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Holland to Sicily: a ten train tour across Europe

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Old Apr 3, 18, 12:37 pm
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Holland to Sicily: a ten train tour across Europe

As has become my way, this trip report is about an improbable journey that emerged from an irresistible idea. This time, the hook was an oddity of Italian rail travel – in order to advertise the service from Naples (on the mainland) to Taormina (on the island of Sicily) as ‘direct’, on reaching the coast the trains are loaded onto a ferry and sailed across!

From that simple seed – albeit a seven hour journey by itself – grew this:







Ten trains linking Holland to Sicily, passing through The Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland before completing the full length of Italy. We’d break up the travel with lengthier stops in Zurich, Verona and Taormina; take detours from the main route to check out Pompeii and Mt. Etna; and cross the Alps in style via the Bernina Express, arguably one of the most scenic rail journeys Europe has to offer. Altogether, it would take us over a week to reach our destination. Oh, and did I mention this was our honeymoon?

As such, this is a less detailed report than I would usually have put together… just attempting to do the journey itself some justice has taken close to a year! So in the interests of finishing before our anniversary, I’ve omitted any discussion of the hotel stays, and some locations will receive a fairly light treatment. Nor is there a plane to be found, although there’s plenty of first class – and beyond – travel involved. Here’s what’s coming up:


(As usual, this will be somewhat based on the existing report on my blog, but not simply a reprint of it. I always try to take a different approach for each site; in this case, I’ve gone for a chronological arrangement here versus the thematic grouping of the original material. It’s also a bit easier to share photos en masse and advanced widgets like interactive maps on the blog, but FlyerTalk is much better for discussions. So pick whichever version you prefer, or sample both if you’re particularly interested!)

Last edited by TheFlyingDoctor; Apr 15, 18 at 8:17 am Reason: Trip report complete!
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Old Apr 3, 18, 12:50 pm
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Day 1: Rotterdam to Brussels

Train 1: Rotterdam Centraal to Brussel-Zuid
NS International Intercity, Standard Class
2017-05-28 Train 9264 Dep: 20:00 Arr: 22:15 (2 hours 15 minutes)


Rotterdam Centraal Station (image from a previous visit)


Taking the train between Rotterdam and Brussels is fairly routine for us. When connecting with Eurostar to/from the UK we tend to use the faster, fancier Thalys services; but since we were only headed to Belgium, Intercity would do just fine. We therefore skipped advance booking and just noted a couple of potentially suitable times from the schedule.


NS International Intercity, standard class carriage


Honestly there’s not much to report, with everything working as expected. With few passengers of a Sunday evening we were able to claim a pair of facing seats and keep our luggage close to hand. Arrival at Brussel-Zuid / Bruxelles-Midi (same place!) was right on time, and our hotel turned out be a 30 second walk from platform to reception. An entirely stress-free start to the trip!
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Old Apr 3, 18, 1:03 pm
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Day 2: Brussels to Zurich

After the Brussels warmup, this would be the first real test of our plan, requiring over seven hours on trains. Fortunately these would be high speed ICE trains, and better still, we’d be in first class. I’d pre-booked about three months in advance of travel via the Belgian SNCB, for a little under €300. The routing was via Frankfurt, with both services operated by Deutsche Bahn; but trains and stations would be as much of Germany as we would encounter, as we preferred to push through to Switzerland. Still, this would technically be a three country day!


Train 2: Bruxelles-Midi to Frankfurt(Main) HBf
Deutsche Bahn ICE International, First Class
2017-05-29 ICE15 Dep: 10:25 Arr: 13:30 (3 hours 5 minutes)

ICE15 at Bruxelles-Midi


We picked up breakfast and travel snacks at the station before searching for the train; it was as early as we are, already aan perron forty minutes before scheduled departure. However, that meant 30 minutes admiring it from the platform before doors opened... Surprisingly there didn’t seem to be a dedicated luggage space, just overhead racks; but as some of the first on we were able to wedge our case behind a seat at the end of the carriage. Our seats were already assigned - an ‘airline’ style pair with no table, but thus no facing seatmates either – and came with free newspapers and a menu detailing an extensive buy-on-board offering. Complimentary chocolates were also handed out twice – at Aachen, and just before Frankfurt airport.


Deutsche Bahn ICE first class interior



Deutsche Bahn ICE first class interior


The party piece of these trains is definitely speed: before we’d even left Brussels we were pushing 190km/h, rising to 225km/h by Liege, and topping out at 300km/h further along. Unsurprisingly we therefore made our second on-time arrival, into Frankfurt’s impressive terminal. Although we hadn’t noticed much in the way of air-conditioning on board, the station was humid by comparison, so clearly the train had been quietly keeping us comfortable. As the duo of chocolates had turned out to be the only free food, we restocked our snack supply before making our way to the next train.


ICE15 at Frankfurt(Main)

Train 3: Frankfurt(Main) HBf to Zurich HB Basel SBB
Deutsche Bahn ICE International, First Class
2017-05-29 ICE75 Dep: 14:00


ICE75 at Frankfurt(Main)

Train 75 turns out to be a service all the way to Chur, but we’ll be getting there at a more leisurely pace over the next few days. Again there was no luggage space, so I had to heft the case into an overhead. WiFi should have been available on the previous train but hadn’t been working; this time we were in luck, and the speed turns out to be solid enough for actual browsing rather than just an email check.

Unfortunately the five minute delay we picked up on departure steadily grew throughout the journey. At 16:50 a long announcement involving Zurich was made – but only in German. However, it was clear that we weren’t making enough progress, as by then we should have been five minutes along from Basel Bad., a stop we eventually reached 25 minutes behind schedule. We only made it one station further along the line, to Basel proper; where were informed that the service would be terminating.


Train 4: Basel SBB to Zurich HB
SBB Intercity, First Class
2017-05-29 IC581 Dep: 17:33 Arr: 18:26 (53 minutes)

Thus we quickly added an extra component to our itinerary... a direct train to Zurich which departed Basel about ten minutes after we eventually arrived. This was a less fancy regional service from Swiss operator SBB. Naturally we didn’t have seat reservations, but there was a first class carriage in which we were able to find a facing pair. During the ticket check there seemed to be no issue with our having transferred to a different company (and indeed country)’s trains.


SBB Intercity first class interior


The new route turned out to take less than hour, through an enjoyably scenic stretch of countryside. So all told we arrived in Zurich only 40 minutes later than expected; almost precisely eight hours since departing Brussels. This was actually the only part of our journey that experienced significant disruption – who would have expected it to be a German train to Switzerland that failed to run on time?
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Old Apr 4, 18, 9:27 am
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having lived through my share of delays on German trains I'd say I'm not totally surprised. Their reputation seems to be stronger than their performance
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Old Apr 4, 18, 9:38 am
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So, you used the Pullman at Brussels Midi? Wonderful hotel, it must be the most convenient hotel at a train station that I have come across that is decent.
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Old Apr 4, 18, 11:22 am
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Great report. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of it. I did something similar a couple of years ago after reading on Seat61 about the Sicily train being shunted onto the ferry. My routing was Belfast Port - Birkenhead/Liverpool - London - Harwich - Hook of Holland - Amsterdam - Munich - Rome - Syracuse. Took me a week to get there and loved every second of it (apart from sleeping right through the train on ferry bit and waking up at Catania - oops!)
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Old Apr 4, 18, 1:11 pm
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Originally Posted by roadwarrier View Post
So, you used the Pullman at Brussels Midi? Wonderful hotel, it must be the most convenient hotel at a train station that I have come across that is decent.
St. Pancras comes to my mind
To be fair I´m not a big train-fan.
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Old Apr 5, 18, 11:37 am
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Day 4: Zurich to Chur




View of Zurich from Lindenhof


Zurich was our first ‘proper’ stop; an old favourite of mine, made all the better by having someone to share my memories of it with. We took a hike along the mountains (via, of course, more trains... plus a cablecar), joined a boat trip circling the lake, and ambled happily through the city itself. If you'd like, you can find a gallery covering all that here on flickr. But let’s pick up the thread a couple of evenings later, as we made our way to our second Swiss stop, Chur.

Train 5: Zurich HB to Bahnhof Chur
SBB Intercity, Standard Class
2017-05-31 IC929 Dep: 16:07 Arr: 17:22 (1 hour 15 minutes)

We purchased tickets at the station just before travel; cheaper rates could have been obtained by prebooking online, but we didn’t need nor want to be tied to any particular schedule. There seem to be several options for getting to Chur; as well as the ICE we’d used from Frankfurt, local services came in two flavours. RE trains are impressive, modern, air-conditioned double-decker units; InterCity are old-fashioned hauled carriages. We (ok, I) had picked the IC.



Two options to Chur



This turned out to be the right choice. We had assumed this leg (and the overnight stop) would simply be a means to an end, positioning us to one terminus of the Bernina Express. But Zurich – Chur turns out to be a stunning route; following first the Zurichsee / Obersee and later Walensee lakes, through rolling farmland, all with a dramatic mountain backdrop.

Each time the train dived into a tunnel, there would be a stunning reveal on the other side. The light passenger load meant we effectively claimed an eight seat block, flitting from one side of the carriage to the other like excited children to sample the competing views. Instead of aircon, we had windows that could be opened to enjoy fresh air and take better photos. There was even a proper luggage rack; and a minibar service shortly after departing Zurich.



SBB Intercity, Standard Class interior



Views from the train, Zurich - Chur



For sheer surprise factor, this was one of the highlights of the trip! But better was to come…

Last edited by TheFlyingDoctor; Apr 5, 18 at 11:42 am Reason: flickr links go horribly wrong...
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Old Apr 5, 18, 11:59 am
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Originally Posted by BHD Belle View Post
Great report. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of it. I did something similar a couple of years ago after reading on Seat61 about the Sicily train being shunted onto the ferry. My routing was Belfast Port - Birkenhead/Liverpool - London - Harwich - Hook of Holland - Amsterdam - Munich - Rome - Syracuse. Took me a week to get there and loved every second of it (apart from sleeping right through the train on ferry bit and waking up at Catania - oops!)
Seat61 is also how I found out about the crossing - it's an excellent resource for figuring out practical details from routings to the booking process and has planted a lot of seeds! My only complaint is that he seems wildly optimistic with prices - no doubt it's possible to find the bargains he headlines with, but less so on a fixed schedule in peak season. So in my own 'logistics' post I decided to log the reality as we experienced it...

That sounds like an excellent itinerary - we've still never tried the Harwich/Hoek rail&sail approach, but a few of our wedding guests did and I'm sure we'll find the time (or be forced by French rail strikes...) some day. I was surprised you jumped straight from Munich to Rome but a quick look at the schedules has revealed it to be a much quicker (and more direct) connection than I imagined it to be!
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Old Apr 5, 18, 1:01 pm
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I took an ICE train for only 30 minutes and never wanted to get off.
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Old Apr 5, 18, 6:35 pm
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Well, this is quite impressive as far as train travel goes (ok, I wish BHD Belle had done a report on his/her trip). I am also a train buff.
I did the Frankfurt to Brussels & Zurich to Chur (in December, snow scene was fab). Chur is a great little place to stay. In fact I used it as base while day tripping (one day Glacier Express & one day Bernina Express).
Look forward to the rest.
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Old Apr 6, 18, 3:04 am
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Originally Posted by TheFlyingDoctor View Post
Seat61 is also how I found out about the crossing - it's an excellent resource for figuring out practical details from routings to the booking process and has planted a lot of seeds! My only complaint is that he seems wildly optimistic with prices - no doubt it's possible to find the bargains he headlines with, but less so on a fixed schedule in peak season. ......I was surprised you jumped straight from Munich to Rome but a quick look at the schedules has revealed it to be a much quicker (and more direct) connection than I imagined it to be!
It’s a great site. Every time I read it, I end up planning another trip! I tend to take the prices with a pinch of salt - prefer to pick my dates and travel 1st Class/ single sleepers where possible. I think my journey to Sicily cost around £800, buying the two rail sail tickets from Stena and adding the highest priced cabin on both the Liverpool and Hoek ferries and then buying the sleeper tickets online well in advance from NS/DB/Trenitalia.

Munich - Rome was an easy overnight, but this was before Deutsche Bahn dropped the City NightLine service. Not sure if that was one of the routes picked up by the OBB Railjet.

Zurich - Chur sounds amazing. Another one to add to my list!
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Old Apr 6, 18, 12:06 pm
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Day 5: Chur to Milan


Train 6: Bahnhof Chur to Tirano
Rhaetian Railways Bernina Express, First class
2017-06-01 BEX951 Dep: 08:32 Arr: 12:45 (4 hours 13 minutes)


Booking the Bernina Express is something I knew I needed to get right – with only one service a day, low density first class carriages, and our fixed schedule, I marked my calendar for the precise date 90 days in advance of departure when tickets would be made available. Even so, there was only one pair of facing single seats to select by that afternoon!


But it was worth the effort (and I’d have re-jigged the entire tour if need be to retain it on the itinerary). The route is a UNESCO world heritage site, featuring 200 bridges, over 50 tunnels, and a peak altitude of 2253m above sea level, making this the highest rail crossing in the world. From that spot, Ospizio Bernina in the Swiss Alps, it descends to Tirano, a mere 430m above sea level; thus also claiming the title of second-largest height difference along a rail route.

Since its inception all this has been achieved using electric-powered trains on narrow-gauge rails; today’s carriages are spacious, modern offerings. By booking first class, we got an even better ratio of glass to people; as the 1’s of a 1-2 seating arrangement, we had a whole window to ourselves. These curve upwards into the roof, making them ideal for gazing up into the mountain ranges during ascent and descent. They turned out to be less good for taking photos through, due to a combination of tint and reflection. Each car does have a vestibule area with a window that opens, but expect this to be hotly contested by photographers, especially at key points of the trip (One guy in particular was insistent that he would not be sharing). At less remarkable moments of the route this also offered a pleasant way to get a lungful of fresh alpine air!

First class also features wifi, but not to access the internet; instead, it serves up "InfoT(r)ainment", an audio guide to the landmarks along the way (there’s a small library of books available too). Fewer passengers per car also helped with competition for luggage space, since obviously there’s no overhead racks.


Bernina Express panoramic carriage


Bernina Express first class interior (note the library on the left!)


Our seats and window


The seats across the aisle from ours (1-2 config in first class)

~

It’s honestly difficult to pick out particular sections as being a highlight – about the only time we weren’t gazing out the windows was when working through tunnels. I’ve put a more extensive gallery of pictures on flickr, but here’s a summary of some of the more famous features of the journey.


Landwasser Viaduct
When travelling in the Chur to Tirano direction, this lofty crossing is doubly striking, as the track immediately enters the Landwasser tunnel from the span of the viaduct. For that reason it’s become a signature of Rhaetian Railways, with both the Bernina Express and sister service the Glacier Express travelling along it. On-board the elevation is less obvious, but from first class the curvature allows an excellent view of the front of the train entering the tunnel. Sadly I only managed to take this terrible photograph from the carriage, having been crowded out of the vestibule:


The Bernina Pass
Having spent much of the past week sweltering through temperatures of 30°C and above, the prospect of snow seemed remote. Yet as we steadily climbed, so the temperature dropped. By the time we reached the highest point at Ospizio Bernina, we found ourselves following the ice-strewn shores of frozen Lago Bianco, against a backdrop of snowy mountains. A remarkable contrast with recent conditions – all the more so as our descent would eventually bring us back into Italian summer heat.


Alp Grüm
This station is an extended stop, for around 15 minutes. This allows for some fresh air, a stretch of your legs, and some stunning views of both glaciers in the mountains behind, and the Italian flavour of the Poschiavo valley ahead. The charming stone station also has a hotel and restaurant, for those who might wish to stay a little longer.


Lago di Poschiavo
The zig-zagging descent into the valley offers advance previews of this lake, appealing views in their own right. But the track turns out to run alongside its entire western shore, in places seemingly close enough to touch the water. At its southern limit the track continues to follow the perimeter, offering a glimpse back up the valley of the progress made from the now-distant mountains.


Brusio Circular Viaduct
The Bernina Railway’s other iconic feat of engineering is this spiraling structure, designed to cap the gradient of the route at 7° – thus ensuring safe descents and viable ascent. It’s a bittersweet moment for this direction of travel, as it also marks the train’s imminent arrival in first Italy, and then Tirano. As well as looping under the track, we also went through a water arch – but whether this was for the benefit of the passengers, or just the grass at the centre of the circle, was unclear!


~


Train 7: Tirano to Milano Centrale
Trenitalia Regionale Standard class
2017-06-01 Train 2571 Dep: 15:08 Arr: 17:40 (2 hours 32 minutes)

We enjoyed lunch in Tirano, at one of the many restaurants barely a minute’s walk from the terminal. That is as far as we should have strayed, and after an ill-advised luggage drag in midday summer heat around some more of town, we conceded the point and returned to the stations (the Bernina Express has a separate building, but the two are adjacent).

After the expense of all things Swiss, it was time to take advantage of the bargain that is travelling by railway in Italy. Purchasing there and then for the ninety mile journey to Milan cost us barely £10 each. Admittedly the regional stopping service would take over two and a half hours to cover this, but the standard class carriage was a perfectly comfortable place to be:


Trenitalia Regionale standard class interior



Trenitalia Regionale Standard class interior
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Old Apr 6, 18, 10:19 pm
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Thanks for posting. Interesting.
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Old Apr 7, 18, 2:45 pm
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Originally Posted by allset2travel View Post
Well, this is quite impressive as far as train travel goes (ok, I wish BHD Belle had done a report on his/her trip). I am also a train buff.
I did the Frankfurt to Brussels & Zurich to Chur (in December, snow scene was fab). Chur is a great little place to stay. In fact I used it as base while day tripping (one day Glacier Express & one day Bernina Express).
Look forward to the rest.
I really hadn't put in much planning with regards to Chur; it was on the itinerary to avoid the cost of three nights in Zurich, and to guarantee we'd make the Bernina Express departure rather than attempting an early morning connection. That paid off with the surprise factor of the train ride there, but also meant we only had a few hours in town. I'd booked a hotel in the older part so at least we got to have a bit of a wander after dinner that evening, and the way the mountains loom ever-present in view was immediately apparent. But there's clearly plenty we missed - only later on consulting some maps did I notice the river, or the cablecars... still, having enjoyed the Bernina Express we're keen to try the Glacier Express too so that should give us another opportunity.

And BHD Belle, here's a second vote for a report on your trip!
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