Travelling in Europe – Summer 2020
Europe is open! Or at least France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Germany, Czech Republic and Poland. At the time of writing, these countries all welcome UK guests, and quarantine on arrival back in the UK has been lifted.
As recently as last week, I travelled by train from London through Brussels to Germany where I stayed in Cologne. I then went along the Rhine Gorge route to Basel in Switzerland, had some time in Switzerland and then crossed into Italy to experience life on the rails there. My findings were varied from country to country, so I’ll run through them below.
Eurostar: London to Brussels
Checking in for the Eurostar at St Pancras was a relatively normal experience. On scanning my ticket on the automatic barriers, some new seats reservations came out on a yellow slip of paper, as Eurostar had reassigned the seating to ensure social distancing on board. Queues for security and passport control were non-existent and the waiting area had a reasonable number of people. Pret a Manger is open, so I had a coffee from there and waited for the 09:01 Brussels train to be announced. When it was, they invited all those in odd-numbered coaches to go up to the platform and then a few minutes later those with even-numbered coaches. Once on board the train, it is clear that they only sold one seat per “Club2”, “Duo” or “Club4” to really ensure people were spaced out. Despite being in Standard Premier, where a complementary light meal and drinks would ordinarily be served, there was no catering and the cafeteria was closed, which I knew in advance so had brought supplies myself.
With its usual efficiency, Eurostar whisked us to the heart of Brussels in just under 2 hours. On arrival, the escalators down from the middle of the platform are not currently operational, so the only exit is at the end of the platform. This would be a problem under normal circumstances as the volume of people would make it slow to leave the platform but, with the restricted amount of passengers being carried at present, you can easily breeze through and into the main concourse of the station.
With around 2½ hours between trains, my travelling companion and I decided to head into Brussels. There are very regular trains to Brussels Central, a 3-minute ride, and from here it’s a very short walk down the hill into the beautiful Grand Place. We stopped for a drink on the square itself and then headed to one of my favourite places, Chez Leon, where we enjoyed traditional Belgian moules-frites. Hand-sanitiser was available as we entered but there were no masks in evidence. After after a delicious lunch, we walked back to Brussels Midi, a stroll of around a mile or so, and boarded our next train.
ICE Train – Brussels to Cologne
Boarding our Frankfurt-bound train at Brussels Midi was just as easy as it usually is. For the only time on our trip, we were told to don our masks whilst in the main concourse of the station – this is required in Belgium and Italy but not in Switzerland. In any case, once on the ICE train it was plain-sailing, plenty of room and I had a solo seat on one side of the aisle whilst my travelling companion had two airline-style seats to himself on the other side of the aisle.
In the above-right photo, you can see a 4-person compartment, which is something we can potentially book for group of 3 or 4 people so that you can sit mask-less in your own environment aboard the train.
I headed to the cafeteria during the journey and picked up some refreshments – unlike Eurostar, the catering facilities are open which was great.
Crossing seamlessly into Germany near Aachen, we were soon in Cologne and emerged from the station to be greeted by the magnificent cathedral, the main landmark of the city. There were plenty of people around on this glorious July afternoon, and we headed straight into the cathedral for a look around – it is very much open for visits, as are many of Cologne’s attractions, but the walk to the top of one of its famous spires is sadly closed for the moment.
A visit to Früh Brauhaus is highly recommended for any visit to Cologne, even if you are just passing through. Although there is plenty of outdoor seating, we chose to sit inside – we were invited to sanitise our hands on entry and we were told to don our masks as we walked to our table. Once at our table we could remove them of course, but then if you had to walk to the loo, you had to put the mask on once again. I don’t know if this is reflected across the whole of Germany as I know each state has the autonomy to choose how they apply rules of this nature, but in Cologne this is how it was. More importantly, the food was tremendous and fresh beer served in “test-tube” glasses is not to be missed!
Impressions of Cologne was that it was very much open for business – walking along a pedestrianised shopping thoroughfare, we were pleasantly surprised at the amount of people out and about carrying shopping bags.
Cologne to Basel
The following morning we boarded the 08:53 from Cologne, which is EC7 bound for Interlaken. There are no arrows ordering you about on the platform or in the station, just signs reminding you “Bitte abstand halten” (“Please keep your distance”). The train emerged over the famous bridge over the Rhine and we boarded, enjoying plenty of space once again across a table for 2 and a table for 4. The journey went down the Rhine Gorge, which took our minds off the mask-wearing, and then I had a couple of separate visits to the restaurant car, two carriages away, which was a delight given that I could remove my mask to eat and drink and the atmosphere was very relaxed watching the scenery going by.
We arrived into Chur and stayed at the Romantik Hotel Stern, a superb 4-star in the heart of Chur’s old town, and headed out to explore. Having made fleeting visits to Basel and Zurich the night before, it came as no surprise to find almost everything open for business, busy bars and restaurants particularly in the outside seating area, and plenty of people out and about enjoying the summer evening. Masks are not essential when going inside, although individual restaurants or bars can choose to apply this.
The pictures above show breakfast at the Romantik Hotel Stern, which was typical of the hotels we stayed at. Small plates of cheeses and hams wrapped in cling film, and then individual baskets of bread with typically a white and brown roll as well as a croissant.
During our stay in Switzerland we travelled on a variety of trains. Apart from the mandatory wearing of masks on board, the experience was actually a little easier than you would expect in July, with no large groups taking up half the carriage and plenty of space from which to enjoy the spectacular views. On many trains, the windows can fully open to enjoy the fresh air and glare-free photos, and to my delight on one train operating on the Bernina Pass route, there were two carriages at the back that were open-air – one of my best rail experiences ever!
The Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino has long been a favourite destination of mine. The tourist board used to run the strapline “where Swiss efficiency speaks Italian”. With this still being Switzerland, you get to experience the relaxed approach and atmosphere while benefiting from the Italian-style culture and language that makes it an ideal mix. We spent time on the shores of Lake Locarno, in a terrific little restaurant in Ascona and had a 9-mile hike in the stunning Verzasca Valley. All very relaxed and in many cases, you would barely know that Switzerland had recently experienced severe restrictions, as had most other European countries.
Our first experience of the Italian rail network was at Milan Centrale on arrival from Switzerland. There are one-way systems to exit and then another to re-enter the platform-area, along with a temperature check. On the platforms there is a one-way system in place although not much attention was being paid to that! Before boarding the train we were handed a health and safety kit on the platform containing a mask, gloves, gel and a disposable headrest. As with Eurostar, Italian trains are only selling every-other seat, so in a table for 4 you would have two seats sold diagonally opposite one another, and seats marked with red headrests are not to be sat on.
This was on a Frecciarossa train with compulsory reservations – we then boarded a regional train from Florence to Pisa, which is unreservable (i.e. find a spare seat and sit in it). Again, some of the seats are marked with a red headrest and an instruction not to sit there.
All-in-all, probably because Italy was worse hit than Germany or Switzerland, there is a higher level of safety-consciousness across the board.
Italian cities and resorts
We stayed in Riomaggiore on the Cinque Terre and explored the region on foot and by train. What we found there was a typically enticing and beautiful region with plenty of holidaymakers exploring and relaxing, but not too many.
Restaurants and bars are doing well in the various towns along the coastline. We enjoyed a pizza in the highest-rated pizzeria in town just by turning up, no need to book as you normally would. Many bars and shops ask you to put on a mask when you go in, and restaurants if you were to pop inside to use the toilet or pay the bill. Some waiters were in masks but others weren’t. If you sit outside in bars or restaurants you will barely notice the difference!
Fewer tourists than one would usually expect in the height of summer, but still enough to generate a great atmosphere.
All-in-all, this summer represents a great opportunity to enjoy a less-crowded Europe, and scratch your itchy travel-feet after a long break, albeit with the regular waft of hand sanitiser through the train carriage!
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