Train-hopping from France to Scandinavia
RAIL travel might not always be the fastest way to get around Europe but it has an upside. You get to see the country you are visiting up close and in detail.
In Europe, rail travel has made a comeback and more international travellers are turning to the vast network that is marketed in Asia under Rail Europe, a European rail product distribution joint venture of the French National Railways and the Swiss Federal Railways.
Rail Europe sponsored a media trip recently to introduce the rail travel experience in more detail to travellers in Asia.
At the close of the trip after experiencing different trains in France and all the way to Scandinavia, I cast my vote in favour of rail travel.
It gets top marks for efficiency, moving people around Europe and giving them a smaller carbon footprint as a bonus.
From a leisure point of view, train travel gives you variety as you pass through urban communities to rural towns, farm communities and in some areas past vineyards, mountains and on the edge of rivers and lakes.
If you are on a tight schedule, usually air travel is the first choice, but a flight of one hour or less does not save much time at all. When transfers rom hotels to airports are considered, rail travel wins for one hour hops as the train stations are in town centres close to the hotels where you stay.
Trains have other advantages such as no need to queue at a long security checkpoints and there are no worries about immigration either. Using the Schengen visa, you can travel at will in all the countries that participate in the scheme. It is a huge saving in time and perfect for train travel that crosses borders without stopping. Of course, there are spot checks on the trains but they are rare.
Also, passengers can carry as much luggage as they can handle although the lighter you travel the better as you have to carry it to and from the train. For female travellers you will not have to bemoan the loss of your expensive lotions, thrown away in an airport due to the 100-ml. rule. It doesn’t apply to train travel.
Train cabins are relatively spacious and comfortable. There are no heavy departure taxes to pay. If you want fast trains there are several countries that have high speed networks such as Germany, France, Belgium and Italy. But if you are not in a hurry, try a sleeper cabin on the night train to cross countries in comfort and you save on a hotel night that can cost as much as 200 Euros.
Then there are trendy reasons for taking trains. Rail tavellers have a lower carbon footprint and that means a credit and thumbs up for the environment.
Well, I have to admit it is not all smooth sailing so to speak. We experienced glitches such as departure delays, but that can happen on airline flights as well. Generally, the train departed and arrived on the dot. But to be on the safe side, always check the information board when arriving at the station and pay attention to the announcements.
A little chaos could occur when you have to change train, unloading luggage and looking for the right platform. However, try not to get stressed out if you failed to book in advance. Simply catch the next train as there are always plenty on the trunk routes. You will get there for sure.
One good tip is to book accommodation for the first night near the train station if you plan to arrive at the destination in the evening or at night. You will need to walk just a few metres as all train stations are usually surrounded by hotels. But beware of what I call “wicked loiterers” who loll around stations and can easily spot a first-time visitor as prey for a confidence trick or a mugging. Look positive and head for the hotel as if you know what you are doing.
Our group travelled using the Eurail’s Flexi Global Pass, meaning that the holder can choose to travel on any 15 days within two months. This type of pass suits travellers who will not travel everyday, but will take breaks at certain places.
The Global Pass is valid for travel through 23 European countries and the pass holder can travel unlimited on the travel day. Before boarding the first train, free bus or free ferry of each day, you are required to fill in the date in the Travel Calendar on your pass. If you fail to do so, you may be fined by train staff who check the document.
Moreover, the pass is only available for 1st class travel for an adult; 2nd class only for a youth ticket (12 to 24 years old). The price is around 30% to 40% more expensive than standard travel, but it is more comfortable and spacious. Especially during rush hours, it may be impossible to find a seat in the second-class cabins.
And if you intend to stay in one country longer than another, travellers might need a single country pass to use during the stay as it includes local routes, public transportation, discounts on cable car, scenic trains and attractions. In our case we used a Swiss Pass.
For non-Europeans, train operators have joined forces to link the network and create passes to smooth out train travel across the continent. Besides the Global Pass, there are various products to suit different needs including a selected pass to travel in three to four neighbouring countries, a single country pass or just point-to-point tickets. And each of them has different time validity.
Rail Europe, which is a distribution agent, works with partners: besides SNCF and SBB. They are Eurail GIE, Eurostar, Thalys, Lyria, Elipsos, City Night Line, ACP (BritRail), and the national railways of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, offer a huge range of choices. If like to do it yourself, customers can visit its website or visit its appointed agents for advice.
Paris: We embark on our trip
We do not travel the approximate 1,400 km distance between Paris and Oslo in one go, but break it up with stops and enjoy several astonishing attractions in different countries along the way.
We have two days in Paris.
The first day we visit the most popular landmarks. Staying in Montmartre area, we walk to the Moulin Rouge, easily noticed as it is marked by the red windmill on its roof.
Originally introduced as a seductive dance by courtesans, Moulin Rouge now shows musical dance entertainment for visitors from around the world.
Then we catch the Metro from Blanche station to Charles de Gaulle Etoile station for a stroll down one of the best-known streets in the world, the Avenue de Champs Elysees from its west end marked by the 50-metre tall Arc de Triomphe, a monument built to honour those who fought and died for France in the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars.
You will need a fat purse to splurge at luxury brand shops (Loius Vuitton, Hugo Boss, Cartier, Lacoste, you name it), but window shopping and walking down the 1.91 km street lined with trimmed horse chestnut trees is a pleasure enough. We drop by a side walk café for a cup of coffee or a meal to enjoy the ambience.
At the other end of Avenue de Champs Elysees, is the Place de la Concorde, the largest square in the French capital and beyond it is Jardin des Tuileries (Tuilleries Garden) and the renown Louvre museum.
It was an afternoon and warm when we were there, and residents were sun bathing. We try the French way and relax our tired legs before continuing to the Louvre.
Because the small amount of time, we miss the chance to pay a visit to the enigmatic portrait of Mona Lisa and other rare exhibits, but we can wander outside of the former palace and the glass pyramids. We continue to another landmark, the Opéra National de Paris and down the metro tunnel southwest to the iconic Eiffel Tower on the left side of the Seine River.
Near the Champ de Mars, a green space on one side of the Eiffel Tower, we cross the Seine River to observe one of the world’s most recognizable structure from the hill of Trocaredo, also the site of the Palais de Chaillot for a full view of the tower 81 floors high. Millions of visitors each year ascend the tower for bird’s eye-view of Paris making it the most visited paid monument. The sun is getting lower and we to farewell to the Eiffel and prepare for our trip to Switzerland early on the following morning.
Our final destination is a mountain resort, Grindelwand in the Bernese Oberland. To get there, we leave Paris from Gare du Nord to Basel in Switzerland taking about three hours and a half.
We will have to hop on another train to Interlaken Ost that will leave 10 minutes after our train from Basel arrives.
From Interlaken Ost, we catch another train up to Grindelwald and have only eight minutes spare to make that connection. Well, the trains are very reliable in Switzerland so no worries with the timetable. And if we did miss the train there are plenty more according to the timetable. Therefore, for rookie train travelles, Switzerland is great.
Located at 1,034 m above sea level, Grindelwald nestles under the shadow of the Alpine giants stretching from the Wetterhorn to the Eiger and in the foreground touching the village there are green meadows, fruit trees, maples and pretty farm houses decorated with colourful potted flowers.
From Grindelwald, travellers can continue on the cable car to get the best view of the region’s giant trio – Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. Or you can board a train to Kleine Scheidegg for the Jungfraubanh up to the Jungfraujoch, to the highest train station in Europe as we did.
Jungfraujoch is a saddle between the Mönch and the Jungfrau. Jungfrau itself is 4,158 metres above sea level while the station is located at 3,454 metres.
The Jungfraubahn or Jungfrau railways celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. It covers 9 km from Kleine Scheidegg to the final station. The railway runs almost entirely within a tunnel built into the Eiger and Mönch mountains and contains two stations in the middle of the tunnel – Eigernordwand (2,864 m) and Eismeer (3,158), where passengers can disembark to observe neighbouring mountains through windows built into the mountainside. The view from the two stations is superb, but windows are too small for a large crowd and the stops a brief five minutes.
Tourists can opt to get off at Eigergletscher (2,320 m) and trek down to Kleine Scheidegg station about 2 km away for little exercise and photo shootings. Trail is easy downhill.
To board Jungfraubahn, from Interlaken, tourists take Berner Oberland Bahn up to Lauterbrunnen or Grindelwald. The trip takes about one and a half hours from Grindenwald to Jungfraujoch including the stops at Eigerwand and Eismeer.
Here you can take photos of breathtaking views of the Great Aletsch Glacier, the longest ice stream in the Alps, 22 km, and is UNESCO World Heritage.
The viewpoint is on Sphinx (3,571 m), a peak that lies just to the east of the col. There is an elevator to its summit, where a small viewing platform and a scientific observatory, the Sphinx Observatory is located. Europe’s highest radio relay station, the Richtfunkstation Jungfraujoch, is installed on a ridge west of the railway station.
Also, there is an ice palace, 20 metre below the plateau. You walk through a cave-like passage that opens on halls of more that 1,000 sqm.
About 500,000 visitors travel to Junfraujoch each year. But last year, it hits the record carrying 765,000 mainly due to an influx of Asian tourists as a result of cheaper euro.
On the following day, from Grindelwald we head northeast to Luzern on board the scenic Golden Pass Line from Interlaken Ost taking about two hours from Interlaken to Lucerne for around 65 km.
Actually the full route of the Golden Pass Line spans from the French-speaking city, Geneva in the southwest corner and Luzern in the German speaking region passing Montreux, Zweisimmen, Interlaken, Brunig Pass. It takes 5.5 hours to cover 250 km.
From Interlaken, passengers will see snow-capped mountains of the Bernese Oberland as the backdrop with Lake Brienz in the foreground as the train passes pastures, ascending to the Brunig Pass. The pass links the highlands and central Switzerland. While descending, the train snakes past four more glittering lakes ending with the largest of them, Lake Luzern.
The train pulls into Luzern passing the magnificent lake to the city itself that straddles the Reuss River. The town has never-ending promenades and numerous bridges.
The most famous of all is the covered wooden Chapel Bridge with its brown coloured contours that contrast with the bright potted flowers embedded along its full 204-metre span.
Together with the octagonal Water Tower and centuries old buildings, now mostly café and restaurants, you have the classic Swiss landmarks.
Originally constructed in early 14th century, much of it was replaced after a fire, 8 August 1993, allegedly caused by a cigarette.
The railway station, too, was destroyed by fire in 1971 and all that remains of the original structure is the entrance and gate.
Old Lucerne is located just north of the Reuss River, and still has several fine half-timber structures with painted fronts, that have been lucky to surive the fire risks. It is a lively shopping zone with restaurants and hotels. Remnants of the old town walls exist on the hill above Luzern, complete with eight tall watch towers overlooking the station.
The famous rock carving of a dying lion is in a small park off the Lowenplatz. The carving commemorates a brigade of Swiss Guards, mercenaries who guarded the French royal family. They were massacred in 1792 during the French Revolution, when the mob stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris.
Luzern is also a base from which you can explore the Alps of central Switzerland including Mount Rigi, Mount Pilatus and Mount Titlis.
City Night Line
Travelling overnight might not sound like a good idea if you have to sleep sitting upright in a typical train seat, but when you have booked a berth in a private compartment the experience touches on luxury.
We board the City Night Line train from Basel in Switzerland and head for Copenhagen. The trip takes 14 hours from around 0630 to 1000, on the next day, covering 1,100 km.
Of course, it is 10 times slower than flying, but the fare more economical – save airfare, hotel room and travel green, which is a trendy reason to go anywhere these days.
The City Night Line services vary according to the cars used. The options are: Seated, couchette or sleeping. Couchette and sleeping cars are similar, but the couchette cars have four to six berths in a single compartment and no washing facilities. Bed can be booked separately meaning that you will sleep close to strangers if your group has not booked the entire zone. Women only compartments are available.
Meanwhile, the sleeping cars provide a private compartment with just two berths in economy and deluxe classes.
If you have a Eurail Global pass, there is an additional fee of 70 Euro per person for economy, double sharing. But if you prefer to save more, it is cheaper to book a bed in couchette car at 27.5 Euro for a room with six beds and 37.5 Euro for a four-bed layout.
We travelled in economy compartment as the deluxe was booked out. Economy compartment are comfortable enough though at first you will feel trapped in a wardrobe.
But it turns out to be pretty comfortable with two clean beds, stowage, tables and a wash basin plus adjustable air-conditioning, hand towels, toiletries and power sockets. Service staff will turn down beds and convert them back to a seat in the morning for you. The sleeping cars even provide a bathroom although not easy to use when the train is going full pelt.
The bathroom is included in deluxe compartments while economy passengers use a shared bathroom (one in each car).
Water flow in bathrooms stops automatically after a couple of minutes to save water; so, you have to keep pushing the button.
Continental breakfast is included in the sleeping car fares and served in the compartment. Deluxe passengers are served using a tray, while economy passengers are handed box meals. Economy breakfast has two bread varieties, cheese, butter, an apple, mixed juice and hot drink – not a hearty breakfast, just something to keep your stomach quiet.
As for dinner, passengers can visit the restaurant car or take their own food on board. Food in the restaurant is more expensive than buying before you board the train.
City Night Line boasts around 20 cross-country routes covering France, Switzerland, Germany, Netherland, Denmark, Austria, Poland, Italy, and Czech Republic.
The Global Pass covers most of the network except a few scenic routes, but the pass is eligible for discounts such as the famous Norway’s Flam Railways. On this trip, we take the trunk routes between capital cities
Our visit to Copenhagen is merely a peep as today’s final destination is Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. Two hours and a half is surely not enough to enjoy Copenhagen, but we manage to see its landmarks; thanks to traffic-free roads. Impressive statistics say almost 40% of the city population commutes on bicycles.
The highlight is definitely the brightly coloured townhouses of the Nyhavn, a 17th century waterfront district stretching from Kongens Nytorv square to the harbour.
Notorious for beer, sailors, and prostitution in past eras, the Nyhavn is a centre for canal tours and a cool up-market hang-out hub. The houses on the northern sides, the sunnier side, are bars, cafes and restaurants. Whereas, the southern side of Nyhavn has lavish mansions lining the canal. Serving as a “heritage harbour”, the canal has also many historical wooden ships.
A visit to the Danish royal residence, Amalienborg Palace is fascinating if you can be there by noon for the changing of the royal guard (as large as life, the Danish royal guards seen since childhood on a cookie tin!). Also, if lucky, you will get to greet the Queen or a royal family member when they pass the octagonal courtyard.
Leaving Copenhagen, we are booked on the Swedish express SJ2000 that is supposed to whisk us to Stockholm in five hours and a half (615 km), but due to technical problems, we have to take a local train crossing the Øresund to the closest Swedish city, Malmo, only 40 km away. But there is no express train from here, so we have to make do with the Inter City train that takes around seven hours and we get to the destination at 2300 instead of 1939.
The Swedish first class cabin is also spacious and comfortable, but if it is SJ 2000, you will have free internet access, newspapers (Swedish though), coffee, tea and fruit, music and radio channels, access to the SJ Lounge and breakfast on the train before 0900.
If you are short of time, like us then I would recommend you spend time at Gamla Stan, the old town of Stockholm about 2.5 km or a 15 minutes walk from the Central Station.
Gamla Stan consists primarily of the island Stadsholmen. The town dates back to the 13th century, and is famous for its medieval alleyways, cobbled streets, and archaic architecture influenced by North German architecture. Besides commercial buildings, it is home to the Stockholm Cathedral, the Nobel Museum, and the Riddarholm church and baroque-style Royal Palace.
The waterfront of the old town is refreshing and boasts captivating views of the harbour and the town in the backdrop.
Stockholm Tourist Office sells the Stockholm Card, ranging from one to five days that offers access to museums and attractions, bicycle and boat sightseeing, public transport and discounts on tours, starting from SEK425 or around US$62.
From Stockholm, we go west to Norway on board the NSB (Norwegian State Railways) train, a distance of around 525 km or approximately six hours by train. Though they are also usually punctual, we face another delay of around one hour so we arrive in Oslo late at 2200. The Norwegian trains are comfortable but slow.
Oslo’s city centre is compact and easy to walk around Oslo Central Station through to the Karl Johans gate, the city’s artery. Shopping and dining venues are along this street and surroundings. The yellow-brick Parliament is situated around the mid-way on Karl Johans gate between the train station and the Royal Palace.
On a sunny day, the Opera House, next to the harbor of Bjorvika, offers a pleasant panoramic view of Oslo roof tops and the maze of streets. Its architecture was awarded the 2008 prize for best cultural building at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona.
Further from the downtown district, about 5 km away, is the Vigeland Sculpture Park, which exhibits around 200 sculptural works of the Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland made of bronze, granite and wrought iron illustrating human life and relationship between humans.
On a hill in the Holmenkollen neighborhood in the northwest side of Oslo is a ski-jump arena where in winter visitors can watch skiers jump off a ramp, fly and land as far as possible down the slope.
An interesting feature seen along the way is the sod-roofed houses, employing a traditional Scandinavian roofing technique, now revived for mountain lodges and holiday homes.
To explore Oslo buy the Oslo Pass available at the tourism office. Validity ranges from 24 to 72 hours starting from NOK100 (US$18).
From Oslo, we fly all the way back to Paris. Travellers can use the airport express service that whisks you between cities at a maximum speed of 200 km/ hour from Oslo Central Station to the airport in 20 minutes but it costs NOK170 (US$30) per trip.
Cheaper but a slower choice is NSB regional trains operating Skien-Oslo-Lillehammer-Trondheim which go via Oslo Airport. Also, an airport bus is available picking up and dropping off at points in the city.
In Paris, before leaving for Bangkok, we pay a visit to the Norte Dame Cathedral, a not-to-be missed landmark of Paris. The cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture in Europe, and the so-called naturalism of its sculptures and stained glass contrast with earlier Romanesque architecture.
If in the mood for some upscale shopping, you can drop by the Galeries Lafayette, a department store opened in the late 19th century. Now occupying three buildings, it sells everything from food to furniture. The best deals are found during sales seasons (out of the season, for brand-name goods, duty-free shops at Charles de Gaulle can quote cheaper prices). The original building, Lafayette Coupole, has a magnificent coloured glass dome and on the 7th floor.