Berlin – Prague – Dresden: By Train and Ferry

Finally, after a far-too-long 18 months, a European train trip; this time to link with a bike tour from Prague to Dresden.  Given that both are cities I’ve long wanted to visit, could I arrange a rail odyssey to also include Berlin (another on my tick list), as well as a (fleeting) stop in one of my perennial favourites, Amsterdam?

Wonderful way-up call
Taking the ferry does have some positives

The bike tour was booked last minute and the trip was the final one for the 2017 season so, essentially, the itinerary, including all travel links and accommodation had to be researched and booked over one weekend. In the event the tight deadline proved to be an advantage: definite decisions had to be made, quickly, with no time for my usual indecisive faffing about.

Sun, sky and sea
Sun, sky and the North Sea

Train-wise,  seat61.com  as ever, guided me through everything and links to the excellent English language sections of Deutsche Bahn  bahn.de (DB) and Czech Railways cd.cz (CZ) worked quickly and effectively. Lack of time did force me to resort to the internet for accommodation though, with one exception, the suggestions did prove to be comfortable and convenient; less so their irritating and unnecessary follow-up adverts.

I source tickets direct from the relevant rail operators.  However, it is perfectly possible, and probably more convenient in some cases, to buy European tickets in one package from UK site Loco2 and the same discounts should still be available.

 

Newcastle-Amsterdam ferry:

This is the second time I have used this method to reach the continent and there are several positives: it saves a journey to London (particularly if the fare is cheaper than the Caledonian Sleeper); living in central Scotland it is easy and pleasurable to travel to Newcastle along the scenic east coast from Edinburgh; the cabins are en suite and, given favourable weather, it’s a very relaxing way to begin/end your journey. And they sell the delicious milk/dark chocolate Dutch Droste pastilles.

Those delicious Dutch chocolates
Those delicious Dutch chocolates

However, there are several disadvantages; most notably ‘stealth’ costs. Remember, as a foot passenger you are unlikely to want to carry in food for the evening and next morning, so you have little option but to use the ship’s cafes and restaurants.  These are expensive – eg, €21 for fish and chips plus a bottle of beer in the cafe  – and not good value.

Pre-booking for the restaurant gains a 17% discount, but still costs £26 for buffet dinner and £11.50 for breakfast – a total of £75 per adult for food alone on a return journey. The cabins, while comfortable, are small and not well suited to sitting around in for several hours in the evening and public areas are restricted to bars and the cinema – again, at cost.

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Another dramatic North Sea skyscape

Bus transfers (another extra) do drop off at the main railway stations, (but check carefully the Amsterdam location, under ‘Ports’, as this changed suddenly this summer, with no clear notice from DFDS), and there are several decent breakfast options nearby in both cities, so if you can survive until around 11am, it’s best to delay eating until arrival.

Verdict: can be useful but, on balance, I prefer the Eurostar option, with some time in London. Do work out costs in detail, including hidden extras, as price will probably be the deciding factor.

 

Amsterdam – Berlin return:

By the time the ferry docks and the bus drops off in the city, it’s almost 11am, so relieved I booked seats on the 13.00 service.  Time to have breakfast/coffee/a glimpse of Amsterdam – there are plenty of options in and around the station as well as a large left luggage area.

It’s a six hour journey in a comfortable airline-style seat in a second class open compartment and a pleasant ride across the North German Plain – think final days of WW2 and all that. Indeed, the white steel road bridge you can see at Deventer was used as the famous bridge at Arnhem in the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’. Hanover and Wolfsburg also look interesting for  future visits.

 

Berlin:

Arriving at the spectacular glass and steel Hauptbahnhof (Hbf),  I am well impressed to find it is powered by solar energy.  From the exit I can see the Reichstag and work out the Brandenburg Gate is only about 20 minutes walk, as is most of the city centre.

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Berlin’s pesky little rental bikes

The Meininger Hotel is ideally situated just outside the main entrance to the station, on Ella Trebe Strasse, and reasonably priced.  Really the next step up from a hostel, the foyer and downstairs area are usually packed with groups of young people.  However, the rooms – if not the corridors – are soundproofed, it’s clean, the €6 breakfast is reasonable and the WiFi good.  It’s not a luxurious stay, but it’s  well located and ideal if you are planning a busy day or two in the city and just want somewhere to put your head down.

It’s raining and as I’m really only on a flying visit, I follow advice from a resident Berliner and buy a day ticket on the city’s transport system for €7.  The 100 bus passes many places interest on its way to the zoo, from where I return on the S-Bahn back to the Hbf.

The spectacular interior of the Reichstag Dome
The spectacular interior of the Reichstag Dome
Foster's design reflects the light depending on the angle
Foster’s design reflects the light depending on the angle

Next day I need to prioritise my sightseeing, so make a beeline for the Reichstag – only 10 minutes walk – and join the queue snaking around the portacabin across the road.  I didn’t manage to book online but, fortunately  there are a few spaces left this evening at 6pm.  (Do remember to take your passport with you, as you will need it, both when you book and to clear security in the Reichstag.)

Norman Foster’s design is simply breathtaking, particularly in the way that light is reflected from different angles.  Even on a dank and drizzly evening, the views from the top are superb and the audio guide really informative, both on the Reichstag itself, and on the history of the sites visible across the city panorama.  Best of all, it’s free.

Good to see the EU flag flying proudly despite the rain
Good to see the EU flag flying proudly despite the rain

 

A sore throat and inclement weather dampened my Berlin experience a little, but I still managed to see something of the city and soak up (literally) some of the atmosphere. The tour of the Reichstag Dome was one of the highlights of the entire trip.

I’ll be back.

 

Berlin-Prague:

Next morning, up early for a four hour journey to Prague, looking forward to seeing some beautiful scenery, particularly between Dresden and Prague.  However, although it’s a weekday in late September, the train is absolutely packed, even in first class, with people standing as far as Dresden.

Fortunately, my discounted first class seat comes with a reserved seat, but in a six-seater compartment: just about OK, but with very limited leg room, even for me.

 

Prague:

Hradcany, Prague
Hradcany, Prague

The Royal Plaza Hotel (initially difficult to find because of building works round the museum and opera house) is central and  within an easy stroll of both Wenceslas and Old Town Squares. Very pleasant staff, nice room, good WiFi and a bath, all help to provide an enjoyable welcome. So, dump bags, take to the streets where, even on a dullish midweek afternoon, it’s crowded.

First highlight is the Grand Hotel Evropa. Although still closed, its ornate art nouveau exterior stands out even among the crowds and colour of Wenceslas Square; the first of the many art nouveau treasures I want to see in Prague.

The Grand Evropa hotel
The Grand Evropa hotel

 

 

Heading down to Old Town Square the crowds thicken and it’s sad to see the reality of Prague’s recent metamorphosis into one of the stag/hen capitals of Europe. When visiting somewhere new I usually assess the extent of commercialisation by the quality of the fridge magnets in the souvenir shops. These are predictable junk. However, by chance I find a lovely Czech-made, all wool, jade beret down one of the side streets: my first and only buy of the day.

Across Charles Bridge towards St Vitus Cathedral: still impressive, despite the drizzle
Across Charles Bridge towards St Vitus Cathedral: still impressive, despite the drizzle

Disappointingly, the Astronomical Clock is swathed in scaffolding, but it is still operational and I enjoy trying to identify the four civic anxieties of the 15th century (Vanity, Death, Greed and Pagan Invasion) and then naming (and failing) the 12 Apostles as the clock chimes on the hour.

St Vitus Cathedral has always been at the top of my Prague wish list, but as this is now only possible with the Prague Castle tour ticket, I reluctantly decide against, given my time restrictions –  and castles are not really my thing anyway. Charles Bridge, though does not disappoint, despite the drizzle. Once crossed and away from the crowds, there is much of interest along Mala Strana and Petrin Hill. Turning almost immediately right brought me to Shakespeare and Sons, probably Prague’s most famous bookshop.  It’s certainly a place for a good read and linger, but conscious of time, I ration my visit and head along Cihelna to the Franz Kafka Museum.  A Kafka fan since adolescence, it is an interesting experience and the shop is a cut above the usual museum/heritage offerings (interesting fridge magnets).

Original street signs
Original street signs

An amusing and quirky detour from here is to walk back to Malostranske Namesti and along Nerudova.  Look carefully  above the doors and you will see the best collection of house signs in Prague.

The Golden Key
The Golden Key

 

House numbering became obligatory in 1770 and these signs show some exotic and eclectic ways of identifying buildings before then. Watch out for the Three Fiddles, the Red Eagle and St Wenceslas on a Horse, among others.

On balance, the highlight of my Prague visit comes on the final day during the Kafka Walk.  Living in Glasgow, we are spoiled by our city’s art nouveau treasures, but the Municipal House in Namesti Republiky  compares favourably with anything in Mackintosh’s Glasgow, or Horta’s Brussels.  Even a glimpse of the foyer and basement takes the breath away with the beauty and symbolism of the designs and decoration.  Sign up for a guided tour,  you won’t regret it.

Interior of Municipal House
Interior of Municipal House

Prague’s crowds are testament to the city’s charisma and attraction. They do clog up the honeyspots  and cause irritation, but it’s easy to escape.  The city is well served with parks and open spaces – climb Petrin Hill for some of the best views – and the contrasting Vinohrady and Zizkov districts, both easily within walking distance of the main station, are a world away from the tourist traps, with stunning art nouveau architecture, the (in)famous TV Tower, Kafka’s grave in the New Jewish Cemetery and lively bars and nightlife.

Library under the trees in one of Prague's many lovely open spaces
Library under the trees in one of Prague’s many lovely open spaces

And, there is some decent coffee: TriCafe served up a solid flat white and a delicious strudel. Its comfortable, welcoming atmosphere, nice staff and location near Charles Bridge also tick the right boxes. EMA Expresso Bar  produced the best coffee, but its too-cool-for-school atmosphere and know-it-all baristas will not be to everyone’s taste.

Next visit; some more craft outlets are definitely on the menu.

 

After two long train journeys and some city sightseeing, the wonderful Prague to Dresden cycle tour was just what I needed.

 

Dresden:

All too often the approaches into a city are not its best advert. Not so Dresden. Cycling into the city along the broad water meadows of the Elbe, past vineyards and Baroque chateaux has to be one of the finest entrances to any city anywhere, and a mouthwatering appetiser to the delights ahead. Arriving by bike after an en route stop at Pirna and the gardens at Pillnitz is even better.

Canaletto's favourite square: Pirna
Canaletto’s favourite square: Pirna

After a convivial last evening with the cycling group, I throw my biking gear into the wash bag and go in search of my next hotel.  The Intercity right next to the Hbf could not have been better: ideal location, excellent staff, free city travel card for the duration of the stay, pleasant, well equipped room and the right combination of efficiency and personal, but unobtrusive, service  you look for in a good hotel.

The Golden Reiter: August the Strong glistens in the sun
The Golden Reiter: August the Strong glistens in the sun

Aiming to make the most of another gorgeous day, I head for Postplatz (in an unsuccessful hunt for good coffee) and cross the Augustusbrucke to Neustadt, giving the crowds in the Inner Alstadt a miss for today. Past the glistening Golden Reiter, I walk up Haupstrasse, a pedestrian boulevard lined with shady plane trees. Here are some of the best-preserved Baroque townhouses in Dresden and the side streets contain some interesting small shops and pavement cafes.

The Zwinger
The Zwinger

 

Before I leave Neustadt I walk along to the Pfunds Dairy on Bautzner Strasse.  Described in the Guinness Book of Records as the ‘most beautiful dairy in the world’ the shop is over 100 years old and its walls are covered with richly-coloured, hand-painted tiles.  It is undoubtedly a striking interior, but unfortunately now very commercialised, selling a range of rather expensive souvenirs: the fridge magnets are, though, a cut above the norm.

The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace

 

Normally I ration museum visits on a short trip, but there is simply no way I could come to Dresden and not see the Zwinger. The all-in, one day ticket for €10 is good value, although a combination of good weather and too much else to see meant I didn’t manage to get back to the Mathematisch Physikalischer in time.

First up is the Gemaldegalerie Alt Meister. This collection of European painting from the 15th to 18th centuries is simply breathtaking.  It is small, but in many ways its size makes it ideal as you don’t feel lost, or frustrated that you cannot see everything, as is often the case in larger ‘national galleries’.  Particular favourites include the Chocolate Girl and Canaletto’s impressions of Pirna, especially as we had visited its famous town square en route to Dresden on the cycle tour.

An oriental vase: part of the wonderful porcelain collection
An oriental vase: part of the wonderful porcelain collection

The Porcelain Collection is next and, although I was aware of Dresden’s associations with white Meissen porcelain, I had no idea of the extent of the city’s collection of specialised ceramics – generally regarded as the best in the world. August the Strong’s passion for ceramics resulted in an amazing collection of porcelain and stoneware, particularly from China and Japan. and the displays here certainly set them off to best effect.

The restored Baroque splendour of the Zwinger
The restored Baroque splendour of the Zwinger

A trip on the tram and a quick browse through Inner Alsadt is, I’m afraid, all I have time for. The Frauenkirche, Semperoper opera house, Residenzschloss and the little shops of the Kunsthofpassage, will be first on the list for my next visit.

 

Postscript:

i) everything travel-wise went like clockwork: message to self; perhaps booking at the last minute clears the mind and is the way to go in future

ii) the train journeys were all on time and generally relaxing, although very crowded at times. My idea of taking two bags of reasonable weight, rather than one heavy case, did ensure I could lift them on overhead racks, but they were difficult to transport when walking any distance

iii) the ferry is the weak link on this type of journey for the reasons above. The new Eurostar direct service to Amsterdam and the Caledonian Sleeper upgrade next year look to be better options and an overnight in London/Brussels/Amsterdam as economic as the ferry, given DFDS’s  ‘hidden’ extras.

Ultimate highlight? a dead heat between the cycle tour, Dresden and the Reichstag Dome.

All in all, this was one of the best trips of recent years and an ideal rehearsal, all being well, for 2018’s planned piece de resistance;  The Stuff Brexit, Grand Euro Tour.  

Watch this space.

 

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By Train to Denmark

Getting to Denmark by train is a breeze, especially if you are the kind of traveller who makes the journey as much a part of your holiday as the destination.  In addition, it provides an ideal excuse for a couple of city stop-offs en route. And, you don’t need to live in or around London to consider it; although I live over 400 miles away, I made this into an advantage as it gave me the excuse to recreate one of my favourite childhood experiences and journey to and from the capital by sleeper.

As with any proposed European rail journey, make your first port of call Mark Smith’s indispensable Seat61   Here you’ll find all you need to know, and more, on routes, fares, tickets, connections, as well as a wealth of additional information on major locations.

Loco2  sells tickets for destinations across Europe.  You can book online, or by phone. Finalising my dates in late February for a departure in late April and return in early May, gave me just enough time to take advantage of cheaper advance fares.  Although this is not always ideal and does conspire against last minute decisions, many European rail providers now work on the same basis as those in Britain and offer bargain fares when the ticketing window opens, usually three months before date of departure. This, of course, is also how most airline ticketing operates.

 

Step 1: Getting to London

As international rail travel from the UK begins and ends with Eurostar, your initial journey will be to St Pancras International, or Ebbsfleet/Ashford if you live in the south east.

But if you don’t, no problem.  A little-known option is to buy a ticket direct from your local station that covers your entire journey through to Paris, Brussels, and other major destinations in the Netherlands and western Europe.

You can, of course, by-pass London and Eurostar completely and travel to the continent by ferry.

You can find full details of all these options here.

 

The Caledonian Sleeper:

Although, sadly, European sleeper trains have been cut back recently, in the UK  overnight services still operate between  London and five destinations in Scotland, six nights a week.  Now living near Glasgow, I jumped at the chance to travel once again on a journey I remember fondly from my childhood.

The Caledonian Sleeper arrives at Euston
The Caledonian Sleeper arrives at Euston

The Caledonian Sleeper service is now operated by a new franchise and, hopefully, the upgraded rolling stock promised for 2018 will improve the current fittings, which, although clean, are rather dated and shabby in places. However, both my outward and return journeys were quiet, comfortable, on time with attentive and helpful staff.

The big advantage of taking the sleeper – apart from its environmental and romantic attractions (think Robert Donat in the original 1935 version of the 39 Steps ) –  is the flexibility it affords in travelling while asleep, leaving late evening and arriving fresh and relaxed early morning.

It also does not necessarily need to be expensive.  I travelled alone and did not want to share a compartment. Even so, booking in advance, I secured tickets for around £80 each way.  Given that single compartments are first class and, the fare also includes overnight accommodation, this did not seem at all excessive.

If you travel as a couple, or a family, or in a group, fares can be much cheaper – and great fun for children.

Find out all you need to know about the Caledonian Sleeper here.

 

Step 2: Eurostar; St Pancras to Brussels

I chose to leave London around 11am, arriving Brussels in less than two hours,  as it was the most convenient and affordable service  for me.  There are several other options

Arriving Brussels Midi just after 14.00, my connection left 20 minutes later.  This was potentially the only stressful element of the journey because of security restrictions at Midi, but using Mark Smith’s useful advice there was no problem.

 

Step 3: Brussels to Cologne

Travelling first class in a state-of-the-art ICE train in less than two hours, was one of the highlights of my holiday.

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Sitting comfortably at a spacious seat, with table service for meals and refreshments as we sped through pleasant countryside at about 180 mph, what was not to like?

I chose to spend a couple of nights in Cologne before continuing to Hamburg, but it is perfectly possible to reach Hamburg just after 21.00 the same evening.

Further details of services and timings are here.

 

Step 4: Cologne to Hamburg

There is plenty of choice as frequent trains run between the two cities.  However, study timetables carefully as some trains are much quicker than others. Most are InterCity but some are the faster and better-equipped ICEs.

Hamburg and Cologne are both  ideal destinations for a city break. Read about my visits to both cities on my outward and return journeys.

 

Step 5: Hamburg into Denmark:

From Hamburg you have several options, depending on where in Denmark you are heading to.

The most exciting option is to take the Danish IC3 train  where the train itself actually goes into a ferry to cross from Germany into Denmark.

As I was heading for Jutland I changed at Flensburg (just before the border), travelled on to Kolding, before taking a regional train to Ribe .

More details of connections through southern Jutland are here.

There are plenty of options, so check timetables carefully.

Trains on these services also serve Aarhus (European Capital of Culture 2017), Odense (birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen) and Legoland.

 

Conclusion:

So, getting to Denmark by train is easy, can be very affordable and is probably a great deal quicker than you imagine. Like all long distance rail travel, it is way more environmentally friendly than flying. But for me, the raison d’être of travelling by train is that it is far more interesting, makes the journey an integral part of the holiday and is an ideal way to incorporate some city/regional stop-offs en route.

 

Links:

Read more about southern Jutland; Denmark’s hidden corner.

And find out how much you really understand about hygge.

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Bye Bye 2012, Hello 2013

Well the sharp, sunny days of early December didn’t last long and, since I penned my last blog post, I doubt there has been a day free of rain in this part of the world.

Shiny new bike about to get soaked!

At least 2012  has been consistent, certainly as far as the weather was concerned, and the first month of winter has followed the same dreary pattern set out in the summer and autumn. So, little chance to get used to the new bike and the few recent rides I have attempted have characteristically ended in soaking rain and/or complete darkness.

So, without dwelling too long on the 2012 negatives – take your pick from, amongst others: fracking and the undermining of the green economy, more cycle deaths and serious injuries, increasing polarisation of the haves and have nots – number one hope for 2013 is for a drier, sunny year. Although one positive, if  idiosyncratic, effect of the extreme weather, is that more people might just begin to accept the reality of climate change.

Celebrating some of our Olympic heroes

But 2012 hasn’t all been doom and despondency: indeed, the past 12 months  have produced some amazing experiences that lifted the spirits and defined the year in a really positive way. Danny Boyle’s sublime Opening Ceremony that perfectly and spectacularly epitomised, to a global audience, the true achievements of British history, kicked off an unbelievable Olympics. And, while in no way diminishing the fantastic performances of the competitors, for me the greatest achievement of the Olympics was its inclusiveness; that it was about all of us, not just the traditional, ceremonial Britain of Tudor monarchs, Winston Churchill and the Red Arrows.

One of our greatest cyclists - and a superb role model for cycling

My particular sporting highlights? Celebrating the continuing supremacy of Britain’s fantastic cyclists, particularly Bradley’s wondrous Tour victory, was certainly near the top.  Andy Murray’s deserved gold medal and first grand slam were more than worth the wait and the perfect response to the ‘once a year tennis “fans”’ who rate media friendly drones over true talent and authenticity. And, for a dyed-in-the-wool Hoops fan, seeing Celtic beating the best club side in the world was as incredible as it was wonderful.

Away from my grand stand seat in front of the telly, 2012 will always be a landmark year for me, as it marked my long-awaited release from having to work for someone else. And I sure took advantage!

The idyllic Crinan Canal

Freed from the constraints of crowded, expensive school holidays, I travelled to Argyll in early March and enjoyed the best weather of the year, visiting some of the UK’s most important pre-historic sites in Kilmartin, before walking the length of the delightful Crinan Canal.

A belated return to Florence, four decades after its treasures first blew me away as an impressionable schoolgirl, followed in May. It did not disappoint and nor did the train journey there and back, a weekend in Rome, a week’s eco-camping at the delightful Kokopelli Camping in the breathtaking Majella National Park, followed by taster trips to Bologna and Turin.

Rooftops in Florence

Italy in the spring, courtesy of western Europe’s superb high speed rail network, would be difficult to beat and it took another landmark trip to compete. Walking the West Highland Way in early September realised a lifetime’s ambition and it too did not disappoint. Loch Lomond, Rannoch, Glen Coe and Ben Nevis all lived up to their legendary status, but for me, the highlight of the trip was to walk from Scotland’s biggest city along the drovers’ paths and military roads, beside the shimmering lochs and magnificent mountains that encapsulate the history of my native country.

Another day, another view on the West Highland Way

So, as we say goodbye to 2012, what hopes are there for 2013? On a personal level, loads more travel, finances permitting. A return trip to Knoydart (preferably in winter) is top of the list, followed by another mountain trek: the East Highland Way looks interesting. Scandinavia and Poland are possibles for 2013’s European Rail Odyssey and hopefully the immediate winter days will be lightened by a forthcoming trip to God’s Own City either to enjoy Celtic Connections or February’s Film Festival.

Let’s hope the new year sees far more joined up thinking about the priorities of all our road users, particularly cyclists and pedestrians and a halt to the decline in public transport services, particularly in rural areas. Transport poverty is a real, but under-publicised, issue and one whose solution could also provide answers to the equally-important problems of inactivity and obesity. And encouraging as many of us as possible to swap our cars for our bikes and walking shoes  could well be the the most effective and longest-lasting legacy of 2012.

Happy New Year, hope it’s drier!

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