Well, here we are in Mulhouse, in eastern France.
We got here from Germany via Switzerland, a series of steps that, to an Australian, seem quite bizarre.
In fact, we didn’t even know we were going to Switzerland when we left Speyer this morning – the train just does that if you take it from Speyer (Germany) to Mulhouse (France).
But what about customs? What about border control? Passports?
Well, they sort of happen.
On the train, we had a chat with customs from Germany and then the police from Switzerland – the latter complete with a sniffer dog. But we didn’t even have to proffer passports, let alone answer any difficult questions.
Again, from an Australian’s perspective, the ability of these officials to chat – even make jokes – in multiple languages is very humbling.
So we travelled today from Speyer – but why go to Speyer in the first place… the only town we’re going to in Germany? The answer to that is the Technic Museum – sister museum to Sinshiem (that we visited a few years ago) and, as a pair, probably among the best transport / technical museums in the world.
The Speyer and Sinshiem museums are fascinating in that the exhibits dominate – there’s no fancy architecture or high falutin’ décor… just lots and lots of brilliant things to see.
At the Speyer museum we saw a 1950s gullwing Mercedes; multiple huge 4-10-0 steam railway locomotives; a 747 jumbo jet; an enormous Antonov propeller-driven freighter that – despite its size - was designed to be able to land on dirt strips; wonderful fairground organs (playing mightily); a submarine; and an emergency rescue ship.
And so many interesting things tucked away – a wonderful display of sewing machines; another of models of German WWII aircraft that never made it into the skies; huge all-wooden fruit presses that looked at least 300 years old; the rocket-powered Opel – the more you looked, the more you saw.
But if I were to make a criticism of this museum, it would be in the lack of signs. Most exhibits have good signage (in both German and English), but a significant number of items do not have English signs – and an irritatingly large number of exhibits have no signs at all.
Google Translate on an iPhone has the awesome ability to be able to translate live images into English (you just point your phone camera at the other-language text and up pops English), but that’s no good if there’s no text to translate!
The Speyer museum has a hydrofoil boat on display (it fascinated me, but there were no signs) and it also had a lot of Soviet-era aircraft and aircraft engines on display… again without adequate signage.
But still, a really superb museum for anyone interested in cars, ships, planes – or the societal implications of these changing technologies.
We finished at the Speyer museum around 4pm and went for a walk into the darkening centre of the relatively small city (Speyer population: 50,000). There, the Christmas markets were still in full swing, and the shops on this dusk Saturday afternoon were still open. And it was like we remembered Germany from a few years ago: nice, quiet, civilised and with happy families enjoying the night air… not the least daunted by the light drizzling rain that was falling. Absolutely delightful.
Training into France from Switzerland via Germany, the French towns look, well, a bit scummy. And Mulhouse, only about 20 kilometres from the border, looks quite run-down. (That initial impression was on a Sunday when there were few people around: it looked a bit better on the following Monday.) However, the town’s trams work well, and after Georgina pulled a stunner by understanding the French ticket machine and buying the correct tickets for the tram (and causing us to catch it!) we ended up at Cite de l’Automobile museum.
And the Schlumpf collection…
The Schlumpf brothers were wealthy capitalists who decided to spend lots of money on buying Bugattis, all unknown to their workers. When a Marxist revolt occurred, and workers broke into the ‘factory’ that was actually the private Bugatti museum, all hell broke loose. The workers burnt one car, and the Schlumpf brothers fled. Time passed, and the collection of cars was put on display to raise some money. Even more time passed, and the French government decided to buy the collection as a heritage item.
And so we end up with a state-sponsored museum that today has probably the most expensive collection of cars in the world.
But I don’t get off on Bugattis much, so for me the best cars were from other manufacturers. I adored the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Mercedes; the 1960s Porsche; and the 1986 Ford RS200 Group B rally car. I also loved the more obscure French cars of the 1950s and 1960s that showed engineering traits like cast aluminium frames, superb aerodynamics and front-wheel drive.
But I do think that, overall, this was more a museum for people who wanted to say that they’d seen (maybe) AUD$75 million of cars, rather than someone who actually loved the aesthetics, or the engineering, or the history, of certain specific, wonderful cars.
The next day we went to the City du Trains museum, still in Mulhouse.
And what a very, very good train museum it is!
I reckon the National Railway Museum in York (in the United Kingdom) is the best I have ever been to (let’s say it’s 10/10), and on that scale I think the City du Trains museum is an 8/10 place.
The museum was clearly one that – in its various guises – has been collecting significant historic objects for over 150 years. The locomotives dated back to the very earliest days of steam; the electric locos were incredible in their power and age; and the railway artefacts like signals and control panels were better than I have ever seen (yes, even better than York).
There was also plenty of social history on display with re-created dining room cars, carriages for royalty, and a steam locomotive on its side, having ‘crashed’ because of the action of World War II resistance fighters.
A first-class museum.
Three points though – the main hall is very cold, so in winter wear outdoor clothing; they won’t let you leave luggage (like backpacks) at the entrance - so you’re lugging them all the time; and most of the signs are in only French.
Now – off to Switzerland.
Well, the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne is pretty weak (but there’s a great view out the front!). In fact, it reminds me a bit of that most awful of museums, the Chicago Museum of Science + Technology. (That was the one that had the talking, animatronic donkey located in one of the world’s most significant diesel trains – the Pioneer Zephyr.) At the Swiss museum there weren’t any talking donkeys, but what we had was a museum where getting people through the doors took precedence over education and historical, scientific and engineering literacy.
But that’s not quite true.
The section on electric rail locomotives was outstanding. The full-scale exhibits were significant, the signs (in multiple languages, including English) were excellent, and the peripheral amusements that could entertain kids were at least technologically relevant.
I loved the huge (American-made) rail snow plough, the funicular railway exhibits, and the engineering detail incorporated in the coverage of traction motor drivelines, frequency and phases of supply power sources, and the evolution of solid-state switching devices for such high currents and voltages. I honestly doubt that there’d be a railway enthusiast in the world who wouldn’t have learned something in this first section of the museum.
The automotive section was next – and what a let-down.
Firstly, it needs to be said that the actual cars on display were great. I saw a Lamborghini Miura, a Mini, a Tatra – a whole range of other interesting cars. Unfortunately, I could view them only as distant objects, as they were stacked on a wall. An elaborate (and impressive) lift and conveyor system fetched the cars one at a time from the wall, placed them on a turntable and rotated them, accompanied by a film and voiceover. Trouble is, that meant that a visitor to the museum would have stood around for several days before seeing all of the cars in detail. A true triumph of display technology over historical substance…
And it was the same everywhere in this section of the museum. A display of car engines on stands turned out to be, when examined closely, a great history of Toyota Corolla powertrains, from a 1970s carby four cylinder to a current hybrid. Except, it wasn’t presented like that... and the hybrid driveline was actually the rear electric motor from an RX400h Lexus…
This was the frustrating thing. The exhibits were there – but the historic scholarship and presentation skills of the curators were lacking. Badly.
It was the same in the marine and aviation sections – I won’t bore you with the details…
Now if it had all have been free, I’d have just shrugged, but for this family of two adults and an 11 year old, the cost was AUD$90 –the greatest admission price for the worst museum we have attended while in Europe!
After our (abbreviated) stay at the transport museum, we went for a walk around the centre of Lucerne. The backdrop of snow-covered mountains is quite stunning, and with the centre of the city built around Lake Lucerne, the overall ambience is delightful. People are extraordinarily well-dressed and there are no beggars or impoverished peoples of any apparent sort. But that’s not perhaps surprising when a day pass on public buses (again for our family of three) costs an eye-watering AUD$33. (And that’s for a range of only six stops – about 2.5km!) A bag of groceries and some wine cost us about double the amount we were expecting.
I get the feeling that this might be one of the most expensive places in the world to live…
Next: we’re off to Italy – and we hated it!