There’s no more leisurely way to travel through Europe than by train

With two sons studying in different countries, Arlene Harris took a trip from Vienna to Amsterdam

Living on an island, I never fail to appreciate how easy it is to travel between countries on the continent.  Photograph: Getty

Living on an island, I never fail to appreciate how easy it is to travel between countries on the continent. Photograph: Getty

 

I’ve always loved international rail travel – watching the world go by from the window, the chance to stretch your legs when you’re tired of sitting, the ease of just hopping on at the station, the pure thrill of arriving in a different country from where you started.

So, with two of my sons studying in different countries in Europe and the third with a half-term break from school, the obvious way to ensure all of us got together for a few days was to fly into one city and out from the other with a train ride in between.

Leaving Dublin on a wet morning in February, we took an early flight to Vienna before leaving the terminal building and boarding our first train which, bound for Innsbruck, would take us across the country to the beautiful city of Salzburg.

Seasoned travellers, we always travel with just carry-on luggage (even for month-long adventures), but there is no getting away from the red tape involved with airplane journeys and after the obligatory security checks, baggage weigh-ins and lengthy waits before take-off from Dublin, it was a joy to see the train arrive at the platform and just hop on.

At three hours, the journey was longer than the flight, but it seemed like no time at all as towns, villages, rivers and then mountains, lots of majestic mountains, came into view. Minutes after arriving at our destination we were standing on the platform, breathing in the clean, fresh air.

Our beds for the night were just a 10-minute walk from the station, so after a quick consult with Google Maps, we navigated the cobbled streets to the quaint Wolf Dietrich Hotel (doubles from €177, salzburg-hotel.at).

Arlene Harris enjoying the views in Salzburg
Arlene Harris enjoying the views in Salzburg
Just like Vienna, there is a cultured atmosphere in Salzburg

Salzburg is a small city, and everything is within easy reach, so after being given a run-down of the facilities (which included a small pool, sauna and steam room) and checking out our cosy family room, we deposited our bags and headed out for a bite to eat and a local beer with son number two who, after five months, was practically a local.

Just like Vienna, there is a cultured atmosphere in Salzburg. As the birthplace of Mozart, his early life is discreetly documented with wall plaques and placenames, and classical music, whether real or imagined, seems to carry on the air which breezes down from the Alps and through the city streets. Music students carrying instruments are a common sight. And in a wonderful marriage of old and new, natives are just as likely to be wearing the latest fashions as they are to be sporting lederhosen and dirndls.

Over the course of three days, we visited the modern art gallery and took the funicular railway to Festungsberg and the turreted Hohensalzburg Fortress, which overlooks the city and provides a fairytale background for photos. It also houses a fascinating museum documenting the history of the region and its own past as both a jewel in the crown of the prince-archbishops of Salzburg and also a prison during the second World War.

There is a restaurant with a panoramic view of the city, the mountains and the countryside beyond; just the place to enjoy a bite to eat or a glass of wine while watching the sun set behind the Alps.

The Salzburg City Card (€26 per adult for 24 hours, €39 for 72 hours) grants you entrance to all the best attractions; from the Mirabell Palace and Mozart’s birthplace at Getreidegasse to the Hohensalzburg Fortress and the cathedral. But it also allows users to travel free on public transport, and offers discounts for events and activities. As the centre is quite compact, it is possible to pack a lot of activities into a short space of time.

A bus ride out to Untersberg, the northernmost massif of the Berchtesgaden Alps, is a must. Just 25 minutes from Mirabellegarten or Rathaus, the last stop on route 25 is in the heart of the Austrian countryside. An eight-minute ride on the cable car in St Leonhard/Grödig reveals the most incredible scenery as it ascends to 1,800m with views across Salzburgerland and into Germany.

The next leg of our journey would involve a nine-hour train ride across three countries. It might seem a bit nerdy, but I just love the gentle pace of travel by train, the ease of boarding and the ever-changing views. Living on an island, I never fail to appreciate how easy it is to travel between countries on the continent.

And as the train departed at 6.30am for the first leg of the journey to Munich, my forward-facing seat was the perfect viewing platform to watch the sun rise over the Austrian and German countryside.

‘I just love the gentle pace of travel by train, the ease of boarding and the ever-changing views.’ Photograph: Getty Images
‘I just love the gentle pace of travel by train, the ease of boarding and the ever-changing views.’ Photograph: Getty Images

In our fast-paced lives, it isn’t often that we get the time to watch the sky change from dark blue to purple and pink before the colours blend and merge to finally reveal the hazy sunshine of a new day breaking across the frost-covered fields. It was mesmerising.

Two hours flew by and soon we were gathering our belongings and disembarking in Munich, crossing the platform to board a bigger train which would whisk us across Germany to Bonn in just over four hours.

In our own six-person carriage, we gratefully accepted fresh coffee from a passing waitress before settling in for another few hours of watching the world go by.

When we arrived at our next stop, we were faced with a possible dilemma. Due to an “incident” there was an 11-minute delay – this potentially meant we would miss our connection which would take us to our final destination in Maastricht. We originally had a six-minute window between trains, so if the driver could make up four minutes, then we would be fine. And sure enough, as the train gathered speed, we were updated along the way and reassured that not only had the three minutes been recovered, but we would actually arrive a minute early in Aachen, where we would board our final train of the day.

By 3.30pm we arrived in the Netherlands and disembarked the way we boarded, with no hassle or lengthy queues. Within minutes we were out in the neat, cobbled streets and making our way to the Kruisheren Hotel (doubles from €224, oostwegelcollection.nl). Once a monastery, this stunning building in the heart of the city is now a five-star hotel, and home to an eclectic art collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures.

We were away for six days, but because of the diversity of the trip, the different locations, languages, culture and cuisine, it felt much longer

Cafe culture is evident in Maastricht and everywhere you turn there are restaurants, bars and cafes with outdoor seating. All have efficient heating systems so, regardless of the time of year, you can sit under a canopy for a coffee or a bite to eat while watching the world go by. As the sun went down, we found a spot in Vrijthof, the city’s main square, and tucked into some Bami Goreng (a traditional spicy noodle dish), prawns and calamari with sweet chilli, and bitterballen (meatballs), followed by poffertjes (small pancakes with syrup) to finish.

The next morning, after breakfast in the hotel’s stunning atrium restaurant, we set off on foot to Boekhandel Dominicanen, a unique bookshop located in a cathedral and a great place to while away an hour browsing the novels and biographies.

Over the course of the day, we visited the Natural History Museum and the Museum Bonnefanten (which houses a combination of modern art and old masters), before taking a gorgeous walk through the city park and up into the hills overlooking the river to see the Maastricht Caves.

The rest of the short visit was spent browsing and shopping, and after a top-notch dinner in our hotel restaurant, paired with locally made Dutch wines, we bid farewell to this vibrant Dutch city (and two of our sons) and took our last train, this time from Maastricht to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.

We were away for six days, but because of the diversity of the trip, the different locations, languages, culture and cuisine, it felt much longer.

Watch out Europe, I’ll be back in the summer.

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