I’ve passed through places that looked as though they may be worth a visit and others which I have read about. There are cities where I’ve stayed overnight with tour groups but never had the chance to look round. There are others I last visited in the 1970s and remember very little apart from that I enjoyed them. This week-long trip in April 2018 was put together for Ted and I to fill some of these gaps, travel on a few more branch lines and try a few new beers. I chose Freiburg in Germany, Strasbourg in France and Luxembourg and added in visits to Mulhouse, the Black Forest and Karlsruhe.
Newcastle to Freiburg
The base for the first three nights is Freiburg im Breisgau in southern Germany, close to the Swiss border, between the Rhine Valley and the Black Forest. We reach it by air from Newcastle via Bristol (the runway is still on a steep hill though the terminal buildings have massively expanded since I was last there) to Basel – I can recognise Paris as we fly overhead. The full name of the airport, located in French territory, is EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg. To reach Freiburg we catch the airport bus into Basel city centre then a tram across the Rhine to the Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) station (Basel Badischer Bahnhof) for a brief look at the city. There is time for a quick beer (which means I can say we’ve stopped off in Switzerland on this trip) before we catch a regional train along the Rhine Valley Railway to Freiburg.
The train is busy with daily commuters – Basel is a major commercial and industrial city and it will be less expensive to live in Germany and work in Switzerland. The train is double-deck so I have the chance to look out at the countryside. Umpteen freight trains pass in the opposite direction, some carrying full lorries through the Alps to avoid the Swiss Heavy Vehicle Tax. I’ve travelled on this line many times with tour groups but near Basel we were always settling down or getting ready to disembark. As we have been in France, Switzerland and Germany in the past two hours, my phone is full of messages welcoming me to the country and letting me know that exactly the same tariff applies in each of them. We are staying in a hotel by Freiburg Hauptbahnhof (the picture is the view from the room) and after checking in I jump on a tram into town to get my bearings, eat a currywurst (not one of the best) and drink a beer before an early night.
Mulhouse and the Cité du Train
We have two full days in the area and on the first we are off to Mulhouse, across the border in France. The weather is glorious and it stays in the upper twenties for the week. The jerseys I’ve brought with me are unused – I should have brought shorts instead. We catch another double-deck regional train and travel a short distance back up the main line to Müllheim, where a single coach SNCF (French Railways) train is waiting for the brief cross-border trip to Mulhouse (see Railway Buffery 1 at the end of this account). There are very few people travelling between the two cities – there are eight people and one bear on board when we cross the Rhine and the border. I’m using a day ticket that covers both the Freiburg and Mulhouse areas and I guess I’m the only person using it. Perhaps the language difference reduces the number of cross-border commuters.
It is not the most spectacular journey as we cross the flat Rhine valley – the highlights are the Rhine bridge and adjacent canal, busy with barges, the Butachemie chemical works (useless fact No 1: according to its website it is the largest adiponitile manufacturing site in the world – no I don’t know either) and Peugeot – Citroën car factory at Chalampé and the port of Mulhouse on the only commercial stretch of the Rhone-Rhine canal. Despite the hot weather here there are still a few spots of snow on the Vosges mountains in the distance.
Our destination is the Cité du Train railway museum in the suburbs. Mulhouse has a modern tram network of three lines. Line 3 from outside the railway station is shared by an SNCF tram-train and both call at the museum. The onboard announcements for each stop include a unique sound associated with the stop. When we slice through a traffic roundabout the tram has priority over the traffic and we reach the museum in no time (see Railway Buffery 2).
There are two main halls – one ‘Le Parcours Spectacle’ illustrates ‘the golden age of railway travel in a film-set atmosphere’, the other ‘Les quais de l’histoire’ demonstrates the chronological development of railway technology in France. There is also a large outside area used for further exhibits. In addition to the collection of steam, diesel and electric locomotives, presidential coaches and trains which broke the world speed record there are some unexpected items. One of the earliest locomotives in the collection was built by Stephenson Works in Newcastle, there are two examples of double-deck coaches from a century ago (third class on the upper deck) and a wagon to carry wine in giant barrels. Here are a few pictures of the exhibits.
After a beer and bretzel for lunch in the centre of town we return to Freiburg. There is no need to change at Müllheim, though this train also a single coach affair, a diesel running along an electrified line for the whole journey. The through service is irregular, supplemented on the German side to provide a regular service to the final station in Germany, Neuendorf. We pass a five-coach train heading there with one passenger on board.
Back in Freiburg, it is time for a proper look round. Freiburg is an historic city dating from the eleventh century and the Altstadt (Old Town) has been well preserved and restored after wartime damage. The main shopping streets radiate from the crossroads and central tram stop Bertoldsbrunnen. The Münster (Minster), built of dark red sandstone, is in the north-eastern quarter of this area surrounded by the vast Münsterplatz, with pavement cafes and restaurants. The square itself is still used for markets. The surrounding old streets and small squares east of Bertoldsbrunnen are a mix of quirky shops and cafés plus several museums. Freiburg is home to a major university, one of Germany’s oldest, and has a large student population. Much of the campus remains in the centre of the city, to the west of the Altstadt. The current population of Freiburg is around 220,000.
The River Dreisam flows through town to the south of the Altstadt. It provides the water for the bächle – runnels along most streets. They were constructed from the twelfth century and formed the original water supply, with strict penalties for using them as drains. Today, the sound of running water is a pleasant background noise throughout the city centre. There is a stall selling tiny boats to sail in bächle, which kids love.
Freiburg makes much of its commitment to environmental sustainability and the Green Party is a significant force in local politics. All new building has to be very energy-efficient. It has managed to retain a vibrant city centre while heavily restricting car access. The city centre is largely pedestrianised – people walk, cycle or use the tram. Compared to the UK there is a noticeable lack of fat people – it is a rich city with no visible deprivation and the preponderance and ease of cycling everywhere must contribute.
The core network of five frequent tram routes serves most parts of the city and during the day there is a tram every few minutes. There are still a few high floor trams inaccessible to the disabled, though they will be replaced in the near future. The Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) and the tram stop on a bridge above would benefit from more escalators and more protection from the elements. Later at night trams on each route leave the central stop together every quarter hour which allows changing in all directions. This makes sense, except I discovered it when all four trams towards the station and my hotel pulled away just as I was approaching the stop. (Useless fact no. 2: During the period of Germany hyper-inflation between 1919 and 1923 daily numbers using the tram network dropped from 40,000 to 3,000 as the ticket price rose from 15 pfennigs to 100 billion Reichsmark).
Ganzer Brau is the principal local brewery – the beers are fine if not exceptional, particularly the unfiltered Urtrunk. The brewery tap is in the Münsterplatz with plenty of tables outside in the sun. I also found Hausbrauerei Feierling where I had a drink in the brewery – there is a large beergarden across the road. One evening I found a free table outside Martin’s Bräu, a brewpub near the Martinstor (pictured) with a good range of sausages and salads, where I tried their current special, a brown ale. I meant to visit some of the student pubs in the later evenings – but the weather is so good after a miserable long winter at home that I prefer to sit outside and people watch (1).
The Black Forest
On the second day in Freiburg Ted and I set off for a brief foray into the Black Forest. The intention was to use local trains but the lines were closed for up to two years for upgrading, so we spent the morning travelling by ersatzbus – bus replacement service. The closest thing to a train on the line to Titisee today – this is at Schluchsee station.
The plan is to travel to Seebrugg via Titisee, where we will have a break on the return journey. The Höllentalbahn (Hell Valley railway) parallels the road and both climb 600m in just over 25km. The gorge and rock formations en route are impressive and we can see plenty of work taking place on the railway line. As a passenger the bus journey to Titisee is fine, but I would not recommend driving. The road is a major federal route (Bundesstraße 31) and there are plenty of trucks thundering up the hills and round the hairpin bends. Drivers will be fully occupied concentrating on the road and unable to appreciate the scenery.
Once we change to at Titisee on to the branch line ersatzbus to Seebrugg, the roads are quieter. We pass a village called Aha and the small town of Schluchsee to terminate by the lake at Seebrugg. It is good walking and cycling country and during the season there is a boat on the Schluchsee reservoir. Otherwise there is very little in the way of habitation and it is a strange place for the line to come to an end. When I check, the line was completed in 1926 and it was intended to extend through the hills but the money ran out. I’m glad I brought a baguette from Freiburg to eat while walking back to Schluchsee village before catching the next ersatzbus back to Titisee.
Titisee is an out and out tourist resort that has grown up alongside the lake of the same name. It is little more than a main street lined with hotels, cafes and souvenir shops. It is on the Chinese tour of Europe, and the tourists are packing out the cuckoo clock shops. We find Zur Mühle, which brews its own beer (the dunkel is fine) and we peoplewatch for a while before returning to Freiburg.
The afternoon visit is to the top of the Schauinsland mountain on the outskirts of the city by tram, bus and cable car. The tram terminates in Günterstal village just outside the city where a bus to the valley station of the cable car is waiting. Constructed in 1930, according to its website it is the longest gondola cable car system in Germany at 3.6km. It takes a little under 20 minutes to rise from 473m above sea level to 1219m, just short of the summit. It may not be as dramatic as the Swiss Alps but there are good views as we climb. The city comes into view, with the Rhine Valley beyond and then the Vosges in France. From the top they claim you can see the Swiss Alps – which may be true on a clear winter day, when the area becomes a ski resort, but the heat haze is in the way. After a short walk the bear is desperate for a beer before returning down the mountain and a few more in town.
Strasbourg and Kehl
The onward journey from Freiburg is not lengthy so after checking out we spent an hour or so sitting reading and relaxing in the sun in a small park near the station before catching the train. The local kindergartens were out in force – groups of toddlers were being wheeled round the park in buggies that seat six and another group were learning English numbers as they played an exercise game with the teacher.
An hour on a regional train took Ted and I to Offenburg followed by a short local journey to Kehl, a town on the Rhine just across the river from Strasbourg. Once more the local train was a small diesel affair despite the line being electrified, but this time it was busy – most passengers were heading for Kehl but there was a reasonable number continuing to Strasbourg (see Railway Buffery 3).
Strasbourg is a popular tourist destination and the base for several European Union institutions and it can be an expensive place to stay. I chose to spend the night in Kehl in a good hotel at a reasonable price, adjacent to the railway station and tram terminus – the Strasbourg network extends across the border to Kehl. A day ticket for the Strasbourg network costs only q few euros and it is less than twenty minutes to the city centre. I left my bag in a locker at Kehl station and wandered round Strasbourg in the early afternoon then returned once more in the evening for a few beers.
The Strasbourg modern tram network of seven lines is impressive (see Railway Buffery 4 for more details). From Kehl the line crosses the Rhine on a new bridge, then the adjacent canal a couple of minutes later. Between is Port au Rhin, a strange mixture of run down housing, derelict industry and new upmarket developments under construction. It is my first time in Strasbourg without a tour group in tow and I use the afternoon visit to potter around the cathedral area and the historic quarter Petite-France, a district of half-timbered houses built along several channels of the River Ill. (Useless fact no. 3: the name of the district comes from the hospice for the syphilitic, built there in the fifteenth century. Syphillis was then known in German as Franzosenkrankheit – the French disease). I managed to get caught up in a demonstration linked to the present wave of anti-Macron strikes – the participants I saw were mainly workers from the metalworkers union and students.
On the evening visit I tried a few bars – Alsace is a brewing area and I had passed some interesting looking places with tour groups – now was my chance to visit. I found La Lanterne Microbrasserie (microbrewery), quiet at the time – it is in a back lane out of the evening sun. Two excellent places followed – Le Grincheux, which has a tremendous choice of beers and whiskies and Bar à Popol with a smaller but good selection and friendly (3).
Many EU borders are not noticeable but Kehl has the feel of a border town, as it takes advantage of differences between France and Germany. Within a hundred metres of the station there are five tobacconists, a casino and a betting shop so one can guess which taxes are lower and regulations less restrictive. I had already noticed billboards in Germany advertising cigarettes – it is the only EU country which still allows this. None of the people in the billboard picture were smoking, so that’s OK then.Cheap tabs being advertised in Kehl, Germany – in French
The tram into Strasbourg was busy with people who had come across to the supermarkets for cheaper food. Others were carrying large quantities of loorolls, sanitary towels, dog poo bags, and cleaning materials – I guess there may be a difference in VAT (2). Near Kehl station I also noticed a large modern mosque. Kehl is quite an industrial area and there many people of Turkish heritage, though it also occurred to me that it may have been easier to gain consents to plan and construct the mosque on the German side than in Strasbourg. There were plenty of black French-speaking people in Kehl, possibly there to shop or perhaps living there (where housing and living costs are cheaper) and working in Strasbourg. There is also an abundance of bars near the station – the beer is considerably cheaper than across the river, and it was cheap by German standards.
I had time for a walk around the centre of Kehl. Like the remainder of this area it has a complex history having belonged Baden, Alsace, France and Germany. It spent a period as part of Strasbourg and the town was evacuated for a number of years after World War Two. Today it is a pleasant town of 35,000 people, the town centre is busy with shoppers and I liked the feel of the place. There is a area of attractive older houses between the centre and the Rhine promenade, where there were a couple of river cruise boats moored.
Kehl to Karlsruhe
The next overnight stop is Karlsruhe, only 76 km away by the main line, so the plan is to go a long way round. After a good breakfast at the ates Hotel we travel back into the Black Forest, this time to the northern section. The journey commences with a hiccup when the first train sits at Kehl waiting for ten minutes for a late TGV high speed train to pass. If this was the UK the train at Offenburg wouldn’t wait for us to arrive, but it did and we set off for Freudenstadt. We followed the river Kinzig into the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) – from the railway one of the first towns we passed, Gengenbach, looked particularly historic and well preserved. At Hausach we left the main line to Konstanz onto a single track line along the upper Kinzig valley, through villages such as Schiltach (pictured) and Alpirsbach with impressive collections of half- timbered houses. It feels quite isolated at the head of the valley then we climb and reach Freudenstadt on the plateau above.
There was a tight connection – seven minutes – at Freudenstadt Hauptbahnhof, just time for a quick comfort break (there was no toilet on the 1hr 10 mins trip from Offenburg) before catching a connecting tram-train for the short uphill journey to Freudenstadt Stadt (sic). I didn’t explore Freudenstadt as it would have meant trundling into town with my case and back – instead I sat in the sun and ate my lunch. From the information boards I gathered that it has the largest market square in Germany and was founded in the seventeenth century by Protestant refugees from Salzburg.
Freudenstadt is a far-flung outpost of the Karlsruhe transport system. The tram-train runs down the Murg valley from Freudenstadt to Rastatt then on to the main line to Karlsruhe where it becomes a tram for the final stretch through the city centre. It is Friday lunchtime and the schools are out – we are joined by wave upon wave of kids throughout the journey, which meant that we called at every request stop for some to alight. After a steep downhill stretch there are several villages in the Murg valley before we pass through a gorge to reach Forsbach. From there to Rastatt the towns are more industrial – we stop at a station in the middle of a Mercedes Benz factory at Gaggenau. (Useless fact no 4: according to www.daimler.com this is the oldest automotive plant in the world, founded as Bergmann-Industriewerk GmbH in 1894. Today it has 6600 employees). We are slightly late as we have waited for passing trains on the single track branch. This means we are held in loops on the main line – it does seem slightly odd sitting in a tram as Regional Express and ICE trains pass by. In total it takes us 2hrs 10 mins to reach Karlsruhe and we arrive almost 30 minutes late. (For more on the Murg Valley railway see Railway Buffery 5, and on the Karlsruhe tram-train system see Railway Buffery 6).
The Karlsruhe tram-train network was the first of its type and has been copied in many other places. Local railway lines are operated as an extension of the city tram service with increased frequencies. The need change from train to tram at a main station on the edge of a city centre is avoided as new links have been built to enable services along railway lines to continue into the centre along tram tracks. Though the Tyne and Wear Metro has been sharing the Sunderland line with National Rail trains for some years the first true tram-train experiment in the UK (in South Yorkshire) is running many years late and many times over the original cost. The concept has led to significant increases in public transport use in the cities using the same model. Karlsruhe suffers a little from being the pioneer – many of the vehicles are ageing, look dated and some cars, stations and stops are not accessible to the disabled. On my two hour journey the toilet was out of order – I’m glad I took the opportunity in Freudenstadt. The map of the Karslruhe system (pictured) is complex and it would be useful to have a simplified version for the central area, where finding which tram goes round which part of the main city centre loop is not easy to the outsider.
After a look at the palace and walk in the park around which Karslruhe is built I head for the hotel to check in. The palace was constructed in 1715 to be the new home of Charles III William and the city (the name translates as Charles’ repose) as the new capital of Baden-Durlach, after a tiff with the citizens of the previous capital Durlach. Thirty-two roads radiate in all directions from the palace and remain clearly visible in the city layout today. The tram line past the hotel is closed while it is replaced by a tunnel so I have to walk through the back streets to reach it. It is a little off-putting as there is a noisy concentration of street drinkers in the area but it feels like a much more mixed and relaxed area when I visit again at night. The hotel receptionist is highly amused by my Pity Me address.
In the evening I try a mixed bag of a pubs in the city centre and nearer the hotel. A couple are smoking bars, one of which has the smelliest toilets I have ever experienced and a clientele who look dodgy to say the least, while other places have a much nicer vibe (4).
King Ted of Baden is at home – with no clothes
Karlsruhe to Luxembourg
The following day we travel from Karlsruhe to Luxembourg. It is Saturday, it’s hot and everyone in Germany is on the move, going cycling (it’s amazing how many bikes these trains can take), walking (with the obligatory walking poles), shopping or touristing. The first train takes us across the Rhine for the eighth and final time this trip, to Landau. The next train, to Pirmasens Nord (pictured), is also busy with jolly cyclists and walkers. It is easy to see why as we leave the Rhine valley and enter an area of rolling forested hills and unspoilt villages and small towns. This is the Pfalzwald (Palatinate Forest) and I wonder how much people will see on their walks as there is so much tree cover. The scenery continues on the third train until we reach a main line at Rohrbach and cross into Saarland, which developed into a major industrial area as the result of its substantial coal deposits.
We change again at Saarbrücken – there is no time to see more than the station square. The next section is the most industrial – some derelict, others still operational. We pass coalmines and pit bings (coalmining in the area ended in 2012), working and closed power stations and the huge Saarstahl steel works at Völklingen and rolling mills at Dillingen. There are torpedo railway wagons outside built to carry molten metal – there was an example in the railway museum at Mulhouse. (Useless fact no.5: the ironworks at Völklingen are now a UNESCO World Heritage site as the only intact example of an integrated ironworks). Eventually we leave Saarland and follow the banks of the Saar through wooded hills, villages and vineyards into Trier.
Trier is well known for its Roman remains – as Trevorum it was capital of the Roman province of Belgic Gaul. We have time to take a look at the Porta Nigra (Black Gate) (above), a Roman city gate dating from around 170CE, walk along the high street to the Marktplatz and the impressive cathedral (below), which also forms part of the World Heritage Site. There is a holy rock (that is what it calls itself) festival taking place in the cathedral square. I give it a miss and have a couple of small beers before catching the train to Luxembourg, 45 minutes away.
The city of Luxembourg is the capital of the Grand Duchy, situated in a strategic position surrounded by strong fortifications, despite which it was conquered many times. Today, it has a population of 115,000 and has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. With tour groups, I spent a couple of overnight stops in Luxembourg city in recent years, when all I saw was the station and the hotel across the road. These were winter trips to Switzerland and on one occasion we arrived in freezing rain which turned to ice as soon as it hit the ground – which made the hundred metre journey to the hotel with forty mainly elderly people an adventure. Prior to then, I visited the city in 1972 on my first solo trip to Europe, hitch-hiking and staying in youth hostels.
Luxembourg city is built on a series of plateaus above the steep gorges of the rivers Alzette and Pétrusse. Down in the valley by the Alzette were the working class districts of Grund, Clausen and Pfaffenthal, which had been built around mills, breweries and factories dependent on the water supply. The youth hostel was in Pfaffental and I recollect a small community with a couple of basic cafés and a village feel. When I walk around it is clear that the valley communities have now become gentrified and attract tourists. The bars are modern, targeting the young people of various nationalities. The factories have been replaced by offices – I pass the offices of Microsoft and Skype in Clausen and the headquarters of amazon.eu, where revenue flows through to minimise tax, in a back street in Grund. Due to the institutions of the European Union and the banking and finance industry the city is multilingual. I hear more English spoken than anywhere else in the trip, in addition to French, German and Lëtzebuergesch (Luxembourgish), which contains elements of both. I spend a pleasant couple of hours in Scott’s Bar by the bridge in Grund, where the beer and the pizzas are good, before taking the lift back to the city centre.
The following morning I continue to explore the city and head to the Haute Ville (upper town), the city centre. It is Sunday morning and it would be quiet, but an urban run is taking place and I keep bumping into hordes of people in Lycra running up and down hills. In the Place d’Armes there is a statue which appears to represent the struggle of the ordinary Luxembourgeois man and woman (slaving away in the banking industry and making millions). It turns out to be a monument to the famous local poet Edmond de la Fontaine, who for some reason was known as Dicks. The area includes the cathedral, the Grand-Ducal palace and plenty of expensive shops. I wander around the Casemates du Bock, part of the extensive fortifications. I remember none of this from 1972 – perhaps I didn’t visit the city centre. I do remember the red Grand Duchess Charlotte bridge over the valley to Kirchberg, opened in 1966, to reach the new European quarter, where the first skyscraper office block had appeared on the skyline. The bridge has now faded to a washed-out pink and there is a large family of towers on the Kirchberg plateau.
There are a couple of downsides to the city. The flight path from the nearby airport is directly over the city centre. I have never seen so many extremely expensive and very noisy sports cars being driven too fast in a city centre by middle-aged boy racers (5). One driver swears loudly at an elderly couple for crossing the road too slowly as he charged through a flashing yellow. Tobacco must be cheaper here than in one of the neighbouring countries – when I’m trying to buy a bottle of water in one of the few shops open on Sunday the person in front takes an age to buy over four hundred euros worth of tobacco. (Useless fact no. 6: At the end of WW1 Luxembourg was declared a socialist republic on 9 November 1918. Unfortunately, it lasted only a few hours).
To explore a little more of the country I invest in a day ticket which covers all public transport for the outrageous sum of four euros. (today – 2022- all public transport is free). Luxembourg is not that small – it takes over an hour by train to reach the north of the country. I choose to visit Vianden so we catch a train to Ettelbruck and the connecting bus. It is an attractive ride through small towns and villages (most of it – there is a stretch of several miles between Ettelbruck and Diekirch which is basically a strip mall, looking out of place in the countryside).
Vianden is situated in the valley of the River Our, in a national park which spans the Luxembourg – German border. The old town consists of a narrow main street leading to the substantial castle which dominates the town and the surrounding countryside. The castle was the former home of the Counts of Vianden and has been restored after falling into ruin. It is a sunny Sunday and other people have decided to visit – this includes more than its fair share of Luxembourgeois boy racers and large groups of German motorcyclists out for a run. It is noisy and walking through town dodging traffic is not great fun. And all the café bar terraces are packed.
The best way to escape the crowds is to take the only chairlift in Luxembourg, which climbs the hill above the castle, rising from 230 to 440 metres above sea level. I’m used to hanging off Alps in cable cars all over Switzerland, but I still get nervous about chairlifts – sitting way above ground in the open air and the ease of which I could lose my bag, phone, Ted or myself. This one stops a few times while people get on and off, including once while we’re hanging in mid-air over the river. Ted is sensible and remains in my bag. As always, there is a café at the top and we have a necessary beer, followed by a short walk in the woods before we return to Luxembourg. The evening is spent visiting a few places in Grund and Clausen. There is a craft beer place I’d like to visit…but it involves passing the hotel and I give up – it is a long journey home tomorrow (6).
Luxembourg to Liège and home.
The route back to Durham by train is via Liège, Brussels and London. I chose to travel the longer route via Liège as I’ve used the main Luxembourg – Brussels line before. At Luxembourg station I buy a ticket to Gouvy, the first station across the border in Belgium, as my Eurostar ticket is from Any Belgian Station to London. This means I’ve paid £5 for the Gouvy – Brussels stretch, 188 km and one of the furthest stations in Belgium from Brussels. The things one does for a bargain. The train is four elderly but comfortable Belgian coaches hauled by a CFL (Luxembourg Railways) locomotive. It is branded as an Intercity service – this is a slight exaggeration for a train which potters through the countryside calling at most village stations and takes 2 hours 40 minutes hours to reach Liège at an average speed of 59km/hr (see Railway Buffery 7).
The journey is enjoyable – we call at Ettelbruck then head north through a rural area and small towns such as Clervaux and Troisvierges. People have been alighting en route and, when we cross the border (the only indication is that the railway signs are different and the kilometre posts read from Liége), there are only three of us in the coach, on a train which runs every two hours. The cities are too far way from this area for cross-border commuting to develop and I guess that days out will mainly be towards Luxembourg rather than Liège. In Belgium we start to pick up more people – most look like students and young people returning to the cities after a weekend down home in the countryside. The countryside is very attractive as we continue to follow the Ambléue and Ourthe river valleys. I spot the odd castle, we call at a station called Coo, and there are some very well preserved villages. (Useless fact no. 7: Coo’s main claim to fame is the Coo waterfall – the highest in Belgium at all of fifteen metres). It is only on the final few kilometres before Liège that we begin to see signs of the heavy industry that used to predominate in the area.
Liege is trying hard to rebrand itself for the post-industrial era (where did I pick up this tosh?) and one of the key stages in this process has been the rebuilding of the main station – Liège Guillemins (pictured) -on the high speed line from Brussels to Köln. It was built by the Spanish architect Calatrava, opened in 2009, and is an impressive flowing structure (which also seems to function well as a station). I had planned to visit the city centre but, as a strike on French railways could affect Eurostar, I confined myself to a short visit, a look round the station and a beer and a bite to eat in a café across the station square. This account ends here as the remainder of the journey is by a route I’ve taken many times before. When we reach Brussels, I realise it is quite some time since I’ve spent any time outside Brussels Midi station. Brussels is well-known for its beer – so a city break is on the cards for the future. In the end we made it home without difficulty – only a slight delay at Brussels as Eurostar tried to find a driver.
(1) The places mentioned in Freiburg are: Ganter Brauereiausschank, Münsterplatz 18-20 (pictured); Hausbrauerei Feierling, Gerberaustraße 46; Martin’s Bräu, Kaiser-Joseph-straße 237, in a lane close to the Martinstor gate.
(2) The places mentioned in Strasbourg are: La Lanterne Microbrasserie, 5 Rue de la Lanterne; Le Grincheux, 27 Rue du Vieux Marché aux Vins; Bar à Popol, 25 Rue de Faussé des Tanneurs. Ratebeer.com has an extensive list of cafés and bars worth a visit.
(3) The full rate of VAT in France is 20%, in Germany 19%, so any difference may be in reduced or zero rated items.
(4) In addition to a couple of unremarkable smoking bars I had a pleasant beer or two on the terraces of Erste Fracht Braugasthaus, Bahnhofplatz 6 and Sockenschuss Südstadt, Ettlinger Straße 33. Wirsthaus Wolfbräu, Werderstraße 51 looked good but was rammed. Ratebeer.com has a number of bars and brewpubs I didn’t manage to reach.
(5) At the time of our visit, the first section of a new tramway in Luxembourg had recently opened in Kirchberg which has since been extended to the city centre and the railway station. Hopefully, it has been accompanied by traffic control measures.
(6) In Luxembourg I visited: Café des Artistes, 22 Montée du Grund; Scott’s Pub (English), 4 Bisserweg, Grund (pictured) and Pygmalion (Irish), 19 Rue de la Tour Jacob, Clausen. The craft beer place mentioned is Craft Corner, 112 Rue de Bonnevoie.
And, as usual, the bear enjoyed his beer
Railway (and tram) Buffery
1 The Müllheim – Mulhouse Railway
The 22km railway was opened in 1878 by Baden and Alsace-Lorraine State Railways and was used by local and freight trains. The cross-border section of the line was closed to passengers in 1980 and re-opened in 2012. A daily Paris Gare de Lyon – Freiburg TGV high speed train via Dijon and Belfort Montbéliard has used the line since 2013. This is the only train on the route equipped with the ability to take power from both German and French overhead lines – hence the local trains are diesels like the one pictured at Mulhouse station. Another cross-border line ran between Freiburg and Colmar but it has never reopened since the Rhine bridge was destroyed in 1945 – local trains run from Freiburg as far as Breisach, on the German bank of the river. The Müllheim – Mulhouse line is therefore the only cross border route in the 140 kilometres between Basel and Strasbourg. There are plans to improve the service as part of the developing Freiburg S-Bahn suburban network.
2 Mulhouse Tramway
The original Mulhouse tramway operated from 1882 to 1957. The modern Mulhouse tramway opened in 2006, and there are now 3 lines. Line 3 opened in 2010 and is shared with a tram-train which extends beyond the Line 3 terminus at Lutterbach via an SNCF (French Railways) line to Thann. Extensions are planned to the city network and into the surrounding region. The city lines are operated by Soléa on behalf of the Mulhouse metropolitan authority. The tram-train is operated jointly by Soléa and SNCF, with support from the Alsace region. On the stretch past the museum it runs alongside the main Paris – Strasbourg – Mulhouse railway line for several kilometres. Photos – a tram-train outside Mulhouse Gare Centrale and a tram on line 3 passes the Cité du Train museum.
3 Kehl – Strasbourg Railway
The Rhine railway bridge at Kehl and the railway from Strasbourg to the Rheintalbahn at Appenweier was opened in 1861. As a result, it was possible for the first time to travel directly by train between Paris and Vienna. It was used by long distance international trains for many years, with locomotives being changed at Kehl, the border station. Longer distance international services eventually declined. However, the line has been used by Paris – Stuttgart – Munich TGVs since 2007, with onward connections to Vienna and Budapest. Increasing cross-border integration has led to the expansion of the local service. Trains from Offenburg to Kehl have been extended into Strasbourg every half-hour for much of the day, as part of the Ortenau S-Bahn suburban network centred on Offenburg. The trains are operated jointly by SNCF (French Railways) and Ortenau S Bahn – these are diesel because of the different electrification systems in Germany and France.
4 Strasbourg Tramway.
The original Strasbourg system which, at its greatest extent, in addition to urban lines, reached many of the surrounding communities on both sides of the Rhine, closed in 1960. The first line of the new system opened in 1994. It has been continuously expanded and there are now seven lines. Line D reached Aristide Briand in 2007, with a connecting bus service to Kehl. The extension to Bahnhof Kehl opened in April 2017. This involved the construction of a fourth local bridge across the Rhine, in addition to the road and rail bridges and pedestrian bridge slightly upstream. The tram bridge is shared with cyclists and pedestrians. The line was extended to Kehl Rathaus (Town Hall), past the main shopping centre in November 2018. Photo: A Strasbourg tram at the main city centre stop, Homme de Fer.
5 The Murgtalbahn (Murg Valley Railway).
This 78km line opened in various stages between 1868 and 1928 initially from both Freudenstadt and Rastatt, with the central section being the last to be completed. Freudenstadt was in the Kingdom of Württemberg and Rastatt in the Grand Duchy of Baden and the separate railway companies viewed their lines as local branch lines to export wood and industrial produce to the main lines at either end. The central section, across the state border, was also the most difficult to construct The line through the Murg gorge was completed in 1928 by Deutsches Reichsbahn and necessitated numerous tunnels and bridges. The initial downhill section from Freudenstadt is steep and was originally a rack railway (today only certain tram-trains are approved to cope with the gradient). The line attracted tourists to the Schwarzwald but had lost much traffic until it was integrated into the Karlsruhe system between 2002 and 2004, when many new and reopened stations were added to the route. Passenger traffic grew five-fold in the five years following conversion. The line is operated by AVG (Albtal-Verkehrs-Gesellschaft) as part of the Karlsruhe Stadtbahn network, though some longer distance services may be operated by DB Regio from 2023, using electric multiple units.
6 Karlsruhe Tramway and Stadtbahn
The Karlsruhe tramway began operations in 1877 and has never closed. Post WW2, the city operator took over local railways to surrounding villages which had become suburbs and gradually modernised the system to separate tram from road traffic wherever possible. From 1992 the local transport authority, KVV (Karlsruhe Verkehrsverbund), developed the concept of tram-trains, with services on local railways continuing as trams into the city centre, which is some distance from the Hauptbahnof (main station). In partnership with the city tramway, VBK (Verkehrsbetreibe Karlsruhe), AVG (Albtal-Verkehrs-Gesellschaft), which operated local train services and Deutsche Bahn, links between the systems were constructed to enable through running. The system now extends many kilometres from the city (some lines take over two hours from the city centre) using vehicles which can operate under both tram and train electrification, signalling and safety systems. KVV is working to improve accessibility for the less mobile, as there is a legacy of vehicles and platforms of different heights. A tunnel in the city centre (Kaiserstrasse, the main pedestrianised shopping street –pictured – has many tram services and can become congested) has been under construction since 2010. The Karlsruhe Model has spread to other cities in Germany, the Netherlands and beyond.
7 The Luxembourg – Liège Railway
The railway originally ran from Luxembourg to Spa in Belgium, linking two what were then industrial areas. The northernmost section across the Ardennes was the most difficult to operate and a new line was built from the intermediate station of Trois-Points to Rivage and thence to Liège in 1890. This eventually became the main line and the Trois-points to Spa section closed. There were only three through trains each day between Luxembourg and Liège in the 1970s, though one was an international train from Amsterdam to Italy. The current two-hourly service was introduced in the 1980s and the line fully electrified by 2000.
The following information should help anyone planning a similar trip. Note that 2018 prices are quoted.
EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg. There are separate exits from the airport for France and Switzerland. There are direct Flixbus coaches to Freiburg, though they are not frequent. There is a frequent bus (No. 50) to Basel SBB (Swiss Railways) station. The cost is CHF4.7 (Swiss Francs) which covers onward travel by tram or bus within the main city zone. The ticket machine at the airport stop also accepts euros. I then took Tram 2, which links Basel SBB station with Basel Badischer Bahnhof, the Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) station. This was only to see the city centre en route as DB trains to Freiburg start at Basel SBB and call at Badischer Bahnhof. Regional REX trains to Freiburg are slower but considerably less expensive than ICE express trains.
Travel by rail in Germany is covered in the ‘Planning a trip by rail’ and ‘Fares and tickets’ sections of The Harz Mountains and Saxony and only specific information related to this trip is included here. I found it easier to use the DB machines at stations rather than machines operated by the local transport authority – they include local tickets, have a clear English language option and are easy to use with a little practice. Check out the ‘Offers’ section to find additional options to those highlighted on the initial screen. Some tickets are only valid after 0900 on weekdays (all day at weekends). In many cases, up to five people can travel on one ticket for only a few euros extra. Note that many German regional rail day tickets also cover city and town bus and tram services. For example, the Baden-Württembourg ticket includes all transport in Karlsruhe. Finally, it is worth being aware that, if you stay in an Intercity Hotel (I used the one in Freiburg) which are situated close by main stations, a free local transport ticket for the duration of your stay is included in the rate – in a zonal system this will be valid for the central zone.
Freiburg and Mulhouse. To find the price and buy a 24hour ticket for local zones in Freiburg on a DB machine, type in a place name in the relevant zone. For example, type Titisee (in the outermost zone) to get the price of an all zones ticket – the ticket is valid throughout the area and does not have to be used to go to Titisee. The price for an all -24 hour ‘Regio24 Netz RVF 1 person’ ticket (pictured) is €12.40. A DuAL1 Combi Tageskarte costs €16 and covers all travel in the Freiburg and Mulhouse metropolitan areas, plus the railway journey from Freiburg to Mulhouse. The Schauninsland Cable Car is not covered by the above tickets.
Kehl and Strasbourg. As mentioned in the text a 24hour ticket (ALSA Plus 24H) for Strasbourg transport costs €4.30 and includes travel to Kehl. There is also a Europapass 24 hour ticket which covers all rail, bus, tram travel in the Offenburg, Kehl and Strasbourg areas.
Karlsruhe – Luxembourg. The regional day ticket for the province of Rhineland-Pfalz covers Saarland as well. It can be used to reach the area from Karlsruhe. A version, the Rhineland-Pfalz-Ticket+Lux (€30 -pictured), is available which extends coverage to Luxembourg.
Luxembourg: As mentioned in the text the day ticket (Dagesbillje – pictured) has been superceded by free public transport throughout the country (or 6€ for first class train travel). Information about train services is available at www.cfl.com, though as virtually all services are at least hourly, it is unlikely to be necessary.
The sources for rail travel in Europe at The Harz Mountains and Saxony were used in planning the trip, supplemented where necessary by the local transport information websites below. ‘Rail passes for Germany’ by Allan Yearsley, Todays Railways Europe, April 2018, was timely and was a great help in identifying some of the cheap ticket deals I used.
All websites mentioned have an English language option unless otherwise mentioned. Follow these links for: Basel city transport (BVB) , Freiburg city transport (VAG) , Freiburg regional transport authority (RVF) (limited English) , Mulhouse city transport (solea) (French only) , Strasbourg city transport (CTS) , Karlsruhe regional transport authority (KVV) , Luxembourg railways (CFL) .
Rough Guides were useful for initial research, in this case: The Rough Guide to Germany, James Stewart et al, 1st edition, 2009; The Rough Guide to France, David Abram et al, 12th edn, 2011 (Newer editions of both of these are available); and the Rough Guide to Belgium and Luxembourg, Phil Lee and Victoria Trott, 7th edn, 2018. Beer – www.ratebeer.com and my own nose were used to find a beer or two. Additional information (for the railway buffery, historical information and useless facts in particular) was mainly sourced from Wikipedia in English, German, French and Luxembourgish, which can be reached via these links: Wikipedia in English , Wikipedia in German , Wikipedia in French , Wikipedia in Luxembourgish . Other websites are mentioned in the text. Any mistakes in translation from French are my own. For German and Luxembourgish I depended on the vagaries of Google Translate.
Photo and map credits
All photographs are by Steve Gillon, except for the following, which were sourced via Google Images. The Freiburg bachle picture is from http://www.pinterest.com. The view of Schiltach is from http://www.123RF.com. The picture of the Karlruhe tram and ICE train is from http://www.railway-technology.com. Pirmasens Nord station is from Wikipedia in English. Ganter Brauereiausschank is from TripAdvisor.ie. The SNCF railcar at Mulhouse is from http://www.rue69strasbourg.com. Kaiserstrasse, Karlsruhe is from http://www.karlsruhe.de. The DB ticket machine is from wikimedia commons. The base maps at the beginning and above are from http://www.mapmaker.nationalgeographic.com, annotated by Steve Gillon. The Karlsruhe network diagram is from Karlsruher Verkehrsverbund http://www.kvv.de. The map of the Murgtalbahn is from Wikipedia in English.
© Copyright Steve Gillon 2018. Minor updates 2022.