Riding the EURORAILS
Last Summer my family and I traveled Europe by rail beginning our odyssey on July 9th. We began in Paris going to Switzerland thence to Vienna, Budapest, Munich and Berlin and back to Paris with side trips. We used a Eurail Flexipass with a discount group rate good for 10 days of first class travel anywhere in continental Western Europe and Hungary. The 10 days (or nights) can be used on any days within a 2 month period from the first day of travel. 15 day passes are available as are cheaper 2nd class passes for persons 26 and under.
With a Eurail Pass reservations are not required on most trains--one boards and shows the pass. However, reservations are recommended for high season--June through August--on busy routes. Mainline intercity trains we rode carried 2 or 3 first and 8 to 12 second class cars plus a restaurant/bar car. Second class was often sold out. First class seats can sell out between heavily traveled city pairs like Brussels/Paris or Vienna/Munich. Rail stations, even in smaller cities like Berne, bustled with travelers reminiscent of the USA in the 1950s. Munich's huge central station has almost every service imaginable on the premises from a hotel to a beauty salon/massage parlor.
I checked minivan rentals but high gas prices and extra charges for taking the van into Hungary (or anywhere in Eastern Europe) made the Eurail group pass cheaper. We didn't regret this. Trains were fast, comfortable and went everywhere on frequent schedules. First class seating on mainline trains resembles first class on airlines. We stayed in hotels near the stations and excellent public transportation systems made it easy to sightsee. If I had rented a van I would have parked it at each stop and not driven until leaving given congestion, my unfamiliarity with streets, local driving customs, and the compactness of European cities. My offspring get restless on long car trips and they liked moving around the trains--especially to the restaurant/bar cars.
Paris to Lausanne, Switzerland
We traveled on the "Illyria", a TGV (Tren de Gran Vitesse or high speed train) arriving in about 3 hours. This is one of 7 daily trains from Paris to Lausanne. The Illyria was the last out and we barely made it. Moving a group like ours in the same direction at the same time was difficult. The train set, like all TGV and other high speed trains, was articulated with all electric power cars at each end. The TGV was introduced in 1981, and it's success and operating profits have birthed a growing network of high speed lines radiating from Paris. Maximum train speed on our line was 186 mph until the Alpine area where we slowed to about 75 mph. I didn't see any grade crossings and train horns sounded only to salute passing trains that whooshed by. The Illyria was full to capacity most of the trip. First class passengers had meal service at their seats--3 choices. We delayed asking and had to eat salmon. The ride was very smooth. No side-to-side motion or spilled beverage glasses.
Lausanne to Berne
At Lausanne we disembarked to take a local train to Berne. Thinking the connecting train was opposite ours, I boarded a first class car and noticed a porter making up beds. This seemed strange for an hour and 15 minute trip. I said "Berne?" He said "Roma!". We got off and scurried to the correct platform as our train's lights receded into the night. Despairing, I asked about the next train to Berne. "In 15 minutes" --no problem.
Berne is in the middle of Switzerland and serves well for day trips. It's the capitol, with a 15th century old town crawling with colorful multiple unit trams. A prominent day trip is the "Golden Pass Panoramic Tour" through the Alps by rail from Berne to Montreaux, Switzerland on Lake LeMan with a lake steamer from Montreaux to Lausanne and back to Berne by rail. The Swiss Railroads and a tour company sponsor a luxury cruise train from Berne to Montreaux via Brig during Summer months.
Berne to Montreaux
The railway from Brig to Montreaux is narrow gauge and the cruise train on that section features bright blue cars with gold trim, glass sides and roof, gourmet food and beverage service at your seat, tour guides, etc. It costs $50 per person extra for Eurail pass holders--more for others. I discovered that multiple unit (mu) train sets catering to regular passengers ran the same route hourly at no charge to Eurail pass holders--but without gourmet meals and tour guides. However, the Swiss railroads thoughtfully provide huge picture windows in most of their passenger cars. The narrow gauge ride from Brig to Montreaux on any train is extraordinary. One can get off en route--e.g. to have lunch in Gstaad, an elegant Alpine resort, as we did, and then continue on the next train. Five minutes after Gstaad village signs shift from German to French--everything else looks the same. A guidebook said another way to detect the change is by observing woodpiles next to houses. German speakers will have neat, precise piles, Italian speakers artistic ones and French speakers, (individualists), have differently shaped piles. They all seemed alike to me.
Montreaux to Lausanne to Berne
At Montreaux our Eurail passes were good on the steamer to Lausanne so we enjoyed 1st class deck chairs for an hour on the huge lake. From Lausanne we returned to Berne on a standard gauge Swiss IC (Intercity) Express in comfort in 50 minutes. A great day of cheap sightseeing.
Berne to Vienna
We set out on a Swiss IC train to Zurich (hour and 15 minutes) connecting there with a Eurocity train, the "Maria Teresa" named for an 18th century Hapsburg Empress. Eurocity trains, designated EC with a name and number in timetables, constitute a network of international express trains connecting West European countries including Hungry. Each country contributes train sets built to high standards of comfort and speed and featuring local or national food and beverages. The Maria Teresa was Austrian and painted bright red with white trim like other mainline Austrian trains. We reserved 6 reclining seats--3 and 3 facing each other in a closed compartment. The train's white tablecloth dining car doubled as a bar-lounge and was staffed by 2 very busy waitresses and a cook. At slower times a waitress pushed an airline-type cart through the train with drinks and snacks. Our busy trackage ran eastward along a postcard-perfect Lake Zurich crowded with sailboats and surrounded by mountains and prosperous farms. In Austria the train traveled via Salzburg with snowcapped Alps visible to the South from immaculately clean windows. East of Linz we entered a flat plain and the train hustled at 90 to 110 mph into Vienna. Like elsewhere, colorfully painted local trains connected larger cities with smaller ones and operated continuously in push-pull fashion. They all carried at least one bicycle car marked with large painted bicycles. This service plus the fact that many European cities have dedicated bicycle "roads" or bike ways painted on sidewalks means that someone traveling from Linz to Vienna could bike to the station, board a local train with bike, ride to Vienna and then bicycle to a final destination. Maybe not in Winter. We also saw people stowing small Vespa motor scooters on trains with a lift.
We observed a variety of freight cars in yards and over the road ranging from minibox cars on 2 wheel trucks to massive grain and chemical cars on 4 and 6 wheel trucks. Most interesting were truck-trains in the alpine regions. These carry over-the-road trucks mounted on flat cars-cabs and trailers--with a café-bar car for drivers. Happy truck drivers were smoking, chatting and drinking on the trains we passed. My understanding is that international trucks traveling these regions now go by train. Thus, a truck arriving at the Italian-Swiss border bound for Germany would pass through Switzerland on one of these trains. Reason: massive deterioration of trees and other flora in the higher Alps is linked to truck diesel emissions.
Vienna was a great pleasure--beautiful 18th and 19th century architecture, museums, great coffee bars (the Turks introduced coffee to Europe in Vienna), and exceptionally warm, friendly people. Another plus was our small hotel managed by a laid back Jeff Bridges look alike my kids nicknamed the "dude" after a character Jeff Bridges played in the movie "The Great Lebowski". He provided excellent advice on where to eat, sightseeing, etc. The multi-unit Viennese trams, buses and subways operate on the honor system. You buy a ticket in a machine but there are no turnstiles or ticket takers. Periodically someone supposedly gets on and checks tickets. We never saw this and most people didn't buy tickets--great free public transportation. This system is also used in Germany and Hungary. In Berlin, we saw ticket checkers enter subway trains where the on-the-spot fine is $30 and we started buying tickets again. In Paris you insert subway tickets into a machine to enter through a turnstile as in Washington, DC. There, we saw a few teenagers leap the turnstiles. We forbade ours to do so. A final note on Vienna--our last night we went to a recommended restaurant and "wine-bar" in a suburb called Grinzing--a pleasant 25 minute tram ride away. The extroverted owner showed us a photo of himself arm in arm with a grinning Bill Clinton titled (in German) "I'm a Grinzinger" after Kennedy's "I'm a Berliner" statement in 1962.
Vienna to Budapest
We traveled on the EC "Franz Liszt" originating in Frankfurt, Germany. The German train set was painted light gray with red trim like all mainline German trains. A big plus--the café-bar served draft beer and giant pretzels. Normally the trip takes 2 hours and 10 minutes but outside Vienna a grinding sound began under the train and the engineer (driver in Europe) emptied the air. This delayed us an hour and a half and was one of only two times we arrived late. Entering Hungary, train speed slowed from 90-100 mph to about 65. I also noticed a clackety-clack sound (jointed rail), the train started swaying a bit, and the air horn sounded repeatedly for grade crossings. However, stacks of concrete ties and welded rail by the right of way indicated extensive upgrading. Another sign was the brand new intercity "Rapido" train set I inspected at Budapest's 19th century Keleti station. It appeared sleek and comfortable in bright blue with white trim in contrast to the worn looking Communist era rolling stock nearby.
Budapest was noticeably poorer than West European cities and down at the heels except for tourist zones in the central area on either side of the Danube River. On the Buda side of the river, bluffs rise and on top there are monumental buildings, lookouts, and restaurants. An inclined railway at the end of a bridge links the base with the top. In a bluff-side restaurant I had a chocolate sundae in a bowl-like glass with a sponge cake base consisting of 4 scoops of French vanilla and 2 of hazelnut ice cream topped with rich dark chocolate, whipped cream and fresh raspberries. The cost was $2.50. No need for dinner later. Budapest was our cheapest stop. A bowl of excellent Hungarian Goulash cost $4.00 in neighborhood restaurants. It was also the only city without large numbers of non-European immigrants waiting tables, doing manual labor, etc. A hotel employee remarked that Hungarians are trying to emigrate and no foreigner "in his right mind would move to Hungary". The highlight of our visit was a 35 minute side trip by commuter train to the well preserved 18th century village of Szentendre on the Danube. The green electric multi-unit train sets were new and comfortable; along the way wooden ties and jointed rail were being replaced by concrete ties and welded rail. A new suburban development appeared en route with a big mall crowned by a Home Depot.
Budapest claims Europe's oldest subway line built in the 1890s. It features narrow, beautifully preserved wooden and steel cars with one seat on either side, old-timey lamps and immaculate tiled stations with historical pictures. Other lines used well maintained Russian built cars with jutting exterior ribs. Attempting to make reservations for Munich at the Keleti station I abandoned long lines at ancient ticket windows for a nearby travel agency advertising ticket sales. Waiting in line there I witnessed 2 computerless ticket sales each involving the laborious filling out of 3 separate forms in triplicate with numerous stamps applied to each form and its copies. Each transaction took 10-15 minutes.
Budapest to Munich
We rode the EC "Bela Bartok", a new Hungarian train set. Just before lunch, a dining car waiter came through the train with a food/drink cart and extolled his exceptional dining car meals in German, Hungarian and English--"Fabulous, authentic Hungarian cuisine in our restaurant car today. All meals prepared from scratch--no microwave, airline type meals as on other trains. We guarantee satisfaction". Indeed he was right about the quality of the food. The Hungarian Goulash and pancakes stuffed with chicken were exceptional especially with Czechoslovakian "Budweiser" beer. The original Budweiser is the Czech beer--since 1810.
At Munich we took a bus/rail day trip up the "Romantic Road" to the medieval city of Rothenburg. The trip is sponsored by the German Railways and a tour company utilizing a tour bus to Rothenburg, a bus connection to Wurzburg and a fast return Wurzburg--Munich on a German ICE (InterCity Express) high speed train. We got a 50% discount with our railpass and the drive to Rothenburg on rural roads through quaint villages is very pleasing. However, I don't recommend this trip because we were given one hour in Rothenburg--not nearly enough time. Best go to Rothenburg in the morning by train (one change en route from Munich), spend the day and return by train as late as 10PM.
Other Munich events: Most of my family visited the nearby Nazi death camp of Dachau while youngest son and I saw a museum exhibit of Greek and Roman art. Most "Greek" sculptures were in fact copies made for wealthy Romans who placed them in their gardens and businesses. Instead of being 2500 years old, like the originals, they were only aged 1800 or so. We ate and drank at the famous Hofbrau House where Hitler and cronies plotted in the 1920s before they took power. Unsurprisingly, the tables they actually used were destroyed by the staff as Germany surrendered. We also visited an open air beer garden in Munich's gigantic "English Garden" (park) where a large group of very young looking teenagers were drinking beer. This inspired our underage teen to order a beer--served without hesitation.
Munich to Berlin
We took a night train. It was a brand new, pale blue articulated train set dedicated to overnight service. It features 2 bed compartments with shower, section births as on US trains in the 1930s (but with futuristic looking curtains one might expect in Star Trek space ships), and individual "sleeperette" seats that reclined and swiveled in a sort of pod. Our basic fare was included in the Eurail pass but sleeping accommodations were extra. Mom and Dad shared a compartment and younger folk slept in section births. The café-bar/diner was open and busy as we left at 11PM. The ride was comfortable--I was able to sleep--and a free breakfast was served next morning. Arrival at Berlin's "Zoo" station was on time to the minute at 8:30AM.
The smallish "Zoo" station was formally used by West Berlin while the larger Central station was in East Berlin. German Railways are now expanding Central station to become the "main" one for the Capitol. Berlin highlights: expensive subway fares of $3 per person for traveling more than 2 stops or $36 round trip for a party of 6. The most imaginative modern architecture I've ever seen--to replace the buildings destroyed in WW II. Apart from Budapest, Berlin was the dirtiest city we saw with trash in the streets and on sidewalks and green spaces overgrown with weeds. A tour guide said this is because the city government. is broke from the combining of East and West. We greatly enjoyed a walking tour of historical sights including Hitler's bunker--30 empty rooms buried under a parking lot. There are no signs--this to prevent Neo-Nazis from holding demonstrations there. Our guide said the Russians identified Hitler's remains within 2 days of his suicide but Stalin hid this fact. I remember Hitler "sightings" in Argentina where rumor had it he was protected by Nazi sympathizers among that country's Spanish, Italian and German immigrants.
Berlin to Paris
We rode a German ICE train to Cologne then transferred to a TGV-type "Thalys" train that ran to Paris via Brussels. The ICE had a digital speedometer in our car that, at one point, indicated a train speed of 238 kilometers per hour. The café-bar served good draft beer that never spilled as we raced through hill and vale. At Cologne, the Thalys departure was delayed 50 minutes by track congestion--14 closely scheduled arrivals and departures jockeyed for track space. Shades of the Atlanta airport. After Brussels, lost time was made up by an extra high speed run. The train moved so fast I thought we were airborne; we passed high-powered Mercedes on the parallel no-speed-limit freeway like they were crawling. We arrived in Paris 7 minutes down. Thalys trains charge $25 per person extra fare in 1st class but we received free drinks, snacks and an airline type meal at our seats--salmon again but the rest was good.
Paris to Auray, France
My daughter had been living in Paris and her landlords invited us to spend our last weekend at their Summer home in Auray on the Atlantic coast. We took a TGV there in 2 hours and 20 minutes. Home was a big, elegant 250 year-old house being restored. Our hosts graciously entertained us with first class wining and dining and a tour of this beautiful area whose people descend from the Celts. In traditional moments, locals put on plaids, play bagpipes, and speak a few words of "Breton" an ancient Gaelic tongue. We saw a Stonehenge type site called Carnac--acres of smaller stones lined up from large to small toward the sunset. Archaeologists think Stonehenge related people put them up 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. The area was a contrast to Paris because we were among French people instead of an international crowd. Paris is exceptionally beautiful and, like New York, full of people from every conceivable place on the globe.
We also took a day trip to Rouen, Normandy where Joan of Arc was burned--not by the English but by the Burgundians, who then had a separate nation and were allied with the English. Rouen is full of half-timbered buildings that resemble English towns. That trip, on a "regular express" train averaging 80 to 90 mph, took an hour.
Two days later we returned to the good old USA. Western Europe is a passenger train buff's paradise. I can't wait to go again.