Once upon a time before children Garry and I did some gorgeously memorable train travel. Our Inter-railing trip around Southern Europe, the slow train up the East coast of Australia that took its own sweet time, even the terrifying non-stop sleeper train in Thailand which didn’t stop to let passengers board (so providing a highly alarming moment in our backpacker trip) have all been the stuff of fond nostalgic reminiscing.
It’s all the man in Seat 61’s fault!
So we had a romantic notion of train travel and were therefore receptive to the charms of the website Seat 61 when planning our winter holiday. With the help of Seat 61, which gives the lowdown on all things European train-travel, Loco2.com and Bahn.com, we put together a 2 week winter break to include Christmas itself in an Austrian Kinderhotel (named Rudolfshof! At Christmas? No brainer!) and, most importantly, a couple of nights on a sleeper train.
The fateful night at Koln Bahnhof
With hindsight, there were several flaws in our plans, as follows:
- It was Christmas, so despite making gift shopping decisions based purely on the size of each item (who knew there were so many delightful tiny things to purchase?!) we still had extra luggage to carry.
- It was winter, and we wanted to do a bit of skiing if possible. This also meant extra baggage. A rucksack and wheelie each, and the world’s most enormous holdall for Garry, made squeezing through tiny train corridors / going up and down stairs in stations / getting into cabs (tough at the best of times for five people) / pretty much all of the travelling Verrrryyy Tricky Indeed.
- Our combined knowledge of German is EXTREMELY limited. This proved crucial on several occasions. For example, at 3am when a very overdue sleeper train turned up at Koln Bahnhof without the entire coach that was supposed to contain our compartment. Our three words in German simply weren’t up to the job. Or, when a few hours later on the same night we discovered (after some shuttling between 2 guards with 2 versions of the truth) that our train was to split at the next stop and we were in the wrong section, meaning we had to lug ourselves, our over-tired children and our huge amount of kit (see point 2, above) through the train to a coach that would take us where we had thought we were already going. The kids are still traumatised.
And finally (the big one)….
- Three children, six countries, 10 bags and 12 train trips in 14 days? What on earth were we thinking? It all seemed so seamless when we were planning our journey through a chunk of Europe. We had visions of moving smoothly through country after country on one big happy European interlinked train network. Wrong …Although you can buy a combined ticket for all of this in one place (Bahn.com, in our case) any sense of cohesive we’re-all-in-one-big-happy-Europe disappeared quite rapidly after we hit the mainland and each part of the journey became a distinct segment with beauty and hassle all of its own.
Enough of the dark side. Time to get to the good stuff…
What did we enjoy?
We loved the time spent in wintry cities
Brussels, Zurich, Vienna, even London on our return were all delightful. Chock-full of Christmassy glories – fairy lights by the gazillion, Christmas markets, ice-skating, doughnuts, hot chocolate, a Christmas tree made of old books in Brussels, even a singing Christmas tree in Zurich (the picture is awful but if you look carefully you can see that the tree is made of of rows of actual real live people. And they’re all singing).
We loved the Kinderhotel
Everything about this hotel worked. We had a double plus adjoining quad bunk with tiny balcony which worked brilliantly. We’d never eaten 3 meals a
day 6 days a week in the same place before, and it could’ve been a disaster, but the food was A-M-Azing — all fresh, light river fish for us and hearty but
healthy fare for the kids. Its kids’ club was a genuine hit (rare for our lot) with engaged and likeable staff and enough family-friendly activities – like the night torch procession to feed the neighbour’s cows and the evening trip to the alpine roller coaster – to keep us all happy.
We loved much of the train travel
Once we were on the trains, mostly the experience was relaxing, beautiful and wonderfully immersive. Our trip home was generally much more laid-back anyway, with less transitions and more sensibly-timed changes. I think that we all even enjoyed sleeping on the train home – at least that’s the message I’m subliminally pushing. There is definitely something magical about going to sleep in one country and being whisked to another while you sleep.
Some of us loved the challenge
At the risk of sounding slightly soft-psychologist, it’s my belief that the struggles of our journey made the holiday better in the end. I’m not sure if the children (or Garry) would agree, but they were definitely instantly happy and appreciative of everything when we did finally arrive at our destination — more so, I think, than they would’ve been if we had taken the usual easy flight / transfer option. The slight stresses and strains of narrow-misses combined with being in a state of perpetual bafflement did help us enjoy the good parts of the holiday, while the periods of waiting for, or being on, trains forced us to come up with creative ways to pass the time together.
The verdict and top tips
Would we do something similar again?
The answer is yes, we would. We all want to go back to the Kinderhotel and we’re working on the idea of another train-based trip including a sleeper train. BUT, I think these might have to be separate trips – i.e. we might fly to Austria to visit the hotel and take a train somewhere else. Somewhere less far away which involves less countries to visit and where we speak the language and therefore have more of a hope of sorting out any issues that arise. Somewhere like Paris. Or Edinburgh.
Maybe I’ll just pop online and see what that nice man in Seat 61 recommends …