Tiani travels on a Europe Extravaganza

Staff member: Tiani // Trip date: Nov 2014

 

Tiani's Europe Extravaganza

Finally!

I arrived in Copenhagen excited for the month of train-fuelled travels ahead of me. After an exhausting 23 hours of flying with a brief transit in Singapore I was relieved to finally make it through customs and onward to my hotel. Conveniently located, the hotel was a 15-20 minute drive from the airport and a leisurely 5 minute walk to both the Tivoli Amusement park and Copenhagen Central Train Station, which was where I was due to catch my first train the following evening.


VALIDATING THE PASS


Copenhagen station is quite a beautiful monument itself and was lined with a great scale of bicycles that lead all the way to the main entrance. I was excited to get to the main station in anticipation of my inaugural train trip and I made sure to arrive with plenty of time to spare, making my way to the clearly marked out ticketing counters to have my Eurail pass validated.

I'd recommend arriving at least an hour earlier if you plan on having your pass validated prior to your first train - Queues can grow quite long as I learnt, and more so in the summer months.
Once at the window I handed my passport and Eurail pass over to the attendant and she happily filled in the start and end date on my pass, along with my passport number, stamping it and thus validating it. This really is a no hassle process!

With my pass validated and reservations in tow I made my way to one of the many departure boards in the station to see what platform my overnight City Night Line train was to depart from.


CITY NIGHT LINE - COPENHAGEN TO AMSTERDAM:

SHOCK! Germany had gone on strike and my overnight service was no longer operating!
Confused and slightly deterred, I headed to the information desk to enquire further and ended up joining the queue of flustered travellers who had done the same. Although I found staff to be very pleasant I was told very little about the situation as they had very little details available.
Heading to the departure platform I found a train awaiting me but it wasn't the City Night Line I was expecting. On the platform there were a number of local train authorities discussing travel options with anxious travellers and I was notified that my best option was to board the replacement service which would get me to the Danish-German border. We would then make it to Hamburg by bus and in the words of the conductor, we would, "be left in the hands of the Germans," to continue our travel to Amsterdam.


I was apprehensive to say to say the least! The thought of being stranded in a foreign country in the middle of the night didn't really appeal. I boarded the replacement train somewhat discouraged, but knowing that I had my pass I believed I'd be fine as long as the trains started operating from Hamburg again.


Before boarding staff explained our original reservations were all we needed to travel on the replacement services, and only after enquiring was I told in very broken English that my ticket could be stamped as "unused". Only once your ticket is endorsed as unused are you able to return it to your rail provider to see if compensation is possible due to a strike.


Arriving in to Hamburg at midnight, I opted to use one of the many automated kiosks available to check if any trains had resumed travel. These machines have an English option among many others, and I was able to navigate through selections fairly easily. I was ecstatic to find an option that would get me to Amsterdam via Osnabrueck only an hour after my original arrival time via the City Night Line. I purchased a reservation at the cost of 4.50 euros to be used in conjunction with my pass.


INTERCITY SERVICES TO AMSTERDAM


I was definitely impressed with both Intercity services that finally got me to Amsterdam via Osnabrueck. Both trains were on the platform for only a few minutes before departing, but large boards on the platform showed which area you were to stand to await your arriving carriage for boarding.


Both services had ample space and provided carriages for bicycles (or oversize suitcases) that were clearly marked by the bicycle drawing on each car door that offered this kind of space. Toilets and luggage racks were located at the end of most carriages on-board and overhead racks found at each set of seats could also be used for storing smaller bags or jackets.


Not surprisingly, there were very few travellers at 5:00am in the morning and on both services we happily found ourselves occupying a small 1st class cabin consisting of 6 seats in rows of 3, facing each other with a table between. The glass doors that separated your seating from the aisle also displayed your seat numbers.


Arriving in to Amsterdam just after 11:00am, I quickly realised this was a gorgeous city. It had taken us 3 trains and a coach replacement to get here and well over 15 hours of interrupted travel, but instantly I was taken in by all its charm.


It was obvious that bikes are the main mode of transport here. There is so much to see and do - The Anne Frank Museum, the Amsterdam Dungeon, and Madame Tussauds are all within walking distance of each other!


CITY NIGHT LINE - AMSTERDAM TO BASEL


After 3 days of touring the city by foot I again prepared for yet another City Night Line service, this time heading to Basel. A little nervous, I was glad to find this journey took off without a hitch.
I had a reservation for a double deluxe berth, (the luxury being the added bonus of a private toilet and shower.) Upon boarding, we were treated to a welcome glass of wine each. We were quickly shown to our sleeper where the small dials controlling the air-conditioning and lighting were explained to us. The attendant then continued to demonstrate how to use the shower and pointed out the baggage holds in the corner and above us.


The berths are quite simplistic in design, and every available surface does not go unused. The sleeper has an upper and lower berth which converts in to 3 single seats for the breakfast service the next morning. Relieved, we found the bedding was comfortable and the water pressure of the small shower was fine. The windows are quite big, and the comfort of being able to lock yourself away was piece of mind to get a good night's rest. Closer to Basel I was awoken by a message through the train intercom alerting us that breakfast would soon be served and that we were within an hour from Basel. We got to enjoy a nice spread for breakfast consisting of a bread roll, cheeses, spreads, juice, coffee/tea, and the wake-up call also gave us enough time to prep and freshen up before disembarking. I was surprised to find that it was only after breakfast that my pass and reservation were stamped, and passport checked.


We arrived in to Basel just after 06:30am and continued effortlessly with our connecting trains to get to Montreux. The beautiful lake side town of Montreux needs to go on to every travellers must-see list - crystal clear water, snow topped mountain surroundings and a clean green image to rival any other.
Most hotels here provide you with a Swiss Riviera card that allows you to use the public transportation along the Riviera, with discounts to museums and local theme parks.


THE GOLDENPASS LINE - MONTREUX TO INTERLAKEN via ZWEISIMMEN


My true appreciation for the beautiful surroundings in Switzerland was further enhanced once I boarded the Golden Pass panoramic service that operated from Montreux to Zweisimmen, along the Golden pass line. By paying only a few dollars more I was able to secure 1 of 8 'Grande vue' VIP seats through Rail Plus that had me seated in front of the train driver right at the front of this panoramic train! (Not all trains offer these seats, and not all trains operate with panoramic carriages so it's best to know which type of train you are reserving at the time of booking).


With nothing but a glass window in front of me and unhindered views to my left and right, I was really able to enjoy Montreux's lakeside beauty and surrounding mountains. We were treated to a light spread of cheese and local meat assortments, wine and beer shortly after the train had departed. As we disembarked we were pleasantly surprised to receive a keep-sake tin in the shape of a train filled with Swiss chocolates.


Once in Zweissimmen you are required to change to a smaller regional service to complete your travel to Interlaken. I was not disheartened at all. 1st Class was again very spacious, and had only one or two travellers in each car. We arrived in to Interlaken little over an hour later.


THE MOUNTAINS OF INTERLAKEN AND LUCERNE


Interlaken is a quaint township nestled at the base of the Jungfrau. It's a proud community with Swiss themed shops spanning between its 2 train stations, Interlaken Ost and Interlaken West. With your Swiss pass you are able to make your way up the Jungfrau at a discounted rate, a popular day-trip among many travellers.


The adventure capital of Switzerland, Interlaken offered a lot of thrill seeking activities, sky diving amongst other adventurous activities. I wasn't feeling brave enough to skydive, but did do a paragliding experience over Lake Thun and Lake Brienz - an amazing alternative that allows for a birds-eye view over the town below. After a few days enjoying the majestic views of The Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau summits, I headed to Lucerne hoping the weather would stay clear enough to venture to the top of Mt Pilatus.


To get there from Lucerne you need to make your way to Alpnachstad. You can travel by unreserved regional train services that operate every half hour with a journey time of roughly 15 minutes. You also have the option of travelling by ferry across Lake Lucerne. The ferry had two daily round-trip departures in winter, each journey lasting roughly an hour. Both options were free with our Swiss pass!
Alpnachstad is at the foot of the mountain and from here we simply purchased a ticket for the cogwheel train that would get us to the top of Mt Pilatus. This ticket was half price with our pass. This scenic train is the steepest of its kind and there are photo opportunities galore during the climb! In the summer months you even have the option of taking a panoramic Gondola ride down from the top.


THE WILHELM TELL - LUCERNE TO BELLINZONA


To end my Swiss adventure I boarded the Wilhelm Tell 1st Class service to Bellinzona. This journey consisted of a ferry and train trip and is a great way to appreciate the mountainous landscape dotted with lake-side towns and cities.


When checking in at the ferry terminal (located across the road from Lucerne Central station) I was pleasantly surprised to receive a welcome package containing information about the Wilhelm Tell service, a small Swiss knife and a voucher to be used on-board to the value of 19 Swiss francs. I wanted to take good photos so I perched outside on the upper deck and enjoyed the scenery with a nice glass of local wine. The ferry provided an upstairs restaurant with dining area and the surrounding decks of the boat allowed for wonderful views over Lake Lucerne. SPECTACULAR!


After disembarking the ferry in Fluelen 3 hours later I continued on to Bellinzona by panoramic train, also part of my Wilhelm Tell reservation. The station is situated within 10 metres of disembarking. A slightly delayed train from here meant that I only had 8 minutes to connect in Milan for my 1st real high-speed train!


FRECCIAROSSA SERVICE - MILAN TO ROME


After frantically finding our platform in Milan in only 8 minutes (which I do not recommend!), I was slightly disheartened to find that my 1st class reservation was for the carriage at the very opposite end of the platform. The train was due to depart any minute and these trains are super long!
I boarded 3 carriages down from where I was supposed to so as to not miss the train, but walked through each carriage effortlessly once on-board to find the correct carriage and seats. I could feel the change in speed on this service instantly but due to the trip being at night it was hard to gauge without seeing anything out the windows. Monitors around the carriage showed the trains speed hitting near on 300km/h. The service took less than 3 hours non-stop to Rome.


Low speed wifi was provided free of charge in business class with an email or social network log on. There was ample room to stretch your legs while seated at your reclining seat, and luggage storage holds between each set of seats meant my suitcase (which was quickly expanding with souvenirs) was able to be stowed with plenty of room to spare. We had reserved two seats facing each other with a table between, and this was put to use when we received a drink, sandwich, and tea/coffee an hour into the service which is complimentary in Business Class.


ROME HOP ON HOP OFF BUS


In order to get around Rome for a few days I decided it would be best to pre-purchase the Hop on Hop off bus service from Rail Plus. The double-decker bus takes you to all the major attractions or at least close by. Rome is fairly spread out and its rich history is definitely its selling point. The Hop on Hop off bus offers brief commentary on each of the passing attractions whilst travelling and allowed me to see most monuments Rome had to offer within the 4 days I had to explore.


ROME TO MONTEROSSO via LA SPEZIA


La Spezia is a gateway town to the Smaller Cinque Terre villages when arriving from the South. Journey time is around 4 hours from Rome and there are regional trains that depart to Monterosso
There's a lot less room for luggage on these regional trains so I had to have my luggage at my seat with me. Our passes were not checked, though with the amount of people on-board this was understandable. A multitude of people visiting the sea-side villages meant passengers were even standing in the aisle.


A walk to one of the surrounding villages is a must do. The hike to Vernazza took a few hours and got pretty steep at times but the views of the towns and the picturesque coastline from the trail was well worth the sore legs.


SNCF REGIONAL SERVICES and RENFE AVE SERVICE - MONACO TO BARCELONA


After Monterosso and a brief stint in Monaco we headed to Barcelona. Departing the train station just after 07:00am I travelled by French journey trains along the south coast of France, through to Marseille and on to Beziers before a reserved service got me to Barcelona.
Each of the unreserved French Journey services that got me to Beziers quickly filled at each passing stop. These trains are quite basic and there weren't too many places to store larger luggage items other than at your seat or at the end of each carriage - and space is quite limited.


From Beziers to Barcelona I boarded an AVE train which was sleek in design and had plenty of space. Our reservations were checked before boarding the platform in Beziers and we were not asked to show these reservations again once on the train. The 1st Class or "Preferente" seats were like leather lazi-boy recliners, and were definitely the most comfortable throughout my travels. Configuration of seating was similar to what you'd find in an airline - 2x2 and with plenty of space between each set of seats and a large fold down-table from the seats in front of you. Lights and volume were controlled by dials on the end of the armrests and headphones were handed out so that you could listen to radio stations or watch a movie on the communal TV screens.


HOP ON HOP OFF PASS BARCELONA


After the success of the Hop on hop off bus in Rome we were glad we had purchased the same sightseeing bus again so we could see Barcelona in the same manner. With my ticket I even managed to reserve tickets to a discounted tapas and flamenco dancing tour on our second evening.


TGV DUPLEX- BARCELONA TO PARIS


My final train awaited me, a French TGV service from Barcelona to Paris. Boarding this duplex TGV at Barcelona Sants felt a lot like boarding a plane. First I went through security to what essentially was a holding area. Closer to boarding time, passengers were instructed to line up depending on their tickets (1st class, 2nd class) before being let on to the platforms to board. I got on very quickly and found my seats in the upper duplex of this train.


Seating configuration was similar to that of the AVE train service I had taken earlier, and seats were just as comfortable. Modern and colourful, each set of seats had a table, bin and power sockets. There was a bistro car located a few coaches down, though I noticed a lot of passengers had pre-packed meals for their journey, which I think is a great idea.


Paris Gare Lyon was our destination point and we were to arrive just over 6 hours later. This station is overwhelming to say the least. Although sign posted well in most areas, the sheer size is daunting! After a full day of travel we opted to catch a taxi to our hotel which ended up costing 14 euros.


PARIS - EIFFEL TOWER AND LIDO


Having a few days up my sleeve to explore this city by foot, I quickly learnt that transportation such as a Visite card or Hop On Hop Off bus were vital, both available from Rail Plus. Pre-booked priority entrance tickets and tours are also a good idea for first time visitors who want to get the most out of this city.


The queues at most places were horrible so I was happy I had at least pre-booked my priority entrance tickets for an evening slot to get up the Eiffel Tower. (The restaraunt on the 1st level is also a treat, serving fine wine and fancy 3 - 4 course meals I couldn't even pronounce). The views from above are amazing.


While in Paris I also went to see my first ever cabaret show, The Lido. Situated on the bustling Champs Elysees, I was able to see what this renowned street offered at night before the Lido show started. After a 3 course meal and a glass of champagne the Lido show was underway. I had no idea what to expect but the show was fabulous. With all its glitz, glamour, big lights and few clothes it was the solo act of a mime that stole the show for me. It was a very memorable evening.


PARIS MARNE LA VALLEE (DISNEYLAND)


I just had to do it! The final stop of my European adventure before flying home.
To get here from central Paris you can take regular services departing from Paris Gare Lyon along the RER A line. Located 40 minutes away by train, Marne La Valle train station is literally right on the doorstep of Disneyland.


With a 3 day pass to this famous theme park I felt I had walked it in its entirety by the time we went to leave. You really do need a day or two at the least to be able to see and enjoy most attractions and rides.


After a final good night's rest, I was sad to say good-bye to Europe and headed for Paris CDG to start my long journey home, my whirlwind adventure behind me. I had loved every moment, a journey never to be forgotten. Each of the countries I visited offered something different to the last. Whether it was the clean green nature of Switzerland, the history and food of Italy, the fun atmosphere of Barcelona or the magic of Disneyland in France there was plenty of things to see and do.


OVERALL THOUGHTS


It was definitely a fun-packed, eye-opening experience, rail strike and all!
Travelling on a rail pass is truly a definite advantage. Whilst in Germany, and affected by strikes, we were able to board services that did not require extra reservations to be made. Others were left at a ticketing counter to purchase new tickets!


I would also highly recommend the Swiss pass for Switzerland with all the added discounts it offers on local transportation and mountain excursions. This really is a must have product for those planning to visit for an extended time. Hop on hop off buses are definitely a must in the bigger cities to be able to see everything (and saves walking from attraction to attraction!) I'd highly recommend pre-booked reservations where possible and definitely try everything -local foods, wines, beers and activities. As they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do!

 

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