Rhonda's Europe Trip

Staff member: Rhonda // Trip date: Feb 2009


Heathrow Express

The Heathrow Express sign, at Terminal 4, LHR is hard to miss. When you come out of customs, it is on the left, a large blue sign with white writing. The 1st train you get on, travel is between the Terminals. The Heathrow Express comes along and we jumped on the 1st carriage and found ourselves in the Quiet Zone carriage. I.E. no mobile use allowed. Carriage was virtually empty. Lots of room for luggage inside the carriage. Very quiet and quick. The conductor comes around with a hand held scanning machine, scans the barcode on the e-ticket, all very efficient. Before you know it, the train comes into Paddington Station. This is a very old traditional station, all under one roof, similar to Southern Cross Station in Melbourne but much older. The London tube trains depart from under the station on the lower levels and all country trains come in at ground level. Yes, a Paddington Bear stall, is at Paddington Station.

London Tube

Quick, efficient, crowded but orderly. I did not hear one complaint from any passenger on board. It is very easy to get around, and the lines are named on the destinations. (our Melbourne system was copied on this). The Oyster cards were great, just swipe the card over the round yellow disk on the turnstiles and hey presto, they open and off you go. Changing lines also very easy and well signed. Also good about the tube is lots of staff to answer questions. We were also in London on the day they had their heaviest snow in 18 years. We were shocked to see the tube and bus system stop! Transport in London came to a standstill! London could not cope with the snow. Due to the weather we lost one day of sightseeing and our West End show was cancelled. London cabs were doing a great business.

Eurostar

From Paddington station we got the Bakerloo line to Piccadilly Circus, changed to Piccadilly line to Kings Cross / St Pancras station. Once in St Pancras (which is huge) followed all the signs to St. Pancras International which is about a 10 min walk. The Eurostar station has been totally refurbished and is all very modern inside with plenty of natural light. Follow the departure signs to Eurostar Check In. First queue is to actually check in with the Eurostar and they look at your reservations and then stamp your boarding passes. Passengers then go through French passport control and you get a stamp in your passport with a train on it. Very cool. We had complimentary Business Lounge passes which enabled us to not wait with the huge crowds for the Eurostar. The lounge is not very big, but is very long and narrow. It is decorated in warm beige and brown tones, with soft lighting, large leather swivel chars and is basically a chill zone, where passengers can relax, read the papers or plug in their laptops. Passengers sit at narrow tables and can help themselves to food and drink, including, teas, coffees, hot chocolate, cold drinks, alcoholic drinks, fruit, breakfast, yoghurts, breads, croissants, and Danishes.

When your train is announced, passengers go up the escalators to your platform, only 20 minutes before departure time. There is plenty of staff along the platform and on the train to show you to your seats and give advice. We traveled in 1st class and put our cases on the large racks at the end of the carriage. The carriage is very luxurious. There are only 3 seats across in all 1st class carriages that we traveled in. There are 2 seats next to each other, then the aisle and a single seat along the windows. Some seats are in a 4 configuration, facing each other with a table in the middle, the rest have pull down tables. The carriage is carpeted, has window blinds, footrests and reclining seats. There is plenty of staff coming around with drink orders etc. These are included in the 1st class fare. We started with French champagne. There are also plenty of announcements in English and French; all staff is bi or tri lingual. Staff also come around with food menus, plenty of coffee top ups and hot washers. The Channel tunnel itself was fast, efficient and when you come out the other end, you are suddenly in quaint French countryside, with cute little villages. Sit back and relax and next thing you know, you are coming into Paris.

Gare du Nord station is large and like London Paddington, have international and country trains and the metro system underneath. The Burgundy Thalys train was at a different platform. All the trains are lined up, next to each other, platform after platform and swapping trains here would only take a few minutes. The Paris Metro, down the escalator or stairs was very easy to use as the main metro lines are colour coded. The Paris Visite Card, sold by Rail Plus is the actual card that goes into the metro turnstiles. This is more like our Melbourne Connex system. Card goes in and then comes out again, as you move through the turnstiles. The day we went to Versailles, we went on a C line train. There is also A, B, D lines that run from Paris to outskirts. These trains leave from specific stations and unlike the normal metro trains they are much larger and double decker.

Elipsos Night Train (Paris to Barcelona overnight).

On this overnight train we traveled in Gran Class.

The train left from Paris Austerltz station. This station is huge and has tight security. Up to 20 platforms, all side by side. They have Arrival and Departure screens like an airport. Platform numbers for the train ONLY come up 20 minutes before the train departs, meaning a huge surge of passengers along the platform, all of a sudden. In 1st class, Gran class, the conductor comes around and checks tickets and then gives you your cabin swipe card. I must admit that cabins are small and are not made for any passenger traveling with large cases. We had medium size cases. An overnight bag would be perfect for this trip. The cabin had 2 seats, next to each other and window blinds etc. The ensuite was very impressive. The ensuite with circular shower, toilet and basin was equipped with a toiletry bag for each passenger with shampoo, conditioner, soap, toothbrush and paste, comb, disposable razor with shave cream etc. About 15 minutes after the train left, the conductor came to get us to come to the dining car which was very nice. This was not full at all, so we had a table of 4 for the two of us, so very relaxing and spacious. Dinner service was very good. Menu choices and drinks, but automatically given champagne to start with. Next came the crusty bread and Italian breadsticks. My daughter had duck liver pate with onion jam for entrée and I had crab filled pasta. For mains, we both had the steak with veges and red wine. Dessert was Crème Brulee and a plate of cheeses and fruit with coffee etc. We rolled out of there, very happy. While having dinner, our cabin had been converted to bunks, with a roll down service and a chocolate on each pillow. The beds were very comfortable and clean, we both had a reading light each, plus a plastic cup with a bottle of water each. I actually slept! At dinner, the conductor also collects your passport, as the border crossing is in the middle of the night. Breakfast was a little rushed, back in the dining car. No choice for breakfast. Juice, water, tea, coffee, toast or croissant. The eggs with mushrooms were tasty. Passports, all stamped are given back to you at breakfast. The train was comfortable and service was good, and it arrived into Barcelona De Franca station, right on time. The station was very similar to the French stations with all platforms next to each other and the metro underneath. As we came in at 8.30am the station was very quiet.

Talgo Day train (Barcelona to Montpellier).

Barcelona to Montpellier was a lovely 3 ½ trip along the Mediterranean. Leaving again from De Franca station, we filled in day 2 of our Eurail pass, the overnight train being day 1. 1st class on this train were the 1st two carriages. This train was very old with the carriages possibly from the 1960's or 70's. Not modern at all, but heaps of room that proved to be fantastic, and seats were still comfy. Conductor came around and checked passports (going back into France), Eurail passes and seat reservations. Carriage had the normal 3 seats across in 1st class and 1 x set of 4 seats facing each other. Luggage racks at one end of carriage and unisex toilets at the other. Snack car was in the middle of the train and you walk through 2nd class. 2nd class has more seats, with 4 across, (2, aisle, 2 seats). The Bar / Snack car was great. We sat up at the bar and had cold drinks and a snack. They sold cold, hot drinks, baguettes, sandwiches, croissants, chips etc. We sat up here for a while as you can actually see more in this car and we had snow capped mountains on one side of the train and the sea on the other. This train did stop at the Spain / France border and French police came on board, checked passports, and off we went again. Montpellier Sant Roch is the only station in Montpellier (gorgeous, small, medieval French town). We saw huge double decker TGV trains lined up at the station.

TGV Day train (Montpellier - Geneva)

Our TGV from Montpellier was a single story train and blue on the outside. The 1st class carriage was very modern and the seats were very similar to the Eurostar. There were large luggage racks at each end of the carriage but the majority of passengers had cabin size bags that fit on the luggage racks above the seats. Our seats had drop down tables, reading lights, see through sunblinds. Same configuration as Talgo train with single seats along one window and doubles along the other. 1 x 4 seater, ( 2 seats and then another 2 facing each other) were in the middle of the carriage. This had a large table with table lamp in the middle of the table. The Snack Car was far more modern than the Talgo train and a totally different set up. The Conductor only glimpsed all our tickets. This journey was very comfortable. All announcements were in French only. No border crossing announcements or passport control going into Switzerland. Between Lyon and Geneva, the topography gets more and more mountainous. The border was somewhere between Bellegarde (France) and Geneva.

IC (Inter City) train - (Geneva to Zurich)

Loved this train! If we thought the TGV was modern, wow, this was space age! This train was ultra modern; double decker and we were seated upstairs. We sat in 1st class, opposite each other in the single seats, along the window. A seat reservation is not needed on this train, but our seats were clearly marked, Reserved, so the people sitting in our seats were kicked out. I got very good at doing this! We had huge windows and a table between us. The rest of the carriage, were all 4 seat configurations, ie. 2 seats and another 2 seats facing each other, all with tables in between seats. All signs and announcements were now in French, German, and English. Staff came around with a trolley cart for drinks, snacks. Upstairs also has a lounge section, ie; semi circular couches with round drink table in front. Great train!

IC train - (Zurich - Chur)

Same train as day before, again sitting upstairs and again kicking people out of our reserved seat. As reservations are not needed, the other passengers looked at us in disbelief when we showed them our seat res.

Regional Train - (Chur to St Moritz)

Older style, single level, sit anywhere. Our Eurail pass, covered this train. This train was incredibly scenic as you start through the mountains. Staff with trolley cart comes around to buy drinks, snacks etc. Toilet went straight down onto track! Watch that yellow snow!

Glacier Express - (St Moritz to Zermatt)

When the Glacier Express scenic train, first pulls up it has all

the normal regional 2nd class carriages attached, with an engine in the middle! At Disentis, which is the highest peak between here and Andermatt, the train separates. The Glacier Express changes to the Matterhorn Cog engine and then the only carriages for the rest of the journey to Zermatt are the Glacier Express panoramic carriages. The panoramic carriages are fabulous, tons of natural light, with part of the roof of the carriage; clear, large comfy seats facing each other with table in the middle. Each table has a menu on it, booklet with maps and places of interest and earphones with commentary in 6 languages. The staff is very attentive, maybe too much and never leave you alone. We started off with drinks and snacks and then lunch. Before lunch is served, the staff come and put a tablecloth and silver cutlery on the table etc. This was served around 12.30pm but is expensive and costs extra. Menu is extensive but we only had goulash soup and shared a cherry cake. Found Switzerland very expensive, food especially. We were very lucky that we had a sunny, blue skied, clear day. Plenty of snow and everything was white. We could see all the highest peaks, and at no point did we have fog or heavy snow, so could see everything. The carriage was never full and some passengers only traveled on certain sectors, such as Chur to Visp. Visp is a main skiing area. Along the way we saw people cross country skiing, downhill skiing and snow boarding, kids tobogganing and many had little traditional wooden sleds. All the towns are gorgeous and all have some sort of church as the focal point of the town. Some churches date back hundreds of years and some are Baroque, Gothic and all have a story and a history. Most towns we passed have traditional "Chalet" style housing and some are quite isolated. There were hundreds of mountains, streams, villages, bridges and tunnels. Near the end of the journey, staff came around selling souvenirs etc, again with a very good choice. They will take Euros and Francs. We thought St. Moritz was very pretensions and we liked Zermatt better. Very quaint and cute town and it has one main street with all the shops and restaurants. All the hotels pick up passengers from the station in little shuttles that look like golf buggies. Brig is a fairly large town and seems to be a main on / off point for passengers. As it is close to the Italian border, the architecture and style of the town is more Italian than Swiss.

IC train - (Brig to Milan)

This IC train was a single level train but again, very modern and comfortable. There were no luggage racks and a tour group from the UK were traveling in our carriage. Suitcases were stacked up outside the toilet and this caused a problem. The WC on this train was roomier than our entire unsuited in our Paris hotel! Again, seats were reserved and had a 4 configuration in the middle of the carriage. The trolley cart comes around and you can buy, drinks, snacks etc.

Milan metro

Milan is much smaller than cities like London, Paris and Rome so their metro only has 3 lines but are colour coded, red, blue and green. Very quick and easy, we just paid for individual trips in Milan. Milano Centrale station is large, all white marble with impressive painted ceilings, frescos and lots of arches. Like most of the stations there are shops, cafes, newsagents, banks, money exchange etc. and the metro lines, down under the station and regional and international trains coming in at ground level.

ES - Eurostar Trenitalia (Milan - Venice)

This train is very modern as you would expect from a Eurostar, clean and on time. Normal 1st class carriage with 2 seats and then 1 single row along the window. This carriage had several 4 configurations and our reserved seats were in a 4 and we sat opposite 2 Italian ladies, one young and one in her 70's. The older woman took a liking to Lisa (18) and was lovely. The trolley cart comes around to buy the usual goodies. However, on this train there is no room for luggage except the shelves above the seats. We had no choice but to leave our cases sitting between 2 carriages and hope they were still there when we got off.

Venice Carnivale

Venice of course, has no metro or bus system. When passengers arrive at the station, all passengers and locals have to use the water buses that travel in each direction along the Grand Canal. These can get very crowded and the cheapest way to get around is to buy 1, 2 or 3 day pass as each individual trip on the water bus costs AUD$12.00.

Venice was wonderful as it was my birthday and Carnivale. Very festive in Venice with large crowds but the locals roaming around in the masks and costumes are just fabulous; enormous attention to detail on all costumes and most couples are colour co-ordnated with their costumes. Many, many tourists crowd around taking photos. You do not have to pay to take the photos of the locals or with them. Every 2nd shop was selling masks and these ranged for € 10 up to hundreds of Euros. Tourists can hire wigs, costumes and masks during Carnivale but it can be very expensive. Also found food in Venice very expensive and of course prices would be hiked up during the festival. The weather was just great. Clear, sunny, blue skies but chilly, so we still had to wear our coats to venture out. Gondola ride on my birthday was only 30 minutes but loved it. Make sure you negotiate a price with the Gondolier before getting on the boat. There was only the 2 of us, but price is usually per boat and they can take about 6 people. Some gondolas had a piano accordionist on them and a professional singer. Naturally this costs extra and I didn't want to know what this cost! The gondola behind us had 5 Japanese girls on it. They were all wearing masks and their Gondolier kept rocking their boat on purpose. The screams and giggles of the girls behind us, just added to the experience. Nice way to spend a birthday.

ES - Italian Eurostar (Venice to Florence)

Also a Eurostar but different again to the above train, as it was even more modern than the previous train, and each 1st class carriage had 4 x 4 configuration separated by glass partions. These were located in the middle of the carriage. This train had a proper designated luggage area with decent racks. By this stage our cases were expanded and very heavy. The bar car on this train was very cool and very funky looking and resembled a nightclub interior. We actually didn't use this as with this train, all drinks and snacks off the trolley were complimentary. We ordered beers and were also given peanuts and Baci chocolates.

ES - Italian Eurostar (Florence to Rome)

This train was the same as the train from Venice to Florence. Florence does not have a metro as the town is too small. It has a good bus system, with normal size city buses and little minibuses to get through some of the tiny, alleyway type streets.

Rome Metro

The Rome metro really is not very big at all and only has 2 main lines. Rome is more compact than you think.

LAST TRAIN: Leonardo Express (Rome Termini station to FCO airport).

Rome Termini station is huge and easy to get lost. Not always easy to find the airport signs. It really did take ages to get from the Metro lines to the Airport train. Even using the many travellators, in the station and wheeling our cases, it took at least 10 - 15 minutes to find the correct platform for the Leonardo Express. The airport train has its own platform and a little man sat on the platform selling tickets which cost €12 per person. Currently this is AUD$24.00. You buy your ticket and get on in any carriage and sit anywhere. As everybody on this train has luggage, plenty of room for bags, cases etc. The trip to the airport takes about 40 minutes and then for us leaving via British Airways, we then had to take the Sky train that travels between terminals.

And Finally

We had a wonderful trip. My last trip to Europe was in 1986 where in my 20's I did a well known coach tour. This time around, I found the trains a brilliant, efficient and relaxing way of getting around Europe and planning our own itinerary. We had no problems at all with any train, any ticket, and we were very well organized with our Eurail pass, seat reservations, and specialist trains such as the Eurostar from London and the Glacier Express train. All metro cards bought from Rail Plus prior to our departure were great value as well. In the peak tourist months of the European Spring / Summer etc I would definitely consider additions like the Paris and London passes where you get priority access to many sightseeing attractions. The Oyster cards and Paris Visite cards are vital to save money on the metro systems. Again the Heathrow Express is easy to use and saves a fortune on trying to get from the airport to your accommodation in London. Rail Plus sell all the Hop On, Hop Off bus trips for most major European cities and again in the warmer weather, this is a great way to see the sights and get your bearings in a new city. Rail Plus is adding new tours and attractions to our site all the time, such as the new Sound of Music Tour in Salzburg. Rail Plus can have you totally organized, with Eurail, metro, specialist trains and plenty of value for money sightseeing, all on one booking and all hassle free.

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Photos

Heathrow Express at the platform
Heathrow Express at the platform

Heaviest London snow in 18 years
Heaviest London snow in 18 years

St Pancras Int Eurostar
St Pancras Int Eurostar

Eurostar Business Lounge - very nice
Eurostar Business Lounge - very nice

Boarding the Eurostar
Boarding the Eurostar

Eurostar 1st class interior
Eurostar 1st class interior

Thalys train at the platform
Thalys train at the platform

A musical ensemble in the Paris metro
A musical ensemble in the Paris metro

Elipsos overnight train from Paris to Barcelona
Elipsos overnight train from Paris to Barcelona

Elipsos train seating
Elipsos train seating

Elipsos train shower
Elipsos train shower

Elipsos dining car
Elipsos dining car

Bed in Elipsos sleeper car
Bed in Elipsos sleeper car


TGV Day Train: France - Switzerland
TGV Day Train: France - Switzerland

TGV dining car
TGV dining car

IC train, 1st class, upstairs: Geneva - Zurich
IC train, 1st class, upstairs: Geneva - Zurich


Exterior of Glacier Express
Exterior of Glacier Express

Goulash soup on Glacier Express
Goulash soup on Glacier Express

Views from the Glacier Express
Views from the Glacier Express

Views from the Glacier Express
Views from the Glacier Express

Views from the Glacier Express
Views from the Glacier Express

Regional train from Zermatt to Brig
Regional train from Zermatt to Brig

Milan Duomo - Valentines Day
Milan Duomo - Valentines Day

Carnivale 09, Venice
Carnivale 09, Venice

Tower of Pisa
Tower of Pisa

Colosseum Of Rome
Colosseum Of Rome

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