Nicki sees Europe in the Winter

Staff member: Nicki // Trip date: Feb 2012

Scotland

I arrived into Glasgow on the morning of the 22nd of January after flying from Melbourne via Dubai on an Emirates flight. We had a rough landing with a failed attempt very close to the ground but eventually got there safe.

I spent my first day in Glasgow visiting the Stirling Castle and Wallace Monument.

The day after we went to Edinburgh, as I was staying with friends I didn't catch the train; it is a short car ride over to Edinburgh. Here we visited the Edinburgh Castle and also a horror tour of the Edinburgh Dungeons.

I caught a local train from Larkhall in Glasgow to Glasgow central to meet my Virgin Train to London, this was not covered under my pass but the ticket machine was broken so I got a free ride. Glasgow station is a large station with 18 platforms and the metro services below. The platform for the train was announced about 15 minutes prior to departure. I had a 1st Class Britrail pass so was able to sit in 1st class, there was only about 5 people in the whole carriage so I didn't need to pay the $22 for a seat reservation, the staff when I validated my pass said that reservations should be made in 2nd class especially in the morning peak as the seats do fill up. The Virgin train was amazing, we got to pick what we wanted for breakfast from about 5 different meals and the staff came around with coffee and tea every half hour, we then got a snack and sandwich for lunch before arrival into London. I was also able to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi on board. The train was fast and quiet and very clean and modern.

London

After arriving in London from my 4 hour Journey from Glasgow I went from London Euston to Charing Cross on the tube where I was able to leave my bag for £8.50 for the day. I downloaded the London Tube Application for my iPhone which was amazing. It does not require internet to work and has maps and quickest routes to any station in the tube network. I used my pre purchased Oyster Card to catch the tube to Madame Tassauds wax museum. The ticket for entry was quite expensive at £30 and only a 10% discount if purchased online at least 24 hours earlier, the Rail Plus price of $38 is the cheapest way to purchase this ticket that I could find, I walked around Madame Tassauds for a while, they have different sectors for each time of famous person; movie starts, sports heroes, political leaders etc.. I used the Tube a lot this day so my card was capped at £10.70 which is the price of a one day travel card. Depending on how many days you plan to travel on the tube it is worth looking into which will be cheaper, the travel or oyster card. If changing lines at stations there is often a long walk needed and not many stations have lifts or escalators, worth it to know if carry luggage.

Two days later I caught a Great Western train to Bath, same thing, platform was announced 15 minutes prior to departure. I used my pass to sit in 1st class again, on this train non alcoholic drinks and snacks were included. Sandwiches had to be paid extra for. It took 1.5 hours to get to Bath. At Bath I went to the Abbey, the Roman Baths (cannot use) and also went into the Hot Baths (can use) this is the only hot spring source in England. I caught the same train back to London.

Early morning on Australia day I caught a peak time train to St Pancras with my suitcase to catch the Eurostar. Made my way to the Eurostar terminal and went through a security and passport check. The Eurostar was an older looking train and not nearly as nice as the Virgin train I caught from Glasgow. I had a 2nd class reservations and the train was about ¼ full. I caught the Eurostar to Brussels where I had to wait 2.5 hours for my Thalys train, 1st class tickets holders have access to a lounge at Brussels but as I had a 2nd class ticket I had to sit in the cold. Station is large in platform numbers but there is nothing to do there and no heated lounge to sit in. On the Thalys train there was only space in luggage racks for smaller suitcases so I just placed my suitcase near the racks and kept an eye on it, wasn't a problem to keep it there. The train came in and out of Brussels, so those with forward facing seats now had backwards facing seats. There was someone in my seat so I just asked her to move as her seat was away from her friends.

Amsterdam

I arrived into Amsterdam in the afternoon and made my way to the hostel. We did a night time tour of the red light district which included a free shot at a bar and then the next day walked around and went to Anne Frank's house. Amsterdam is very easy to navigate and you can find a red light window and coffee shop on every street. It was in Amsterdam that I met up with my travelling companion.

We had 1st class seat reservations on the Thalys, the seats were larger and nicer. We had small snacks as we were on an afternoon tea train, depending on the time some trains have lunch or dinner others only have snacks. They did keep bringing around snacks until all gone, so had small wraps and cakes. There was internet on the train but it was not as reliable as on the Virgin train, kept cutting in and out and had to re log in all the time. Was good to have it as a free service in 1st class, passengers can get it in 2nd but you have to pay.

Paris

We arrived into Nord, as we were staying in Montmartre we just walked to our Hotel. The first night we went to Moulin Rouge. The next day we headed to the Paris Pass collection desk to pick up our Paris Pass. It was a little confusing to find as it was inside a court yard. The pass included the Museum pass, attractions pass, 2 day hop on hop off bus ticket and 5 day metro ticket. This was by far the best thing I had pre purchased, it gave us speedy entry to the Louvre and free entry to almost everything in Paris except the Eifel tour. We went to a lot of the main attractions included on the pass. On the Sunday we went on a Segway Tour, also organised through Rail Plus. We have an American guide who has been living in Paris for 7 years. He was fantastic; he knew everything about Paris and also the little hints about Paris. For example there are two doors at the Louvre that have e-ticket machines where people can purchase tickets and not have to go down in the glass triangle, they can skip the queue completely. It was also good to be able to ride around on a segway for the first time; it took about 5 minutes to feel comfortable on the segway. If going in the colder months wear multiple layers of socks and gloves is it does get cold on the segway and the body can get very stiff from not moving. Tour was 4 hours long with a stop in the middle for about a half an hour to have some coffee and crepes. We then used our pass to go on the Parisian River Cruise, was nice, panoramic windows with guide in 6 different languages.

Made the mistake of planning to go to Versailles on the Monday, as it is closed every Monday we spent the day going back to the Louvre to see Napoleons apartments as Rick told us this is the closest thing to Versailles. We avoided the steps at the Sacre Coeur by using out metro ticket to catch the funicular up.

The Paris Metro was easy to use, not as nice as London Tube and also has a lot of homeless people living in the stations; have to be careful with bags as pick-pocketers are very smart.

We walked back to Nord to catch our Elipsos overnight train to Barcelona.

The Elipsos was nice, we had Gran Class reservations, when we boarded we were greeted by staff who told us what time out dinner reservation was and if we wanted to change it how we could. While we were at dinner our beds were made (they are seats when first boarding). We had a 3 course meal with all drinks included and could pick between 3-5 different items for each course.
The staff also woke us in the morning when it was breakfast time and we had breakfast in the dining car. The meals on the Elipsos are about €50 so is worth paying the extra money for the Gran class once you add in meals, drinks and the advantage of having a shower and toilet in your room it is worth the extra price. We also got welcome packs and shower packs on the train. It was as nice as some of the hotel rooms we stayed in. Overnight the train did stop but the ride was smooth and quiet. I did not have any problems sleeping through the night. The conductor took our passports so they didn't have to wake us on the border; he then gave them back at breakfast.

Barcelona

When we arrived in Barcelona we caught a regional train to Barcelona Sants. As we had already used the pass for that day we could hop on the regional train without a reservation, otherwise we would have had to pay for the metro. Getting the regional train was also much quicker it took us about 12 minutes compared to 45 minutes on the metro.

We later purchased a 2 day metro card to travel on the Metro. There are a couple of lines in Barcelona (about 7) but it is easy enough to figure out where to go using the maps in each station. The doors at the station are always at either end so walking to the middle of the platform gets you on a less busy carriage and also any pickpocketers are likely to hang out at either end. We took advantage of the free walking tours and did one about Gaudi and one on the old city of Barcelona; you just pay your guide in tips what you think the tour is worth.

2 days later we caught the train from Barcelona to Figueres and then to Montpellier. The train from Barcelona to Figueres was 2nd class only but still a nice train; the seats are bigger than in any other 2nd class carriage. They also advised the platform for connection while on the train so we knew were to go to get our train to Montpellier. The train waited for us to get there so all people on the Barcelona train who were connecting could catch the train.

Montpellier is only a small town, it is very pretty but does not have any luggage facilities at the station so we had to walk around with our bags, and we had a 5 hour stop over there. Once back on the train we caught the TGV to Geneva. It was good that we had pre purchased our Passholder fares as there was none available for purchase when we went to catch the train. Passholder fares in France can only be purchased through the ticket windows; they cannot be brought on the ticket machines. The TGV was a very nice train, large and clean and fast. 1st class was also a 1-2 configuration, they had window blinds, power outlets, reclining chairs and a table between you and the person facing you.

Switzerland

We stayed in Genève for the night and the next day we caught a train to Interlaken via Bern. We did not need reservations in Switzerland so just used the timetable at the station to tell us what time the next train was. All of Switzerland was very expensive, but very beautiful. This was probably the favourite part of my trip.

We caught the train from Interlaken up to Grindelwald. This is not included on the Eurail pass but with our pass we got a discount (free if on a Swiss pass). It cost us 15 Swiss Francs for a return ticket. From Grindelwald we purchased a ski pass which gave us access to the busses, cable cars and also one free trip on the First Flyer. It was CF60 for the day. We also hired sledges and went sledding down the mountains. They had specific routes for the sledges which sometime do cross with the ski routes but they are not as steep. These trains are full of people catching the train up to go skiing; there is space for skis and snowboards at the end of each carriage. It was freezing on the mountain with the temperature about -18 degrees.

The next day we had a reservation for the Golden Pass to Lucerne. The panoramic train was not running as it was too cold and the train we were on did not require a reservation. When the conductor came around I got her to stamp my seat reservation so I could get a refund for it as it was not the train we reserved. I obtained a refund at the station for the ticket. The windows where large enough that we could see everything and from Interlaken. It is better to sit on the right had side of the train. As it worked its way up the mountains the train did change direction. The route was very pretty full of white mountains and blue lakes.

We staying in Lucerne for one night, this is much larger than the other cities we had been to in Switzerland and the train station is huge. We went to the ferry terminal to catch the boat portion of our Wilhelm tell. We just had to cross the bus station to get to the ferry port. We took our seat reservation to the ticket window where the staff gave us our welcome pack. Seat reservations are not required for this boat but the welcome pack came with a guide, map, Swiss army knife and a CF19 voucher for meals on the boat which you only get if you have a 1st class reservation. On the boat the upstairs section was for 1st class and downstairs for 2nd class. It was worth it to have 1st class as you sat at tables, not in rows and also a much better view. The Boat took 3 hours and when it arrived we had a map to show us where the train station was, it was about a 30 second walk and we had roughly 20 minutes to catch the train so we went to the platform and waited for the train. The train was a normal IC train with a panoramic carriage attached. We had our seat reservations for the panoramic carriage but you could do the same route without a reservation sitting in the normal IC carriages. We watched the scenery to Bellinzona where we changed to get our train to Lugano as the train was continuing onto Locarno. We caught the train to Chiasso and changed to a train to Milan.

Italy

At Milan station we had to make our way from Garibaldi to Central to get a train to Monterosso. We purchased a one way metro ticket and then at Milan had to go to the other terminal and purchase a seat reservation. There was a huge line so it was good that we could do it from the e-ticket machines. It printed us out a ticket and we just made it to our connection after a run through the station. This train was full as it was 6pm as all the city workers were heading home, it would have been better for us to have a seat reservation before we left as we took the last two seats in 1st class. Milan is a huge station, especially if you need to change from the Metro to high speed trains, I would suggest always a 30 minutes connection time and if needing to change stations about 45 minutes. We caught an IC train to Monterosso and then used our pass to catch the train from Monterosso to Riomaggorie on the Cinque Terre. This area was flooded towards the end of 2011 so there is still a lot of rebuilding happening. None of the trains are affected but the walking paths are all closed in the Cinque Terre Park except for the section between Riomaggorie and Manarola. This is where the famous Lovers Walk is and where people leave their locks of love on the bridges, fences or where ever they can find a place.

We used our pass to catch the Local train from Riomaggorie to La Spezia and then hoped on the train to Pisa. Once we got to Pisa we left out bags in the luggage area which was €3 for 12 hours. We walked over to the Leaning Tower and had a stroll around, we were in Pisa for about 3 hours before we went back to the station and went and hopped on a train to Florence. There was no problem getting a seat on these trains, the trains departed every 20 minutes. On the local trains there wasn't any luggage space at the end of each carriage, only over head. As I had a large suitcase we just placed in near the door out the way and kept and eye on it. We did this on many trains and it was never a problem.

In Florence we went to the Academia to see the Statue of David, there was no line which was surprising to us. Two days later we went to the station to catch our train to Venice, we went during carnival so we had made a seat reservation for the train from Pisa two days earlier. Our train was cancelled so we took our ticket to the ticket window and changed it for the train 20 minutes later. We could do this as we purchased the tickets locally. When we got on the later train there were people in our seats so we just asked them to move. We had a small snack and complimentary drink. We were on a Frecciargento train; all the Italian high speed trains are very nice. The only problem is some do have limited luggage space but we just put our bags near again and kept an eye on them.

We arrived at St Lucia, which is one the island of Venice, the train also stops in Mestre but it runs as a regional train from Mestre to St Lucia so didn't need a seat res from Mestre to St Lucia. Venice was very busy because of Carnival. The streets of Venice are impossible to navigate around even with the map we brought so was good to use the signs everywhere to direct us to either St Marcos Square or back to the train station. There are people everywhere selling Masks and other souvenirs, but we made sure we purchased the masks that were made in Italy as they do that some that are made in China.

We had a flight from Venice to Naples so caught the bus from the station (which is where the Venice to Villach bus leaves from) it is about a 10 minute walk from the station, walking is the only option so we had to carry our suitcases up the stairs on the bridge, over the canal. The bus service to the Airport was €5 and took 30 minutes. We had a lot of dramas with our flight and when we left the hotel to our arrival in Naples Central station we would have been better getting the train, as were a little time conscious it seemed better to fly but it took the same amount of time and we didn't have to worry about our luggage weight if on the train. The bus from Napoli Airport to central station was €3. We walked from the bus stop to Napoli Garibaldi, which is below Napoli Central station. We got our ticket for the private line (Circumvesuviana train) which was charged by the hour so we just needed a 60 minute ticket. The train cost us €4. We caught the train to Pompeii Scavi which was the wrong station for our hotel. The lines spilt and the one that goes to Sorrento takes you to the Pompeii Ruins, the other line takes you to the main station in Pompeii. Good to know that in the winter there are no busses up to Mount Vesuvius. The roads are too icy for them to drive.

We spent a day at the Ruins then went back to the train station to get the train to Sorrento. We caught the Almafi coast SITA bus to Positano which took about 50 minutes. It is a very windy route to Positano, not the best if you get travel sickness. The roads are tiny in this area and Italian drivers are crazy, I would never drive on these roads as the road rules seem more like a game of chicken then people actually following the rules. The bus ticket cost us about €10 for the return.

We caught the bus back to Sorrento and then the train to Naples which took about 2 hours and went and got on our train from Naples to Rome. We were on an Italian Eurostar. These trains are amazing, once again complimentary drink and snack and we got heart chocolates as it was Valentine's Day. The carriages are very modern and clean. The train got up to 300 km/h so only took one hour to get to Naples, the trains have reclining seats, power outlets, wi-fi (not FOC), coat hooks and screens giving information about weather, speed of the train and also the news.

We spent 3 days in Rome and did all the sights. We purchased single ticket Metro tickets as we were able to walk to most places. We did a hop on hop off bus in Rome; this was good as there was two different lines, unlike Paris which only had one. Also the Metro is not the best as they only have two lines in Rome, they are constructing a third C line but it is taking forever because each time they dig they come across a new archaeological site. Because of the small streets the HoHo bus goes near most of the sights, but not all you can see from the bus such as the Trevi Fountain or the Rome Forum. So it is good to have a hop on hop off bus as you can get off look around and get on the next one. We went into the Vatican, our tour started at 9am at the Vatican Museum. At 9am the entry line was about an hour long because of all the tour groups, but at about 12pm there was no one waiting. We had to check our backpack in which was a bit of a pain as we have to walk all the way back around the walls of the Vatican to get our bag back from where we left it. We also did a walking tour of the old part of Rome included the Colosseum, Rome forum, Venezia Plaza and Trevi Fountain.

We caught the Leonardo Express from Rome Termini to the airport. It had two carriages and a lot of luggage space. This train always leaves from platform 24 which is the end platform. Easy to find at the station. From the station at the airport the check in desks are about a 2 minute walk. From here I caught my flight back to Australia. Over all it was a great trip.

Summary

Catching the trains made it much easier, less stressful and having the pass we were able to change our plans or if we decided to stay somewhere a little longer we just hopped on the next train, or purchase a seat res for a later trains.

I have never been to Europe before but comparing the trains to the one flight we had, I would pick the trains every time. All the conductors spoke English, the ticket machines also had English options and everything was very clear and efficient. All the main trains had bathrooms and dining carts or a cafe on board. It was also good to travel in 1st class, the 2nd class carriages are slightly smaller, most 1st class are 1-2 seat configurations, 2nd class are 2-2. But the main difference was it was less busy in 1st class. Trains that were full in 2nd class only had 50% of seats taken in 1st. Also it was good that I had a lot of my sightseeing product pre purchased like the Paris Pass and hop on hop off busses, this made it easier for me locally and also meant I didn't have to carry as much cash on me and I skipped the lines.

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