Chantal visits Europe for the First Time

Staff member: Chantal // Trip date: Oct 2010

Chantal visits Europe for the First Time

10th September 2010

Eurail Pass

For my trip I had a Eurail Global Pass, 10 days in 2 months. This meant I could travel in 21 European countries on 10 days over 2 months. Travel is unlimited from midnight to midnight on travel days. My pass was pre-validated from Australia meaning I didn't need to validate it once overseas. Once validated, passes are non refundable. Before boarding the train I had to make sure I filled in the date of travel on the Eurail pass for the pass to be valid. I also pre-booked services where possible from Australia to save any hassle overseas, which turned out to be the best thing I could have done as many stations had long queues for reservations & ticket purchases.

Oyster Card

After 24 hours of flights, and an hour in Heathrow customs, all I wanted to do was to throw my bags down and sleep. So I was very glad London has a vast transport network, that makes it easy to get around, and there is an underground station at Heathrow Airport (The Piccadilly line). All I had to do was swipe my Oyster Card (valid on most of London's transport system) to get through the turnstile and jump on the train (the longest I ever had to wait for a train was about 2 minutes). Then you swipe the Oyster Card to exit the station and it calculates the cheapest fare for you on the route you took. £15 of Oyster Card credit lasted me 3 days; I kept waiting for it to run out but it never did. If you do need to top up, there are machines at every station and all you do is swipe your Oyster card on the machine, put in your cash or credit card & it's done.

London - Paris: Eurostar

The day has come, my first train international train, and the train I book many passengers in for - The Eurostar. I aimed to get to the train station 1 hour before my trains departed, leaving myself enough time to find the station, the platform I'm travelling on and get something to eat on the train (every station I went to had some form of food, whether it's a little food stand or a flashy restaurant). There are plenty of places to buy food and shop at London St Pancras Station. The Eurostar is one of the few trains that has a specific check in time, generally 30 minutes before departing, and this is because it's also one of the few trains that requires you to go through customs.
There are plenty of signs to direct you to the Eurostar Terminal of the station. Once you have presented your ticket to the customer service agent and gone through the turnstile, you need to go through the passport / security check. Once through you can check one of the many screens to see which gate your train is departing from, and then relax in the waiting lounge to board your train.
On Eurostar tickets it refers to the carriage as 'Voiture' (the French translation). When you walk along the side of the train, on the ground at each carriage door, it will say Voiture and the number of the carriage. I was booked in the Standard Premier Class, which is the standard first class service (previously Leisure Select) and was greeted by a pleasant Eurostar staff member upon boarding who pointed me to the direction of my seat. When you first walk onboard there is a luggage rack, however if you prefer there is overhead luggage above all seats.

The seats onboard the Eurostar are comfortable and convenient, with a fold down train table, a pocket for magazines (which are provided), UK power point, a bin, armrests and headrests.
Shortly after departing, a friendly bilingual attendant comes around offering drinks (orange juice, coffee & tea) & a light meal of crossaints, bread rolls & yoghurt. I thoroughly enjoyed my 'Pan au Chocolat' or chocolate crossaint, my first taste of France!
Before I knew it we were in the Channel Tunnel & 20 minutes later we were in France!
Overall a very easy & comfortable first experience on a European train...I kept wondering why anybody would fly this route!

Standardpremiereurostar jpg

Paris Metro

I had the luxury of having my Parisian friend show me around Paris for a couple of days, and although we mostly walked around, just like London it's necessary to catch public transport at times. The Paris Metro system is simple to use; you can pre-purchase a Paris Metro Card from Rail Plus or in Paris at the metro stations. You receive a little ticket to get you through the barriers, but there's no need to use it when you exit the station. I definitely recommend pre-purchasing this though to save time & hassle as the metro stations can be quite busy.

Paris - Bruges (via Brussels): Thalys & IC trains

After 5 days of sightseeing in London & Paris, I was ready to relax and rejuvenate for a few days and decided Bruges, Belgium was the place to go. To get there I first had to take a train from Paris Gare du Nord to Brussels Midi stations on the Thalys, a red, high speed train that ended up becoming one of my favourites.
The carriages were again referred to as 'Voitures' and the station was well signed. There were luggage racks at the ends of the carriages, and above the seats however I decided to keep my backpack at my legs as there was enough room for this. The décor of the Thalys train is very modern and the seats are very comfortable, and it was obvious from the start that you were in for a pleasant, easy, journey (actually I was a little disappointed it only took 1 hour & 20 minutes).
In first class, a light meal is included and is a delicious crossaint (I lost count of how many crossaints I ate over these few days...heaven!), bread rolls, pastries & yoghurt. Tea, coffee, water & juice were also included. Embarrassingly I spilt my blueberry yoghurt down the front of my white t-shirt! A lovely attendant happened to see this and a minute later I was handed a bunch of moist towelettes, saving me from the blueberry stain!

I arrived into Brussels Midi station, Brussels main station. The station is huge with many shops and places to eat, and the smell of delicious, Belgian chocolate floats through the station.
To make my way to Bruges, I had to catch an IC train, which took 57 minutes. Reservations can't be made for this train so I could catch whichever service came next. Looking at the board I couldn't see a train with the destination as Bruges. I headed to the information booth, there was no queue and the attendant spoke English; and she was quick to tell me which platform I needed & when the train departed. The final destination for this service was Knokke so this is what was listed on the board (this was the only train I caught where this happened).

I wasn't expecting much as it's a regional train, however I was pleasantly surprised. I decided to sit in 2nd class, which had rows of 2 seats or 4 seats (2 x 2 facing each other) and some had tables also. The seats were really comfy, and there was plenty of room so no one had to stand. There was plenty of overhead luggage storage and plenty of seats available if you wanted to take your luggage with you to your seats.

Bruges train station is small, and the bus station is right outside to take you to the centre of town.

Bruges - Amsterdam (via Antwerp): IC trains

After resting up in Bruges and eating way too many Belgian waffles, I was off to Amsterdam. To get there I headed to Antwerp station, on the same type of IC train I took to get to Bruges. Again there's no reservations for this train so I could choose my seat and this time I sat in a 1st class carriage which was basically empty. The seats were a bit more deluxe than 2nd class with big armrests and there was more leg space. This was the main difference between 1st & 2nd class.
After arriving at Antwerp Centraal station, I checked the board to find out details about my train to Amsterdam. There are 2 types of trains that service this route, the Thalys train which takes 1 hour 12 minutes, or the IC train which takes 2 hours 11 minutes. As much as I had previously enjoyed the Thalys service, seat reservations are compulsory and are quite expensive, so I opted for the IC train which has no seat reservations. It took an hour longer but I was wrapped up in my book & didn't mind at all.

After arriving at Amsterdam Centraal Station I needed to catch a bus to my accommodation. The station is big but well signed so I followed the signs out of the station to the bus stop. You can buy tickets onboard the buses & trams in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam to Zurich: CityNightLine (night train)

I decided to travel from Amsterdam to Zurich on the direct, 12 hour, overnight train rather than spending the whole day on the train. I went back to Amsterdam Centraal station to book my bed (I had decided to stay in Amsterdam an extra night so had to make a new reservation). In the reservations area you are greeted with a queue number and they have TV screens everywhere so you can see when your number comes up. There are computers set up which you can use for free to research the trains before reserving. Altogether I spent about 1 hour there as the queue was quite long, so I would recommend pre booking trains departing from Amsterdam Centraal.
Since I was staying in a lot of dorms on the trip I decided to splurge on an Economy Single Sleeper, a sleeper all to myself. I was greeted at the door by two CityNightLine staff and found my room. The door is initially kept open so the staff can come around and check tickets, give a brief overview of the train & then it's complete privacy for the night. Inside the compartment is a single bed and a cabinet that has a washbasin, mirrors and towels inside. There were other handy amenities such as coat hangers, tissues and a bottle of water provided. Nobody can access the room without a room key so it's very secure. There are also controls for the temperature and lights, and a bed side light. Outside my room was a shower & toilet, small but did the job. Announcements are made in English, French, Italian & German.

When the staff had come around earlier, they asked if I would like a wake up call in the morning, which I did. This happens 1 hour before arriving, just before breakfast is serviced. I was exhausted that night and slept soundly for 10 hours of the 12 hour journey! I'm prone to all types of motion sickness so was worried the rocking of the train would make me queasy but it didn't at all. I woke up to the alarm and there was an announcement that breakfast was ready whenever we were, and to open the compartment door to let the staff know. I was hungry so opened it up right away and a few minutes later the staff appeared with breakfast - a range of bread rolls, crossaints, tea, coffee & juice. Each compartment has a large window so I opened the blinds and ate my breakfast while watching the scenery go past until we arrived in Zurich. All in all a very pleasant experience with CityNightLine, arriving refreshed and ready to start the day.

citynightline single slpr gif

Zurich Hbf - Lucerne: IR (Interregio) train

I wasn't staying in Zurich, I was continuing on to Lucerne, a beautiful city located on the stunning Lake Lucerne. Seat reservations aren't compulsory for trains in Switzerland (with the exception of Swiss Scenic trains), so I didn't have a seat booked for this train. The train is an IR or Interregio train, which is a regional service that departs every half an hour from Zurich to Lucerne. After quickly exchanging some Euros to Swiss Francs I found the platform using one of the many screens, and headed over to my train. I had heard many good things about Swiss trains and this one didn't disappoint. It was a huge double decker train, with many styles of comfy seats - 2x2, single seats, even lounge style seats (semi circle of adjoined seats) with a table in front. There were plenty of seats available for the journey. There were also complimentary newspapers and a food cart came around. Swiss trains are known for running on time, and 45 minutes later we were in Lucerne.

Lucerne - Interlaken Ost: Golden Pass

The next train I took was the Golden Pass - one of Switzerland's famous Scenic trains that has Panoramic cars, and the best way to travel between Lucerne & Interlaken, in 2 hours. It is compulsory to reserve your seats on this train so I pre-booked this train from Australia. My seat reservation was for 1st class, but not in a Panoramic car. I wanted to sit in the Panoramic car which had plenty of free seats so I asked the attendant if I could move and he said it was no problem. The Panoramic car has huge windows that extend to the top of the train for the best views - and they are views you don't want to miss. After departing Lucerne, you travel through the Brunig pass which connects the Bernese Oberland and central Switzerland. The views of mountains and lakes were amazing, and the 2 hours flew past. There was a dining cart on board so I purchased a baguette and bottle of water, which was quite expensive but tasty. The train arrived into Interlaken Ost station, which is the main station in Interlaken, and after I got off the train it continued towards its final destination of Montreux.
Junfraujoch. The Jungfrau is one of the main summits in Switzerland, and home to the highest train station in Europe.

I purchased a ticket for this train at the hostel I was staying at, which was discounted because I was a Eurail pass holder, costing about 135 Swiss Francs. It's important not to lose this ticket. Seat reservations aren't required.

At Interlaken Ost station, the train is split in two, one half travelling to Grindelwald and the other to Lauterbrunnen. It doesn't matter which one you take as at both stations you can continue on to the Jungfrau. I decided to go to Grindelwald first, which took 35 minutes.
At Grindelwald you need to change trains, to Kleine Scheidegg. It's clearly signed at the station which train to catch; it's a small station so easy to navigate. The journey from Grindelwald to Kleine Scheidegg takes about 35 minutes. The views are beautiful passing many lakes, mountains and villages.

At Kleine Scheidegg you change trains and this is where the Jungfrau train departs from. Again it's easy to know which train to catch, and the station is very small, it's just a matter of walking over the small tracks to the next platform. The journey from Kleine Scheidegg to Junfraujoch takes 50 minutes, through steep mountain tunnels. There are TVs on board that shows maps, and gives information about where you are and where you are going. The train stops along the way in tunnels, where there are viewing windows, giving you your first taste of the amazing scenery ahead.
The last stop is Jungfraujoch, the top of Europe! Inside the station are restaurants, cafes, and a post office where you can send a postcard which will be stamped with "Top of Europe". One of the main attraction at the Top of Europe is the Sphinx Observatory, the world's highest Space-Observatory at 117 meters above the Jungfraujoch (or 3,571 meters above sea level), that's accessible by elevator. There are 360 degrees of incredible views. You can choose to stay inside to keep warm and view out the glass windows or venture outside for better views.

Another attraction at Jungfraujoch is the Ice Palace, containing many ice sculptures including animals, cars and furniture. The floor is made out of ice also so unless you have brought a pair of ice skates, it's lucky they have rails to hold onto!

There is a Snow Fun Park for those who want to try sledding, or skiing around Jungfraujoch.
On the way back down to Interlaken I decided to go via Lauterbrunnen instead of Grindelwald; this was also a very scenic route and included sighting of some waterfalls.
The Junfraujoch is definitely a unique, once in a lifetime experience that anybody travelling to the region shouldn't miss.

Jungfrau jpg

Interlaken to Venice (via Spiez & Brig): Regional, Intercity & Eurocity trains.

It was time to leave Switzerland for Italy, travelling from Interlaken to Venice. The most direct way to do this is travelling via Spiez & Brig, 3 trains in total.

The first train is a regional Swiss train, taking 21 minutes from Interlaken Ost to Spiez. Very comfortable, small train (3 carriages only, the train was about half full) and did the job for the 21 minute journey. The train station at Spiez is small and easy to navigate, with screens clearly showing where to catch the train from Spiez to Brig.

The train from Spiez to Brig was an IC train, bigger than the previous train with plenty of room (really no need for seat reservation), and comfortable. It was another quick journey, only 35 minutes long. There was a dining car onboard also.

The 3rd and longest train of the journey was the Eurocity between Brig and Venice. This is a Trenitalia (Italian) service, and it's compulsory to reserve seats. It was clear to see why as the carriage I was in was fully booked. I highly recommend pre-booking this train in Australia to ensure you get a seat. The train took 4 hours and 56 minutes, but with comfortable seats and a dining cart on board it went fast.
The last stop of the journey is Venice Santa Lucia station - this is the station you want to get off at if you are staying on the island of Venice, as opposed to the mainland. If you are staying in the mainland of Venice then the station is Venice Mestre, which this train also stops at about 15 minutes earlier.

The scenery from Interlaken to Venice was very scenic, passing pretty lakes and mountains.

Venice - Rome: Eurostar Italia

This was a Trenitalia service that took 3 hours and 46 minutes. I was glad to have a seat reservation for this train as the line to reserve seats was out the door of the station. There is luggage storage in the middle & ends of the carriages, as well as overhead. Shortly after departing the multi-lingual staff came around offering a welcome drink and a snack (packet of nuts). All the announcements were made in Italian and English. There were also a few announcements that there was staff on board to assist if you needed cleaning assistance.

Italian trains are known to be delayed, and although this train did depart 20 minutes later, it made up for time during the journey and we arrived on time to Rome. The train station in Rome is Rome Termini, and is very central with a bus station outside to connect to most parts of the city. There is also a metro station there.

Leonardo Express: Airport transfer from Rome Termini to Rome Fiumicino Airport

Getting to Rome Fiumicino Airport is really easy thanks to the Leonardo Express. The terminal is at Rome Termini Station and is well signed, although it takes about 10 minutes to walk there through the station so you need to allow time for this. This service runs every 30 minutes and takes 31 minutes. There are many carriages and plenty of room. No reservations can be made, but tickets can be pre-purchased from Australia to save hassle once you are there, or if you are a 1st Class Eurail pass holder with Italy covered, then you can travel free on this service. This will require use of 1 day on the pass.

Barcelona to Madrid: AVE train

AVE jpg

The last train on my trip was the high speed AVE from Barcelona Sants to Madrid Puerta de Atocha stations. The journey lasts 2 hours and 52 minutes.
Barcelona Sants station is central, and was only a couple of metro stops away from my hostel. The metro is easy to use, you can purchase a single ticket, but I opted for a 10 trip ticket to save me money and time. Once at the station, I checked the screen to find out which platform my train was departing from. This was the only other train besides the Eurostar that required all passengers to go through customs. The process didn't take long, however I recommend getting to the station at least 30 minutes prior to departure in case there is a queue. For passengers with a 1st class ticket there is the Sala Club VIP area near the McDonalds. There are a selection of newspapers available to read and a 'quiet zone'. There are departure boards within the area itself to ensure that you do not miss your train.

On board the train, in 1st class, there are complimentary newspapers (Spanish only though), and you are handed complimentary headphones, as there are screens that they play movies on. You can choose to watch the movies in English or Spanish. The attendants come around with a drinks menu, and you are offered one free drink from a large selection of wine, beer, soft drink, juices and spirits. A light meal is also provided of crackers, pate, cheese & cold meats. Announcements are made throughout the service in English & Spanish.

Travelling through Europe with a Eurail pass was really easy and pleasant, departing & arriving into city centres & avoiding the hassle of airports. I highly recommend this style of travel to anyone!

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