Jessica's UK and Europe Trip

Staff member: Jessica F // Trip date: Apr 2012

We left Melbourne close to midnight on the 28th of January with a stopover in Hong Kong, then direct to London with Qantas. We then had around a 3 hour layover in London to connect with our British Airways flight to Edinburgh. We arrived in at 17:30 and caught a local bus from the airport to the centre of town where our accommodation was.

After a good night's sleep we headed out into the old part of Edinburgh to meet for our walking tour which took us through the history of the city and all the historical sites. After the tour we visited Edinburgh Castle and we did a haunted tour at night. I also tried haggis for the first time and really enjoyed it!

The next morning we headed over to Edinburgh Waverly station to catch our East Coast train to London. There was a fair bit of refurbishment being done to the station, mainly on the Old Town side, so we walked through to the New Town side where there was more room to wait and better signage. The trains are all listed on a large departures board and the platform was shown once the train was ready to board, around 20 minutes prior. As we had e-tickets, we needed to collect physical tickets, which was fairly easy as there were machines everywhere to do so. All we entered was the PNR and a credit card (which was not charged) and the machine prints out the tickets with your seat numbers. We were booked on an East Coast train which featured free Wi-Fi, a meal and snacks served at your seat and drinks. The train was not very busy and we found it quite relaxing.

We arrived into London King's Cross station 4 hours later and dropped off our luggage at our accommodation so as we could get out and start exploring. We easily caught the tube to Piccadilly Circus and ventured around Oxford Street. The next day we went on an early morning walk across the Millennium Bridge, past Shakespeare's Globe and over to Tower Bridge. We then met with our walking tour in Hyde Park and quickly ventured down to Buckingham Palace as we were advised that the changing of the guard was happening that day. We were so happy that we got to see it and could not believe the amount of effort that goes into the ritual. We spent the afternoon looking at all the other famous sights of the city. That evening, I had pre-booked with Rail Plus the Jack the Ripper tour which is run through Golden Tours. I had confirmed my tour the day before by calling the local number provided and was told where to meet. We were met by our guide Shaun, who in character as a detective took our group through all the locations and history of the famous murders.

The next morning we headed over to St Pancras Station to catch our Eurostar to Paris. We arrived early enough to go through security and get our passports checked. Boarding was quite easy, with staff ready to help you find your carriage. The Eurostar was quite comfortable in Standard Premier, we were served a breakfast which consisted of a yogurt, croissant and fruit, with a choice of juices, coffee and tea. A quick trip through the "Chunnel" and we were in the French countryside, and before we knew it we were in Paris.

Our accommodation was a quick walk away from Gare du Nord, so we dropped off our luggage and set out. We walked over to the Montmartre area and checked out the Sacre Coeur and the Moulin Rouge. The next day we caught the metro over to Notre Dame and met with our walking tour which took us through French history and all the major sights of Paris. We walked to the Louvre, shocked to see the fountain was frozen over, and through the Tuileries Garden to see Place de la Concorde and the Champs Elysees. We then went up the Eiffel Tower late in the afternoon, where there was still a long line to get up. It was pretty cold up there so we didn't stay out too long, but long enough to see the sparkling lights of the tower switch on by the time we got down the bottom, which was magical. The next day we headed back to the Champs Elysees to have breakfast and see the Arc de Triomph. From there we travelled via metro to the Catacombs, deep underneath Paris, which was quite a bone chilling experience as the walls are lined with skulls and bones of those buried there from centuries ago. We then took the RER out to Versailles to see the Palace, which was really beautiful, but unfortunately the gardens were closed due to frost and recent snowfall. We headed back into Paris late in the afternoon and awaited our trip on the Elipsos Overnight train to Barcelona, which departs from Paris Austerlitz station. We were greeted by train staff that showed us to our Gran Class cabin and explained to us the features of the train. They then asked us what time we would like to have dinner in the on board restaurant, which was included with the Gran Class ticket. After settling in, we went to the restaurant and enjoyed a 3 course meal with all drinks included. The restaurant was not busy so the staff were happy to have us as long as we liked.

The next day we arrived into Barcelona Estacio de Franca around 9am after enjoying our complimentary breakfast on board. We were only spending one night here so we quickly ventured out into the Gothic Quarter, looking at all the historic buildings with their unique architecture, walked down La Rambla and tried local foods and drinks. It was disappointing to only be there for one night as I easily could've spent more time exploring the city.

The next day we woke early and headed to Barcelona Sants station to travel to Lyon via Figueres Vilafant and Montpellier. Our train was running late into Barcelona and it had me worried as we only had a 20 minute connection in Figueres. We discovered upon arrival that the train from Barcelona and the TGV into France is a dedicated connected service, so the TGV does not leave until the RENFE operated service arrives and all passengers have transferred. Our TGV to Montpellier was a multi-level train and we were seated on the Upper section with no other passengers in our area, which was peaceful. We had around 45 minutes to transfer in Montpellier which gave us a bit of time to get something to eat and look around the area close to the station. We boarded another TGV to Lyon, which got us there close to 3pm, but as we were staying quite far from the station, we didn't have much time to look around as we were there only for 1 night.

We set off from Lyon to Montreux in Switzerland, via Bourg en Bresse and Geneva the next day. We took a regional train from Lyon to Bourg en Bresse, which was very comfortable and then connected on to a TGV to Geneva. Slowly all the green hills turned into snow covered peaks as we went further east, which was captivated as both myself and my partner had never really seen snow before. We changed to another regional train to Montreux and awaited our departure on the Golden Pass Scenic to Interlaken

We were booked on the Golden Pass Classic service, which has a 1930's inspired interior. We set off into the mountains and enjoyed the scenery, whilst having a small meal, which you can order from the staff and eat at your seat. We changed trains in Zweisimmen to the regular Golden Pass train and had a nice long chat to the conductor about what to see and do in the Interlaken area. He was very helpful and happy to practice his English. We arrived into Interlaken just before 5pm and settled into our hotel which had a spectacular view of the Jungfrau Mountains. We enjoyed a cheese fondue dinner that evening and marvelled at how pretty the town was at night. The next day we headed off into the Jungfrau region using our Swiss Rail passes, and caught the train to Lauterbrunnen. We then took a cable car to Murren to begin our hike downhill to Gimmelwald. The hike was fairly easy and the paths were cut out of the snow. There are yellow signposts everywhere, pointing you in the right direction, so you can't get lost. We reached Gimmelwald around 45 minutes later and took another cable car down the mountain to Stechelberg, connecting onto a yellow PostBus back to Lauterbrunnen. All of this is included on the Swiss Pass and only requires a valid day.

We headed off to Zermatt the next morning as we were catching the Glacier Express the day after. There isn't much to do in the area unless you're into skiing or snowboarding, but we headed up the Gornergrat railway for spectacular views of the Matterhorn and surrounding peaks. The Swiss pass only gives you a discount on this journey and was 40 CHF per person return (a 50% reduction). The next day we took off on an 8 hour journey from Zermatt to St Moritz on the Glacier Express, which features an audio guide (including headphones) and table service. The views were spectacular and the audio guide was quite informative, available in 6 different languages. I did feel that the scenery would have been much better in summer as everything is white and that can get a bit painful to look at after a while. The train requires prolonged stops in Andermatt and again in Chur as they change the locomotive engine, so it's a great time to get off and stretch your legs. We arrived into St Moritz just before 6, headed to our hotel and fell asleep pretty quick as 8 hours on a train can be draining.

Early the next morning we headed off to Lucerne, via Chur and Thalwil. All trains were regional services, so no seat reservations were required. We spent the afternoon walking around the beautiful city and saw the Lion of Lucerne monument. At night we saw people dressed up for the Lucerne Carnival, which celebrates the start of Lent. The next day we took a Eurocity train to Milan, which had some technical issues along the way and left very little time for us to change in Milan. Luckily we made our connecting train to Florence. The Eurostar Italia took us from the snowy Alps to the Tuscan hills, the seats were really comfortable and a welcome drink and snack was brought to us at our seat. We arrived into Florence around 2pm, which gave us enough time to go see the Statue of David in l'Accadamia and venture the streets looking at all the statues and amazing buildings. The next day after doing more sightseeing, we took a regional train to Pisa which took just over an hour and required no reservation with our rail pass. We walked from the station, which took around 15 minutes to the Leaning Tower, and walked back. It was easily done in an afternoon and regular trains run to and from Florence to Pisa.

We took another Eurostar Italia to Rome the next day, which was Valentine's Day, and were given chocolate hearts by the staff on board, which I thought was very thoughtful. It was a very short trip so we had plenty of time to do some sightseeing in the afternoon. We met up with friends also visiting Rome and did our sightseeing together, visiting the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, the Forum and many more places. Rome was easy to walk around and there was always something to see around every corner. We caught the Leonardo Express to the airport a few days later to catch a plane to Malta. We used a day on our rail pass for this as we had a few extra days, but alternatively you can buy a ticket through Rail Plus. The train is 1st Class only and has plenty of luggage space. It leaves and arrives only at platform 24. We spent two days in Malta, sightseeing and eating wonderful food.

We flew back into Rome airport and caught the Leonardo Express back to Termini. We then waited for our train to Venice. Termini has a lot of shops and resembles a bit of a shopping mall so if you have a long connection time, there is plenty to do at the station. We caught our train to Venice and arrived just as it was getting dark. We quickly dropped off our bags and headed to the street as Carnivale was in full swing. It was fairly busy so we just walked with the crowds and admired all the costumes. The next day festivities were still going as there were more people dressed up and the crowds seemed bigger as we could only really walk with the flow of the crowds, eventually taking us to San Marco Square. The next morning, the weather turned on us for the first time on our trip, with rain coming in sideways. It made it hard for us to get to Venice Tronchetto bus station to catch our InterCity bus to Villach. We took a water taxi to Tronchetto but got off at the wrong stop and had to walk around to get to the People Mover station, where the IC Bus picks up passengers. Unfortunately there isn't much cover around the bus stop so we had to stand out in the rain to wait for the bus; the signage wasn't very big either. The bus was really nice with leather seats and tray tables. There is also a toilet on board. We arrived at Villach, right outside the rail station. I noticed that all stops along the way were out the front of the rail stations. We caught our train from there to Salzburg, which was just a normal InterCity train.
We had less than 24 hours in Salzburg so quickly took in the sights of the city and went to the Hohensalzburg Fortress, which looks over Salzburg.

We left the next day on a RailJet train to Munich. Salzburg HBF is currently undergoing renovations but is still easily accessible. The RailJet service was really nice, they have full at seat service and the menu is reasonably priced. After a quick hour and a half we were in the centre of Munich, which was in festival mode for the celebrations of Fasching, much like Carnivale in Venice. In German spirit, there was a lot of drinking through the streets and food stalls everywhere. Whilst in Munich we did a walking tour through the history of the city, it's involvement in WW2 and modern Germany. We did a beer history tour and visited some of the oldest brew houses. The next day we took a train to Fussen to visit castles Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau. From Fussen, there are regular bus services to the castles, which is not included on the rail pass but are still fairly cheap for a return ticket, around 3 Euros. We got our combined ticket for both castles and ventured around the area, waiting for our guided tour. The area around the castles is quite beautiful and was still very busy for winter time. The castles interiors were amazing and it was an enjoyable day trip, taking only 2 hours each way by train. We caught the train back to Munich and waited for our overnight train to Amsterdam.
We booked a double deluxe sleeper on the CityNightLine from Munich to Amsterdam, which included an ensuite, and we were greeted on board with a complimentary drink. It was still quite a small cabin but as we were exhausted, we were happy to just fall asleep. Our train manager woke us at our nominated time and gave us breakfast, which included bread rolls, juice, yogurt and a hot drink of choice. We arrived into Amsterdam just after 9am which gave us the whole day to explore the city. We did a general walking tour of the city and also one of the history of the Red Light District, which was really interesting and quite eye opening to how Amsterdam really is as a city. It was interesting to walk around the city during the day and at night to see all the different types of people who visit the city.

Our next stop was in Bruges, which required a Thalys and a regional train to get to. The Thalys was really comfortable and we were served breakfast at our seat, with a choice of different pastries and drinks. There is also free Wi-Fi on board in 1st Class, which requires a quick sign up process before you can start using it. We transferred to our regional train in Brussels and not long after we were in Bruges. The train station is around a 15 minute walk from the town centre but buses run regularly through the town and most go towards the town centre. We decided to walk though, which was quite nice as we got to see a lot of places we wanted to visit along the way. Whilst in Bruges, we visited the Chocolate Museum, the Fries Museum and also did a brewery tour. Unfortunately the Belfry was under renovations so we were not able to climb it.

We set off on our second last day to Frankfurt, via regional train to Brussels and ICE service onwards. The ICE was amazing, really comfortable and had a business feel to it. Once in Frankfurt we looked around the city centre and the old town section, rebuilt from WW2. The next day we headed to Frankfurt Zoo to spend the day before our late flight home back to Melbourne, via Singapore

Overall my trip was fantastic, the trains made travelling so much easier. We had so much more time to do sightseeing rather than travel out to the airport everywhere we went. We could travel to cities that were only a short distance away, and rather than base ourselves in one or two cities, we could just move on to the next place with ease. The trains themselves were easy to use, most staff speaking English fluently, and they are also happy for you to bring your own food on board, which made lunches quite easy. First class seemed much more comfortable and quieter, with more business people travelling.

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