2013 June – Central Europe
Preparing for the trip:

  • We bought the GLOBAL EURAIL PASS (Continuous) for our family for 15 days (that’s the minimum duration you can buy)
  • Planned a detailed itinerary and stuck with it
  • Booked hotels walking distance from the train station to most of our destinations
  • Researched on ten best things to do in each of the cities/countries that we planned to visit
  • Traveled light and wore comfortable shoes because there was lots of walking involved.

Day 1 – Vienna Town Center, AUSTRIA

We flew from Houston and reached Vienna , Austria 10 hours and 2 flights later. Worn out physically but not in spirit, we checked into our hotel, took a 30 minute nap and started off with our adventure(s). We had bought the GLOBAL EURAIL PASS (Continuous) for our family for 15 days (that’s the minimum duration you can buy – we have included hints all along this blog on where it worked and where it didn’t) and that helped us a lot as we set off to explore 8 countries in 8 days.

Vienna is a beautiful town replete with wonderful architecture in the form of fancy museums and grand buildings. Our hotel was not too far from the City Center, “only” a 3 Km walk, but we didn’t mind that at all as we enjoyed the lay of the land there. The Museum Quarter is the center of all activity there, where you can walk around at leisure and enjoy the several museums (all have entry fees) and be awed at the architecture. There are several neat things like gigantic fountains, gorgeous ceilings – most of which we could enjoy just strolling through the city, and not to forget music flowing through the air in every nook and corner – violin players, trombone players, group singers performing on the streets… One of our favorites was the House of Music – a museum dedicated to the famous musicians of Austria, where you could also create your own music with simple computer simulations using felt balls or even just your fingers. In keeping our resolution to try local food for at least one meal in every country we visit, we had a Viennese dinner comprising of Weiner Schnitzel and German Sausages which was not bad at all! We also walked through Vienna Hapsburg Palace has beautiful green grass with gorgeous palace walls on the sides of you!!

What we couldn’t cover – By the time we got to the Mozart House
(where he is said to have lived after moving out of Salzburg), it was
past 7 PM so we could not take the tour of the inside, but we were
content taking a picture from the outside.
Rail Tip The Global Pass works for the S-BAHN (Suburban) local trains but not the U-BAHN (Underground).

Day 2 – Melk, AUSTRIA and Budapest, HUNGARY

Melk & Krems are two typically gorgeous Austrian towns, about an hour’s train ride from Vienna … the best way to enjoy them is to take the train to one and then hop on a cruise to the other. However, since the Danube was flooded because of the torrential rains in Europe, we could only get to Melk by train and did most of our sightseeing there on foot. The Melk Abbey there is beautifully imposing and a treat for the eyes. They only offer purchased guided tours there, but we could see enough of the inside and outside even without buying the tour – there are plenty of “free” spaces to walk around and enjoy the awesomeness. The panoramic view of Melk and across Danube from the gardens there is to die for.

Our train journey to and from Budapest was a bit of a nightmare – because of the floods, several trains were canceled, we were put on a bus for part of the journey, and the return train from Budapest took a full 8 hours (as opposed to regular 3) stopping at every little station on the way back to Vienna. This gave us only a couple of hours in Budapest but we could manage to soak in the important sights. The Parliament there is absolutely gorgeous – for some time we confused that with the Buda Castle which, we discovered later, is across the river on the Buda side. The normally gorgeous River Danube was flooded so instead of the blue color that we had silt-soaked colors. We walked across the famous Chain Bridge over the River Danube that divides the city into Buda and Pest and enjoyed the sight of the funicular as well as Buda Castle from up-close. The one thing that we were craving there was the world-famous Hungarian Goulash but just couldn’t find the time to find the time to look for a place that served it.

What we couldn’t cover – In as much as we would have liked to visit Krems too, there just wasn’t enough time to pack both Melk/Krems in the same days considering that we had an impending trip to Budapest. In Budapest, we would have very much liked to cover the famous Fishermen’s Bastion and Matyas Cathedral on the Buda side across the river, but because of lack of time and the river being flooded, we had to give it a skip. One of the main attractions in Budapest is the baths, but again – we had to forego that too.
Rail Tip Train Services originating in Hungary are not very efficient…they are not punctual, clean and some don’t even have the First Class compartments. In contrast, the Railjet Services (RJ) originating in Austria provided us with an absolutely first-class experience in terms of service, on-time arrival, in-train updates and meal services.

Day 3 – Prague, CZECH REPUBLIC

Prague is a 4.5 hour train ride from Vienna to the Northwest. While the scenery along the way was nothing spectacular, the train was superbly comfortable as we managed to find an individual first-class compartment for the family. As we approached Prague though, we noticed a major change in the landscape as it became overly green and lush; perhaps because of the major rainfall that area had been having over the past few weeks. Our carefully chosen hotel was right across the street from the station, so we could maximize our time there. Since nothing scenic was in the vicinity of the Main Station, we took the underground railway (bought a 24-hour pass) and set off towards Town Square, the hub of all activities. Once there, we could walk around at a leisurely pace there – unfettered by the rains (the hotel was kind enough to loan us the umbrellas). Not too far from the Town Square is the well known Astronomical Clock, which chimes every hour until 9 PM at night; with each chime, these little fake apostles come out that run around in little circles. Several people gather around there every hour on the hour to enjoy this scene. The Jewish Quarters, where the Jews were stationed during WWII (the actual Concentration Camps are about an hour north of Prague) were our next stop. Along the way, there are several boutique shops for souvenirs and general shopping.

Across from the River Vltava is the Charles Bridge – we walked across that to the absolutely gorgeous Prague Castle, one of the highlights of our trip! (You can also take the train to the next stop). it is thought that this was founded around the year 880 by Prince Borivoj of the house of Premyslides. The early medieval castle site was fortified with a moat and a rampart of clay and stones that still exist today. The best part of the castle was the lush green gardens outside and the view of the orange-roofed homes… the image that I had of Prague in my head! It was an absolutely wonderful experience even though we did not get to see the insides. On the way back to the station, we came across several street-side Kebab joints, just like we encountered all over Southern Europe – we thoroughly enjoyed those for almost every other meal during our trip.

What we couldn’t cover – We couldn’t make it in time for a tour of inside of the Prague Castle, but the views from up there more than made up for it. Another thing we may have enjoyed is a Puppets Show since Prague is so famous for that, but that area of town was a little far off from where we were, and with the rains, we could not make time for that.
Rail Tip Since the Eurail Pass offers First Class travel by default, we made the best use of it by occupying the First Class personal cabins in the train whenever we could, giving us total privacy and utmost comfort.

Day 4 – Neuschwanstein Castle, GERMANY

The 5 hr bus ride from Prague to Munich was no great shakes in terms of scenery but it got us there. Our hotel was again a 5 minute walk from the station, so we could take a brief break and hop on to the train for Fussen, 2 hours south of Munich. The trains are so comfortable in Europe that you don’t seem to tire of them no matter how many hours you spend in them (Budapest train being an exception). The little town of Fussen is indeed quite charming with small shops lined along the walkways, swarming with tourists and of course, our favorite Kebab shops. Bavaria Region nestling Hohenshwangau Castle After fueling our bodies with food, we decided to hike the 40 minutes to the Neuchwanstein Castle instead of taking the bus. It was a good decision because the scenery on the way was breathtaking, we got a flavor of Germany as we walked and the gorgeous weather didn’t hurt! We had never imagined the Bavaria region of Germany to be so green and lush! The walk to the min-town of Schwangau was absolutely a pleasure. From there we bought the tickets for the castle tour – there is another castle out there (Hohenschwangau) built by the same Mad King Ludwig II and that’s supposed to be grander than Neuchwanstein but we chose the latter only because of the fact that the Disney Sleeping Beauty is based on the looks of this castle. Riding up in the Horse Carriage to the top of the castle was fun, especially, considering it was quite a steep road. Taking a bus was another option – may not have been so much fun though!

From the castle door, there is another optional but rather steep and intense walk to Marienbrucke, a bridge over the deep gorge behind the castle from where you can get an amazing view of the castle. We did that and it was worth every minute spent on the walk! The castle tour inside wasn’t anything much to talk about though. Unfortunately, we got completely rained out on the way down (it rains a lot in that area) – but we managed to make the best of it by throwing on some rain parkas and marching down valiantly in the rain!

What we couldn’t cover – Since we left Munich for Neuschwanstein almost as soon as getting there, and returned late at night, we never got a chance to anything in Munich. We would have also preferred to check out the other Hohenschwangau castle if we had enough time around there.
Rail Tip Definitely try the ICE – the Inter-City Express that originates in Germany. It is one of the faster trains in Europe and the service is very good too.

Day 5 – Salzburg, AUSTRIA and Venice, ITALY

From Munich, it took us two hours by train to reach Salzburg, Austria. Since our final destination for the day was was Venice, we had to make it a very rushed trip – luckily all major points of interest were not too far from the Main Train Station.

We walked through the city of Salzburg, and ventured into the beautiful baroque Mirabell gardens, that were a mere 10 minute walk from the station. Portions of these gardens were used as a movie location for Sound Of Music. Unfortunately we could not take the Sound of Music tour there. We then crossed the river over the Salzach Bridge…amazingly, the fence along the bridge had a number of locks attached to it. Perhaps it has something to do with wishes being granted if you put a lock there – too bad no one around there knew what they were for. We managed to catch a good glimpse of the beautifully set Salzburg University across the river, the iconic image that comes up in all pictures.

The 6 hour train journey to Venice was not particularly pleasant. Venice being the touristy spot that it is, the train was overcrowded. We didn’t realize that reservations, though not mandatory on the train, are highly recommended. First Class was completely booked so we traveled in second class for most of the way, that too in separate chair cars. But once we arrived in Venice, all woes were washed away. As soon as you walk out of the station, Venice is there to greet you in all its glory – exactly like it appears in the pictures. Luckily our hotel was right by the station, so we could set off on our adventure right away. Meandering through the busy streets filled with pizza places, gelato vendors and souvenir shops, we arrived at the famous Rialto Bridge a leisurely hour later. The canal water is not particularly pleasing to smell, but still has a teal blue pretty color at various spots. Crossing the bridge puts you on another island in the center of Venice but all the famous landmarks of Venice are on the other side where we came from. So we crossed back and made our way to St. Marks Square a.k.a. Piazza San Marco .. the whole area was beautiful to stroll around in and the sight of Adriatic Sea from the square is gorgeous.

What we couldn’t cover – In Salzburg, even though we covered random spots where Sound of Music was shot, we could not take the actual tour, which was about 10 minutes drive from the train station. Also, Salzburg being the birth place of composer Mozart, it would have been nice to see the Mozart House.
In Venice, we didn’t quite get to the Doge Palace. The “Bridge of Sighs” there is supposed to be sight to see – but apparently the ticket prices are pretty high too.
Rail Tip Get reservation if your train is taking you in and out of Italy! Beware of Travel Surcharges that the train conductors can randomly ask you for.

Day 6 – Interlaken, SWITZERLAND

Next morning we took the vaporetto/ferry ride to one of the closer islands to Venice – the Island of Murano. While the ride was nothing spectacular, it was good to navigate the canals on the water as opposed to being on foot and then go into the semi-open waters of the Adriatic Sea as we approached the Island. The only specialty of Murano is the famous glass work that is done there…it is lined with millions of shops selling all kinds of glasswork items – jewelry, decoration stuff, chandeliers – you name it! Although beautiful, the real Murano Glasswork is expensive!! The round trip cost us 13 Euros per person – in retrospect, it may have been worthwhile to take the 20 Euro/person tour that additionally takes you farther to the Island of Burano and Torcello too, via Lido – the famous beach of Venice.

Once spending a pretty warm morning and afternoon in Venice, we set off for our final destination country – Switzerland! This time we remembered to make reservations on the train and got rather cushy seating on the train. The journey to Milan was rather mundane (same old Italy!) but after that the scenery changed drastically as we entered the Alps area. From there to Interlaken was just gorgeous lakes, mountains and trees lined along the train tracks.

Interlaken is a small town set in the Alps, 2 hours south of Zurich. One end of the town is the West Station and the other end is the East Station – about 20 minutes walk away. A small river flows through the town and it is lined with touristy shops for watches and cuckoo clocks and several restaurants. That’s all that there is to the town but it has a certain charm about it. Also, it is the launching spot for bigger trips like Lauterbrunnen, Jungrau (Top of Europe) and Schilthorn – all within 2-3 hours from there.

What we couldn’t cover – Even though we made the trip to Murano while in Venice, the Island of Burano would have been more fascinating from a scenic perspective since the houses along the canals there are all painted different colors – apparently to help the fishermen find their way easily to their homes after they came back from their trips.
Rail Tip Buy the Junior Pass for around 20 Euros if you have a child under 15 in your party. It’s valid for 1 year and practically all rides (cable, train etc) are free!

Day 7 – Schilthorn, SWITZERLAND and Lucerne, SWITZERLAND

We had spent the earlier evening debating whether to get to Jungfrau or to Schilthorn. While Jungfrau is the highest peak in Europe, there is tons to do up there (including an Ice Castle) and the train journey up there is absolutely gorgeous – we decided in favor of the other option Schilthorn primarily because from Schilthorn you get a panoramic view of all peaks there, including Jungfrau. The trip to Schilthorn costs half that to Jungfrau and on a cloudy day (which it was) you can almost never see the actual Jungfrau peak.

Our morning was spent in taking an early train to Lauterbrunnen, about 45 minutes from Interlaken. From there we hopped on to a cable car to Grutsschalp and then on another train to Murren, a charming “car-free” village. A 10 minute walk through the village leads you on to another cable car, rather steep I might add, that takes you all the way up to the top of Schilthorn from where you get these amazingly fabulous views of all peaks around. I think this is the highest I have ever been in my life and so close to the mountains right in the middle of the gorgeous Alps! While the trip costs an arm and a leg, it is totally worth it!! The journey back was equally beautiful as we clicked pictures galore and enjoyed the cloud covered teeming cliffs, gurgling streams and fascinating waterfalls.

n the afternoon, we set off to Zurich, a comfortable two hour journey. Checked into the hotel, dumped our bags and set off for Lucerne – which is a very short, 45 minute trip from Zurich. Word of caution – there is absolutely nothing to do in Zurich in terms of scenery (was our least favorite place in Switzerland). You are better off at Interlaken or Lucerne. The latter is a larger city than Interlaken, well connected by the local train network. The key landmarks there are very close to the station, all along Lake Lucerne which is then channeled into a fast flowing river through the city with charming restaurants lining both sides where you could have some food while enjoying the gorgeous scenery around and swans floating in the lake/river. Just like Interlaken, Lucerne is also the launching pad for other bigger trips like Mount Pilatus and Mount Titlis (the other glacier in Switzerland besides Jungfrau) – none of which we could cover, maybe next time!

What we couldn’t cover – As mentioned above, because of the expenses and lack of time, we decided to forego Jungfraouch , Titlis, and Mt Pilatus – but Schilthorn made it all worth it. Another very interesting place that we could not get to see was the Trummelbauch Falls that are formed inside a mountain by the melting waters of the glacier. It would have been great to see the water from the peaks of Eiger, Monck and Jungfrau thundering down the falls mostly inside the mountain. A lift takes you up to a natural outside platform, and from here you climb well lit steps up to waterfalls.
Rail Tip While we did not take advantage of the Swiss Pass, it is recommended to purchase it while in Switzerland – it gives access to several rides for free as well as several discounted train/cable car tickets – should recover its cost in 3 days.
S-Bahns and U-Bahns are covered by the Global Pass within the major cities of Switzerland, but the trips up and down to Jungfrau/Schilthorn are not.

Day 8 – Strasbourg, FRANCE

Truthfully we ventured into France only to add another country to the list and there was nothing else to do in Zurich. While our first choice would have been Paris, we could not have done justice to it by rushing in and out of there. So we chose the next best option – a typical French setting city only 2.5 hours from Zurich. There are no major landmarks to boast about in Strasbourg, but it gave a very good feel of France. The most major landmark we saw was La Petite France .. a collection of shops and little French villas along the Seine river. There was also the Cathedral in Town Square, no Note Dame but good in its own right. Best experience was the typically French marketplace that had awesome smelling French cheeses, fish and meats being sold on the street. We really felt like we were in France, and we were! Having Crepes for lunch (lined with Grand Marnier) was the icing on the cake! Speaking of, wish we could have had the good sense to try some awesome French Pastries and cakes too – but we had started calorie counting by then.

What we couldn’t cover – Apparently there is a Notre Dame cathedral a few miles north of town too, but we could not check it out.
Rail Tip If we had taken Europe’s fastest train – the TGV to Paris, it needs compulsory reservations. Also, Saturday-Sunday schedules are different from weekday schedules. Be sure to check accordingly. We got bitten by it and had to spend an hour and a half at the station waiting for the train.

5 Favorite things about the trip

  1. Schilthorn, Switzerland (Absolutely gorgeous panorama)
  2. Bavaria Region, Germany (Lush Green!)
  3. Interlaken/Lucerne, Switzerland (Small town feel with access to major day-trips)
  4. Prague, Czech Republic (Very castle-y feel, inexpensive, great food and great shopping)
  5. Budapest, Hungary (Very walkable and pretty city)

Some Don’ts or recommendations:

  1. Check Train timings properly before you arrive at the station. Sometimes they can change and weekend schedules can be different from weekday schedules. Before getting on to the train ensure that the Origin and Destination is clearly marked – we got on to a train in the opposite direction and wasted 2 hours traveling back and forth on a train.
  2. Check if reservations are needed – these are compulsory in Italy and on the TGV. During peak months Late June-July-August, it is recommended to get reservations whether or not mandatory.
  3. If planning to backpack across countries, travel very light. All amenities are available everywhere.
  4. If you want to travel from country to country, ensure that your hotel is close to the MAIN station in the city, and not just any train station. E.g. Wien Miedling is the main station in Vienna, but since we had a hotel close to WestBahnhof Station, we had to change trains and get to the main station for traveling to other cities in some cases.
  5. Beware of scammers in Italy. We got cheated by the conductor on the train who charged us 21-Euros on the train as a “surcharge” – we later found out it was all covered by our pass. Also, the place where we had dinner in Venice, levied “Cover Charge” per person, added mandatory Service Charges and all sorts of things. And terrible service to top It all!!

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