Monday, 18 June 2012

The train to Budapest

Its a nice comfortable train that travelled at 100 to 160 kph through a rather uninteresting agricultural landscape. The rail operator is called RailJet, who I've never heard of. There was no discernable border between Austria & Hungary, the only evidence was a second ticket inspector wanting to stamp the ticket again.

About half an hour before Budapest we pass through rocky cliffs, wooded hillsides & we skirt the Danube.

Arriving in a new city in a new country & with no local currency (the forint) taxi's are a bit of a must until you suss out the local transport system. Budapest station taxi drivers are surly rip off merchants - they don't use a meter & charged 15 euro for a frightening 8 minute hurtle through the streets. 

Vienna to Budapest

It cost 10 euro for a taxi from Westbahnhof station to my hotel but going back to the station was free as my 24 hour Vienna card is still valid. The metro was twice as fast as the taxi & very easy to negotiate. If I'd bought a 48 hour metro/tram ticket on arrival I'd be 20 euro in pocket.

With an hour & quarter to wait at the station I really appreciate use of the club lounges which seem to be at all main stations. They come free with the modest extra premium for a first class ticket, unlike the UKs extortonate first class fares. With free WiFi, drinks, snacks & comfy chairs they could cover the extra cost - if you're greedy.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Vienna 4 - Sunday

As a rule I avoid museums - they're dead places full of artifacts ripped from any meaningful context & museum goers are basically train spotters wrapped up in a cultural blanket.

I enjoy art but bridle at the perposterous bogus sanctity of art galleries - but I was intrigued by Vienna's Museum of Art Fakes (Lowengasse 28). Fake art is nothing new, the earliest recorded example is apparently Michelangelo - as a student he was given an old master to practice his technique but he returned his copy instead of the original & no one noticed.

Artists like Tom Keating & Elmyr de Hory became disaffected with the profit driven motive of dealers & investment collectors & the lack of interest in their work so they set out to undermine the shallow, ignorant & phony art world by showing that they can paint just as well as dead painters whose works are valued in millions.

If 'experts' can't tell the difference between a fake & an original without recourse to X-Rays & scientific testing - then what is the difference?

A fascinating museum that is really thought provoking.

Vienna 3 - Sunday

Had a more enjoyable day as I bought a 24 hour Vienna public transport ticket for 6.70 euro  - which is a bargain as each trip costs 2 euro. Took the metro to Praterstern to see the famous ferris wheel depicted in The Third Man - a 1949 Carol Reed film from a Graham Greene short story immortalised by Orson Wells as Harry Lime in post war Vienna.

Its still in an old fashioned fun fair that looks to be dated from the 1940's - drear & awful but rather iconic for all that - & popular with old folks & parents of 5-7 years olds. In fairness they do have a newish ride that is the highest chair-o-plane ride that whirls around 117 metres in the air - why would anyone want to do that?

The Park was created in 1766 & after the ferris wheel was erecte in 1895 it evolved into a classic funfair.

The Danube is a few miles out of the city centre & the metro stops on a long island that is a popular leisure spot for the Vienenese. People were sunbathing, swimming, cruising in rental boats & parts were lined with alfreso riverside bars & restaurants. The river seems very clean (saw a terrpin) but it wasnt any 'bluer' than the Thames - less muddy brown maybe but couldnt see the Blue Danube.

It was a lovely spot with a delicious river breese & it was nice to find where the Viennese go when they abandon the city centre to the tourists.

Vienna 2 - Saturday

Got hot & bothered (30 degrees) walking all day saturday & became peeved with the emphasis on shopping - the same things you can buy in every other city. The Opera Hse, St Stephens cathedral, Imperial Palace & Spanish Riding School were impressive but the hoards of big tour groups was irritating.

The famous Viennese cafe culture is epitomised in the very grand Central Cafe, with its vaulted ceiling, columns & guilded chandeliers. Instead of the much trumpeted artists & intellectuals, like everywhere else, it was packed with tour groups & souless.

Ended the day at a surprising English enclave near my hotel - The Four Bells pub selling Newcastle Brown ale & Bobbies a shop specialising in English food imports!

So I saw some grand buildings but didnt feel I'd seen anything that summed up Vienna.

Saturday, 16 June 2012


My first impressions are disappointing, with wide busy roads & a lot less character than Cologne. Lots of unattractive post war buildings but there is some nice nineteenth stuff but you have to search it out.

All in all I wish I had stayed over in Cologne.

The train from Cologne to Vienna

I boarded the DB Cologne to Vienna overnight train at 8pm. There was  welcome pack of bottled water, Henkell Trocken sparkling wine & a Viennese waffer. The cabin had 3 leather armchairs & converted into 3 bunk beds for sleeping.

It had a clean wood & laminate finish although the carpet was scruffy & annoyingly rucked up under the bathroom door. There was a small cupboard for hanging clothes, high up luggage space & an electrical socket beside the small table.

The cabin was 3 metres square with a large chunk taken out by the bathroom ( 2m x 0.7m).   The bathroom had toilet, sink & showerwhich worked in 30 second spurts with poor temperature control.

Breakfast was delivered to the cabin at 7am but did not include what I had ordered & was a poor version of a continental breakfast. Still, I had a good nights sleep.

Trains are a one-off, if you compared it to  hotel it would only rate one star but if you rated it with an airline it would be better than first class - except for the food - so the best advice is to take your own picnic food & drink.

Cologne 2

The food at Hexenhaus is classically German - meat, meat served with meat. I had their Kolner Schmankerl (taster menu) which included:
*pork knuckle with fabulously crispy crackling
*beef with almonds
*part of a 1 metre long bradwurst (sausage)
*a stranged pork conncoction with bacon
*accommpanied with fried potato, onion, red & white cabbage & salad

Heavy stuff but superbly cooked & best shared between two with a planned walk-it-off afterwards.


Cologne (Koln) is an important European rail hub so if you're travelling around Europe you'll get to know this station. On my previous trips (Prague, Warsaw) I only got to know the station but on this trip I had a 4 hour lay-over & found the city has plenty of charms within easy waling distance from the station.

Right outside the station is the spectacular gothic cathedral & if you don't see it looming above you - you've gone out the wrong exit so turn around & walk back to the other exit opposite.

In the shadow of the cathedral & along side the Rhine are the captivating cobbled streets of the Old Town. It is packed with Brauhaus' and alfresco restaurants which have a surprisingly Mediterranian ambience in the summer.

One of the most famous is the Hexenhaus (pork knuckle house) which has an 800 year history of sea traders unloading cargo at Cologne.

Cologne has its own beer (Kolsch), brewed nowhere else. Its an ale but tastes like a lager even though its poured from woodedn barrels. Its traditionally serve in 0.2 litre glasses, which keep coming until you put a beer mat on your glass to indicate you've finished. At Hexenhaus its served in metres - metre long planks of wood with 10 holes for 10 glasses of beer.

London to Istanbul 2

Caught a 7am train to Paddigton & arrived at St Pancras by 8am with sufficient time for a leisurely coffee. The Eurostar left on time just before 9am & arrived in Brussels two hours later (12.10, +1GMT).

Brussels Midi is a busy International station with plenty of shops & cafes. When changing trains follow the signs for 'connections' & then signs for the rail company you're travelling with ie Thalys, ICE, DB etc. Finally look for the airport style departure screens to identify which platform you need.

My Thalys trrain to Cologne departed at 1.28pm & took two hours. The Thalys 'comfort 1' class has a spacious 2+1 seat configuration and comes with free WiFi, drinks & snacks.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

London to Istanbul

Just got all my train tickets & accommodation vouchers - thanks again Railbookers.

Depart London 08.57 arrive Brussels 12.05 (+1 GMT)
Depart Brussels 13.28 arrive Cologne 15.15

I'm pleased to have a few extra hours to see something of Cologne other than the cathedral that's right outside the station.
Depart Cologne 20.05 arrive Vienna 08.52 next morning. It will be interesting to see what Deutsche Bahn's onsuite cabins are like.
Looking forward to a couple of days in Vienna

Depart Vienna 09.54 arrive Budapest 12.49
Looking forward to a couple of days in Budapest

Depart Budapest 10.00 on the Danube Express arrive Istanbul 09.00 three days later, with a few stop-offs on the way.

It should be a really great journey.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Quiet trains

As an increasing number of airlines are opting to provide noisy mobile services, Eurostar is introducing quiet coaches on its services this September. Business and standard premier passengers will be able to choose the option at no extra cost. Just another reason to prefer trains.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

I have just updated my website - - to include 16 of my best rail journeys ranging from a steam train to Bath to the Ghan across Australia with lots of European travel in between.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

More high-speed rail to Europe

After running some trials last year Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) has sadly had to postpone its proposed new 2013 high-speed service from London to Amsterdam & Frankfurt until 2015.

But this is only a delay for this growing transport sector. Eurostar has effectively killed off air competition from London to Brussels and Paris, with shorter times and a better travel experience and now a broader range of rail operators are looking to consolidate rail dominance across Europe.

New routes will include Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Cologne, Lyon, Marseille and Geneva.

Eurostar now has an 80 per cent market share between these three cities, carrying 9.7m passengers a year. The time savings offered by the rail link were boosted by the full opening of the high-speed rail line between the Channel tunnel and London, along with its St Pancras International terminus, in 2007.

New 900-seater trains are already on order and the key growth area will be taking market share from airlines. The increase in the number of train operators will provide some good competition for Eurostar and should grow the whole market for high-speed rail.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

New tourist trains for New Zealand

New Zealand’s KiwiRail ( is well known for its spectacular TranzAlpine service that crosses the Southern Alps from Christchurch to Greymouth and its Coastal Pacific route from Christchurch to Picton. These routes have primarily become tourist services with modern scenic carriages and tourist services.

The North islands 60-year-old Overlander service between Wellington and Auckland does not have the same tourist appeal and passenger numbers for domestic point-to-point services have dramatically declined in recent years.

From June 2012 the North islands Overlander service is upgrading to smart tourist trains. The new service will drop from a daily service to three trains from Wellington and three trains from Auckland every week. Journeys will be faster, have modern scenic carriages, will make fewer stops and new saloon, cafe and open air viewing carriages will be standard on all routes.

Long distance train travel in New Zealand is developing into an international-standard travel experience rather than simply getting people from one place to another. As one of the most stunningly scenic countries New Zealand is hoping that these developments will revitalise the North Island service and attract more overseas and local tourists.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

London to Venice

In 2010 I made two attempts to fly to Venice, both of which were thwarted by flight cancellations due to volcanoes and strikes. Determined to get there before years-end I bought rail tickets from London to Venice.

I’ve flown several times but now it seems inconceivable to me that anyone would bother to fly as there are so many interesting & more enjoyable rail options.

There is of course the famously, luxurious Simplon Orient Express but there are many alternative standard ticket options; all requiring a Eurostar to Paris:
· There’s a TGV from Paris to Milan with a change for Venice
· There’s a sleeper train directly from Paris to Venice
· There are routes with an overnight stay in Germany
· But my option was a train via Switzerland
The cheapest standard rail tickets are very competitive with economy flying but the pleasure of the rail journey is incomparable.

Its not difficult to buy tickets over the web from European rail operators, searching hotels is just as easily and timetables are readily available but nothing beats the simplicity of ringing up a package operator like Railbookers ( & getting someone else to work out the time tabling, purchasing the tickets, booking hotels & providing backup if things don’t go according to plan.

I boarded a Eurostar at St Pancras station in central London clutching all my rail tickets and accommodation vouchers. Within half an hour the high-speed train is whisking me through Kent before diving under the channel, emerging 26 minutes later in France.

Pulling into Paris’ Gare du Nord I calculated that I’d still be in the security queue at Heathrow if I were flying. I didn’t stop over in Paris because I’ve been there many times but a glass of wine in a street café was a must.

Our high speed TGV left Paris for Switzerland just after lunch and although there’s no border the houses give it away - the bright blue and purple of France giving way to grey, pointy chalet style houses of Switzerland.

Our Hotel du Theatre was a convenient five minutes walk from the station. It was in the old town, a minute from the atmospheric cobbled street of Niederdorf – buzzing with nightlife and the best place in town for informal eating and drinking.

Next morning we were travelling south after a good breakfast and just beyond Lake Zurich the Alps begin rearing up – sharp snow-capped peaks fringed with bright green valleys dotted with black and white cows - wearing bells. Sometimes clichés really are true!

Alpine roads twist and swerve through valleys, others tower spectacularly above us on stilts disappearing into tunnels half way up the side of mountains. Several tunnels and bridges later the train descends to Lake Lugano, and then Lake Como - signalling we’ve crossed into Italy. The lakes are beautiful but these iconic lakeside towns didn’t live up to their celebrity magazine image – from the train it’s a disappointing vision of hundreds of ugly boxy apartment buildings.

Finally the train rolled into the massive Romanesque station at Milan just in time for lunch. But with only one hour before the Venice train departs there’s only enough time for a peek outside and sip a real Italian coffee.

The afternoon train raced east across rich farmland of orchards, cereals and vines and the Italian Alps can still occasionally be seen on the horizon.

Journeys end is in sight as we cross the lagoon to Venice’s Santa Lucia station. What a treat it is to arrive in the centre of Venice instead of a ten minute trog to the waterfront & a 50 euro/pp water taxi ride from Marco Polo airport, or even worse, an hours packed coach ride down the motorway from Ryanair’s ‘Venice airport’ way out at Treviso.

European high speed futures

High-speed trains are all the rage at the moment. The Chinese are planning a direct route into Europe and Deutsche Bahn (German railways) have just completed tests for a 200mph service between London and Cologne (4 hrs), Frankfurt (5 hrs) and Amsterdam (4 hrs).

I can’t wait. Maybe travellers able to pay extortionate first class airfares might disagree but I’ve never experienced a moments joy whilst flying and the flight is only a fraction of the total journey time. Recent research has calculated that 80% of the average European short-haul journey is spent on the ground hassling to, from and inside the airport.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Would I be lying if I said I’ve just climbed the Eiger and the Jungfrau?

I’m just back from a rail trip to Switzerland, which was one of the most spectacularly scenic rail trips I’ve ever done. It took all day to get to Interlaken but it also took most of the day to fly back via Zurich. The difference was that the train journey was hassle free, involved no queues, was spaciously comfortable, allowed for lunch in a Parisian street café and provided some glorious scenery on the way. The return flight was OK but was just boring dead time.

I took the 9.12 Eurostar from St Pancras to Paris Gare de Nord, a taxi, rather than the metro, to the Gare de Lyon & after lunch caught the 14.22 (+1 hour GMT) to Basel. The 17.59 from Basel was a treat with snow and mountains increasing with every mile until we arrived in Interlaken at 7.50pm.

The Swiss railway system is quite superb, trains run through seemingly impossible landscapes and to improbable heights yet is always on time.

The next day we climbed the Eiger and the Jungfrau mountains – by train. The Jungfraujoch is the highest rail station in Europe, on the saddle between the famous Eiger and the Jungfrau mountains at a mind-boggling 11,333 feet.

The Jungfraujoch and the route up to it is a wonder of the modern age, climbing extremely steep gradients and burrowing though the top section of the Eiger. A staggering feat of ingenuity and engineering, with breath-taking views only previously experienced by intrepid mountaineers.

We were surrounded by snow-clad mountains, glaciers stood at the head of valleys, birds circled below and on the valley floor tiny houses were clustered around glitteringly frozen lakes.

The route up to Jungfraujoch is a private rail line so is not included on a Swiss rail pass and costs a pricey 190 Swiss francs (approx £132) but it’s worth every penny for an utterly unique experience.

Next day it was the Glacier Express to St Moritz (included on a Swiss rail pass), famous as the world’s slowest express and possible its most scenic train ride. It has comfortable seats and huge panoramic windows that curve onto the roof so none of the towering landscape is missed. First class passengers dine at their seats but second class have the same quality seats and carriage but without the inclusive meal.

It twists through valleys, across bridges and through tunnels and the higher it gets the deeper the snow. At 6,670 feet it crosses the Oberalp-pass where the snow-capped peaks are dazzling in the sun. After descending down to Chur the scenery gets even better as the train climbs back up towards St Moritz, spiralling through tunnels, crossing deep gorges and across the impressive Landwasser viaduct before eventually hauling into snowy St Moritz at 5,824 feet.

Glitzy St Moritz refuses to be outdone by anywhere else; it has its own mountain top viewpoint on Muottas Muragl. A funicular hauls visitors up to 8,425 feet where there’s an improbable hotel and restaurant (Romantik hotel) with stunning panoramic indoor and outdoor views. Unlike the Jungfrau St Moritz is south facing and gets 322 days of blazing sun so it’s surprisingly hot, although freezing when you step into the shade.

The Glacier Express runs all year but, although its beautiful in summer, its in winter when it becomes magnificent.

I travelled to Switzerland with Railbookers ( who booked all the tickets and accommodation as well as the return flight. Their holidays are tailor-made & Switzerland packages start from £699.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Why travel by train?

I love train travel. This can be an awkward thing to admit in certain company but I’m no anorak train spotter and I don’t have a model train set in the basement – I just love everything about travelling by train.

They have so much more to offer the traveller than simply getting from A to B; great train journeys are adventures in themselves, always generating good memories & can be a vacation in itself. As for flying, that’s invariably best forgotten, my only memorable flight is years ago being bumped up to business class on a 14-hour flight home from Los Angeles. The best of the rest are just a fog of mindless tedium and the worst are horrors buried too deep in my subconscious to mention. As for boats & cruises my abiding memory is watching lunch disappearing over the side & wishing I were dead.

Trains are no longer the preserve of those who can’t afford to fly or the train spotter obsessed with locomotive engine numbers. Rail travel doesn’t have the monotonous uniformity of air travel nor are you anonymously processed like a piece of cargo, to be strapped into a seat until you can be off-loaded.

Travelling by rail has been rediscovered by the modern eco-friendly traveller who wants some adventure but without too much hassle or discomfort.