Train Odyssey Superlatives

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Our 15 day journey is over. We traveled through 12 countries (over 4,900 miles ) on 25 trains, and we survived. Now for a quick breakdown of our trip, what we liked, and what we would encourage fellow travelers to avoid.

Best Train Station: Vienna, Austria. This station is attached to a huge shopping mall. The food court is located just off of the train platforms, so that you can wait inside at a table for your train.

Worst Train Station: Amsterdam Central, The Netherlands. This is the most confusing train station that we have come across. The signage is horrible and you have to walk outside to move between different areas of the station.

Prettiest Station: Budapest, Hungary. This is a classically gorgeous train station from outside to inside.

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Scariest Station: Sophia, Bulgaria. The station is under construction, poorly lit, not heated, and very large. It is like walking into a dark cave.

Most Scenic Train Ride: The Austrian Alps. The journey from Salzburg to Innsbruck via Zell Am See is simply breathtaking.

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Most Difficult Train Ride: Belgrade, Serbia to Thessaloniki, Greece. This night train had two border crossings (Macedonia and Greece), and our train car had no heat.

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Friendliest Country: Serbia. The only place where a stranger in a grocery store has ever bought our kids candy bars.

Most Kid Friendly City: Bruges, Belgium. Parks, playgrounds, canals, windmills, and chocolate. Who could ask for more?

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Easiest Country to be a Vegan: Germany. Many options at just about every supermarket. Many of the vegan / all natural products we bought in other countries were made in Germany.

Hardest Country to be a Vegan: Greece. Most supermarkets had very little to offer for vegans. This is also the only place we couldn’t find non-dairy milk.

Best Attraction: Dutch Resistance Museum in Amsterdam. Engaging, informative, heartbreaking and inspiring all wrapped up into one. No where else has 4 hours passed so quickly.

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Tips for train travel with kids:
* Fill up on drinking water before you get on the train.
* Using the bathroom before leaving the train is free and usually easier than finding one in the unfamiliar city you are exploring.
* Playing I-Spy out the window can be a great filler for those minutes waiting for the end of the journey.
* When all else fails, pull out a camera and let the kids document the scenery or interview one another.

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Train Odyssey Day 15: Drumroll, Please…

Our travels through Switzerland provided a fitting end to our 15-day Train OdysseyOur day (as well as the trip as a whole) left us… 

Hanging on by a thread
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Pondering the meaning of it all

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Feeling on top of the world

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Speechless

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Thick-skinned

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Overwhelmed with beauty

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And the list goes on and on. The train ride through the Swiss Alps had all the contrasts we’ve come to expect from our time riding the rails. The weather was cold and gloomy for much of the ride, somewhat mirroring our moods after a repeatedly interrupted sleep on the night train from Amsterdam to Basel. However, as we climbed in elevation between Interlaken and Lucerne, the sun emerged in full force and opened up sunny vistas that took our breath away. While the sun once again retreated behind the clouds as we approached Lucerne, the day still had several more unexpected moments of brilliance.

We arrived in Lucerne for the final day of Fasnacht, Switzerland’s version of Carnival. We were swept right up in the celebration the moment we stepped off the train. Countless people were strolling every which way wearing Carnival costumes, and the main hall of the train station displayed some favorite floats from the many parades. After stopping to watch a bubble artist at work, we set out to explore the lovely city. Music was coming from just about everywhere, and we followed the brass notes and drum beats through countless squares and wooden bridges that criss-cross the Reuss River cutting through the city. Lucerne was in full celebration mode, and given the thousands of kilometers of train track behind us (over 7900 km, to be exact), so were we. If the train tracks went in a straight line from our starting point of Split, Croatia going east, we would have ended up crossing Asia, making it just past Beijing to the Pacific Ocean!

In the end, the Swiss newspaper we skimmed through that morning on the train got it right. Our “Odyssee” sure did have a “Happy End.” And what an Incredible Journey it has been!

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Train Odyssey Day 14: Adapt, Collaborate, or Resist

Day 14 of our Eurail trip brought us back to the city of Amsterdam. Unfortunately, we have to say that we weren’t that impressed with the city itself. It might have been because Amsterdam Central train station was the most confusing train station to navigate. In addition the luggage lockers were ridiculously expensive (over 20 Euros to store our bags for the day). After enjoying the green spaces of Bruges the city just seemed dirty and crowded. The canals were even more full of floating garbage than those in Venice, and we couldn’t get used to the bicycles that went whizzing by constantly. Trying to navigate car traffic with three kids is one thing, but having to worry about bikes as well is really difficult.

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Now that we got the negatives out of the way, we have to say that we did have our best museum experience ever in the city. Last month when the kids started studying World War 2 we came across The Verzets Museum (the Dutch Resistance Museum). The museum website had a very informative Junior section that described what it was like for 4 different children when the Nazis invaded The Netherlands. The Younger Fives were immediately hooked by the narratives of these children, and we decided that visiting the Dutch Resistance Museum Junior section would be a priority.

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We could never have dreamed what an amazing experience this would turn out to be. The Resistance Museum Junior is a masterfully put together exhibit from start to finish. The five of us were captivated from the moment we entered the doors through their very cool “time machine”, until we finally had to force ourselves to leave so that we wouldn’t miss our next train. High Five being only four years old was able to participate fully in every display thanks to the easy to use audio guides, and touch screen computers.

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The museum did a wonderful job putting together multi-faceted displays. The visual, audio, written, and interactive aspects of the Junior Museum made learning about what life was like in The Netherlands during World War 2 both captivating and understandable. It also did a really great job of presenting life during the war from multiple angles. We were introduced to children from the entire spectrum of life at the time of the Nazi invasion, which really helped present a complete picture of how the war affected all children no matter what side they were on.

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It is not often that you find a museum that will engage every member of your family, and we really feel fortunate that we were able to visit. We encourage anyone heading to Amsterdam to make time for the Resistance Museum Junior, no matter your age.

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Train Odyssey Day 13: A Kid’s Day Off in Bruges

After some serious train travel on Day 12, the Younger Fives really needed a day off. So, it was perfect that we had an entire day to spend in Bruges, Belgium where they could take the lead. As soon as we stepped outside of our hotel on a very sunny Sunday they were in charge of picking what we should see and do in this lovely canal lined city.

The kids were immediately enamored by the green spaces all along the perimeter of the city, and so we walked along the canal enjoying the towering trees, green grass, and open spaces to run free. The first half of the day was all about playgrounds. The kids were super excited to find two American playmates on one of the larger playgrounds (they were visiting Bruges from Germany, where their father is stationed with the military).

From there we had a special surprise in store for High Five. When we visited Venice, Italy this past December he was very disappointed that we didn’t take a gondola ride. After reading about the open-air (and reasonably priced) boat tours of Bruges’ canals we knew that this would be the perfect chance to make it up to him. The boat tour lasted about 30 minutes (perfect for little kids) and it cost the whole family less than 25 Euros. High Five had a blast leaning over the railing of the boat and trying to pet the passing ducks and swans. While a bit chilly on the water it was a great way to see the gorgeous buildings of Bruges, and it seemed to more than make up for the missed gondola ride.

Next the kids headed towards the four remaining windmills on the eastern edge of the city (there used to be more circling Bruges). These windmills date back to the 18th Century, although some have been refurbished since. While the kids have seen plenty of modern day wind turbines, these beautiful wooden windmills were really fun to check out. The area around them is all park and we were joined by many people out enjoying the gorgeous afternoon.

Finally it was time to eat. While finding vegan food while traveling is not always so easy our relaxed day carried over to our shopping trip to the local grocery store. The kids helped us scan through the many chocolate offerings to find more vegan treats, and since we didn’t partake in any of Bruge’s famous double fried french fries we picked up a few bags of local potato chips to round off our falafel sandwiches. Since our hotel room is super small (think college dorm room) we soaked up the last of the sun while picnicking outside near the train station. With no mess to clean-up and lots of yummy chocolate in our bellies everyone declared the day a huge success.

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Train Odyssey Day 12: Carnival Chaos

Our travels from Austria to Belgium ended up taking much longer than we had planned. When we went to reserve our tickets on the night train from Munich to Amsterdam, we were shocked that there were no regular seats left on the train. The kindly ticket agent explained that the Carnival Vacation had begun and that it was a very popular time to travel. Luckily we were able to reserve three bunks in a couchette, which allowed us to stretch out and lie down for the first time on an overnight train.

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We expected to have about 4.5 hours in Amsterdam before heading to our hotel in Bruges, but the Carnival complications continued. Our train ended up arriving almost 2 hours late, and booking our night train back from Amsterdam to Switzerland proved to be as time consuming as before. Combined with the high cost of storage lockers in Amsterdam, we decided to just head right to Bruges and see Amsterdam on our way back through in a few days. Once we came to terms with the the improvised plan, we were able to enjoy all the people dressed up in Carnival costumes, and we even followed along a parade route from the train.

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We had about a half hour to explore the Antwerp train station as we switched lines to head to Bruges, and the station is one of the most impressive we’ve seen. The main gate is richly decorated, and it is kind of mind boggling to see all the trains come and go on different levels of the station. We also took the opportunity to try some of Belgium’s famous frites.

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The rest of the trip to Bruges was fortunately uneventful. We were grateful to be able to relax in our hotel room and enjoy some wonderful Belgium dark chocolate as we rested ourselves for exploring the city the next day.
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