Category Archives: travel

22 Hours to cross Europe

Last week I had two things scheduled – a Monday afternoon meeting in Vienna and a workshop in Barcelona from Wednesday afternoon through Friday. With about 40 hours in between, it didn’t make sense to fly home and then back out again to Barcelona, so I made the perfectly logical conclusion that a train trip across Europe would be a great way to get there! Sure, there are relatively cheap non-stop flights from Vienna to Barcelona, but where’s the fun in that? While I’ve taken some trains here and there, I hadn’t yet made a real long-distance train trip in Europe yet – so this was my chance.

In total, the journey was right around a thousand miles – Google tells me that it would take 343 hours to walk it and more than 16 hours to drive it (with over 20 construction zones). So, 22 hours by train where I slept, ate, and got a fair amount of work done was a good option.

The rough path of my train journey over 22 hours with four changes (5 total trains).

The rough path of my train journey over 22 hours with four changes (5 total trains).

I started at the Wien Westbahnhof on EN 466, the EuroNight train Wiener Walzer from Budapest to Zurich. My train had started out at 7:10pm in Budapest and got into Vienna about 10pm for a 10:40pm departure. EuroNight is a brand for night sleeper trains in Europe – they are operated in a joint fashion by 17 different national railways. These are a modern (and, dare I say, far less romantic!) version of the classic sleeper trains of yore, like the Orient Express (in fact, some of the services follow a fair bit of that famous route). The longest routes are those to/from Moscow (separate trains to Amsterdam, Paris, and Basel via Minsk, Warsaw, and Berlin); other notable routes are Paris-Venice, Rome-Vienna, and Zurich-Prague. (Not to be outdone, the Germans also have their own brand, called City Night Line, which is another set of night trains that go to and through Germany).

 

My sleeping car attendant welcoming passengers - across the platform a car carrier was being unloaded right into the station!

My sleeping car attendant welcoming passengers – across the platform a car carrier was being unloaded right into the station!

My ticket was just under US$200 for the scheduled journey of just a bit over 9 hours and included a single sleeping compartment with a sink and a simple breakfast (but actually not too bad with fresh bread). Unfortunately, as often happens, the temperature was tough; it was about 1000 degrees when I boarded, but about 30 minutes after leaving it started to cool down a bit. I tried but didn’t sleep too well, finally waking up about 6:30. I gave in to the urge to check Google Maps on my phone and was surprised to found that we were still in Austria! The timetable that they helpfully provided told me that we had stopped in a bunch of cities throughout the night, including Salzburg and Innsbruck.

It is very hard to capture anything clearly from a moving train window, so this is the best I got - but waking up to the mountains was incredible!

It is very hard to capture anything clearly from a moving train window, so this is the best I got – but waking up to the mountains was incredible!

The phone also showed me that we were passing right through Liechtenstein – who knew! Of course, it didn’t take long; the whole country is only 62 square miles, making it only slightly larger than the 54 square miles of land which comprise Denver International Airport. (But DIA doesn’t have 35,000 of the richest people on earth in it). We quickly moved onto stunning Swiss lakes with a perfect Alpine background.

The bad news was the time – the attendant told me we were an hour late when he delivered breakfast, and my connection time in Zurich was only 65 min! I was sweating bullets as we passed station after station with Swiss commuters waiting for their trains along the southern edge of Lake Zurich. We arrived at 8:55, leaving me just 9 minutes to make my 9:04 train. But luckily it is easy in the German-speaking world; there are no gates/barriers and I went quickly over to my new platform. My train wasn’t even there yet, but it still departed on time.

The next part of my journey was a Swiss domestic InterCity trip to Geneva, with a timed connection a bit less than half-way in Biel/Bienne. My first class coach was mostly empty leaving Zurich at 9am despite having two 7-car Intercity Tilting Train sets.  Each of the 44 train sets are named after famous Swiss people, and I was pleased to see that mine (set 000) was named after Le Corbusier, the famous (Swiss-born) French architect.

Now, the Swiss Federal Railways, always referred to jointly as SBB/CFF/FFS in German/French/Italian, is famous for punctuality, and my trip was no different; when my first train got to Biel/Bienne my next train was already waiting, and after just a minute we continued on to Geneva. You really get the feeling in Switzerland that the place is whatever comes above first world – the continued mountains and lakes are stunning and everything just looks very perfect.

I then had an hour stop at  the main station in Geneva, Geneve-Cornavin - which was just enough time to stock up on some bread, cheese and salami for the rest of the way. After a fitful night of limited sleep I really needed some caffeine, and Starbucks delivered - but the cost of Switzerland was apparent at about $8.50 for a Frappuccino.

I then had an hour stop at the main station in Geneva, Geneve-Cornavin – which was just enough time to stock up on some bread, cheese and salami for the rest of the way. After a fitful night of limited sleep I really needed some caffeine, and Starbucks delivered – but the cost of Switzerland was apparent at about $8.50 for a Frappuccino.

The last two legs of the journey were on TGVs – Trains a Grande Vitesse or high-speed trains. The joint Swiss/French TGV Lyria service took me from Geneva (where there were oddly French customs facilities, but they were not in use – perhaps a holdover from pre-EU/pre-Schengen times?) quickly into France and through Lyon to Valence TGV.

This was my train from Geneva to Valence, which was continuing on to Nice. I had a single seat on the upper deck in one of the first class cars. The trains each have eight cars plus a power car at each end and go up to 200mph.

This was my train from Geneva to Valence, which was continuing on to Nice. It is a TGV Duplex (meaning double-deck) train with 8 cars plus a power car at each end that is capable of up to 200mph. I had a single seat on the upper deck in one of the first class cars – there are over 500 seats in total.

I had another wait of more than an hour at Valence TGV, a station several miles from the the city of Valence. The station basically serves as an interchange, allowing high-speed trains to maintain very high speeds and connections to the surrounding areas by old-fashioned (“classic”) trains. My last train was a joint French/Spanish TGV that had originated in Paris through to Barcelona.

This the helpful electronic diagram that told me where to find my car on the double TGV duplex (double-decker) train. As it shows the rear 10-car set was terminating at Perpignan, with the front set continuing into Spain to Barcelona.

This the helpful electronic diagram that told me where to find my car. The train was a double set, with the rear set terminating at Perpignan and the front one continuing into Spain to Barcelona. The whole train had seating for over 1,000 and was 1/4 of a mile long!

The last part of the journey was the hardest – I felt a jet-lagged from the short overnight in transit and the train was very warm, especially as I was seated on the sunny side – and it was full. There was a group of two 50-something American couples from San Antonio on a European tour that kept me amused, listening to their pronunciations of intermediate stops in France as well as their complaints about the lack of available ice!  Finally, 22 hours after leaving Vienna, I arrived in Barcelona – only to need one more train a few stops to my hotel.

The next time I might try a daytime train through the Alps coupled with a flight, but I’m glad I tried it and it is incredible how much train travel there is on the Continent.

We passed!

I know it’s been a long time since we’ve updated the blog. But this is some big news!  We both took our Life in the UK tests this past Saturday, and I’m proud to say that we both passed! Yay!  This is the first step in our application for Indefinite Leave to Remain,  or as some people call it, Permanent Residency. I’d encourage you to follow the link to one of the practice tests to see how YOU would do on the exam:

http://www.theuktest.com/life-in-the-uk-test/1

 

Speaking of Monkeys

What I didn’t tell you in my last post was that the warning signs about monkeys were not my first encounter with said creatures on this trip.  My first ever experience with monkeys occurred just the previous Saturday while visiting Batu Caves, which is just north of Kuala Lumpur at the end of a suburban railway line.

The main entrance, just a 2-min walk from the railway station.

The main entrance, just a 2-min walk from the railway station.

Batu Caves is named after the nearby Batu River, and is both a natural attraction (the caves themselves) and a Hindu shrine, supposedly one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India (according to Wikipedia).  The shrine is dedicated to Murugan, the Hindu god of war, victory, wisdom, and love (wow, that’s quite a range!).  The statue is the tallest one of the god in the world, at 140 feet (and used 300 liters of gold paint), but is pretty new as it only dates to 2006.  For more information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batu_Caves and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murugan.

Yes, those are 272 steps that I had to climb in the punishing midday heat and humidity (and lathered in an intoxicating mix of 50sph sunscreen and bug spray!). At least the steps were relatively short and in good condition (unlike my last step-climbing adventure at the pyramids of Teotihuacan in Mexico).

Yes, those are 272 steps that I had to climb in the punishing midday heat and humidity (and lathered in an intoxicating mix of 50sph sunscreen and bug spray!). At least the steps were relatively short and in good condition (unlike my last step-climbing adventure at the pyramids of Teotihuacan in Mexico).

Although it was interesting to visit, the caves themselves were a bit of a disappointment – a little too sculpted at ground level to accommodate lots of visitors and a lot of junk lying around.

Note the poured concrete floor here.  There was a bunk of junk on both sides, maybe for some sort of special events, but it just looked messy and certainly not part of the natural setting.

Note the poured concrete floor here. There was a bunch of junk on both sides, maybe for some sort of special events, but it just looked messy and certainly not part of the natural setting.

The shrine in the clearing at the back seemed a little out of place, I have to say.  I really took this picture, though, to capture an amazing invention – the selfie stick!!  The woman in front of these two guys appears to also be capturing it.  My boss said he saw the very annoying American backpackers (that I, along with a 6-car train full of Malaysians, overheard getting acquainted after having just met at their hostel – gag) also with a selfie stick, and I would have preferred a picture of them with it.

The shrine in the clearing at the back seemed a little out of place, I have to say. I really took this picture, though, to capture an amazing invention – the selfie stick!! The woman in front of these two guys appears to also be capturing it. 

At least the rock formations and light filtering down into the clearing in the back were natural!  There were a few water drops falling down and I could actually see the drips coming all the way down – it was pretty cool.

At least the rock formations and light filtering down into the clearing in the back were natural! There were a few water drops falling down and I could actually see the drips coming all the way down – it was pretty cool.

The real attraction here, it seemed – at least for most of the tourists – was the monkeys.

I like the standard nature of this sign including something decidedly non-standard!

I like the standard nature of this sign including something decidedly non-standard (at least for me)!

Unfortunately, no one seemed interested in following that rule (I assume that would not have been the case in Singapore, where rules are taken a bit more seriously!).  Note the baby clutching onto the monkey.

Unfortunately, no one seemed interested in following that rule (I assume that would not have been the case in Singapore, where rules are taken a bit more seriously!). Note the baby clutching onto the monkey.

The babies were remarkable – they look like humans!  If you want some evidence of evolution, here it is…

The babies were remarkable – they look just like human babies! If you want some evidence of evolution, here it is…

Not sure if someone gave him this or if this is just a lucky monkey, but this monkey is putting opposable thumbs to good use.

Not sure if someone gave him this or if this is just a lucky monkey, but this monkey is putting his opposable thumbs to good use.

Having finished that milky drink, you can still see the evidence on his face!  The rest of his anatomy is also in view, along with an incredibly long…tail.

Having finished that milky drink, you can still see the evidence on his face! The rest of his anatomy is also in view, along with an incredibly long tail.

It was interesting and kind of creepy to me to see these monkeys up close.  They were amazingly agile and quick, bounding up and down that massive staircase on the hand rails with ease.  One jumped over some people and knocked someone’s sunglasses off their head.  I was really surprised to see the babies as well.

Overall, this was a good short trip out of the city to see something different in the midst of a busy working schedule.

 

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