasure at this starched vision of an Austrian nun, and I began to wonder if he might be one of the few Englishmen who had genuinely never listened to Julie Andrews singing. But his mind was clearly elsewhere. I found him trying to remember which of the old buildings backing onto the railway tracks was the cities brothel, "first left and just a five minute walk from the station" but I couldn't quite hear if it was the combination of old bedrooms and clean girls or clean beds and old girls that made it so attractive.
The route from Innsbruck to Feldkirch was a spell-bindingly beautiful journey, slowly climbing up through the snow-covered Alps. So much so that books, publisher's page-proofs and chatter were put to one side. As we both admired the mountain streams, my uncle imagined returning here in the spring with a trout rod whilst I dreamt of a mid-summer picnic and a swim. Was this how one identified a Rogerson entrepreneur, sorting out the hunter-gatherers from the pastoral breed? We lunched in a superbly efficient Austrian dining-car, raising a glass of hock to the memory of our fathers, two Commander Rogerson's R.N.. For hock was one of their (many) favourite tipples.
After descending to the platform at Feldkirch one needed to be confident of one's footwork. Here Uncle Nico showed previous form as we confidently criss-crossed various station platforms, changing trains at Buchs, at Sargans, then at Landquart before boarding the branch line that heads up valley to Klosters and Davos. It is not a journey that one could recommend to the nervous, infirm or the heavy-laden. But we were not alone. Half a dozen travellers were following this same dog-leg route, including an Austrian in a wide brimmed green-felt hat and cape. He cut a distinctive figure for us to follow but it seemed best not to inquire into his politics.
Somewhere amongst all these stations we crossed the borders of Austria, the Principality of Leichenstein and Switzerland. We were even inspected by armed guards in a manner that could have been lifted straight out of a Tintin adventure on the Syldavian-Bordurian frontier. I begged for a mark of my middle European odyssey to be placed amongst the pages and pages of Arabic stamps in my passport but no one seems to travel with a rubber stamp these days.
We arrived at Kosters station, the mountains visible, the wooden houses of this charming Swiss town covered in thick blankets of snow. We looked at our watches, almost exactly this time yesterday we had popped our first cork at St Pancras. What unexpected fun it had been to be so green as you go skiing. So much so, that I had quite forgotten how much I dislike everything to do with the sport, all those bright synthetic sport-suits, clumpy boots and hideous metal pylons scarring the sublime Alps. So I wondered off towards the station bar and one of those efficiently printed timetables in the station bar which might allow one to escape…
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by Barnaby Rogerson