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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Train Odyssey Day 11: Austria’s Awesome Alps

If you want to experience train travel at its best, then Austria is the place for you. Nowhere else on our Train Odyssey has even come close to the breathtaking scenery and overall comfort of our trip from Salzburg to Innsbruck by rail. We were told that for the best views of the Alps, skip the direct train between the cities and instead break the trip into two parts going through the town of Zell Am See. This is some of the best advice we’ve ever taken 🙂 From stunning peaks, towering churches, and snowy castles to ski resorts, hot air balloons, and hang gliders, the view had us whipping our heads around from window to window during the 90 minute journey to Zell Am See.

Then much to our amazement, things only got better on the train from Zell Am See to Innsbruck. One of the perks of the Eurail pass is that it includes first class seating, and the train to Zurich we happened to catch had a first-class car that was pure luxury. We have never had seating anywhere as nice (huge picture windows, complementary snacks, plenty of leg room), and we kept expecting the conductor to realize we didn’t belong and politely suggest we would be more comfortable in 2nd class. Needless to say, we were quite tempted to skip Innsbruck all together and continue to the end of the line in Zurich.

We didn’t have much of a plan when we checked our bags to explore Innsbruck, but serendipity took care of everything. We discovered a lovely park a few blocks from the train station with some impressive playgrounds, had an impromptu snowball fight with some local boys (for the record, they threw the first snowball), and were gifted with Austrain stuffed animals by a friendly store clerk as we shopped for groceries. As we left the town, we even spotted the famous ski jump from the 1976 Olympics.

We can’t come up with enough superlatives to describes Austria’s Alps region and the beauty of seeing it by train 🙂 All we know is that it doesn’t get much better than this.

Train Odyssey Day 6: Best of Bulgaria

Five String was really excited to visit Bulgaria. He spent a month in college studying in Russia and was excited to return to a country where they use Cyrillic script. Unfortunately due to the crazy pace of this trip we knew that we wouldn’t have a huge amount of time to explore the country. Due to the frequency of trains running from Greece to Bulgaria we ended up with just 17 hours in which to explore Sophia, the country’s capitol city.

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Getting through the ice and snow to our hotel was no small feat, but Five of Hearts is a real trooper when it comes to pulling her own bag.

Our first stop was Hotel Favorit, which ended up being a gem of a hotel. The hotel is super close to the train station, and the amenities were fabulous. The room even had a bathtub, which is a rarity in Europe. Once inside the room the kids didn’t want to leave and we had a hard time getting them back out the door to venture into the city.

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After a very long train ride from Greece we were ready for a sit-down meal and headed to Restaurant & BBQ Niagara. We had not idea if we would be able to find any vegan options, but the restaurant had a wonderful atmosphere and great reviews, so we decided to give it a try. The gamble ended up paying off and we had a great meal thanks to the top notch staff. They really made us feel welcome and even though they couldn’t understand why we would order a pizza without cheese the chef prepared one of the most amazing vegetable pizzas that we have ever tasted. It had pickles on it, which we never would have thought of, but was amazingly delicious.

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Who knew that pickles on pizza tasted so good?

Who knew that pickles on pizza tasted so good?

From there were braved the cold winds and icy sidewalks to enjoy a quick walking tour of Sophia’s landmarks. In a short loop we viewed an Eastern Orthodox Church, a Mosque, and a Synagogue. Each building had wonderful architecture and the kids had fun picking out the different religious symbols.

Sofia Synagogue

Sofia Synagogue

Banya Bashi Mosque

Banya Bashi Mosque

While we were all anxious to return to our hotel and get out of the freezing temperatures, it was hard not to keep walking around Sophia admiring the lovely city. This is one city that is definitely at the top of our “To Return To” list, but next time during a warmer time of year.

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Train Odyssey Day 3: Greece through the Glass

Even though it was still dark outside things started to look brighter when our train crossed the border from Serbia to Macedonia. The new ticket agent ushered us forward to a newly vacant compartment that had heat and working lights. While the Younger Fives were too sleepy to care (both boys slept through the move) the adults were super excited to thaw out and continue the rest of the trip in more comfort. Once the sun rose we all enjoyed the scenery as the train carried us along a river past farmland. We passed very few train stations and even fewer towns, and before we knew it we were crossing the border into Greece.

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Running a bit behind schedule our train arrived in Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki over an hour late. Luckily we had just enough time to reserve seats on the next train to Athens and let the kids buy some Greek comic books. Everyone was delighted to find that our train to Athens was in a bit better shape and that the seating was still compartment style. We are currently reading Five Ball the Harry Potter series, so we are all getting a kick out of riding in a similar style as Harry does to go to Hogwarts each school year.

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All settled into our private compartment we sat back and enjoyed some truly breathtaking views of Greece. We had read that the train ride between Thessaloniki and Athens was very scenic, but we were all blown away but what we saw through the windows. We passed several snow capped mountains (Mount Olympus included), rode past green countryside, and snaked our way up, down, and through many mountains. The scenery was so varied and beautiful that the journey went by quickly, and before we knew it the train pulled into Larissa, Station in Athens.

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The owner of our two-night rental met us at the station and helped us settle into his lovely 7th floor apartment. The apartment has amazing views of the Acropolis and as we turned in for the night we couldn’t stop stealing glances out at the majestic structure and the city surrounding it. Although our day consisted mostly of viewing Greece from behind glass, we all loved what we saw and fell asleep satisfied and ready to get up bright and early to do some direct exploring.

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Train Odyssey Day 2: Nice People, Scary Train

We arrived in Belgrade, Serbia at 6 AM on a very cold, rainy morning and realized that our plans to check our luggage and explore the city for the day were no longer realistic. So, we headed across the street to the Belgrade City Hotel. The front desk clerk was super friendly and more than helpful in booking us a room until 6 PM, when our train would leave for Greece. The hotel was gorgeous and one of the most comfortable accommodations that we have stayed at in Europe. As the rain continued to fall heavily outside, we were happy to lie down and catch up on some sleep.

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When we awoke, the rain had stopped and we were ready to explore the city. Our first stop was a local grocery store where we were able to try out our Serbian while we stocked up on provisions. The other shoppers in the corner grocery store helped up figure out how to use the produce scales (you had to tag the produce yourself), and a very kind lady insisted on buying each of the kids a treat. Unfortunately, after shopping the rain started up again in full force and we returned to the hotel for lunch.

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Late in the afternoon the rain finally stopped just long enough for us to make our way to the largest Eastern Orthodox church in the world. The Church of Saint Sava was built to honor Saint Sava, who was the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The building was really astonishing. The size was very impressive, but it was the style and decoration of the church that made it so beautiful. The kids had been learning about the East-West schism of the church, and they were very excited to see their first Orthodox Church. They were also very impressed with the playground right out front, and especially the really unique swing.

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At 6 PM we headed back to the train station to board the night train heading to Thessaloniki, Greece. We knew that this was going to be a tiring and possibly uncomfortable journey, but we couldn’t have imagined the condition of the train car that we would be riding in for the next 12 hours. The entire outside of the car was covered in graffiti and the interior of our assigned car had no heat or electricity. Each train car was made up of compartments with 6 seats. When we arrived at our assigned compartment there was a man sitting in the dark enjoying his dinner. When he realized that we were a family he very generously found a new compartment so that we could have the extra room.

However, he was soon to be replaced by a young man from Niš, Serbia. He politely asked if he could join us and at first we couldn’t understand why he would want to spend the night with our over-excited kids, but as the ride went on it was really comforting to have him with us. He explained that he takes this train often to visit his girlfriend, and it is in horrible condition but that it is safe. As the constant darkness became an annoyance and the temperatures dropped uncomfortably low, it was nice to know that he had made the trip on this train several times and lived to tell the tale.

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One great thing about the lack of light aboard the train was that the kids fell right to sleep without an distractions. We dressed them in their winter clothes and wrapped them in sleeping bags, and they were out for the duration of the trip. They even slept through a second ticket check in Serbia where the conductor insisted that we hadn’t paid enough for our ticket. Serbia was recently added as an included country on the Eurail Global Pass, and the conductor had not been given that update. Unfortunately, we had no way to prove that he was wrong except to try and plead our case and show that our pass was accepted in Belgrade without problems. With the language barrier it was a tense discussion, but finally he accepted our story and was very nice about the whole thing. As we shivered our way through the rest of the night our hearts stayed completely warm due the generosity and friendly natural of the wonderful people that we had met that day in Serbia.