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Katie's Winter Wonderland

Staff member: Katie // Trip date: Dec 2016

I arrived into Vienna airport on a cold and foggy January morning and following the relatively quick and smooth immigration process, I collected my luggage and followed the “Bahnhof” signs directing travellers to the airport train station. I had my Eurail pass validated and proceeded to the platform where the S-Bahn (Suburban train) would take me to my hotel. The CAT or City Airport Train also offers frequent departures; however this train is not included on the Eurail pass.
After 20 minutes of passing through the industrial outskirts of Vienna, the train arrived at Renweg station which was closest vantage point to my hotel.

The following day I made my way to Vienna HBF station and took the first REX (Regional Express) train to Bratislava. The trip was a short one hour journey and only offered second class service which was comfortable, though may have been a little less so had the carriage been full.

Bratislava train station doesn’t offer much in the way of amenities for travellers and the country’s past communist rule is highlighted by the rather drab and dark building.

A short walk to Old Town and I found myself walking under St. Michael’s Gate and down the icy, cobbled paths to the town square. I was visiting Bratislava on a day trip and wanted to have an idea of what to see ahead of time and The Church of St. Elizabeth or more commonly known as the Blue Church was highest on that list. The quaint art nouveau, quite literally blue church, is only open to the public on Sunday and I was lucky enough to be there following a mass so I could appreciate its uniqueness. Bratislava does have many wonderful buildings and of the course the castle, but I highly recommend checking out the often less frequented Blue Church.

I returned to Vienna late afternoon, again on a REX train and was back in time for a late-night stroll around one of my favourite cities in the world. I spent another two full days in Vienna indulging my fascination in the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg empire and its colourful history. I revisited Schönbrunn and Hapsburg palaces and St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the history of these buildings never lost on me. I also paid a visit to Capuchin Crypt, the final resting place of the most important figures of the Hapsburg dynasty. Maria Theresa, Franz Joseph and his wife Empress Elizabeth “Sisi” its most famous residents.

My last day in Vienna was spent taking in morning exercise at the Spanish Riding School home to the world-famous Lipizzaner horses.

That afternoon I made my way back to HBF station for my journey to Prague. I arrived early and so went to the ÖBB lounge to wait for my departure. The lounge provided free coffee/tea/soft drink along with snacks.  About 15 minutes before the scheduled departure time, I made my way to the platform and found the marking designating where my carriage would be. I had a first class reserved seat on this train which was comfortable and spacious and offered much needed respite from long days of walking. This trip was 4 hours long and with WI-FI on board time flew by.

I had 2 days in Prague and set out the next morning to enjoy all that the Old Town had to offer. After watching the Astronomical Clock ring in a new hour, I made my way to the viewing platform at the top of Town Hall and took in the vast spread of red roofs that Prague is famous for. A short walk from the clock is Charles Bridge which in winter makes for a slow and often slippery walk as the path is covered in black ice.

Prague Castle which I visited the following day is located on the other side of the Vltava River and can be easily reached by walking across the bridge or by taking a tram or the underground metro. Awe-inspiring in size, St. Vitus Cathedral is the main attraction at the castle. Its gothic architecture and beautiful stained glass windows should make it a must see for visitors to this beautiful city.
Another must see, but maybe not as well-known is the out of the way Lennon Wall, a site of political rebellion started during the communist era of Czechoslovakia. The graffitied wall is a peaceful place awash with political messages and Beatles lyrics.

I had a late afternoon departure from Prague Hlvani station and while waiting for the train’s platform to be advised I waited in the main concourse area and was able to while away the time while fellow travellers played on a piano, much like the one on offer at London’s St. Pancras station.

I easily found the platform and then my seat in the first-class carriage of the Eurocity train to Budapest. Not long after departure a conductor checked my rail pass and reservation and he was soon followed by a train attendant who came by with a menu and advised the train would provide free WI-FI up until the Slovakian border. I ordered some honey cake off the menu which was delicious.

Just prior to arrival into Nové Zámky some 5 hours from Prague, the train abruptly stopped and didn’t move for about 30 minutes. It then slowly made its way to a platform at the station and following some shunting and another change of platform we were finally advised our delay was due to a broken heater. It took approximately 1 hour for it to be fixed so the train could be on its way. The scheduled arrival time into Budapest was 22:30 however we finally pulled into Budapest Keleti station at midnight.

Despite the late hour, after disembarking the train I took a few moments to appreciate the station, surely one of the most elegant in Europe. Its ornate ceilings and facade harking back to the turn of the century.

I spent the next couple of days wandering the city, frequently passing time in shops to get out of the bone-chillingly -10C weather. Because of this I didn’t get to see all that I wanted to, however the most important attraction I did get to check off: a visit to Buda Hill via the famous Chain Bridge. Visitors can walk up the hill or take the funicular which is what I chose to do. From the top I was afforded with an amazing view of the Danube covered in ice and the Parliament Building.

I had a very early departure on the day I set off to visit the second last city on my itinerary: Ljubljana. Compared to previous trains, 1st class was comfortable but very basic. I advise against expecting too much from this train other than the enjoyable scenery.

To get to Ljubljana I had to go via Zagreb which meant we left the Schengen Area and at the Hungary/Croatia border my passport was checked by both Rend?rség (Hungarian Police) and Croatian border police. During this time the train was stopped for about 20 minutes. Once moving again, we passed through the Hungarian/Croatian immigrant border fence which was opened for the train to pass through. As I was travelling in winter and passenger numbers are down I didn’t experience too much of a delay but it is worth noting that this may be vastly different during peak season so keep this in mind in you have a connection to make.

Zagreb station isn’t much to speak of. It’s similar to Bratislava with very few shops and nothing to do whilst waiting for a connecting train, so thankfully I had less than a hour’s wait.

The dichotomy between the train and landscape of the Zagreb to Ljubljana service was extreme. The train had a vintage fit out with compartments but had a recent cosmetic refurbishment. The carriage hallways were quite narrow and not the easiest to negotiate with a large suitcase but the seats were comfortable which made viewing the picturesque villages that dotted the Sava River adjacent to the train tracks all the more enjoyable.

Arriving into Ljubljana on a rainy afternoon I went for a short walk before evening set in. The following day I visited the castle, again needing to take another funicular, and the Triple Bridge. The castle has a fascinating history dating back to the middle of the 15th century.

Whilst in Slovenia, I had intended to visit Lake Bled but because of poor weather my tour was cancelled, an unfortunate outcome as I’d been very keen to see the church on the lake.

My final train trips took me from Ljubljana to Venice via Villach. The first train was the same one that had brought me to Ljubljana. The second from Villach was a Eurocity that not long after departure ran into mechanical trouble at the Italian border station of Tarvisio. After a lengthy 1 hour delay the source of the problem was determined to be coming from the 1st class carriage and all guests were asked to move to 2nd class carriages. Despite this unforeseen situation, 2nd class was still quite roomy and comfortable and again we were treated to an incredible view, this time of the majestic Dolomites.

On arrival in Venice where like Ljubljana it was raining, I took a Vaparetto (water bus) to the Rialto stop which was closest to my hotel. I’d not been to Venice before and while I wasn’t not keen, I also wasn't seeking to go either; however, that opinion quickly changed when I got my first view of the Grand Canal and later on St Mark’s Square. The Bridge of Sighs is another place that must not be missed and while tours do permit people to see the view prisoners had on their last walk across the bridge, there is much more to be seen from outside.

Despite the delays, I encountered, my time in Europe was made much easier with a Eurail Pass and subsequent reservations and I highly recommend this easy and trouble free way of getting around the well-connected European railway network.

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