Our trip around central Europe started out as a way to stitch together several things we wanted to see and do – Lake Como in Italy, a spectacular train journey through the Alps, and finally a family visit in central France. Our journey began in Munich, Germany. We flew in from the UK with Lufthansa, and then started riding the rails. Our itinerary would take us to Zurich, then across the Alps via the Bernina Express, south to Bellagio and Lake Como, then onwards to Milan. From Milan, we flew to Paris with Alitalia, and then took another side trip by train to visit relatives in central France.
If you are planning a land trip, my first thought is, don’t be overambitious. Don’t try and cram too much in or the vacation becomes an exercise in survival and endurance. We aimed to have 3 days or so at each location and then to enjoy the journey in between.
So how did we do? In each of our stops we had plenty of time to explore the highlights of the area and to enjoy some local food and drink without overdoing it. In Munich for instance, we were able to take a day to visit Neuschwanstein Castle, the ultimate fairytale Bavarian castle. Our time in Zurich included a day to visit Lucerne with time to enjoy exploring the city walls and the lake. In Como we spent a day traversing the lake by ferry, passing by George Clooney’s villa, debating whether to drop in on the off chance he was there.
Travelling by train gives you a sense of connection to your surroundings, rather than the isolation of a hire car or the anonymity of a plane seat. If you occasionally splurge on upgrading your ticket to First Class (not a seriously expensive option for single journeys) this will give you a little more space, the occasional access to a Station Lounge (even continental breakfast in Zurich) and often, confirmed seats.
Your experience will be vastly different from one country to another. For instance, leaving the beautiful Swiss Rhaetian railways train and then being confronted with the Trenitalia train to Milan is a bit of a culture shock. Although many European networks are under financial constraints and locals claim the networks are not what they used to be, they shine in comparison to north American systems. It’s not surprising to find that rail networks often conform to national stereotypes – German and Dutch trains are spotless, glide effortlessly in and out of the station and often with no indication of their impending arrival and departure. Woe betide you if you are a dawdler or plan on cutting your arrival too close.
Our Italian train experience by contrast was more rough and ready: trains were late and less than sparkling clean, let’s say. We also had to contend with strike action (and given that we only had a window of 6 days in Italy in total, this may tell you something about the Italian approach to dispute resolution); this then required us to leave Varenna before 0830 on our planned day of travel, otherwise there would be no guarantee of service. The resulting on board crush of humanity can only be imagined.
You should be aware of the requirement on some European networks to ensure that your local or regional rail ticket is appropriately stamped. Even though you may be purchasing a ticket for the same day’s travel, it may still be necessary to insert your ticket into a machine on the platform to have the appropriate date and time stamp on your ticket to validate it. Failure to do so can come with a hefty penalty. For instance, a delightful couple from Australia were crushed into our carriage alongside us on the very early morning train from Varenna to Milan (the last train out before strike action). With Varenna’s ticket office not opening too early and no automated ticketing facility, Chris and I were required to buy a standard one way ticket on board the train from the conductor as he blearily passed by. Our ticket cost us €6.70 each. Our Australian friends had a pre-arranged and ticketed itinerary across Europe, but failed to get their tickets validated for the Varenna-Milan leg. This cost them €50 each in fines for travelling with an invalid ticket.
You also need to be prepared for the vastness of some rail stations particularly those locations that are mainline termini such as Rome or Paris. Rome’s principal station for instance, has 29 platforms. The regional train to Rome’s port always seems to operate from the farthest possible platform and it feels as if you’ve walked half way to Civitavecchia by the time you find yourself a seat. It can also be daunting finding your way to the correct platform if you are in a hurry, especially with baggage.
European networks can be a challenge if you are changing trains; we changed trains from Munich to Zurich at a small regional station called Ulm. Surprisingly, it had a multitude of platforms with some being split into ‘A’ and ‘B’ depending on the length of the train, a feature common across europe. Despite us having a connecting time of 18 minutes, this is soon eaten up when you are changing platforms and disappearing underground and then resurfacing; we were slightly confused by the signage which indicated two different routes. Of course one was for wheelchairs and prams via the lift and one was for the unencumbered and able bodied pedestrians, requiring a descent into the underground maze of passageways. The result of this confusion was that we had to hurry to catch our regional connection, and as we fell into our First Class seats at the last minute we were given suspicious looks from a fellow passenger who I think convinced herself that we weren’t entitled to be there.