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HEALTH

From masks to spas: Crossing the French-Swiss border in the Covid era

Anyone who thought that 'Europe' was one homogeneous bloc would have been swiftly disabused of that notion during the pandemic, when all countries imposed different rules and regulations. As lockdown eases these differences remain, as I discovered when taking a trip over the French border to Switzerland.

From masks to spas: Crossing the French-Swiss border in the Covid era
The borders have reopened which means that travel is possible - but every country still has its own health rules. Photo: AFP

During the months of France's strict lockdown a trip down the street to the boulangerie was considered an event, but since lockdown rules have gradually lifted we have all become a little more adventurous, and then on June 15th a tantalising prospect opened up – international travel.

On June 15th France opened up its borders again to non-essential travel from within Europe meaning that activities like visiting friends and family in other countries were once again possible.

I decided to start small with a train trip over the border to neighbouring Switzerland – and found a surprising level of difference in the hygiene rules that each country is employing.

Unlike France, Switzerland never had a strict lockdown with forms and police checks, but the country did close down most aspects of daily life and its borders were also closed to all non-essential travel for several months (although this did not include the many thousands of cross-border workers who travel from France to Switzerland every day).

France itself is seeing some variations from region to region, especially in rural areas, but in Paris where I live there are still quite a few restrictions on daily life.

READ ALSO These are the 9 lockdown rules you still need to follow in France

Masks are compulsory on public transport in France, but only recommended in Switzerland. Photo: AFP

My non-essential but keenly anticipated trip began on the Paris Metro where masks are compulsory. As I arrived at Gare du Lyon, Metro ticket inspectors were carrying out one of their regular ticket checks, which on this occasion also included checking that people were correctly masked.

My fellow passengers were all wearing masks so no fines were issued although one man was sternly instructed to pull up his mask so that it covered his nose (pointless to wear one like that of course, but it was 31C in Paris that morning which means the Metro was pretty sweaty).

The train to Lausanne was not full and we carefully spaced ourselves out in the carriage, obediently masked. Being caught without a mask on any public transport in France (including taxis) can net you a €135 fine.

On arrival in Lausanne, in the Swiss canton of Vaud, however things changed quite dramatically.

Wandering through the station I saw very few masks and the Covid-19 posters giving information on hand-washing and the correct coughing/sneezing technique were conspicuous by their absence.

On the Metro the tannoy announced that masks were “strongly recommended” but this recommendation was almost universally ignored and at the station commuters cheerfully crammed themselves into the lifts with no apparent thought of physical distancing (although that could be because, as locals, they knew exactly how many flights of stairs the alternative involved. Oh well, good cardio).

Meeting up with Switzerland-dwelling friends involved hugs and kisses, quite different to the awkward ballet of 'going in for la bise then realising it is forbidden' that characterises most meetings in France these days and a short car journey from Lausanne took us to a chalet high in a stunning Alpine valley.

Chalet life in an Alpine valley. Photo: The Local

On arrival I had a slightly awkward moment as the French StopCovid app sent me an alert. Just as I was wondering how I would explain to my friends – and the chalet owners – that we were all going to have to quarantine together for the next 14 days, I realised that the app just needed reactivating, presumably because it had moved countries.

Several of the Swiss people in the group had the Swiss covid tracker app, but it seems that our apps cannot communicate with each other, making them slightly pointless in this scenario.

In the village everything was open and shops seemed to lack the distancing markers still widely seen in France, although the local supermarket did have hand sanitiser dispensers in place. 

Hiking in the beautiful Swiss Alps is pretty respectful of social distancing but the nearby spa was also fully open and operational, and although the massage therapist wore a mask I didn't see any other staff wearing them as waiting staff in France are obliged to do. And after a divine full body massage I stopped caring completely about droplet infection, R rates or a second wave – which may be the secret of the Swiss relaxation.

A night's stay in Geneva later and and I was on my way home. Travelling back over the border my passport received a quick check (Switzerland is in the Schengen zone but not the EU which means that passport checks between the two countries are occasional and generally quite cursory). I explained that I was travelling back to Paris where I lived and the border officer dryly commented 'that's a good excuse, Madame'.

Health-related travel restrictions within the EU and the Schengen zone are now largely lifted although some countries still have restrictions in place, while travel to the UK involves a 14-day quarantine.

MAP: Where can you travel from France?

Switzerland does of course still have rules in place and in fact masks will become compulsory on public transport from July 6th.

Large events have been cancelled for the foreseeable future – including the 2021 Geneva motor show – but it seems that on a day-to-day level life in the country has seen less of a lasting change than France, probably because the country saw considerably fewer deaths and its health systems never came close to being overwhelmed.

Whether any of the French changes will be permanent remains to be seen, but some younger French people are hoping that la bise will end up as a casualty of coronavirus.

READ ALSO Kiss off: Why coronavirus could spell the end of 'la bise' in France

 

 

 

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TRAIN TRAVEL

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying – even with kids

Hoping to do his bit for the planet, perhaps save some money and avoid spending any time in airports, The Local's Ben McPartland decided to travel 2,000km with his family across Europe by train - not plane. Here's how he got on on and would he recommend it?

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying - even with kids

Summer 2022 has seen the return of people travelling across Europe en masse whether for holidays or to see family, or both.

But it’s also seen chaos in airports, airline strikes and more questions than ever about whether we should be flying at all as Europe bakes under consecutive heatwaves caused by the climate crisis.

But are there really viable alternatives to travelling 2,000 km across Europe in a short space of time – with young kids?

The predicament

We needed to get from Paris to Portugal, or to be more precise the western edge of the Algarve in southern Portugal, for a week-long family holiday.

We didn’t have that much time to spend travelling there and back so the dilemma was how could we get there, fairly quickly?

“We” in this case being a family of four including two children aged 5 and 7, one fairly easygoing mum and a dad (me) who increasingly comes out in a rash when he goes near an airport.

Normally we’d have flown – as we did when we went to the same region of Portugal in October – but the stories of airport chaos, delays, cancellations, strikes and never-ending queues around Europe at the start of the summer made the prospect of taking the plane far less appealing.

Then throw in the climate crisis and the growing feeling that we, as a family, need to make an effort for the cause.

So the thought of flying, during what forecasters say was one of the hottest Julys on record in Europe and as rivers dried up and wildfires burn, just didn’t feel like an acceptable option – to me anyway – when there are alternatives.

There was the option of driving from France to Portugal, as many French and Portuguese nationals living in France do every summer. But driving nearly 2,000 km there and back for just a week’s holiday with two kids strapped in the back for hours on end would have been asking for trouble – either a breakdown or lots of meltdowns.

So that left taking the train. But would it be viable?  Would something go wrong as my colleague Richard Orange had warned on his own rail trip across Europe with kids this summer?

READ ALSO: What I learned taking the train through Europe with two kids

Planning the route

With the help of some really knowledgeable European rail experts like Jon Worth and information from the excellent The Man in Seat Sixty-One website we looked at the various rail routes through France and Spain to southern Portugal.

One problem was the line from southern Spain to the Algarve no longer runs which meant the best we could do was get to Seville and then hire a car.

At one point the best option looked like a night train (fairly cheap with a whole cabin reserved for the family) down to the Pyrenees (Latour-de-Carol) and then a local train to Barcelona before onwards travel to Portugal.

But in the end we settled on the direct train from Paris to Barcelona, spend the night in the Catalan city before taking the train the next day to Seville and picking up the car.

READ ALSO 6 European cities less than 7 hours from Paris by train

It would be mean Paris to Portugal in two days – or to be precise 7 hours to Barcelona, one night in a hotel, before a five-and-half-hour train journey to Seville and a three-hour car journey. It was the quickest way without flying, as far as we could see.

We were about to book the tickets when friend who was travelling by rail through Europe mentioned the Interrail option.

I did Interrailing as an 18-year- old and it was a great way to spend a month travelling around Europe (and Morocco) but had never thought it could be an option for a quickish trip to Portugal and back.

But Interrail has changed a bit since 1996 and indeed since 1972 when it was first launched for under 21s.

Now it offers passes that can be used for 4, 5 or 7 days a month – perfect for travel to a few destinations in a short space of time.

And, this was the clincher – Interrail passes for under 11s are free if they are with an adult.

Well almost free, because in certain countries like France and Spain you still need to pay for seat reservations for anyone travelling.

But the cost of the passes for two adults, plus seat reservations were cheaper than just booking direct trains and much cheaper than flying (more on costs below).

The high-speed train from Barcelona to Seville. Photo: The Local

The Upsides

Let’s start with not having to wake up at 4am and arrive at the train station three hours before the train leaves just to check in a bag and then spend the next three hours queuing in various lines – bags, passport, security, boarding etc..

We arrived at Gare de Lyon around 30 minutes before the train left and boarded without queuing and the train departed on time.

Compare this with having to get a taxi or the RER train to Charles de Gaulle airport and then still find yourself in Paris three hours later as you queue to board. (I know this is not always the case but this summer the advice was to arrive three hours before your flight to check in bags.)

Plus there was no luggage limits on the train and no having to empty your bags at security because you left an old roll-on deodorant at the bottom of your bag.

Although rail stations in Spain do have airport style x-ray machines to check all luggage, they were very rapid and didn’t result in any long queues.

Add to this comfortable seats with leg room, a bar you can walk to and spend hours watching the beautiful French and Spanish landscape whizz by.

You arrive in the centre of town – in our case Barcelona – so there’s no need to get public transport or taxis to and from out of town airports. 

Spending a night in Barcelona was a great way to break the journey – albeit a bit expensive (see below).

And it all ran pretty much on time. Over five train journeys in four days we had 15 minutes of delay. Spain’s high-speed trains were fantastic.

To sum it up: when flying your holiday only really begins when you arrive at your final destination because these days the day spent travelling is one big headache, but with the train the holiday begins as soon as you leave the station.

It’s just far, far more relaxing.

heading back to Barcelona Sants station after a night in the Catalan capital. Photo: The Local.

The Downsides

But what about the kids, you say?

Yep this can be an issue. Travelling for 7 hours on a train is not easy with two young kids but if you come prepared and can think of 75 different ways to occupy them from drawing and playing cards to I-spy and “count my freckles slowly” then it’s possible the journey will be tantrum free. (Playing hide and seek on a train with 12 carriages isn’t advisable.)

And kids adapt, so the following day’s five and half hour journey from Barcelona to Seville was a breeze because they settled into the pace of life and by that point had worked out the code to get into my mobile phone.

One complaint was how long the TGV train took to get along the southern French coast. Does it really need to stop at Nimes, Montpellier, Beziers, Agde, Sete and Perpignan? Can’t local trains serve these stations and the TGV just head straight to Spain?

Another little gripe was the train food. Whilst buffet cars on SNCF and Renfe trains are great for a coffee or a beer they don’t really offer a selection of healthy meals, so you need to come prepared. We weren’t and spent a lot of money on crap food and drink during the trips.

But if you know this in advance you can bring whatever you like onto the train, with no nonsense about 100ml limits on liquid.

Cost comparison

Working out cost comparisons are hard and anyone looking to do a similar trip will need a calculator at hand. 

It’s hard to do a direct comparison between flying and taking the train because so much depends on what the prices are when you book, the route you want to take and how quickly you want to travel and whether to go first class or standard.

But for us at the time of booking (roughly two months in advance) flights from Paris to Faro were about €1,500 for four people, train tickets booked directly with SNCF and Renfe (not interrail) for four people were around €1,200 (this probably could have been much cheaper further in advance), whilst the Interrail option – 4 day passes plus seat reservations was around €810.

So on the face of it travelling by train, especially using Interrail passes, was cheaper – but then add on the cost of two nights in hotels in central Barcelona and there was no real financial benefit of going by train.

But then it was never all about money – what price on not having to spend three hours at Charles de Gaulle airport?

How easy is it to Interrail?

Interrail proved a great option for us, even though it was only a relatively short trip. It’s more suited to those looking to do multiple journeys through various countries, perhaps at a slower pace. But the kids being free was crucial for us, so other families should definitely explore the option.

The one downside to Interrailing through France and Spain is the requirement to book seat reservations for the high-speed trains.

Whilst this sounds fairly straightforward we couldn’t do it through the Interrail app or website so had to be done with Renfe directly. For most countries you can reserve seats through the Interrail app (more on this below).

With SNCF it required a lengthy phone call because we reserved the seats to make sure there were some available before getting the Interrail passes.

For Paris to Barcelona the reservations cost €34 for standard class seats or €48 for first class.

With Renfe it was more complicated although much cheaper (Around €10 to €12 a seat). We were told on the phone that to reserve seats with Interrail you have to do it either at a Spanish train station or by phone but only if you can pick up and pay for the reservations at a Spanish train station within a certain amount of time.

Neither of these were possible when booking from Paris back in May/June. But the helpful website Man at Seat 61 recommended going via the man behind the AndyBTravels website, who charges a small fee. A few emails were exchanged and our reservations for Barcelona to Seville arrived in the post a few days later. 

Renfe and SNCF could make it easier for Interrail passengers.

The Interrail mobile pass on the the Rail Planner app was very easy to use. It was just a case of adding the days when we were travelling and then adding the specific journeys.

This brought up a QR code for each trip but the ticket controllers were always more concerned about the seat reservations we had on paper.

But all went to plan.

 

Conclusion

Those days spent sitting drinking coffee, orange and beer (in separate cups) starring out of train windows at fields, hills, mountains, villages, beach and train platforms were part of the holiday.

I’d say that if you have a day or two to spare then travelling across Europe by train instead of plane is well worth it – yes, even with two young kids.

They might even thank you for it one day if we all help avert a climate disaster. 

Advice

It’s hard to give advice because each person has different requirements that need to be taken into account – whether number of passengers, time needed for travelling, destinations, cost etc.

But plan ahead and do the research to see what’s possible.

One bit of advice if you need to travel quickly is try keep connections to a minimum or give yourself plenty of time to make them.

My colleague Richard Orange had problems on his trip from Sweden to the UK via Denmark, Germany and Belgium because of delays and missed connections.

Useful links and extra info

You can explore Interrail pass options and prices by visiting the Interrail site here. The site offers plenty of info to help you plan your trip and reserve seats on trains if necessary.

The fantastic Man in Seat 61 guide to train travel across Europe is a must-read for anyone planning a trip. It has pages and pages of useful up to date info and can be viewed here.

It also has loads of information on how to use an Interrail pass and calculations to see whether it’s the best option – if you need help with the maths. The page can be viewed here.

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