Zoe visits the UK and Europe

Staff member: Zoe // Trip date: Oct 2013

 

On October 4, my friend Emily and I embarked on an action-packed tour of Europe. The journey all started with a flight from Melbourne to London Heathrow with a pit stop in Dubai to refuel.

LONDON, ENGLAND


I had heard bad stories about clearing customs in London so I was prepared to spend at least the next few hours getting out of the airport, but to my surprise we just walked out. There were no queues, no check points, nothing- we were outside within 30 minutes of landing.


Upon arrival to London, we contacted Emily's cousin Andrew. He was to meet us at the airport as we were staying with him. It was about 530am when the flight landed and at 6am we were through customs and waiting for Andrew. We both secretly wanted him to be at the gate with a sign with our names so we felt special, but he wasn't there. After about half an hour, we were both done, we were sick of waiting. After connecting to the free wi-fi at the airport we got in contact with him, he was still at his house in the northern suburbs of London. This was not ideal as all we wanted was a shower and to change clothes.


After waiting a little longer for Andrew to arrive, we boarded the Piccadilly metro service from London Heathrow into the city. We loaded our Oyster Cards with money and touched on for what would be the start of the next month of being inspired and seeing the world.


That day we just accustomed ourselves with the area. We were staying a 5 minute walk from the Golders Green metro station in London's north. Being so close to the station gave us access to all the city had to offer.


The next day we went into Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, and just walked the streets taking in as much as we could before jet lag set in. On the Sunday we went on the Total London Experience Tour. This is a tour organised through Rail Plus and it was amazing. The tour takes you to all the major attractions in the city. Our tour guide Robert was not only informative but he was very professional, which only made the tour exceed expectations. We had lunch included with our tour and enjoyed a feast at a medieval restaurant before taking a tour of London Tower (you must go here and view the Royal Jewels!!!) and to finish off the tour we went on a boat down the Thames to the London Eye. I am absolutely terrified of heights so I was a little sceptical of the Eye. We exchanged our vouchers for our tickets and went to the London 4D experience movie before boarding our pod.
On our final day in London we went to watch the changing of the guards but alas we were not there early enough to be able to see what was happening. Lucky for me though, Emily has long arms and is a little taller than me. We filmed the whole thing on my camera and then went back to Andrew's house to watch it.


AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS VIA BRUSSELS, BELGIUM


The next day we boarded the Eurostar for Brussels where we connected with a Thalys service to Amsterdam.


I was in first class on the Eurostar. The amount of room that you have on this train would trump business class on a flight. Staff on board the service were accommodating and it was the smoothest train ride I had ever taken. The configuration of the train was one seat the aisle and then two seats. There was a luggage rack at each end of the carriage as well as above head. There was also space between the seats to store luggage.


First class on the Eurostar also includes a snack. I selected the savoury snack which was a tub of locally produced yoghurt, a multigrain roll, a croissant and a cup of coffee. It was so fresh and delicious; I highly recommend if you take a Eurostar to take first class just for the service and the snacks.


In Brussels we changed trains to the Thalys. This service was fast as it weaved its way north. Unfortunately for us, the wi-fi on our train was not working correctly but who needs to be on the internet when you have such beautiful scenery to take in. Although the Thalys is also a premier high speed train, there were notable differences between this train and the Eurostar. But who can complain about a service that allows you to see the country from the comfort of a train carriage that is world above passenger train services in Australia.


We arrived into Amsterdam in the evening and then had the full day to explore the city before departing the next day for Germany.


On our full day in Amsterdam we took full advantage of the City Sightseeing Hop On Hop Off bus. Not only is the bus the safest way to travel around Amsterdam it also includes a visit to the Gassan Diamond factory. This was not something I would have done previously but after watching the diamond cutters cut and polish the diamonds I have a much greater appreciation for the sparkling gems. The Gassan company also have the only diamonds in the world with 121 faces which you can drool over ladies.


The most profound destination in Amsterdam was the Anne Frank House museum. I recommend you visit this museum with a broad view and a strong heart. There was a little bit of a line up to enter the museum but once inside you walk through the front of the house and the back house (annex) and you get to see and walk the same halls as the young author. It was an overwhelming experience.


BERLIN, GERMANY


The next day we boarded an InterCity train to Hannover and then in Hannover boarded an ICE to Berlin. There used to be a direct service from Amsterdam to Berlin, but this route stopped after the tracks were damaged earlier this year with the floods. All services currently require a change of train in Hannover or Dusseldorf.


The InterCity train had cabins with seats for 6 passengers. We did not book seat reservations on this service as reservations were not compulsory. We just boarded with our Global Rail Passes and sat in empty seats. The inside of this train was dated, but it was still comfortable for the journey. The ICE train from Hannover to Berlin was cancelled because of a malfunction with the train. The train was replaced by an old rattler. The locals were not impressed, but to us it didn't matter. A lot of the other passengers were angry and when the ticket inspector came around they voiced their opinions.
The next day in Berlin we took the metro system to Tauentzienstraβe to purchase our Hop On Hop Off bus tickets. This was one of the best sightseeing buses as there were two routes but there were also two different types of buses. There were buses with a guide talking (German or English) or you could take the buses that had the audio guides. The buses took you to all the major attractions in Berlin and past some of the most beautiful architecture and gardens in the city. It is well worth purchasing a ticket for this sightseeing service to experience Berlin, especially if it is the first time you have ever been there. The bus stops at the usual touristy hot spots such as the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Brandenburg Gate and KaDeWe.


MUNICH, GERMANY


After two days in Berlin we went on a journey south to Munich. This was to be on board an ICE train, but alas we were put on a regional train. It was not an old rattler, but it was not the fancy train I was hoping for. Again we were not concerned with the train we were boarding but the rest of the travellers were most upset.


There was a passenger sitting with us in the first class carriage with a second class ticket. When the ticket inspector came to check tickets, Emily and I just handed over our passes. We also enquired about our seat reservation. She stamped this as there were no reservations on this train and we had paid for a service that did not happen. When she checked the second class passengers' ticket she just glared at the passenger. Although there conversation was in German, you could tell by the hand gestures and the tone of their voices that it was not a pleasant conversation. Her ticket was stamped and the ticket inspector left, the passenger stayed in first class. Intrigued we wanted to know what happened. Lucky for us, she spoke English. She explained to us that this was not classified as first class, the carriage that we were in would be classified as second class on a regular ICE service. She said there was no room in second class and she had too much luggage to move and she was not standing in an aisle for more than 6 hours with all her bags. We were shocked that she was allowed to stay and also shocked that she had the guts to say what she said.


After the long strenuous journey upon arrival in Munich all we wanted to do was get to our hostel, check in and lay down until the wobbles left our bodies. That night we met up with a friend of Emily's and went to see what Munich had to offer. We went to the Hofbrauhaus to get some dinner, we spent an hour walking around looking for a room at one of their trellis tables, but alas there was none and no one looked like they would be moving in a hurry. We then went searching for another place to eat. We walked past a place called New York Sports Bar. To me an American sports bar would have beer, wings and more beer. To our surprise this establishment had no meals or snacks and to my horror they didn't even sell beer!! What kind of false advertising was this?? We made our way to a restaurant for dinner then left to visit Augustiner Bierhalle. Augustiner is a local Munich brewery and it was the most delicious beer I had tasted in such a long time.


LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND VIA ZURICH


The next morning we had a quick look around before taking the train to Lausanne via Zurich. The train from Munich to Zurich was onboard a EuroCity train. For the journey from Zurich to Lausanne we were onboard an InterCity train. Both services were quick and trouble free.
It was cold, wet and dark when we arrived in Lausanne. We went from the train station across the road to get dinner then went back to the station to get a taxi to the hostel. On our way back to the train station there was a big street brawl, we could not walk fast enough to get out of the way. Once in the taxi we instinctively locked our doors.


CHOCOLATE TRAIN MONTREUX, SWITZERLAND


The next morning we were up bright and early as we had to travel to Montreux to board the Chocolate Train. We stored our luggage at the Montreux train station in the Left Luggage lockers which were on platform 3 and boarded the Chocolate Train.


The Chocolate Train is one of the Swiss Scenic trains. It was the most delicious smelling and mouth-watering train service. We were in the old Pullman style carriages with polished wood interior with the green velvet seats. It was like stepping back in time. After climbing the mountains outside of Montreux we were served a snack. The snack was a freshly baked chocolate croissant and then your choice of drink - hot chocolate, chocolate milk, mocha, or coffee. We had been on the train less than an hour and it was already the best train. The smell of fresh baked goods would have made any train enticing to take but this was just the best smelling train. After a while we arrived at the town of Gruyeres. This was our first stop of the day. In Gruyeres we went on a tour of the cheese factory. We were given samples of their mild, tasty and cheddar cheese and did an audio tour of the factory. We were able to smell the different plants the cows chew to give the cheeses different flavours and we were able to watch the cheese makers at work. After the tour we walked to the township of Gruyeres. It was the cutest little village tucked away in the hills.


After lunch in Gruyeres we boarded a coach to Broc where we took a tour of the Cailler Nestle chocolate factory. Upon entering the factory the fresh smell of chocolate warmed your soul. Our tour group was split into languages so all the people who spoke English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese were grouped together and did the walking history tour of chocolate and the Cailler family history. Finding out the history of the cocoa bean was behind door one, then after the sound and light show, another door opened leading us into the history of chocolate and then the history of the Cailler family and the joining of Cailler and Nestle. At the very end you get to smell the different cocoa beans that are used at the factory and then watch the production line of chocolates being made (and if there is a dud one, and you time it right, the dud chocolate is yours!!). The next room that you walk into is the chocolate tasting room. This room is just full of chocolates. All the different flavours that Cailler make are on display for you to taste. Being a diabetic this was torture, but, I must admit I did sample the dark chocolate, the coffee-chocolate ball and the milk chocolate square. After all, I didn't want to be rude and not taste anything.


From the taste testing room you walk out into the store and cafe area and after about half an hour we walked across the road back to the train for our decent to Montreux in 1900-style luxury.


GLACIER EXPRESS BRIG TO CHUR, SWITZERLAND


After a rest day in Montreux we were up early again to take the train to Brig to meet up with our second scenic train, the Glacier Express. I was so excited to be taking this train as I love nothing more than beautiful scenery. The Glacier Express operates from Zermatt to Chur or St Moritz and takes 8 hours to complete. We were not taking the whole journey as we boarded in Brig and would disembark in Chur. But the four and a half hours on this train were enough to satisfy my need of picturesque scenery. It was beautiful with snow capped mountains in the background and lush green pastures in the foreground. The two contrasts were just amazing. With the Glacier Express they provide you with headphones and each time the bell rings there is an announcement made regarding the scenery, the township or public figures of the area - past and present. Being a rather long journey, this train is equipped with everything you need. The seats are most comfortable, the tables can be folded, and there is a lunch service or a cafe on board. The washrooms are spacious and always clean. It was just a magical ride through the Swiss Alps with breath taking views.


BERNINA EXPRESS CHUR -TIRANO-LUGANO, SWITZERLAND


Arriving in Chur for the night I was still spellbound by the mountains. But it was only going to continue with a journey the next day on the Bernina Express train and bus. The Bernina train operates on the Rhatische Bahn railway and takes you high up the mountains for descending slowing into Italy. There are 25 points of interest on the service from Chur to Tirano including the station of Alp Glum. The train will stop at Alp Glum for about 15 minutes so you can stretch your legs and just take in the beauty that you can see, it is one of the highest points along the journey too. The best thing besides the beauty outside the train is the train's mascot Capricorn. Capricorn is a mountain goat that graces the food trolley and he is such a delight to see. Upon arrival in Tirano we had a few hours to spare before boarding the Bernina Bus from Tirano to Lugano. I am not the best on buses at the best of times, but I didn't want to only do half the scenic journey. So upon boarding the bus I was pumping myself up to not get sick. Boarding the bus was a little difficult as the aisle was extremely narrow. It was not until we were sitting down though that we realised it was only narrow because the passengers at the front of the bus had slid their seats out. Yes, on this bus there was a leaver that allowed you to push your seat out to give you room from the passenger beside you. The bus driver was also pretty amazing speaking French, German, Italian, Spanish and English. Although it was disappointing that he only made announcements in German. Despite Emily and I asking for him to repeat in English, he did not. So there are also points of interest from Tirano to Lugano but I was not sure what they were. The bus weaved its way up mountains, through narrow streets and hairpin corner's, this journey was an experience in itself.


On solid ground at the Lugano train station after jumping off the bus (literally) we boarded the evening train to Milan. The service was another Eurocity but it was really clean and fresh smelling. There were not many passengers on this service but one of the passengers sitting near us did get a fine. We believe it was because he didn't have a seat reservation and he had the wrong ticket. The passenger sitting opposite us smiled and shook his head. Also on board this service there were people walking up and down the carriages asking people to participate in a survey. I found this annoying and wondered why they hadn't been asked to stop. It wasn't until I saw a ticket inspector and they all sat down in the seats and acted innocent that I realised that they weren't supposed to be doing it.


VENICE, ITALY


We were only in Milan for the night and we couldn't wait to board the TrenItalia Frecciabianca service to Venice in the morning. This was the first premier high speed train we had taken since the Thalys. I was only a little disappointed that there was a child sitting near us, but this was a delightful journey. The train was clean, the staff were polite and the interior of the train was comfortable. The sleek design of the train on the outside was matched with the interior design. The leather seats, pine tables and reclining seats were just what we were after.


As there was a public transport strike the day we travelled to Venice there were no ACTV services running (the boats in the canals which act like a metro service). We boarded a water taxi and went to the hostel. Riding the boat along the canals and then in open water as just amazing. It was so beautiful.
The next day the ACTV were operating so we filled in the day by visiting Saint Marco Square, walking down the many, many, alleyways, over hundreds of bridges and along the canals. It was just beautiful and amazing. I loved every moment in Venice. We even went on a tour of Venice on the ACTV boats, it was just so nice being on the water and being in the city.


FLORENCE, ITALY


Upon leaving Venice we boarded a Frecciargento TrenItalia service. The leather seats, polished wooden tables, large luggage racks were all just the beginning of a wonderful journey. There were also 8 screens in the roof of our carriage that kept us updated on where we were, how fast we were going, the next station and the estimated arrival time. It was just really nice. The screens also showed us the weather forecast at the different stations we were stopping at, along with tourism information for each destination. Also to add to this service, there was a free snack. A TrenItalia staff member walked up and down the carriage (first class only) offering beverages and either a sweet or savoury snack. Emily had the sweet which consisted of chocolate wafer biscuits and I had the savoury which was some kind of rosemary infused biscotti.


Upon arrival in Florence we stored our luggage at the station and boarded a regional train out to Pisa. We were so excited to be able to go to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. After the hour long service we left the station and looked at the horizon for the leaning tower. We couldn't see it. We went to the town map and according to the map, the tower was across the piazza, over the bridge and then two blocks away. After an hour and a half walking around Pisa, we boarded a bus to go to the tower. We were so disappointed that the tower was enclosed in a fortress. It was not until we were inside the fortress that we could actually see the tower, it was a little bit of a disappointment.


The next couple of days in Florence were non-stop sightseeing. We purchased tickets for the Hop on Hop Off bus and marked on our map where we would go the following day (a Tuesday) because most tourist attractions are closed on Mondays. The next day was jam packed with sightseeing. It was amazing. We climbed the 463 steps up the top of the Duomo - Saint Maria of Florence Cathedral and then 463 steps all the way down. But the views from the top overlooking all of Florence were well worth it. We also went to see the original location of the Statue of David and the statue of Perseus with Medusa's head.


ROME, ITALY


From Florence we boarded the Frecciargento service again to Rome. Our accommodation was a five minute walk from the station so it was nice to not have to brave the public transport with our luggage. But it wasn't long before we braved the metro service in hope of conquering the ancient city. We marked on our map where we had to go and from there we either walked or boarded a metro train to the next destination for the next two days.


We visited the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Piazza Barberini, before stopping at the gates of the Vatican City for lunch. We then decided to take a scenic walk all the way back to the hostel, walking down the alley ways finding little shops along the way. The next day we went to the Colosseum and to the Pantheon and it was just incredible seeing these structures. The history behind this city is just amazing and no matter where you are there are old ruins just around the corner.


GENOA, ITALY


After an enlightening stay in Rome, we boarded an Italian InterCity service to Genoa. The best part of this train is the route that it takes. We travelled all along the coast line past Civitavecchia, past Livorno and Pisa and then we entered the Cinque Terre region before arriving in Genoa. We passed so many different landscapes all with the coast line on the left of us. It was amazing.
This InterCity train had little cabins with six seats. It was comfortable but at the same time it was not to the same standard as the Frecciargento trains. This was more of a homely train service than a business train service. We shared our cabin with an older couple then when they left, at the next station a family joined us.


You know you are in Genoa when you see a big statue of Christopher Columbus too. This statue is at the front of the train station and towers over the surrounding buildings.


PARIS, FRANCE


The next day was a just a day of trains. We travelled from Genoa to Ventimiglia, Ventimiglia to Nice and then Nice to Paris. It was a long day but travelling along the cote d'azure and then through Provence was just spectacular.


The service onboard the TrenItalia regional train from Genoa to Ventimiglia was comfortable and we had the ever present police officers on board walking up and down the carriages. When we arrived in Ventimiglia, they all disembarked too. In Ventimiglia we changed trains to an SNCF TER service, a French regional train. It was cleaner than other regional trains but the seats were more squished together but the colors were more bright and vibrant and the padding on the seats was a little more soft which was nice. The train from Ventimiglia to Nice stopped at Monaco and I was amazed at the number of people who boarded.


Once in Nice we had lunch and boarded our first TGV duplex service. The duplex was amazing. We had seats on the top level which gave us such a great view as we travelled from Nice to Cannes, St Raphael, Toulon and Marseille then up to Paris. It was such a comfortable service with cloth seats that reclined. The foot rests was also an added bonus because when you had the seat back and your feet on the foot rest it felt like you were lying flat even though you weren't. Our carriage adjoined the cafe carriage so it was a short stroll for snacks and beverages. We arrived into Paris late in the evening but as we had the next 5 days in Paris we were keen for an early night.


The first stop on our itinerary in Paris was the Eiffel Tower and it met every expectation. It was just monumental and everything I wanted it to be. We purchased tickets to go to the second level viewing platform and the views of the city from this height were just amazing. It was a windy day so the top viewing platform was not open, but the second level surpassed every expectation. We could see for miles.


From the Eiffel Tower we walked along the Seine stopping along the way to marvel at the Alexendre III bridge, the grand Palais, the Tuileries gardens, the Louvre and the Lovers Lock Bridge (Pont de l'Archeveche). The rain started setting in so we took the metro back to the hostel.


The following day we visited the Arc de Triomphe and walked down the Chample Elysees below winding our way through the city. It was really hard for me to comprehend that I was in Paris. It was unbelievable. The next day we took the RER train out to Marne la Vallee Chessy to EuroDisney. As it was Halloween I was so excited. Having only been to Disneyland in Anaheim I was expecting big things like I experienced there. EuroDisney is not as large but it has the same amount of class as any Disney establishment. We went on a few rides including Space Mountain to which I almost passed out from fear to the more subdued staple of riding the teacups.


BARCELONA, SPAIN


Leaving Paris we boarded a TGV duplex all the way south into Spain to Figueres station where we changed from a SNCF owned train to a Renfe AVE train.


The TGV duplex was an amazing journey for me. I was the only passenger in the upstairs carriage. I had the whole upper deck to myself and it was the most comfortable ride I had. The seats on board this train were spacious and so soft to sit on. They reclined and once again with the footrest, I was able to trick my body to thinking it was laying down. The fold down table was large enough for my laptop, my book and bottle of water to all sit on at the same time. The power point was also in a good location as I was able to charge my phone and rest my phone in the mesh pocket above the fold down table. It was the perfect train ride until we arrived at Perpignan station and other passengers boarded the train.


At Figueres we purchased seat reservations at the counter for a connecting service to Barcelona. We missed the next train so waited for the next service which was in two hours. To our luck though, the service we missed was a regional second class only train and the service we boarded was a premier high speed AVE train. Although it was a longer wait the luxurious journey to Barcelona made up for it. Emily and I were the only passengers in first class and it was amazing. Once we had stowed our luggage and sat in the leather seats a staff member greeted us. He gave us headphones to listen to Renfe radio and also offered us a beverage. It was amazing.


Barcelona was our final destination and not only was I excited for the warmer weather I was also excited to catch up with an old colleague from Rail Plus, Iain. He was in the sun soaked city visiting friends. This meant we had a personal tour guide around Barcelona, taking us to the lesser known areas of the city and the personalised tour and information was better than sitting on a bus with a headset or following a person with a flag again with a headset on trying to understand the translation.
We saw the Sagrada Familia church and were able to see the intricate work of Antonio Gaudi before his passing. It was incredible the detail on the churches' facade. Although it is still a long way of being completed the church is an architectural masterpiece. While trying to take in as much of the church as possible we also visited the Catalan Flame, an arc structure with an eternal flame burning. It is a memorial for the Catalans who died during the 1714 siege of Barcelona.


Along the foreshore we were greeted by another statue of Christopher Columbus and watched overhead as a cable car, the Transbordador Aeri del Port, raced passengers to the loading tower. The cable car takes passengers across the port of Barcelona to Montjuic Mountain. During the 7 minute journey you are able to see the city from every angle and view all monuments and tourist hotspots from the pod. This is not for the fainthearted though so I kept my feet firmly on the ground and just marvelled and the brave souls in the pod.


After a couple of days in Barcelona, it was time to head to the airport. We used our Global pass to board the Renfe regional service to the airport. Once at the airport we had to change from terminal 2 to terminal 1 via the shuttle bus.


FINAL COMMENT


Not having travelled to Europe before and not knowing what to expect I had the best experience. The train systems make travelling so easy, not just for moving from city to city but also around each city. Each train station is located literally in the middle of each city making it easy to access it at all hours of the day. All the signs and information available at each station helps in finding your bearings and having an amazing time. Using a Global rail pass means we were not confined to where we wanted to travel and we were also not limited to which services we took. All the sightseeing tours on the Hop On Hop Off buses are a must in each city. They are effortless to take and as they take you to all the must see places, for a first time visitor I highly recommend these. If you are a first time visitor to Europe, I recommend you take comfortable clothes and shoes as it's a big world out there just waiting for you to explore.

 

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