I meant to spend the day around Lake Constance, mostly in St Gallen and Appenzell with a tiny detour over the border to Bregenz. But as I didn’t get there until 3 in the afternoon, it turned into a day in Bregenz via St Gallen.
I left Neuchatel on the 9.24 train and got to St Gallen around midday. I had read in Peedee’s guidebook that St Gallen was the main transport hub for the north-east with regular trains to Bregenz, Konstanz and all around. I looked on the machines, the timetables and the departure boards. Not a single train to Austria.
So I sat and looked at the little map. Rorschach looked a likely place to get to Bregenz from. I got on a train, one of the little colourful Thurbo ones which I’ve wanted to try ever since I first saw them, although I have no idea where that was. I was expecting it to go more or less straight to Rorschach, but it didn’t. We stopped at about four stations, then “Rorschach Stadt” was announced. I was suspicious, because none of the signs or my map mentioned the word Stadt, but I didn’t know what the next stop would be, maybe it would be beyond Rorschach and I should get off the train. So I did.
Rorschach Stadt was a bench and a pavement between a single track and a hedge. I’d got off in completely the wrong place. The next train to Rorschach Hauptbahnhof wouldn’t be for nearly another hour. I looked at the town map and decided I could probably walk to Rorschach HB if I followed the tracks. I looked at a nearby bus stop, but the buses didn’t seem to go anywhere near the main station. I went down the road, turning towards what looked like civilisation any time I could and within about five minutes, I spotted a station. I was there already?
When I got closer, I discovered it wasn’t Rorschach Hauptbahnhof, but Rorschach Hafen. Rorschach Half-station? No, that didn’t make sense. Then I remembered seeing the word in my guidebook. Rorschach Harbour, the more central station. And right on the other side of the tracks was the harbour. I got another ticket and got the 1.16 train about 300 yards to the main station.
No international trains from here either. I looked at yet another map, decided where I had to go next and bought another ticket. Off I went on my fourth train on the day to St Margrethen.
From there, I found I could get to Bregenz. The trouble was that I couldn’t work the ticket machine. I could order the ticket, but nothing happened when I put the card in and while the screen was in English, the card machine part was in German. It did accept coins, but only Euros and I couldn’t find anywhere to get any of them. So I went inside and bought a ticket from the desk.
I decided as I was in Switzerland, I would try French, seeing as it’s the only one of the official languages that I speak.
The man looked doubtful.
“Un petit peu. Eengleesh?”
So I bought my ticket in English. When I handed over the card, he looked at it and then said “Your mother language is English?”
“Lucky for me, because my French is not very good,” he said.
I still had 45 minutes or so to wait for the train, so I sat in one of the waiting pods and with the help of about four timetables, worked out what was the absolute latest I could leave Bregenz if I wanted to get back to Neuchatel.
Twenty minutes before the train left, officials started arriving. Two of them at first, with guns and radios and magnifying glasses. A train came in from Munich and they checked everyone’s passports as they got off. Then another one appeared and what I took to be a soldier, but who turned out to be a military policeman. All four of them had guns and magnifying glasses and radios and belt and straps everywhere and tough boots. It was quite scary, standing on my own on a platform in the middle of nowhere, speaking no German and surrounded by armed customs officials.
The train arrived and I got on without having to show my passport. It was full, having come from Zurich on its way to Munich, so I sat on the floor at the end of one of the compartments, with all the luggage. A fat conductor came down and checked my ticket, then the customs men came down with a boy who didn’t look old enough to even buy the bottle of alcohol he was closing. Then the other two arrived and they all began to go through cases, occasionally turning around to ask the boy questions. Whatever they were looking for, they didn’t find it and they hung around at that end of the carriage until we arrived in Bregenz 15 minutes later. They didn’t check my passport there either.
I went up through the town, took out a few Euros and went hunting for three essential things.
The first I found in a bakery just up the road: eight semmels which I bought in German and which were fresh and hot.
The second I found outside a small shop further up the road: some postcards.
The third I found in a Spar: glacier sweets, which I’ve been looking for ever since I got here, but which I can only get in Austria. Also a bar of Milka.
I went down by the lake and sat on a damp bench to make semmels with butter and marmite, having packed everything I needed for that. It started to rain, but I stayed there until I’d eaten two of them. Then I wandered along the lakefront.
There was a kind of craft fair there and I stopped at the first stall as I spotted panpipes. I can’t remember how long I’ve wanted some, but something in Neuchatel made me want to get some and teach myself to play them. There were some miniature ones, so I bought them. The man there was fascinated by me and we talked in a mixture of French and English, then, just before I left, he said he had a present for me. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but it’s a symbol of luck. It looks like a seed, half bright red and half black.
I carried on along the front and soon came to a building site. It appeared you could still walk along the lake front, sort of through the middle of it, so I did. There was a bright red industrial looking something and as I got closer, it appeared that there were huge rows of either stairs or seats by it. It seemed to be seats.
Soon I emerged between the seats, as if I’d walked into some open air theatre. But what it was all overlooking was the huge red industrial something. Now I was seeing it from the front, I could see barrels floating in the lake. Floating barrels are never a good sign.
But when I saw the huge red industrial something I was horrified.
The front was piled up with barrels, which were all leaking some sort of black and luminous yellow gunk. It looked like someone had been dumping toxic waste there for decades. I immediately decided I was never so much as setting foot in that lake. This is Switzerland, where they dump that sort of stuff in their lakes?
There were a lot of people looking at it and panels on the floor which seemed to be explaining it. It was in German so I had no hope of reading it. Then I came across a panel which showed people crossing small bridges and climbing up on the gunk and I began to wonder.
Finally it dawned on me. Maybe this had been something huge and industrial once, but it was now a giant floating stage set and that toxic gunk was painted on. It was the set for Der Trubadour and I was relieved to find a painted but unused section of barrel and gunk on the other side.
Getting back to the station was hard. I walked through a spa, through woods, car parks, tennis courts and finally spotted it across a car park.
By then, my back ached from all the stuff in my bag and my feet hurt, my jeans were soaked almost up to my knees because of the rain and I couldn’t figure out how to get to the station side of the tracks.
They had built some sort of bizarre tower up to the overhead walkways. Up the middle of it was stairs and curling around were ramps, which must have been about three times the distance. I found my train and waited on the platform.
German train announcements are different from Swiss German ones. “Achtung, achtung,” is at the beginning and it’s not “gleis”, it’s “Bahnsteig”, I think.
The train back was a regional one which stopped at every field on the way back to St Margrethen instead of going direct. I didn’t get my passport checked at all on the way back either. I might as well not have taken the thing.
I had ten minutes to wait at St Margrethen but this time, I skipped the whole Rorschach fiasco by getting a direct train back to St Gallen.
According to my calculations, I could afford just over two hours in St Gallen, go to visit the cathedral and the library and then get the last train back to Neuchatel. But I was tired and besides, I didn’t have time to do Appenzell, so I’d have to come back anyway. So I waited around the main square, visited the narrow gauge station out to Appenzell and Trogen and bought postcards, which was when I made an interesting discovery. At the balloon festival, I’d seen a balloon in the shape of a church. It turned out to be St Gallen Cathedral and there were postcards of it.
I got the 6.48 train back via Gossau, Wil SG, Winterthur, Zurich Flughafen, Zurich Hauptbahnhof, Aarau, Olten, Solothurn, Biel/Bienn and finally, Neuchatel. Two and a half hours direct and got back at 9.34. It was a long day.