So this was the plan. I was doing a Eurail circuit of France, and while in Dijon wanted to include a day or two in nearby French-speaking Switzerland. But because I was on a tight budget, and Switzerland is one of the most expensive places on earth, I wanted to run up most of my costs on French soil, by overnighting at a French border town and hopping over in daylight hours, maybe with a packed lunch. That would save 70 quid or so.
The ticket woman at Dijon station nodded understandingly as I explained this. The border town is Vallorbe, she said. Right then, a ticket to Vallorbe, forthwith, I replied, on a cheap, slow local, with no supplément de réservation or other nasty SNCF add-ons.
“Sorry, it’s too late now, it’s TGV or nothing,” she replied. The supplement was fifteen euros.
TGV into the Alps — it sounds so glamorous, doesn’t it? The truth is, I have never ridden a French bullet train that was not grubby and packed to the gills. This one was no exception. It was a noisy, smelly and dreary ride. There are bullet trains in Japan that are 40 years old but are so well maintained they still look new. The French just don’t seem bothered. The TGVs entered service in the early 1980s and ushered in a revolution not only in train travel but also styling. (The styling was courtesy of a British expat, by the way, one Jack Cooper). Now they look about as cutting-edge as Thunderbirds props. Visually, TGVs have aged badly.
Night had fallen by the time the train began to show unmistakable signs — an increasingly funereal pace, groaning and creaking, lurching on curves — that we were climbing. I had not appreciated that the Alps began well on the French side of the border, imagining Vallorbe to be in the foothills, but the ascent went on and on. We were clearly gaining some serious height.
Vallorbe was reached at about seven. We had indeed climbed: this was over 2,400 feet up, a sign said. The station stood on the side of a mountain overlooking the little town, which I now surveyed from the entrance with growing apprehension. I had been the only passenger to get off, which I found a bit odd for an Alpine resort. I had assumed it would be chock-a-block with hotels and winter vacationers. Around the station, there were indeed adverts with attractions — grottoes, caves, hiking courses – plus a big piece of rock-face graffiti reading in French “No person is illegal” — but the place looked deserted.
I walked down the station approach road to the crossroads in the middle of the little town. A small river gurgled loudly through the centre, swollen with recent rain. There were a few people in the streets. Still, I could not see any lodging places.
At an empty restaurant, I was given two or three addresses. I tracked them down and found them all full or shut. After maybe an hour, I stumbled upon L’Auberge pour Tous (Hostelry for all), a great square block of a house which must have had dozens of rooms. But only one was lit, on the top floor. I rang the bell, and looked hopefully up at the illuminated window, behind which the landlord, I just knew, was ensconced for the evening with salami supper and his box-set of The Wire and sod anybody who turned up now needing a room because he was not in the mood.
Nobody came. I rang again, and again, and then knocked, but there was no response. The town had shut down for the off-season, and I had run out of options. It was getting late now and I needed to get back to Dijon as fast as possible. Switzerland would have to wait for a sunnier season.
So I trudged unhappily back up to the station, noticing as I went the large number of cars with Vaud registration plates. Now Vaud, I remembered vaguely, was a canton name, but it wasn’t surprising to see so many Swiss cars here, this being a border town. It looked as though a lot of Swiss were living here, taking advantage of the lower housing and living costs while commuting back over the border to work.
At the station, the ticketing area was shut, but to my amazement there was still a guy on duty in a back office. I tapped on the window and when he crossly came out, I asked what time the next train back to Dijon was.
“There are no more trains back to France today.”
“Back to France?”
“Where am I now?”
Correct map courtesy of Google.
I looked again at my map. The scale was small, but Vallorbe stood clearly on the French side of the border. The Dijon station woman had said nothing; she had just strung me along. For a moment, I felt an urge to get all colonial. “Look here, my good man, it’s getting late and we’ll have none of your continental frivolities now. We’re in France. It says so clearly on my map.” But instead, I stared at him in silence. I think I may have been agog. Or even agape. It took some moments for reality to sink in. The map was wrong, and, for the first time in 40 years of travel, I had wandered around a place for over an hour thinking I was in a different country. Worse, I had no Swiss francs, and no idea of what to do next.
“So where can I go from here?”
“Lausanne? Oh yeah, Lausanne ..” What it said in the train.
“Of course. Are you going to repeat everything I tell you? Last one is in an hour.”
“Are there foreign-exchange facilities here?”
I went out and sat down in front of the station building with its huge moon-pale clock ticking the slow minutes away over the letters Gare CFF. I had seen that acronym before and taken it for Chemins de Fer Français or something — how on earth could CFF be Swiss? (In fact, the second F stands for Fédéraux, as in Swiss Federation). I watched the clammy mist hanging around the neon lights of the car park and listened to a trickle of stream water, which, mockingly, filled an ornamental stone bowl to my side. I gradually realised why the TGV had seemed so smelly — due to a mix-up on the laundry front, I had not worn fresh clothes for 48 hours. It was a bad moment.
As well as feeling a malodorous prat, I was hungry and thirsty, but, lacking Swiss currency, I could not use even the vending machines. I eventually found one that would take euros, and bought a small bottle of orange juice, to which I added a triple shot of vodka. Thank heavens I had at least got that right. Then, for half an hour, I sat boozing on the steps outside the station in my dishevelled travel clothing, like an alkie outside a shopping mall.
I had not expected to find next to nothing at the Swiss border. Switzerland is not in the EU, so I had assumed it would be like entering Britain, with customs booths, passport control and hopefully stalls selling travellers’ supplies. I had forgotten that it is in Schengen, and, like Norway, has completely open, unguarded borders. I could have brought a backpack full of semtex in with me and nobody would have noticed.
When the Lausanne train came, I just got on without a ticket and crossed my fingers. If my UK credit card was rejected, tough. But I was in luck. The train was nearly empty, and the conductor, if there was one, was not bothering. It was nearly an hour to Lausanne, where I slipped out of the station unmolested. So I had begun my Swiss trip with a substantial bit of fare-dodging. But, then again, you don’t feel so bad about cheating the world’s luckiest people.
It was too late to change money even in the city, so I tramped off in now heavy rain to find a hotel. The streets milled with young Swiss being as rowdy, I suppose, as young Swiss ever get. They were shouting a bit drunkenly, but they all looked much too well brought up and expensively attired for real trouble. After half an hour, I found a Best Western with a room at the kind of rate you expect to pay when you arrive late on spec in an expensive and desirable city which lacks cheap lodgings. I took it, promising to pay in the morning by card. I wasn’t sure the card would work. If it did not, well, I wanted to deal with things after a good night’s sleep.
I don’t usually drink coffee at night, but I was wet-through and chilled and needed one now. I had a few sachets of instant in a rucksack pocket. When I asked at reception if they could give me any hot water, the man gave me a disdainful look:
“But of course, you just turn on the tap in the bathroom and it comes out automatically.”
Did I really look like some third-world hill-billy living in a shack in the woods? Was I as off-putting as that? Back in the room, I took stock in the mirror. Yep, I was. I should have at least shaved that morning. And my old shoes were disintegrating in the wet. I undressed, bathed, drank a lukewarm coffee made from tap water and went to bed.
So, I thought to myself as I lay back watching the rain stream down the window: Welcome back to Switzerland. It had been over 30 years.
© Joe Slater 2019
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