Castles, Cathedrals, Swans, and Flamingos: An Adventurous Train Ride Across Europe

Somewhere in the back of our minds, Bob and I had the idea that traveling by train across Europe would be romantic and relaxing. We had heard stories from friends who had used Eurail passes in years past and had a wonderful time. Normal people would have looked at all the details, shrugged their shoulders, and flown relatively easy and cheap Portugal Air from Lisbon to Prague. But, as readers of this blog know, we aren’t normal travelers and, well, wouldn’t riding the train across Europe be beautiful and romantic?

So, for slightly less than the cost of the airline tickets from Lisbon to Prague, we bought two first-class, four-day Eurail passes. The key to making this trip work was getting reservations on the Very Fast Train out of Barcelona and the overnight train from Zurich to Prague. By the time we committed, it was too late to get our reservations by mail, and it’s not possible to make them online (in this day and age?!?!). However, Eurail assured us, all we needed to do was go to any major train station in Europe and we could get the reservations there. HA! (More on that later.)

Complication number one was getting out of Portugal to Spain. Travel from Lisbon to Madrid by train would take nearly a day. It would take more than a day to get from Faro in Southern Portugal to Madrid. What we finally learned, as the Portuguese train station employee who kept rolling his eyes at the silly Americans told us, is that “Portugal doesn’t DO international trains.”

Because we had sort of figured that out long before we got to Portugal, solution number one was to take the train south to Faro, Portugal (where we had a lovely stay on the beach, along with a gorgeous sunset), and then a bus trip the next day across the Spanish border to the beautiful city of Sevilla. Like Lisbon, Sevilla has the feel of an old European city. It has beautiful architecture, a stunning gothic cathedral, and winding alleys full of good restaurants. (It doesn’t smell as good as Lisbon, though.) We stayed in a terrific little boutique hotel, Hotel Kivir, near the river. After a brief 12 hours in the city, we were on the move again.

Complication number two was the train in Spain. In Spain, whether or not they are on the plain, all trains go through Madrid. We didn’t want to go to Madrid; we wanted to travel the Mediterranean coast in the south of Spain and France. We wanted to go to Barcelona and see La Familia Sagrada. The train tracks ran there, so why couldn’t we do that? Because, in Spain, all trains go through Madrid.

Solution number two was to catch a quick flight from Sevilla to Barcelona. Sevilla is a city of 690,000 people, so we expected a regional airport, similar maybe to the one in Santa Fe, New Mexico. How wrong we were! This busy hub had about a dozen flights leaving for all points on the compass around 6:30 a.m. Even though we arrived at the airport at 5:20, we walked up to the gate and onto our plane by the time we had checked our bags, gotten through security, and found the gate at the end of the terminal. We spent less time on the plane than we did in the airport! But, we made it to Barcelona and rode the fabulous metro system from the airport to the train station.

Our terrific hotel in Barcelona, Barceló Sants, with its space-themed lobby and furnishings, is attached to the train station, but it took us and Google Maps a few minutes in the pouring rain to figure that out.

That afternoon, we had our tour at La Familia Sagrada, probably the most interesting and one of the most beautiful buildings on the planet. Watch this space for a blog post coming soon.

La Familia Segrada
A small part of La Familia Segrada (watch for a blog about it coming soon)

At the train station, we were finally able to get our Very Fast Train reservations. Our seats weren’t together, but at least we’d have first-class accommodations on the train. Complication number three arose when the reservations for the night train—you remember, those ones we could get at “any train station in Europe”—could not be made for a Swiss train in Spain. What?

Well, onward. We did so enjoy riding the train. We loved seeing all the quaint villages. Each one seemed to have a castle and a cathedral. The lovely farms and orchards of citrus and olives carpeted the rolling hills. And as we traveled along the Mediterranean coast, we saw flamingos and many other lovely water birds—really the types of things we’d hope to see on this trip.

In Spain, all train announcements were made in Spanish, French, and English. Once we crossed the border into France, announcements, by the same conductor, were only made in French.

Even though it was very fast, up to 300 kph in some segments, the train ran late. We had three minutes to spare to make our connection in Valence, France. Then, it was into the interior of France and Switzerland. The scenery was as spectacular as you would expect: towering mountains, lovely valleys, more quaint villages with castles and cathedrals, swans on Lake Geneva. It really did meet that requirement of romance and relaxation we had sought.

Unfortunately, complication number three did not have an easy solution. The employees at the train station in Zurich could not have been nicer. Having dealt all day with tired and sometimes angry travelers with complex problems, they still had cheerful attitudes—and language skills that amazed us, as the customer service room was filled with German, English, French, Spanish, and others that we didn’t recognize, and the employees readily and easily switched between them. As nice as the lady who tried to help us was, she could not get us on the sleeper car to Prague. It was completely full. She did get us on the train to Manheim, though, where we would change trains to Munich and then catch the morning train to Prague, and, although we missed the first Munich train, we caught the 3 a.m. one and had comfortable seats for sleeping the rest of the night.

Sleepy Bob because we didn’t get on the sleeper car (and that cup from Starbucks in the background was the worst coffee we had on the trip!).

As we left Munich for Prague, slightly sleepy but happy to be on the way, we were struck that the train station in every little German village was jam packed with bicycles. People live in the villages, commute to the train station by bike, and take the train into the big cities for work.

Germany is so neat and tidy. We had to admit, after we crossed into the Czech Republic, it looked a little run down in comparison. But here we were, finally!, In the land of Bob’s ancestors and the land whose history we had studied for more than two years. We arrived in lovely, wonderful Prague in the early afternoon.

So, was all the effort and trouble to take the train along the Mediterranean coast and into the Alps worth it? You bet. Was it romantic and relaxing? Mostly. Would we do it again? Probably not, but we are certainly glad we had the experience.

3 thoughts on “Castles, Cathedrals, Swans, and Flamingos: An Adventurous Train Ride Across Europe”

  1. I am amazed by you two with your travel and such great attitudes when it was a bit rough or disappointing . Thank you for sharing your fantastic trip.

    1. We called it “three trips of a lifetime all at once!” Other than not getting the sleeping car to Prague, everything really was perfect.

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