Europe by rail, part 7 of 11: Altstadt Heidelberg and surrounds

Panorama from one of Heidelberg's bridges

Going from Zürich to Heidelberg by train, Freiburg looked a lot nicer when going past it northwards than it seemed going southwards.

The route required I change train at Manheim. Manheim station is far less commercial than the other city stations I’ve been to on this trip. In that regard, it almost felt like a British station. Manheim itself looks heavily industrialized, so I don’t think I’ll miss out if I don’t explore it.

Panorama from one of Heidelberg’s bridges

Heidelberg is pretty. There are many bicycles here, often locked to themselves rather than to fences and bike racks, which implies low fear of crime than I’m used to in the UK.

On the walk from the station to the hotel I saw a motorcycle driving on the cycle path, something I’ve only otherwise seen in The Netherlands; I passed signs pointing to asparagus and potato without explanation… curiously followed by signs for asparagus and strawberries.

Surprisingly, a car used the bicycle lane to skip a queue and turn right. Very un-stereotypical for Germany. (I’ve since learned that the German word for someone who crosses the road without waiting for a green light is “Außlander” (foreigner), and while I don’t know how facetious they were being, it felt correct).

Open farm in Heidelberg 
Open farm in Heidelberg

North of the university, and close to my hotel, there were large open farms; think allotments but without any barriers. Presumably this is what the signs for strawberries, potatoes and asparagus were for, thought I have only seen the strawberries so far.

The university is pleasant; while it has plenty of dilapidated Brutalist buildings, many are covered in vines that make them look much nicer. Some of the nearby buildings — I’m not clear if they’re university or not — are much more modern. All look appealing.

The river has a large dam with a footbridge above it; the power and ferocity of the water flowing under the dam is terrifying to behold, even though it’s not even particularly tall — 4m difference in water level, I would guess.

I continued to be surprised by how many vegetarian options there are here. There’s so much good stuff!

One thing you don’t get from pictures is the smell of a place; and even in person, I often find I only notice it when it changes — when the UK suffered petrol shortages after truckers blockaded refineries in protest against taxes, the air quality massively improved, but I only noticed the improvement not the previous poor quality, and I didn’t notice it get worse again.

There is a cycle path south of the train station, just far enough away to be blocked from sight by buildings, where the air smells so much fresher and cleaner that I can almost imagine I’m in the wilderness, not the city centre. I wish I could fully describe what this place smelled like, but I never built up a good olfactory vocabulary.

There are some Arabic signs here and there, and I’ve seen far more black people living in Heidelberg than in Zürich. (Alas, between my notes and this being years later, I’m not sure if I meant “black” as in sub-saharan African decent or in the colloquial sense it has in the UK that also encompasses northern African, Middle-Eastern, and significant parts of the Indian subcontinent. Sorry about that — just as Posh Person Privilege means I don’t think to make note of which football team a person supports, White Privilege means I don’t really notice fine details of race unless it gets spelled out for me.)

The old city (Altstadt on OpenStreetMap) is a similar quaint style to the old city in Zurich, but without such dense crowds. It is full of old reddish stone and cobbled roads.

Heidelberg is a small-yet-pleasant place, although though I would recommend staying away from the immediate vicinity of the railway station. On that thought, perhaps I misjudged Utrecht earlier on this trip, having seen it only from passing through the station?

German vending machine which vends condoms
German vending machine which vends condoms

German vending machines sometimes stock condoms — Something I’ve never seen in the UK, and I suspect I will never see in the USA.

When I left for the next stop on the trip, I once again changed at Mannheim. The entrance hall of Mannheim station looks better than the rest of it, but I’m still not going to regret missing the chance to explore a city that seems dominated by such large industrial buildings.

I definitely recommend a break in Heidelberg to anyone who likes relaxed, historic, or close-(ish)-to-nature environments.


Europe by rail, part 6 of 11: I’d tell you a cheesy pun about Zürich, but you’d only poke holes in it

Strange noisy mechanical thing in Zürich, near Zürich Casino

Frankfurt to Zürich is hilly, and as I approached the border between Germany and Switzerland, the feel of the countryside out of the train windows changed — still nice, just different. Basel Bad has, if anything, more graffiti than any German city I’ve seen, but a significant fraction of it is very high quality. To my surprise, and against the stereotype I had of the country, Basel Switzerland also has graffiti.

Some passengers on the train are speaking Italian.

I saw a large ugly cooling tower (why do people hate wind turbines when this is the alternative?), an oriental temple (Buddhist?) looking out of place near a (Lidl supermarket?), and churches are more recognisable here than in Germany…either that or Germany has less churches than I thought. There is lots of graffiti here too — which, given the Swiss reputation, is even more of a surprise than it was in a border city like Basel — and a mixture of steep green hillsides (some with pretty houses) and utilitarian construction zones. I had just passed Aarau station while writing this, and wondered if I would later be able to find images of the temple and the cooling tower; the cooling tower I could not find, but Google Street View reveals the temple.

The train went on; we passed a three story wooden building, then a bona fide castle-on-a-hilltop.

I was staying with a friend who lives just south of Zürich itself, so transferred to a local train at the city centre; the main station is enormous, multi-level, filled with shops (of course), and easy to get lost in.

Leimbach station, a few stops south from Zürich, is next to a river; the river is crossed with a roofed bridge. I don’t think I’ve seen a roofed bridge in person before this. It was at this station that I noticed the train doors start opening just before the train stops.

My host has told me, to my surprise, that Swiss trains can be late, and apparently this is quite common in peak times.

Zürich city centre

First thought? “If Budapest were not so poor, it could have looked like this”.

Second thought, as I walked further from the train station, seeing the styles changed and became more… boring, samey, like all other cities. There was chewing gum ground into the pavement, a street pizza (didn’t see any of those in Germany!), roadworks, pedestrians jumping red lights, angy cars honking their horns. It was all quite conventional at that point, though fortunately such things were very limited and further wandering showed me better things very quickly afterwards.

Swiss (and German) pedestrian crossings are different from British ones: The German crossings seem to allow drivers to turn right through a red light, provided they give way to pedestrians (I don’t know if that’s official or just what everyone does in practice, after all the official UK speed limit is often exceeded by 10 mph if there aren’t any speed cameras); The Swiss lights explicitly signal green for cars and pedestrians, or at least some of them do.

By Roland zh, upload on 12. April 2009 [CC BY-SA 3.0  (], from Wikimedia Commons
Ganymede statue, By Roland zh, upload on 12. April 2009 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons
There are public water fountains everywhere in the city (when I later came back, I found them everywhere in the country). In the UK, such fountains were closed permanently when they were found to spread disease. I’m told they are not just clear and safe here, but that Zürich has two entire water supply systems just in case of major contamination or catastrophe. The Zürich lakefront has a statue to Ganymede, which seems to be a popular spot for photos. The lake itself is large enough to have a horizon — flat — from which the distant mountains rise.

Police and (doctor/ambulance) emergency vehicles are fluorescent orange and white.


As mentioned, I’m staying at a friend’s flat. It has a communal laundry room which is surprisingly small for the building size, and local norms require you to wipe down the washing machine door after use. There’s a large empty room next to it, which I assume is for drying clothes without using the tumble dryer.

The flat is spacious by British standards, but correspondingly expensive. It’s up a hill on the same lake as Zürich, but about 5-10 minutes to Zürich HB by train.


Swiss shops close early, very early by British standards — the local corner shop will not be open at 20:50, whereas British ones are often open until 22:00 or 23:00. Garbage bags are restricted items, sold over the counter rather than off the shelf.


Post boxes have what looks like instructions on how to print your own (QR code) stamps. Home deliveries seem to actually occur at a time when you are likely to be in.

Public transport

Public transport is a bunch of zones, but not like London. The zones of London are rings, the zones of Zürich are patches that could well have been the old cities and downs before urban sprawl turned them into a conurbation. The closest to a “single” ticket is one that covers you for an hour for a specific number of zones, while the closest to “return” tickets cover you for 24 hours on a set of zones.

That other people may use any of German, French and Italian is somewhat stressful for me, as I find my poor grasp of the languages an embarrassment (I have GCSE grade D in French, the equivalent of GCSE grade B in German (from Duolingo, self-tested with old GCSE past papers), and I never got very far with Italian on Duolingo.

On the outside of public toilets there are maps of the nearby public toilets, which is convenient. Less convenient is when they cost 1 CHF, although that’s not a universal fee.

Zürichhorn Casino has it’s own ferry port (there are many ports around the lake). The building itself looks like a fairly generic 2-3 story Brutalist building.

Strange noisy mechanical thing in Zürich, near Zürich Casino
Strange noisy mechanical thing in Zürich, near Zürich Casino

Everything is expensive here. It’s a bit like the price shock I had coming back to England from Kenya, even though it’s a much smaller difference (Kenya price shock was being charged more by a single ride in a UK airport taxi than all of the taxis combined from a week in Nairobi).

I wasn’t close enough to the lake to see how clear it was, but the rivers and streams in and out of the lake are very clear by British standards.

I’ve just seen a watering can being filled by one of the public water fountains. Later, a man filling a water bottle from one — I’m glad that’s normal, as I had done just that earlier in the day! (First time here as an adult, so I don’t know what locals consider ‘common sense’. It’s harder than it seems when it’s your own ‘common sense’).

There’s a street lined with a multitude of different flags. I only noticed two that matched each other, but there were so many I may have missed some. The street had a stone and photography shop, with 1200 CHF drones and 11,000 CHF camera lenses.

Pre-divided chocolate
Pre-divided chocolate

It took a long, long time before I found a real supermarket and not just brand shops and small corner shops — not that they didn’t exist, there was one just over the railway line from my friend’s flat and another around the corner from the railway station, but compared to the UK they’re hard to find (and both are, unlike the US, easy to reach on foot). The one near the station is a co-op, but a very different branding than the place of the same name in the UK or the (also mutually unrelated) place of the same name in the USA. Amongst other things, it sells savoury croissants with seeds. I had to get some chocolate, because that is one of the things Switzerland is famous for (that, and the other things being watches which I can’t afford; clocks and Alpenhorns which I don’t want; and what use would a tourist have with a Swiss bank account?). It turned out that one doesn’t need to break Swiss chocolate into squares, it comes pre-divided!

I met another beggar who was grateful to receive a bottle of water. Interesting. A man this time, but just like the (woman) in Frankfurt, my guess is he’s a refugee from the middle east. (As an aside: I’m editing this post about two years after the event, and it’s disappointing that “refugee from the middle east” is still a political issue).

An advert on a giant public screen showed a man on a skateboard being pulled along by a husky.

At the train station, everyone waiting to board leaves much more room for those disembarking than I have seen in Germany or Britain (I wasn’t enough paying attention to remember in any other country).

Hobbies in and around Zürich include paragliding
Hobbies in and around Zürich include paragliding

The Swiss are much chattier than the Germans, in that (excluding beggars) three strangers talked to me today and none talked to me in Germany. The next day, they continued to be chatty and generally helpful when I looked like the lost tourist that I was — replying to my broken German in English, in many cases.

I found my first broken Swiss urinal in the same WC as my first broken Swiss hand dryer. The Swiss concern for good function and cleanliness has turned out to be oddly specific.

There is an advert by the side of the road that turned out to be for a brothel, but that style of advert in the UK would imply a casino (the imagery was sexually implicit rather than explicit, compared to the UK where casinos do similar yet lap dancing clubs and sex shops seem to always have plain adverts and exteriors).

The plants, hedgerows, litter, graffiti, power lines, buildings and roads could easily all be British (with the exception of road signs and left-vs-right side driving); the hills are different (like Wales only more so), but flip a photo left to right and you might not know which country it is.

Plenty of red light running by pedestrians and cyclists alike, which underscores how rare that is in Germany. One instance of horse manure on the pavement so far, which says something about how close nature is to residential life here.

Just walked past a fairly unremarkable Microsoft office, at the almost-but-not-quite funny number 356.

It’s remarkable how many different architectural styles there are here, and also remarkable that they are geographically associated. No random mishmash here, but one place screams “England”, another “Budapest”, another is novel to me and I shall call it “Swiss”.

The statue of Ganymede has been decorated with clothes, nipple tape, and tin foil since I saw it two days ago.

I’ve found a vegetarian hot dog shop. It uses literal translation, so it says “Heiss Hund” — a strange name for the food, when you think about it.

I have finally found a single sex shop in this city, and it’s tiny, but the dildos can be seen from outside. My guess is that the Swiss are slightly more sexually liberal than the English, but much less than the Germans. A short walk and I saw one of the famous painted cows, a little further and I saw another sex shop with all the goods on open display. Perhaps the shops are as zoned as the architecture, or perhaps it’s just Hotelling’s law in action.

There aren’t many clearly obese people in Zürich.