Winter Wonderland Tour: Dreaming of a White Christmas
A day-by-day recounting of this European Winter Wonderland rail tour with 7 days in a family-run hotel in a beautiful Swiss Alpine village.
December 21st to 27th:
Ten members of the Winter Wonderland Tour have this year opted for the White Christmas pre-tour Add-on. Kerrie and I and our four adult children were the first to arrive in Grindelwald, having landed in Geneva after our flight from Australia with Etihad. Since we are taking train tours of Europe, we began as we meant to continue, eschewed the bus transfer and, in Geneva Airport, took the escalators down to the railway station.
Here we joined our InterCity to Bern, where we changed for Interlaken. It was deep end first in Interlaken, straight on to a little Swiss mountain train, a highlight of all the best rail tours of Europe. Up the valley we cruised and in twenty minutes arrived at the picturesque village of Grindelwald, with the North Face of the Eiger towering above.
Gabriella our hostess for the White Christmas Week met us at the station and drove us through the village to her beautiful traditional chalet style hotel. The hotel has been in Gabriella’s family for 120 years. Its setting and views, and the zero degree temperature literally took our breath away. There had been a fresh snowfall overnight. “Winter Wonderland” may be a cliché, but here it was real.
The beautiful village church across the street, decked in snow, looked like a Christmas card. Inside the hotel was no less charming - open log fire, scrubbed pine, fluffy doonas.
Kerrie and the “children” - aged 18 to 29 - headed straight to the ski-hire shop to deck themselves out for hitting the slopes. I continued the theme of Europe by Rail with a quick turnaround back down to the Grindelwald Station. Here I took the little Swiss Mountain Train down to Interlaken, then an InterCity to Zurich Airport to meet the other tour members arriving on the 2pm flight via London.
The overwhelming impression of anyone with experience of the various train tours of Europe, is the Swiss penchant (not to say obsession) with punctuality. Only the Swiss would bother apologising when the train is 2 minutes late.
Stunning Alpine Winter landscapes on the Winter Wonderland Tour
By the time I arrived back in Grindelwald with my new charges, gobsmacked by the beauty of countryside and the efficiency of the Swiss Mountain trains the day was closing in. Our second son declared it to be claret o’clock and as the log fire was roaring we dug out a corkscrew.
Gabriella’s four course dinner - provided every night - was of gourmet standard and of gargantuan proportions to replace the many thousands of kilojoules burnt up on the slopes.
Our family got top value out of their week ski-lift tickets; Kerrie and I joined them on occasions and had a close call on a toboggan - they are more dangerous than they look! Each day we met up at a different restaurant in the village for a family lunch (ie. Dad paid). While Grindelwald is in the German-speaking area of Switzerland, English is universally understood in shops and restaurants.
The other tour members weren’t tempted by the slopes, preferring instead to make daily train tours to nearby towns to check out the Christmas markets. They voted Basel and Zurich better than Bern in this respect.
Kerrie and I enjoyed rail journeys to the top of the Alps in all directions around the village, and also rode many of the chairlifts and gondolas for breathtaking views. The weather was perfect: fresh snowfalls at night but clear days. It took some time for beach-addicted Queenslanders like us to understand that Europeans lie in the sun on sunchairs standing in snow! Suntan cream and balaclavas - an unlikely juxtaposition.
A particular highlight was Christmas dinner enjoyed, by Swiss tradition, not on Christmas Day but in the evening of Christmas Eve. Santa Claus visited, and then we went to the midnight Christmas service at the village church across the street. The singing of the Christmas carols was accompanied not by an organ but by a piano accordion! I had forgotten how many of our Christmas carols are German in origin. The Christmas tree, also, of course, is a German tradition.
Sunday, Dec 28th:
The romantic city of Venice
The White Christmas week sped by and the time arrived for our children to return to their lives in Australia, and for the other members of the Winter Wonderland Tour to arrive.
One of Europe’s great trains today on one of the great rail journeys of the world. The Cisalpino is a co-operative effort between the Swiss and Italian Railways and, as might be expected, runs between Switzerland and Italy across, through and under the Alps. There is a Bar and Restaurant car where we sat and sipped hot chocolate while taking in the breathtaking Alpine sights through the panorama windows.
We crossed the Alps (going under the last bit) via the 16 kilometre long San Gotthard Pass into Italian speaking Switzerland with its beautiful lakes. Across the Italian border we cruised past the equally picturesque Italian Lakes.
We arrived in Milan just after midday and broke our journey for a few hours for a brief exploration of this city. Milan (Milano to the Italians) is not normally included in “Europe Highlights” or even “Italian Highlights” tours because it is viewed by many itinerary planners as just the financial and industrial capital of Italy. It is both these things, and just a whisker behind Rome as Italy’s largest city.
It is also, however, the fashion and operatic capital of Italy - some would say of Europe. And it is home to one of the Western world’s greatest art treasures, da Vinci’s “Last Supper” once again in the spotlight following the recent furore over the best seller novel, the Da Vinci Code. Historically suspect to be sure, but nevertheless a ripping good yarn.
The “Last Supper” is still in Milan (and hence off the tourist track) because no one could steal it away to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, or the Louvre in Paris, or the British Museum in London: it is a fixture, painted on the wall of the monk’s refectory in the Santa Maria della Grazie convent in suburban Milan.
Although recently restored, it is still in pretty bad shape, principally because it was painted by Leonardo da Vinci in an experimental art form - instead of using the traditional fresco method of applying paint to the wet plaster and then allowing it to dry, he applied tempura directly to the dry wall. The painting was already in poor shape within decades of completion. To protect the painting in its delicate state, only 20 persons at a time are allowed in to see it, in 10 minute slots. We had reserved our group’s time slot. Too much moist human breath causes further deterioration of the artwork.
We taxied back into the city centre of Milan from Santa Maria della Grazie. Here is situated one of the great shopping arcades of Europe - architecturally, and in terms of the fashion houses represented. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, with its glass ceiling and dome and its mosaic tiled floors, was completed in 1877. It houses many great fashion boutiques and coffee shops. Giorgio Armani, Salvatore Ferragamo, Gianni Versace, Prada, Valentino and Gucci all have their world headquarters in Milan.
The retail therapy implications of visiting the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II were too frightening for some, so they paid musical homage at La Scala Opera House, one of the world’s most prestigious - sadly not open for tours today - and the Milan Cathedral where Verdi’s funeral took place. It is said that a million people crowded the piazza in front of the cathedral and, as the coffin was brought out the crowd spontaneously burst into the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco - “va pensiero” - speed your journey. We taxied to the main station - Milano Centrale - and caught the Eurostar Italia to Venice, passing through Romeo and Juliet’s Verona on the way.
One of the great advantages of doing Europe by rail is the arrival in Venice. Approaches from the air, the sea or by road can’t compete. All the best train tours of Europe include Venice in their itineraries, and provide hotels in the heart of the city, on the island.
Leaving the industrial wasteland of Venice Mestre behind us on the mainland (with dozens of tour buses who force their people to stay in motels on the mainland), we crossed the causeway into the lagoon to Venice, sitting on her islands. Emerging from the railway station in Venice we were confronted with one of the Aha! Moments of European travel of which I never tire - the sight of the Grand Canal spread out before us, a hive of water activity amid thousand year old palaces.
By night is the time to arrive. Pure magic. Turning left out of the station, we were soon in our hotel just 100 metres away, overlooking the Grand Canal.
Those tour members who had not been part of the White Christmas Add-on were in the hotel by the time we arrived. Their Emirates flight arrived at 1.30pm and Sergio from the hotel had met them at the airport and brought them in by water taxi. Our welcome dinner was in a warm seafood restaurant next to the Grand Canal.
Monday, Dec 29th:
We were awakened this morning by the chime of church bells (no, it’s not Sunday - there are always church bells in Venice) and that other distinctively Venetian sound - the water traffic on the Grand Canal. No other city in the world is quite like Venice, and no amount of pictures or books can prepare one for the real thing. Pedestrians rule in Venice; no cars, no buses, no underground. One walks or takes the waterbus (vaporetto). Our hotel location is excellent for the vaporetto. The station is less than 50 metres away, turning right out of the hotel. Vaporetto tickets are expensive - 3 days of unlimited travel for 25 Euros. But when one considers that every public transport journey in Venice provides a magnificent canal cruise, the cost ceases to be important
The city of Venice: Europe's romantic city
We began our morning sightseeing by taking a vaporetto ride down the entire length of the Grand Canal to St. Mark’s Square. There are not a lot of great public transport experiences left in the world, but this is one of the few still available. On the way down the Grand Canal we passed many of the Renaissance palaces of the wealthy merchant families who made Venice the hub of European trade for centuries. We passed under the Rialto bridge - here was the stock exchange - “Many a time and oft upon the Rialto…” Shakespeare has Shylock say in The Merchant of Venice.
We disembarked at San Marco. In St Mark’s Square we paused for a thumbnail sketch of Venetian history and a visit into St Mark’s Basilica. The distinctive Byzantine style of St Mark’s reminded me of the close association, across the centuries, between Venice and the Byzantine East.
The Doge’s Palace [official residence of the Doge or Duke of Venice, and the government building] contains priceless art treasures, an interesting military museum and the Council and Senate rooms which were the powerhouse of the Venetian Republic. Because of the steep stairs, and to permit the tour members to explore the Palace at their own pace, we arranged audio guides for everyone. The visit into the Doge’s Palace included a walk across the Bridge of Sighs into the prison dungeons. It was called the Bridge of Sighs for the “sighs” and wailing of the prisoners as they had their last glimpse of their beloved Venice from the bridge, as they crossed from the law court to the prison dungeons.
One highlight in the Doge’s Palace is the huge single canvas by Tintoretto entitled “Paradise”, taking up the entire back wall of the Room of the Grand Council where the Assembly of all the nobles of Venice was regularly held. The opening scene of Shakespeare’s Othello takes place here. Othello was commissioned by the Grand Council to head up the Venetian garrison in Cyprus, then a part of the Venetian Empire.
For a splurge, a number of us had coffee at Florians on the Square (where Cassanova took coffee and afternoon delight). They still serve the coffee. Historical / cultural indigestion set in and the shops beckoned. There is one very long shopping street in Venice, and it passes out of St Mark’s Square under the Moor bell tower and winds for probably three kilometres all the way to the Railway Station. It is a window shoppers’ heaven - and no cars. It is marked all the way with distinctive yellow signs, FERROVIA [Railway Station]. In fact, from anywhere in Venice, one can find the way to the Railway Station by following the ubiquitous “FERROVIA” sign. And our hotel was right at the Railway Station.
Tuesday, Dec 30th: ^ Top ^
A lazy sleep in and a leisurely breakfast. There was a light snowfall in the night - very unusual for Venice. The black gondolas look magical with a sprinkling of white.
Some tour group members had expressed interest in a visit to one of the outer islands. Regular vaporetto services, covered in the transport pass, leave from near the hotel. Murano is the island for fabulous Venetian glassware - hundreds of shops and glass-blowing works; Burano is the island for fine lacework with dozens of shops.
Tour members made their own way to the islands - and nobody got lost!
I was prevailed upon - and readily agreed - to take the art lovers aboard to my Big 3 “art must sees” of Venice: the 22 Tintoretto paintings from the life of Christ in the Scuola di San Rocco, the Friary Church where the painting behind the High Altar just happens to be Titian’s “Assumption of the Virgin”, and the Accademia Gallery featuring many of the great works of the Venetian Renaissance. My favourite work there is Giorgioni’s “The Tempest”.
There was a lot of interest in a gondola ride. I encouraged tour members to negotiate price first. 75Euros for half an hour seemed to be the going rate, but a gondola may take four or six people. There are gondola stations at San Marco; there is another near the Railway Station. A legend for the true romantics - if you are together in a gondola under the Bridge of Sighs at sunset as the bells of the campanile in St Mark’s ring, you will be together forever. I intend this to be an encouraging thought.
Wednesday, Dec 31st:
We had a lazy morning before saying “arrivederci” to Italy and heading for the Alps. Although we did not have to meet for departure until 10.45am, we had to have our bags packed and down by 8.30am for collection to be taken on ahead of us to Innsbruck.
I had mentioned to the group the proximity to the hotel of the original Jewish Ghetto - the place name “Ghetto” in Venice gave its name, in most European languages, to a residential area where a Jewish, or any racial minority, lived. We paid a quick visit and thought of Shakespeare’s Shylock.
It was time to head across the Northern Italian Plain to Milan, where we took another of the great Alpine train journeys of the world, through the Simplon Tunnel to Switzerland. At Spiez we changed trains for the short ride down the shore of Lake Thun to Interlaken situated, as its name suggest, between the lakes.
It is New Year’s Eve - a major celebration called ‘Sylvester’ in Switzerland, Austria and Southern Germany. The gala dinner with champagne and dancing were a great hit with all the tour members. The highlight of New Year in Interlaken comes tomorrow, New Year’s Day with a super street party and brilliant fireworks.
Interlaken, Swiss Alps & Lakes
Thursday, January 1st:
It had been dark when we arrived last night and waking this morning to magnificent views of the Eiger and Jungfrau was very special. There were a few New Year’s morning headaches, but to be back for the street party this afternoon we had to make a 9.30am start for our journey to the top of Europe - one of the world’s great train tours to an incredible 11,333 feet on the Jungfrau Express.
No rail tour of Europe is complete without a ride on the Glacier Express.
Changing from a green and yellow Swiss Mountain train at Lauterbrunnen, to a red cog wheel railway, we passed through a Winter Wonderland of pine forests decked in snow and feet of snow all around. This is the way to see the real Europe - by rail. Up and up we went, through the village of Wengen and to the railway station of Kleine Scheidegg. Here we changed to another red rack railway for the last leg - above the tree line now, with glaciers and tunnels - to the highest railway station in Europe
We were not lucky with the day: visibility was rather limited. On two other rail tours of Europe - the Off the Beaten Track Tour in September and the Swiss Mountain Railways Tour in April - we had magnificently clear days with visibility across the Alps calculated at 40 miles.
It was possible to step outside and feel the blast or simply have your photo taken at the top, in front of a very large thermometer. Today is registered minus 26 degrees Celsius!
After a quick lunch in the cheaper of the two restaurants, we rejoined the train and descended the way we had come up, winding down and down, retracing our steps. At Wengen, we hopped out and enjoyed a beautiful snow-decked Alpine village. We voted it time for another hot chocolate before returning to Interlaken’s New Year party.
Dinner was early and we took up our positions on the balcony of the hotel rooms of those tour members who had views across the Interlaken park. The fireworks were magical and as an added bonus snow was falling gently. Seeing the fireworks reflected in the falling snowflakes was a truly heavenly experience.
Interlaken - Glacier Express
Friday, Jan 2nd:
More stunning Alpine Winter landscapes
On every list of the top ten rail tours of the world, the Glacier Express appears. For some, it is the great rail journey of not only Europe, but of the world. Setting off early, we joined an Intercity train in Interlaken and, skirting Lake Thun, made our way through Berne and Zurich to Chur where we boarded the Glacier Express. We had stayed in Chur as our base for the Bernina Express and the Glacier Express on the Swiss Mountain Rail tours, but today there was no time to see the town which claims to be Switzerland’s oldest.
Our reserved seats were in the panorama car. The running notice board on the inside of our carriage even had the message “Welcome Great Trains of Europe Tours - Australia”.
We began climbing up the river valley, higher and higher through beautiful villages all snow-covered. We were soon through the fog and into brilliant sunshine, blue skies, pine trees all white, and the sun glinting in the snow. There was Christmas card scenery in every direction.
The highest point on the journey is the Oberalpass at 7,000 feet. It is the watershed between the Rhine and the Danube river systems. The snow on the sides of the track really was six feet deep. This is Winter Wonderland. The only thing missing was sleigh bells ringing.
The descent into Andermatt was magical. As the Glacier Express rounds a corner, you can look down a couple of thousand feet to the village of Andermatt with its railway station and yards all snow-covered. It looks for all the world like an Alpine village train set.
The Glacier Express continues on to Zermatt but we alighted in the village of Brig many photos later. Thank heavens for the delete button on digital cameras. Here we joined an InterCity train back to Interlaken in time for afternoon coffee and some more window shopping.
Saturday, Jan 3rd:
Absolutely nothing was planned today in the tour itinerary, because of the long rail journey tomorrow, all the way to Prague.
Those tour members who had been part of the White Christmas pre-tour have been talking non-stop about the beautiful village of Grindelwald. Most of the non-White Christmas people have decided to pay a visit to Grindelwald today, only 20 minutes away on a little Swiss mountain train.
Sunday, Jan 4th:
A big day today - across much of Europe by rail: through three different countries on three different trains. But all train tours of Europe (and coach tours and river cruises) must include Europe’s most romantic city, Prague. I have probably already told you, Dear Diary, that Venice is Europe’s most romantic city. Doubtless I shall tell you this again about Paris! The hotel provided early breakfast for us so that we could have our luggage sent on and be ready to leave at 7.30am. Last night we had decided to be brave and walk the 500 metres to the station this morning. We wimped it when we peeked outside and saw a foot of snow. We called taxis.
Germany’s flagship High Speed Train, the ICE - InterCity Express - departs Interlaken at 8.01am each day for Frankfurt. Rail tours of Europe that do not include the Big Two High Speed trains - the German ICE and the French TGV have not exposed their tour members to Europe’s best. We enjoyed the passing panorama under a blanket of white - Swiss Lakes and Bernese Oberland before crossing the German border and skirting the Black Forest.
There is an excellent restaurant car and bar. We changed trains in Frankfurt, to another ICE which whisked us across Germany to Dresden. Here we disembarked the ICE and took a regular EuroCity to Prague. Darkness had fallen by the time we left Prague, so we missed the scenic ride along the Elbe and Vlatava River gorges to Prague. But we will be passing this way in daylight on our Dresden excursion day.
It was after 9pm by the time we had checked in to our 4 star hotel in the historic city heart. It has been a long day, but everybody was keen to have a quick bite and a look about Prague. Right next door to our hotel is Chez Marcel, a Prague institution. Picture a Parisian bistro at a quarter of the price, wooden tables and chairs, soccer scarves hanging on the wall, the buzz of a dozen languages, and the food… I don’t know how to finish this sentence.
Supper was followed by a 20 minute turn around the floodlit Old Town Square.
Monday, Jan 5th:
We had a sleep in and then our local guide Waclaw called at the hotel for us and gave us a thumbnail sketch of Czech history (not often taught in schools in the English speaking world) before taking us on our walking tour.
The magical city of Prague
While it is the capital of one of Europe's newest countries, the Czech Republic, Prague is one of Europe's oldest cities. It has been at the crossroads of Europe for well over a thousand years. Good King Wenceslas ruled here over a millennium ago. It was the seat of the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperors before they moved to Vienna. It was here that Jan Hus anticipated Luther's Reformation by a hundred years (and was burnt at the stake by the Pope for his troubles). The great religious wars of the seventeenth century, the Thirty Years War, were precipitated here when some Protestants turfed the Catholic governor out of the window of Prague Castle - the famous Defenestration of Prague. The governor fell 50 feet but survived by falling into a pile of horse manure. It wasn't the last time a politician had been saved by a load of horse you know what.
The Thirty Years War ended at the Battle of White Mountain, nearby. The Protestants were finally punished for the indignity they had imposed upon the Catholic governor and Prague became (and remains) a predominantly Catholic city. Prague was then for centuries the capital of Bohemia. It was overrun during the Napoleonic era, brought back into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and at the end of World War I was made capital of the new state of Czechoslovakia, incorporating Bohemia and Moravia.
Hitler incorporated most of Bohemia (Sudetenland) into his Third Reich with the acquiescence of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938. [This did save Prague from destruction, however, while many other European cities burned.] At the end of World War II Prague was occupied by the Communists for more than 40 years. An uprising against the Russians in 1968 was crushed mercilessly, but in 1989 Communism finally collapsed and Czechoslovakia reverted to democracy. Shortly afterwards the two national and linguistic groups separated. They are now called Slovakia in the East with its capital Bratislava, and the Czech Republic in the West with Prague as its capital.
Waclaw walked us through Old Town Square which has a building facade from every century from the twelfth to the twentieth. Here we paused to watch the astronomical clock perform on the hour, past the Estates Theatre where Mozart conducted (from the keyboard) the world premiere of his opera Don Giovanni, and to the northern end of Wenceslas Square to enjoy the sweeping of Czech history up to the State Parliament.
We then crossed Prague’s most famous landmark, the Charles Bridge. It has stood here since the thirteenth century, linking the Old Town with Prague Castle. Across the Charles Bridge, we took a tram up the hill to the Castle. Here we visited the Royal Palace and its great hall which was the scene of the Defenestration of Prague. The Golden Lane is a quaint mediaeval street with tiny cottages where the jewellers and alchemists toiled in earlier centuries. The highlight, however, was St Vitus’ Cathedral, containing the small chapel on the spot where Good King Wenceslas was murdered.
We re-crossed the Charles Bridge and had lunch on the Old Town Square. Yes, it is tourist hangout but that is because it is so beautiful.
On the southern side of the Old Town Square stands a very prominent memorial to Jan Hus, a Czech hero of the 15th century. He challenged the Roman Catholic Church’s authority a century before Martin Luther. Jan Hus was burned at the stake at the Council of Constance in 1415 for his troubles.
Running out of the northern end of the Old Town Square is the fashion street. It is even called “Paris.” West of this street is the Jewish Quarter with several beautifully maintained synagogues and cemeteries. It is one of the best preserved ghettoes in Europe, and a vibrant Jewish community life continues there.
Prague is very much like Venice and Florence in two respects: it is so compact that everything is in walking distance, and it is a shopper's and people watcher's paradise. Consequently, after today’s introductory sightseeing tour the day was free to explore at tour members’ leisure.
We managed to get tickets for the opera tonight at the gorgeous Prague State Opera. Puccini’s “La Boheme” is certainly not a barrel of laughs but has some of the best loved arias and duets in all opera.
Prague - Dresden Excursion
Tuesday, Jan 6th:
We met in the hotel foyer at 8am for a transfer to the station to join our Eurocity train for the two hour journey to Dresden. This is one of Europe’s most scenic train tours, along the river gorge.
Dresden was put on the map of Europe when its Saxon princes became “electors”; that is to say, they had the right to sit on the selection panel for the Holy Roman Emperor, in the 13th century. It continued as the seat of the Saxon princes until Germany was unified, under Prussia, by Bismarck in 1870. Especially during Augustus the Strong’s 69 year reign in the 18th century, Dresden was famous throughout Europe as the “Florence of the North” attracting artists and musicians, principally from Italy, to the royal court. As well as being the cultural capital of central Europe, it was also one of its most beautiful cities. Dresden (and nearby Meissen) china are world famous.
Dresden was best known in the 20th century for the fact that it was bombed by the Allies in February 1945 when full of refugees escaping the Russian advance in the East. German war historians would later claim a wartime agreement between the Allies and the Nazis that the cultural centres of Dresden in Germany and Oxford and Cambridge in England should not be bombed. English historians would claim no knowledge of such an agreement.
Dresden Frauenkirche rebuilt after its 1945 destruction
Perhaps the most distinctive of all Protestant Churches in Europe, the bell-shaped Frauenkirche was destroyed in the bombing and left as rubble by the atheistic Communists during their subsequent 44 year rule of East Germany. They said they left it as a memorial to war, but since they were busily closing down Christian churches everywhere else, the story lacks a certain ring of truth. The reconstruction is now complete.
Southern Germany and Austria are predominantly Roman Catholic but here - Dresden and the rest of Saxony - we are in Protestant (Lutheran) territory. This is Lutheran heartland. Luther’s revolt against the mediaeval Catholic Church began in nearby Wittenberg. The Saxon princes’ support for Luther was one of the crucial factors in guaranteeing the success of Luther’s Reformation. The political settlement after the Reformation decreed that German citizens should all embrace the religion of their local prince.
We were in Dresden by 10.45am and took a short walking tour through the old city heart, passing the Procession of Princes mural, a 102metre long depiction of Saxon history made of 24,000 porcelain tiles to the Zwinger, formerly the palace, now a complex of five museums set in buildings and gardens of great artistic beauty. Raphael’s cupid angels are here. As well as the Old Masters’ Gallery there is a fascinating porcelain museum. One of the world’s great Opera houses - the Semper - is also here.
We met again at the Frauenkirche at 4.30pm to join our train back to Prague.
We were back in our hotel a few minutes after 7.30pm. A quick change and we met in the hotel foyer at 8.30pm for our posh Dinner Out in Prague. The award winning restaurant is only steps away from the hotel and has duck to die for.
Wednesday, Jan 7th:
There was no planned sightseeing today: the shops were all open; and there were afternoon classical music concerts in many of the churches.
One couple took a commercially operated excursion to nearby Theresienstadt - one of the Nazi’s most gruesome death camps. Four people took a tour to the perfectly preserved and UNESCO listed mediaeval village of Cesky Krumlow.
To Innsbruck & the Austrian Alps
Thursday, Jan 8th:
Igls in the Austrian Alps, our home village on the White Christmas Add-on
We were all sad to be leaving Prague. It is always beautiful; under a sprinkling of snow it was magnificent. Our luggage was collected and taken on to Austria. We crossed to the station to join our train to Munich (not one of the great rail journeys of Europe) where we changed to a EuroCity to Innsbruck. We arrived in the late afternoon and taxied to our hotel in the Alpine village of Igls, overlooking the Imperial city of Innsbruck. The Sporthotel in Igls is very comfortable, 4+ stars, oak panelling, leather chesterfields in front of the log fire in the lounge, Scandinavian style scrubbed pine and huge fluffy doonas on the bed. It has a fabulous restaurant and wine list, but there are cheaper eating options in the village. The town was covered in six inches of snow.
We are in Austria and the language is German; the dominant cuisine is also German. The currency is the Euro.
Innsbruck (named for a bridge - Bruck - on the River Inn) is the provincial capital of the Tyrol province of Austria. It was an Imperial city, for many centuries the winter residence of the Hapsburg dynasty. They obviously had good taste. Wherever you are, look up: snow covered Alps encircle the town. From our village we look up to the Alps and down to the city lights.
Friday, Jan 9th: ^ Top ^
Stunning Alpine Winter landscapes on the Winter Wonderland Tour
The athletic ones amongst us were off to the slopes early. They had made their ski hire bookings last night through the front desk. Those whom “sloth had undone” [Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited] had a leisurely breakfast, and met at 10.30am to stroll down to the tram stop for a ride through white fields and a forest of snow-bedecked pine trees down the hill into Innsbruck.
We had a short stroll through the historical centre to the Golden Roof and the Hofburg; right next to the Golden Roof is my favourite hot chocolate shop.
Then, continuing the “Europe by rail” theme, we took a tram ride to the Hungerberg rack railway - Europe by rail again - then a cable car and gondola for a ride to the top of the Alps at 7,000 feet for a panoramic view across Innsbruck.
Saturday, Jan 10th:
The skiers hit the slopes early, for others a sleep-in and a quiet day in the Innsbruck shops. There was talk last night of a day trip to Munich today, over the Bavarian Alps through Garmisch-Partenkirchen on the little local train. Mary wanted to have a beer in the Hofbrauhaus; Graham and Heather were keen to see the Dachau Concentration Camp; but in the final event, they all found snuggling under the doona a more attractive alternative.
Innsbruck - Day Trip to Salzbur
Sunday, Jan 11th:
The Mozart and Sound of Music fans joined me today on a day trip to Salzburg.
Salzburg: enjoy the home of Mozart & the Sound of Music.
There is a bus from Igls down into Innsbruck every 15 minutes, and the ride takes 10 minutes, BUT we are doing a rail tour of Europe, so opted for the rails and the cute Number 6 tram from Igls through the snowy forest down into Innsbruck. This takes longer but is infinitely more atmospheric enjoyable.
At Innsbruck’s Main Railway Station (Hauptbahnhof) we joined Austria’s entrant in the great (and fast) trains stakes - the Railjet. Compared with the French TGV and the German ICE, the Railjet’s 160 kilometres an hour isn’t exactly high speed, but it is a magnificent train, well set up for business travellers and tourists alike. There is a Restaurant Car for coffee, and magnificent scenery - another of the great rail journeys Europe.
Salzburg’s Hauptbahnhof is across the river from the old city. On our Spring or Summer tours of Europe, we would stroll through the Mirabell Gardens and across the Salzach River pedestrian bridge into the old town, but with a foot of snow in the Mirabell gardens, we decide to take taxis.
Our taxis delivered us to the foot of the Hohensalzburg rack railway (Festungsbahn). Another of the must do train tours of Europe - up to the Hohensalzburg fortress which has looked over Salzburg for 800 years. There is a sweeping panorama of Salzburg and the Bavarian Alps across the German border.
The fortress is an excellent example of a well preserved mediaeval castle. Once inside the walls it is as if you are in a walled village, but with a foot of snow. We lunched in the restaurant up in the fortress with views to the Bavarian Alps.
Near the bottom of the rack railway is the Salzburg Cathedral where Mozart's father was organist and where the young genius first played. The Altstadt (old city) is very compact and all a pedestrian zone. Mozart's birthplace is now a museum which was well worth the visit.
The shopping was very expensive here, but it was fun looking. Mozart's picture was on everything in the shop windows - chocolates, cigars, cellos (sorry, celli). We met at the taxi rank near the huge Mozart statue behind the cathedral at 3.45pm and make our way back to the Station. We arrived back in Innsbruck at 6.30pm and, deciding to forsake our “Europe by rail” Igls tram experience because of the darkness, we took a taxi and were sipping schnapps in front of the roaring log fire in our Igls hotel by 7pm.
Monday, Jan 12th: ^ Top ^
Our bags were collected early for the long transfer to Paris. We left at 8am and taxied down to the Innsbruck Hauptbahnhof. We join the Austrian flagship train the Railjet, through the Aarlberg Pass to Switzerland, and Zurich. The magnificent Alpine scenery was best enjoyed from the panorama carriage windows, with a hot chocolate in hand.
We had fifty minutes between trains in Zurich - just time enough for a sausage from my favourite shop in the shopping centre under Zurich station.
We departed for Paris on the French TGV - another “must do” on all rail tours of Europe. It travels at over 300kph - but on today’s rail journey it reaches this speed only on the high speed track for the last hour into Paris.
On arrival at Paris’ Gare de Lyon Railway Station, the temptation was strong to get started immediately on another of the great train tours of Europe under the city, on the Paris Metro, but we decided to put that off until tomorrow and taxied to our hotel.
There are a dozen cafes, bistros, brasseries and restaurants within a 100 metre radius of our hotel and, after a quick bite we took a stroll in the City of Lights. In five minutes we were on the bank of the Seine gazing at the floodlit spires and flying buttresses of Notre Dame.
Tuesday, Jan 13th:
Everyone falls in love with Paris. We had a quick orientation tour this morning to allow tour members to get on with enjoying their own “special Paris”. All except three of our tour members had been to Paris before, and there were only six starters for the city sightseeing. With such a small group, it was easy to use public transport - the Metro and the buses. It was also a lesson in the use of perhaps the best underground system in the world.
The charm of Paris in winter
We started off in the Metro station at the bottom of the hill buying the tickets. I coached them in how to ask for a carnet of tickets (10 tickets at a greatly reduced price). “Un carnet s’il vous plait, Monsieur.” Some people have a flair for languages; others don’t.
We began by walking five minutes across to Notre Dame, took a look inside, then walked another five minutes to the Hotel de Ville. Here we took the Metro to the Arc de Triomphe and strolled down the Champs Elysees. Another short Metro ride brought us to Trocadero which offers the best viewing platform for the Eiffel Tower. At Trocadero we had coffee and then took the Number 63 bus right down Boulevarde San Germain and into the Latin Quarter and our hotel.
I thought this had given everyone their bearings, but I had overlooked the department stores and fashion boutiques on the Right Bank. I forgot, Dear Diary, to divulge the gender of all members of this morning’s sightseeing. Two blocks left out of the hotel brought us to rue St Jacques where the Number 12 bus took us to Shops Central in 10 minutes.
Paris - Somme Battlefields Excursion
Wednesday, Jan 14th:
All except four people elected to join me in a visit to the Somme battlefields today. you must be ready to leave (having breakfasted) by 8am. We drove around the sites associated with the costly July 1st, 1916 push immortalised now as the Battle of the Somme. More men died on this one morning than in the whole of the 9 month Gallipoli campaign. We began with a visit to the Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont Hamel where the trenches have been preserved - here 80% of the army of tiny Newfoundland was wiped out in ten minutes from 7.30am on July 1st, 1916, slaughtered like cattle.
We proceeded to the Australian memorial at Poziers. Here five thousand died in a night. At La Boiselle we visited the huge crater left by the mine explosion set off for the newsreel cameras 10 minutes before the attack began on July 1st, 1916. This blast alerted the Germans that the attack was on, so they simply mowed down the Allies as they rose from their trenches.
We paused for a restaurant lunch just outside Albert. The staff in the bistro were dead ringers for Rene Artois and his Mum from the old BBC comedy programme “’Allo, ’Allo”. Four courses of French country cooking plus wine for 13 Euros.
In the afternoon we visited Villers Brettoneux, and its Australian War Memorial and cemetery. Here are listed the names of all those Australian soldiers from World War I who have no known grave. Most of us found our own surname somewhere on the memorial. At Villers Brettoneux, Australian soldiers stopped the last German push of March 1918. The schoolchildren of the State of Victoria raised money throughout the early 1920s and paid for the reconstruction of the village school in Villers Brettoneux after it was levelled along with the town in 1918. The village school is still called the Victoria School. The town hall in Villers Brettoneux flies the Australian flag and proudly displays two kangaroos on the town’s coat of arms.
There were not many laughs on today’s excursion, but I felt that we owed it to the 20 million who died in World War I and double that number who died in World War II, to visit the battlefields and cemeteries. How could this most beautiful of continents convulse itself in so many bloody wars in one century?
Thursday, Jan 15th:
It is our last full day in Paris and there were still a million things to do. The Orsay Museum (home of the Impressionists) is closed Mondays but the Louvre is open.
I spent the morning assisting tour members with directions to their last minute “must sees” - Sacre Couer Basilica, St Chapelle, the Monets at the Marmottan Museum.
We had our farewell dinner at Trocadero overlooking the twinkling Eiffel Tower. Margaret won the end of tour trivia quiz. The number 63 bus brought us home as we said our “au revoir” to beautiful floodlit Paris.
Friday, Jan 16th:
Our last morning in Paris. I began the airport taxi shuttles early for those leaving today, then, after lunch, took the eight people adding London to Paris’ Gare du Nord Railway Station. Check in for the Eurostar is rather like an airport check-in.
The “under the English Channel” Eurostar cruises at 300+kph except for the actual tunnel crossing itself, when it slows considerably.
A compulsory inclusion on all rail tours of Europe, the Eurostar fulfilled a centuries old fantasy, then a dream, of an English-French link which did not rely on the caprices of the English Channel weather.
This provides one of the great rail journeys of the world on one its most magnificent trains. In First Class we had a complimentary three course meal and wine.
On arrival in London’s St Pancras International Railway Station, we taxied to our nearby hotel. This afternoon we joined the Round London Sightseeing Tour from a double-decker bus.
Saturday, Jan 17th:
Some of our group were staying on in London; only two leaving today on a flight just a half hour before ours, so we said our farewells at breakfast and accompanied them to Heathrow.
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