11 Oct 2010

Hapsburg Empire Tour

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Celebrate the freedom to travel across Europe without boundaries on this tour to the centre of the historic Hapsburg Empire, leaving from Brussels on the overnight train to Vienna and returning from Budapest to Paris.

Well, that’s the worst part of the journey over I mused, stepping off the congested Euston Road into the spacious grandeur of St Pancras Station.  In truth, the journey so far had passed without a hitch – Virgin Pendolino from Birmingham on time, comfortable, no obtrusive mobile conversations in the Quiet Zone – and, shamefully, I couldn’t quite suppress a smirk as I passed the billboards announcing yet another “budget” airline/holiday company had hit the dust.

I was on my way to the heart of Europe, on what I whimsically called my walking and coffeehouse tour of the Hapsburg Empire.  My initial destination was Vienna, where I was to meet up with a group of friends for a week in the mountains of Slovakia. They would be flying, but I was travelling by train, thus fulfilling one of my key requirements for a successful holiday: the journey should not just be enjoyable, but a real highlight of the trip.

Leaving from one of the architectural wonders of the age, St Pancras, certainly hit the right spot and, as I was to smugly remind everyone during the week, travelling by train enabled me to take all the outdoor gear I needed without excess weight charges.

St Pancras Station

St Pancras Station

Eurostar check-in is only 40 minutes, security clearance is far shorter than at airports and, best of all, its carbon neutral trains whisk you to Paris  and Brussels in around two hours.  By booking in advance and securing a return for £60 with Eurostar and, as a Eurostar passenger travelling into London, acquiring discounted fares to and from St Pancras through www.raileasy.com (remember to enter your destination as London International), I justified spending a little of what I saved at the champagne bar before departure.

Travelling throughout Europe by train is, thanks to Eurostar, the fantastic high-speed network in Western Europe and the opening up of the old Eastern bloc, a breeze and, not only a superior travel experience and far more environmentally friendly, but can also be significantly cheaper than flying, depending on type of  overnight accommodation, amount of luggage and number of travellers.

But don’t just take my word for it. Mark Smith’s incomparable www.seat61.com (it’s worth a look even if you don’t travel by train) provides inexhaustible details of routes, fares, options, connections and even maps and advice on the best way to travel between different termini in Paris. Just select the country you are travelling to from the left hand menu and take it from there.

St Pancras is undoubtedly the jewel of the Eurostar termini and, while Brussels Midi, my first change, is fairly featureless and not in the same league, style-wise, it is a major hub for many central and northern European destinations and, unlike Paris and London, you do not need to change stations.

The high-speed Thalys service to Cologne justified its description and even a 15 minute signal hold up (greeted by much consternation regular passengers) en route didn’t delay its arrival.  When planning, think about spending a few hours between connections in Cologne as the station is well within range of a visit to the cathedral (see www.seat61.com).

The Hofburg, Vienna

Waiting on a balmy summer’s evening on an open platform for the overnight train brought back memories of my student inter-railing days – fit, tanned Scandinavians with enviably efficient luggage systems, fidgety transatlantic tourists constantly re-checking their itineraries, all observed by the slightly amused, slightly haughty, regular passengers.  But, while to my generation of inter-railers, Vienna represented the eastern extent of our travels, today’s travellers can enjoy the unrestricted access across Europe not seen since 1914. and the city is now a connection to destinations much further to the east and south east.  But age does have its compensations: I could now afford a proper sleeping compartment, complete with attentive steward and fold-away wash basin.

Peterskirche, Vienna

The EuroNight service, operated by Austrian Railways is, as you would expect, clean, comfortable and efficient.  The only slight disappointment was that although the train is described as having a dining car, the only food available was a small, pre-packed tray of sandwiches and biscuits, with coffee, tea, beer and wine supplied by the steward.  Check this carefully with www.bahn.de when you are planning, so you can eat beforehand, or bring your own supplies, if necessary.

It was a beautiful morning as we pulled into Vienna’s Westbahnhof. at nine am.  Although it is slightly out of the city centre, Vienna’s ultra efficient public transport system, the Wiener Linien will whisk you from one part of the city to another, at very reasonable cost.  So, the ideal combination really; me, fresh and relaxed after a pleasant overnight journey with the attractions of one of Europe’s major, historic cities at my fingertips.

After a couple of days in Vienna, I was to meet up with a group of friends for a week’s walking in Slovakia.  Vienna is less than an hour away from Bratislava, easily accessible both by train, or the hourly buses that travel between Vienna airport and the Slovakian capital.  For a description of how we reached a beautiful, but remote, region of Slovakia by public transport, click here.

The Mala Fatra region, Slovakia

As we bade our farewells a week later at Bratislava’s railway station, they were homeward bound to Heathrow, whereas I was ready for the next stage of my trip. Rather than flying to and from one destination, I always look for the opportunity to extend the trip to other places within the same region, if possible.  And, Slovakia, nestling between the two capitals of the historic Hapsburg Empire, Vienna and Budapest, could not have been more ideal.

The friendly lady in the ticket office was polite about my pathetic efforts to ask for my ticket in what I thought was Slovakian. Fortunately, she understood enough English to recommend I buy a first class ticket. For 22€, including a seat reservation, I secured a comfortable, cool, spacious seat, with the opportunity to buy decent coffee and a range of food, on a two hour journey to Budapest.  It may not have been the most dramatic scenery in Central Europe, but the large, panoramic windows afforded unrestricted views over a traditional and interesting agricultural landscape: an impressive contrast to Britain’s book-months-in-advance-for-a-ticket-in-a-crowded-train system.

Parliament Building, Budapest

However, beware of the ultra-polite young people from accommodation agencies who tour the train advising on accommodation and transport in Budapest.  Using their selected taxi, I was charged nearly £30 for a 10 minute journey!  Procuring a reasonable taxi fare in Budapest is probably the most difficult task in the city.  Your best bet is to do your homework thoroughly and, if your accommodation is within range of Budapest’s excellent metro system, walk straight through Keleti station – an interesting monument to the city’s Stalinist era but not the best place to linger if you want to keep your wallet intact – and head for the metro station across the square.

German Railways recommended the best route back as Budapest to Stuttgart overnight, then on to Paris by TGV.  This did involve a five minute connection at Stuttgart but, as their representative politely re-assured me: “Madam, in Germany the trains run on time, this is not a tight connection.” Quite.

Summary:

John Betjeman statue, St Pancras Station

My tour to the heart of the old Hapsburg Empire enabled me to visit two of its historic capitals, Vienna and Budapest and  combine this with an invigorating week’s walking in the mountains of Slovakia: an enjoyable way of expending some of the calories I consumed in the coffeehouses of the two cities.
Plan your itinerary with www.seat61.com and www.bahn.de (you can email its office in Britain from the site with your travel plan and they will reply with trains, connections, cost, usually within the hour), take as much kit as you need and sit back and enjoy unrestricted access across Europe from a comfortable seat on an integrated and efficient railway system.  Bon Voyage!

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