26 APRIL - 8 MAY 2011 - LETTING THE TRAIN TAKE THE STRAIN
After our walk it was time to get away again and this time we thought it would be a good adventure to let the train take the strain as they say and take an inter rail ticket around Europe - first class of course! We kept talking about it and getting away directly after Easter but forgot that lots of places would be closed for the break so instead of getting our bookings organized, we spent Easter Saturday doing tax returns and found that when we got round to the inter rail passes no one wanted to talk to us. Internet is fantastic but more and more these booking sites have no telephone contact numbers and simple questions like "Can we pick up our passes from another European Country" are beyond the knowledge of the web. Hey ho determined to leave on Tuesday night we booked our ferry from Hull to Rotterdam with the lovely girl from Airmiles who was working on Easter Sunday. We thought we would just have to improvise and go to the bulb fields instead if it all went wrong!
We tried again on Tuesday morning to get the passes and finally after speaking to a very helpful young man in St Pancras station found we should be able to buy one at Rotterdam Central. So feeling relatively certain we would be OK we set off to get the 1547 bus to Hull - public transport all the way this time. Steve and Norma from the Black Swan, our great local pub, came out to wave us off. We waited and waited - 20 minutes later there was still no bus! Fortunately for us Steve and Norma were keeping an eye on us and when they saw us still waiting, they rang EYMC only to find out that the bus was cancelled! Steve came along in his car and rescued us delivering us right to the door at NSF - what a good neighbour. Already fed up with public transport we found our tickets for the ferry did not show our meals which we had pre booked (quickly fixed) and then the usual ramp to board the ship was out of order fortunately it wasn't raining but we were glad of our small bags when we saw others struggling with large suitcases up the stairs. As we had our first drink on board we joked that that was three things that had gone wrong we MUST be able to get our passes tomorrow and be on the train south towards Italy soon afterwards.
Best made plans..... The ferry was late docking; the bus for Rotterdam couldn't leave until all of the tour buses had departed so we finally got to the station an hour after our first possible train. However, the good news was that we COULD get our inter rail passes and despite Coxy confusing the poor attendant by telling her that he would be travelling first class because he got a "senior discount" and I would have to go second class we finally got there and, after a beer to celebrate our success we were on our way to Koblenz in Germany via Utrecht and Düsseldorf. With only a minute to change platforms in Düsseldorf we were glad that the train left from the next platform. We decided there and then that they make the money up that we have saved on the passes by charging exorbitant prices for food and drink on the trains with 8 Euros for a quarter bottle of wine I made it last! By now it was mid afternoon and, if we had been in the Toyota, we would be starting to look for somewhere to stay. We needed somewhere near to the station in Koblenz to get started early (what else with Coxy) and we needed time when we arrived to sort out our seat reservations for the next day. With the wonders of the net and the iPad we looked for and found a small hotel recommended by other travellers and booked from the train. Coxy was amazed and has decided it's time he had an iPad! The staff in Deutsche Bahn were great at fixing our bookings for us and even pointed us in the right direction for Hotel Hamm our bed form the night. Herr Falk was a bit disconcerted at first when we didn't have a printed confirmation but he had empty rooms and we had a reservation number and credit card - enough said! He gave us a great recommendation for dinner at a nearby Yugoslavian restaurant where we had a fantastic meal and a few drinks at a small percentage of the cost of stuff on the train. Restaurant Split did us proud and we thoroughly enjoyed the fresh asparagus. With a long day on the train tomorrow we headed back to Hotel Hamm, a schnapps night cap and a good night’s sleep.
Still wanting to keep up his fitness training Coxy was off at 0630 taking a brisk walk looking for the Rhine. After a great breakfast we headed back to the station to find that our train to Zurich was running ten minutes late. With a 17 minute change there for Milan we weren't too bothered and thought we might make up some time en route. The scenery along the Rhine was great with the barges and transport hubs to keep himself entertained and the vineyards and castles for me we spent a very pleasant few hours not, however noticing that the train was now running 15 minutes late. With our hotel in Milan booked we were starting to worry about whether we would make it or not. Even more so when the conductor announced that, due to the delay, our train would terminate in Basel and we would have to change there for Zurich. So much for German/Swiss efficiency! Fortunately for us there was a train to Milan two hours later from Zurich so a quick email to the hotel to tell them that we would be delayed and a scramble around Basel station listening for announcements to direct us to the correct platform we made it to Zurich with plenty of time to kill. We used it to stock up on supplies for our next four hour journey. The route then twists and turns its way around Lake Lucerne and through the many tunnels in the Alps. The sun was still shining and with snow on the tops, the views were beautiful. We finally reached Milan and our hotel, Hotel Brunelleschi, just after 2130 and ready for a drink after our long day we went straight to the bar - where else?
The hotel was very close to the Duomo and Metro Missori so first we made metro trip out to Milan Central Station to sort out our reservations for the following day.
What a place - fantastic architecture and trains to anywhere. Despite the queues, we were impressed by the efficiency and speed with which the friendly assistant sorted us out. He was surprised that we wanted to take the slow train down the coast from Genoa to Rome rather than the fast train direct from Milan and laughed when we explained we weren't in a hurry and that would be prettier. With a holiday weekend ahead we had to book second class on the train that would take us to Genoa!! With that sorted we took some time to have a good look around the station - you can even buy Armani on the platform.
What else in one of the fashion capitals of the world! We spent the rest of the day visiting the sites and wandering around Milan -mostly keeping away from the shopping areas - not enough space in the bags for more sadly. The Duomo was our starting point and we quietly wandered around taking in its beauty and glaring at other tourists ignorantly using flash photography and disturbing the tranquility for the people who were actually there to pray. Why do they do it - even the simplest of digi cameras has a no flash facility. In the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele we had a chuckle at the MacDonald’s restaurant squeezed in amongst the elegant boutiques and cafes. From there we took a city tour to get orientated with the rest of the city before walking a big loop around to get some better views plus we needed some exercise after two days on the train. The weather stayed fine until late afternoon when, determined to get our money’s worth out of our 48 hour tickets, we tried an alternative route on the tour bus when it turned damp and blustery - bit chilly on the top deck. Lunch had been a bit expensive we thought for what we had but I guess in Milan everyone should try Risotto Milanese so we decided to get something back by trying one of the Aperitivo places - with a happy hour everyday from 1700 to 2100 it was definitely our kind of place - buy your drink and pick as much as you like from a tapas style buffet. They had no need to tell us not to be shy we know a good thing when we see one and we spent a few hours drinking, eating, listening to great 60s music and watching the world go by. Here we met Vince and Laura who had also recognized the value of the Aperitivo and who gratefully accepted the 24 Hours left on our city tour tickets - we hope they enjoy them.
That night with our hotel in Rome booked and our bags almost packed we were ready for the next part of our journey - South again to Rome.
After good breakfast we left early for the metro and our onward train with no problem. Early for the train we bought stuff for lunch and watched the trains coming and going as we sipped our espressos in the sky lounge. Once on board, our route took us to Genova where we switched to a slower train which would take us along the coast. The sun was shining and the glimpses we caught of the small Italian resorts looked good. At Civitavecchia we could have got off and got onto a ferry for Barcelona - maybe another day when we have more time! Great seats opposite each other and sandwiches picked up at the station before we left - we are learning. We arrived in Rome around 4pm in a shower but quickly found our way to our hotel where we checked in, had a quick change and headed forth nearest bar to plan our sightseeing form the following day. Aperitvos suited us fine again and we joined the other non tourists at the bar. JC says whatever you have in Italy it costs 50 Euros!! We certainly wouldn't like to be living here - everything is so expensive.
After breakfast at a cafe in the shade of the coliseum we wandered around the city from highlight to highlight. This weekend there is a special ceremony going on to beatify the last Pope. Pope Paul from Poland. The city was full of religious groups all being guided around with their badges, caps, or flags ensuring that they all stayed together. Just like the school trips together they all seem to be parading around two by two. Some groups were on bicycles - must be Dutch (confirmed when JCs call of " are we still in Rotterdam" raised a smile. Many were groups of nuns or monks looking slightly weird with their back packs and, in one case, a baseball cap! It is over 30 years since I was in Rome and the main changes were the sheer numbers of visitors - at the Trevi fountain they were stood four deep trying to throw their coins into the fountain and the Japanese were as usual doing their best to block all views by posing endlessly for photos everywhere - even in the middle of the road and what's with videoing food? Having said that we seem to never stop eating especially ice cream. Italian ice cream has to be the best in the world and so many flavours to choose from. After a long day walking around it was great to get away from the crowds and sip a cool beer and a prosecco at a quiet side street cafe .
JCs birthday and lots of messages from friends and family. Thanks everyone! Today was the turn of St Peters, the Vatican City, Piazza Navonna and the Pantheon. No metro for us we needed to walk off some of the ice cream so we just followed the human crocodile lines of people to St Peters where the ceremonies were still going on? The square was full of people, large TV screens were set up all around and the police were everywhere. Unless we wanted to join in the service there was no way we could get up close to St Peters so we moved along and found our way back across the Tiber to the Pantheon and Piazza Navonne where the birthday boy enjoyed his beer and olives in the sunshine as we watched the crowds fight for the best spot for a photograph by the fountain. We laughed with our Italian waiter when a couple of older polish ladies flirted with him whilst they ordered their ice cream. JC embarrassed him even more by offering to take a photo of them together. They giggled like a pair of love struck schoolgirls - he made their day!
Despite the fantastic buildings I think we were both missing the countryside and the village atmosphere so it was great late in the afternoon to find a small green area away from the sights where locals met to picnic with their children, meet friends for a coffee and a chat or just to escape from the tourists now and again. Birthday dinner was just around the corner from our hotel followed by another delicious ice cream. It's going to take some exercise to get rid of all of this pizza,pasta,alcohol and ice-cream!
and into Piazza Navonne.................................................................................................................................................. where the Birthday Boy enjoyed his lunch.....
We took an early train to Florence as we would only be spending one night there and wanted to be able to see as much as we could in a short time. Once on board we struck up a conversation with an old gentleman travelling with his wife to visit their son and his family. Once he knew that I could speak German that was it. We heard all about his home town, his family, his garden and at 73 his new found interest in computers and the Internet. He says when you get to the pearly gates St Peter will ask if you can use the net and if you say no he will send you back down! JC is a bit cheeky really he pretends he does not know any German but seems to understand most of what is going on most of the time and as we left the train he gave our new friend his card and told him to have a look at our website when he wasn't gardening. They waved us off and we headed for the ticket office to reserve our seats for the following day when we hoped to travel to Bologna and then onto Munich starting our journey homewards. JC suspected something wasn't quite right when the assistant could only do our reservation to Bologna. With an inter rail pass like ours you can travel anywhere in Europe for 10 days in a 22 day period but have to reserve seats in advance otherwise you could be charged extra. Each reservation is a cost -in Italy it's 10 Euros - the most expensive and up to now we had had no problems so we were a bit wary - so wary that we didn't book any accommodation in Munich in case we had to change our plans. In Florence getting around was so much calmer than in Rome. Yes there were crowds and yes there were the big groups but aside from the bustle amongst the street sellers lining the small alleys around the main market we felt that we were wandering at our own pace rather than simply being carried along on a wave of other tourists. In the sunshine we took in the beautiful sights past the duomo down to the river where all of the tourists seemed to have congregated at Ponte Veccio. Close to this famous bridge people have found a new way to mark their visit - attached to the railings were hundreds of locks with names , dates and messages of love - I suppose it stops people from carving their initials into the walls! As usual the waiters in the bars and restaurants were doing their best to get people in with their smiles, jokes and good service. JC even told one of them that when he opened his bar in Florence he would give him a job immediately. He was looking after at least thirty busy tables with people from all nationalities and everyone got a smile. We had a different experience in the evening however when we went along to one of the oldest restaurants for dinner. At our request the greeter showed us to a seat at the bar where we wanted to sit and have an aperitif before eating. We sat there for 5 minutes whilst the barman chatted on his mobile, carried on washing glasses and ignored us completely - needless to say they didn't get our order we soon left and went back to our afternoon spot where we were welcomed like locals and JC grinned from ear to ear as he enjoyed his pulpo (octopus). In Florence we also picked up a couple of gifts for our great neighbours - a small bottle of limoncello for Bridget and chianti for Steve. Without the Toyota to safely stow things away and with limited space in our small bags JC had to be a bit creative with our dirty washing to keep the bottles safe! Another good day on our trip.
Well JC was right to be concerned about today’s journey. We took our reserved seats to Bologna and went to the ticket problem to make reservations for later that morning to Munich only to learn that we couldn't do that. they could only make reservations on Italian trains and we would be travelling on a German train. Puzzled by this problem that we had not had anywhere else in Europe we then went to the information desk where we were told that not only couldn't we reserve our seats but neither could we use our interrail passes! fortunately for us we had more than 2 hours in Bologna before our next train so we headed for the waiting room to plan what to do next. From the Internet we learned that new tickets would cost us around 250 Euros - this seemed crazy considering that our pass clearly states valid for all countries in Europe. Undeterred, we found the telephone number of the Deutsche Bahn in Italy and a very helpful young lady told us that we could use our passes and gave us the name and address for their authorised travel agent in Bologna who would be able to reserve our seats for the Munich train - thank goodness for the power of the Internet and technology! We took a friendly cab from the station and he waited whilst we got organized at Viaggio Salvadore before getting us back to the station in time for our train. The staff at Salvadore were great despite our lack of Italian and the only hiccup was with our destination. Munich is Monaco in Italian and we thought we were being sent to the South of France and not Germany! The Munich train was very busy and we had had a hectic start to our day. As JC stowed the luggage whilst trying to look after me and ensure I got to the right seat he mistakenly put his arm around another woman to guide her to her seat. She was short and dark - not like me at all really - must have been the ticket fuss catching up with him! She simply smiled and said "wrong wife" as he helped her to lift her suitcase onto the rack. Finally we settled back in our seats for a fabulous journey through the mountains into Austria and then Germany. At Verona we saw how the other half travel when we spotted the Venice Simplon Orient Express on the platform with its blue and gold carriages looking grand amongst the new modern trains. Our conductor told us that it costs 9700 Euros to spend a week on the train and we thought we were indulging ourselves with our first class pass! Coming into Austria we spotted the Brenner pass high up above us in the trees with the trucks looking like tiny toys in the distance. It was a long day on the train but the scenery was absolutely magnificent making it all worthwhile. We finally reached Munich around 6.30pm and found our hotel, close to the station and surrounded by halal butchers, coffee shops and shisha bars. If it hadn't been for the lap dancing clubs and girlie bars we could have been somewhere in Iran!
The hotel itself was great and after checking in we went off to Munich Altstadt in search of something other than pizza or pasta and a glass or two of the famous Bavarian Beer before collapsing into bed after a very eventful day.
The sun shone on Munich and after a breakfast of German sausages ( the first of many for JC) we wandered off to see the sights of Munich. Needing some exercise after sitting all day yesterday we stayed away from the underground and followed the city map to the Rathaus (town hall) where we joined the crowds waiting for clock to chime. The bells ring out and the figures in the clock tower dance around for ten minutes ending with the cuckoo bobbing up and down. From there we walked through the well ordered streets to the Englischer Garten enjoying the feeling of being in woods following the path of a fast running stream until we reached the Chinese Tower and lunch. JC was in heaven lots of different sausages to choose from and not a pizza in sight. I have to admit the smell of his currywurst made me forget my diet too (what diet?) and go back for pommes mit curry sosse. With a couple of beers and the sunshine we could have sat there all day but he didn't know what else was to come! We walked off the food back through the park and into the Altstadt, passing the Kempinski Hotel and the usual array of Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss, Cartier, Valentino and the other staple stores of the rich and famous who stay there. Finally we found it - the Hoff Brau Haus - one of the most famous breweries in Germany. If walls could talk I am sure they would have some stories to tell. With its long scrubbed tables, high ceilings, the band in their leder hosen playing typical music and of course the large steins of their famous beer and huge plates of traditional Bavarian food JC really thought he was in heaven and, despite his lunch, he just had to have another sausage with sauerkraut in this the Mecca of beer drinking! I think it was Mich who once told JC that if you eat sauerkraut it sobers you up and you can keep on drinking. Well, I wish that Mich had been there to drink along with him, although, the beer was so good that I managed to come a close second myself despite not trying the sauerkraut. I was saving myself for a large plate of the fat, white asparagus that is in season at this time of year. We had a fantastic day in Munich but with a very early start in the morning we didn't want to risk missing our train by sitting too long with our beer and headed back to our hotel hoping for an early night. No chance the noise from the traffic and the people in the street kept us tossing and turning and even even the large amount of beer we had drunk didn't help.We'll have to check when the October Fest is I bet that is a sight to see.
Early start today with the train at 0651 we just had a short 10 minute walk to the station through the lap dancing bars all of which looked definitely seedy in the cold light of morning. The Turkish coffee shop was open and ready for service but we didn't have time to stop. No ticket troubles today - all organised with German efficiency you would expect and we boarded the first of two ICE trains that would whisk us at 120mph from Munich to Frankfurt and then onto Brussels in just five and a half hours. The only problem is that because of the speed of the train and the banks built up alongside of the track there is not so much to see as on the slow trains we have taken so far but at least we can have some time in Brussels before heading to Rotterdam and the ferry home tomorrow.
Finding our way to our hotel in Brussels was a bit of a nightmare. I had checked the map and thought that we were very near to the station. BUT there are so many stations in Brussels I’d got the wrong one (so much for my map reading skills) and we wandered around the city outskirts pulling our little suitcases for around an hour before we gave in, asked someone, had to walk back to our starting point and finally just jumped in a cab in despair! On our last couple of days we decided to stay just off the Grande Place and JC was looking forward to mussels!! Sadly despite the beauty of the Grande Place our couple of nights in Brussels were a bit of a disappointment. It was Saturday night and we just couldn’t understand why there were piles of bagged rubbish all over the place! The majority of the restaurants in the tourist area seemed to have been taken over by foreigners, the mussels were cold, the wine was appalling and when we asked a local later in the evening where he would recommend for mussels – he said ‘nowhere in Brussels’ – well you can’t win em all I suppose.
We avoided the 20 Euro!!!! breakfast buffet at the hotel and wandered into the narrow streets for a sunny outside breakfast in a small café before heading for our train to Rotterdam. We walked – it was just near to a station as I said before!!!! In Rotterdam we had a while to wait before we could take the bus back to the ferry for home so we spent the time have a leisurely lunch in an outside café watching the world go by.
We could have covered more of Europe and I am sure, had JC had his way, we would have been on the train to somewhere every day but there will be other trips and there is still lots to see.
We missed our Toyota but we had a great trip and I am sure we will ‘let the train take the strain' again sometime.
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