This whole Interrail itinerary started as no more than the idea of the Glacier Express; a rather spectacular train journey that cuts across the Swiss Alps from Zermatt to snowy Saint Moritz. But in piecing together the journey, we quickly realised that travel to-and-around Switzerland would likely be very expensive. Or at least it could be done a lot cheaper. So we turned to alternative train routes and found that 3-days of travel through Switzerland, including the Glacier Express (£135), would be more expensive than a 7-day Global Pass on the Interrail in winter (£300 at the time). As Switzerland is no doubt where you get the real value for money on the Interrail Pass in Europe.
Then we found further savings on flights, as we can start out from pretty much anywhere in Europe, and managed to bag return flights to/from Berlin with Ryanair for £76pp (20kg baggage included). Meaning we had literally 4 additional days of train travel to use in Europe, for less than what we would have paid in direct travel to/around Switzerland for the Glacier Express. And so we decided to be backpackers in Europe for the week, riding the rails, while ticking off some of Germany’s better-known Interrail destinations, and crisscrossing the Swiss Alps on the iconic Glacier Express. We also called into Prague.
We have visited all three countries on this list before, only this was always on road trip itineraries, which had focused more on pokey villages, far-flung attractions, and scenic stops in the countryside. All which are otherwise not very convenient on an Interrail pass. But we had also avoided the big destinations of Europe on these road trips, due to traffic and parking, along with the obvious hassles of driving in big cities. Meaning our focus is more on big city destinations on this rail Interail journey in Europe. But we do add in some pokey medieval towns and alpine ski resorts along the way, to create a more contrasting and diverse itinerary for the Interrail in Winter.
I guess some folk may think the amount of time spent in transit is somewhat absurd, but this is how we have always scheduled train travel itineraries. In what we have come to know as “extreme sightseeing”, where we literally travel ridiculous distances just to photograph things, and then travel ridiculous distances back again (e.g. our road trip through the Scottish Highlands last year. Or covering 9 countries in East Central Europe before). But much of the best scenery is found between destinations in Europe, and, when travelling by train, it’s a bit like sightseeing from the comfort of your
The Eurail / Interrail Pass
We both travel with the Interrail in winter, myself on the Global Interrail Pass (being from Europe) while Fanfan is on the Eurail Global Pass (being from Asia). Although the passes are pretty much identical; other than in name and the nationalities that use them. The passes give us both 7-days of train travel to use in a one-month period, although we choose to use these days almost back-to-back through a 9-day period (08/01/2019 to 16/01/2019). On our extreme sightseeing itinerary. We also travel on the Interrail in winter, which is low season for travel, meaning advanced seat reservations are unnecessary, other than a compulsory booking for the Glacier Express.
While this would be our first time using the Interrail in Europe, we have taken on similar rail adventures in Japan using JR Passes, and so we will be making occasional comparisons along the way. But Japan will forever set the standard when it comes to pretty much all aspects of train travel, and despite the obvious language and cultural barriers, we found trains to be much easier to navigate, a lot more punctual, and infinitely friendlier, in Japan, than in Europe. Which is
Day 0: Arrival in Berlin
The Remnants of Christmas
We start out in Berlin, a city chosen not so much through preference, but a convenient northern location, and cheap flights. We also give a couple of days on arrival in the city, in case of delayed or cancelled flights, that could easily scupper the entire itinerary to come. So we start out shortly after New Year (06/01/2019) and during the wind-down of
But we will find the remnants of the festive season throughout this Interail journey, although it’s mostly just clumps of snow and discarded Christmas trees in the big cities along the way. As weather can be a bit hit-and-miss at this time in Europe, where I guess we were just unlucky not to find snow early on in these travels. Although it is pretty much guaranteed to come
Then things got just weird as the receptionist arrives
So the journey starts on a bit of a low, and our enthusiasm is further delayed by the grey skies and drizzle which followed us through our time in Berlin. But bear with us, as the city was merely a cheap and convenient starting destination to get our feet on the ground. And we did find many positives in the city, like getting lost on the museum-
A Frosty Welcome
The first thing you will notice in Europe, at least when compared to Asia, and more so Japan, is that people really are not that welcoming. And while I want to put this down to local mannerisms, at times we did find people to be just blatantly rude. And this became quickly obvious on the night before our first Interrail journey, when we called into the DB (Deutsche Banh) helpdesks to check if we needed to reserve tickets for our journey to Heidelberg the next day.
This is when the receptionist, who had the demeanour of a crabby headmistress, confirmed that we did not. But to be safe, we ask if it’s okay to just walk onto the trains without tickets, and she confirms, yes. We then ask if our tickets would be stamped on the train. And at this point she seemed frustrated, taking off her glasses with one hand, and shooing us away with the other. Probably signalling “you’re fine, don’t worry about it” or maybe “Pffft, take these silly questions away from me”.
But I prefer to take these as local mannerisms, as people do tend to be quite stern and abrupt, and maybe occasionally hostile, in these parts of Europe. At the same time, this will vary between countries and destinations, where big city folk tend to be less patient and welcoming than those in smaller and more
Day 1: Berlin to Heidelberg
First Day on the rails
The first Interrail journey takes us south to Heidelberg, with over 5 hours on trains, including 2 transfers at Fulda, and then Mannheim. And with ridiculously tight transfers, the journey was guaranteed to set the pace for the Interrail itinerary to come. But the journey is otherwise comfortable on Germany’s high-speed ICE trains, with onboard wifi, plug sockets and quiet cars so we can grab an hour’s kip on the first four-hour journey to Fulda.
The first test then comes at the transfer, with a 5-minute gap scheduled between trains, and our onward plans kind of depend on it. I
Fortunately, with a transfer time of 11-minutes, the next transfer was expected to be easier. Only it too pulls up 11-minutes late, resulting in a dash through the station to find our platform 2 tracks over. But, again, by some weird coincidence, it is also running 5 minutes late. And we managed to bumble right through to Heidelberg.
But were this Japan, we would have been guaranteed to have missed both trains, g
Medieval Charm in Heidelberg
Heidelberg would be your textbook European tourist destination, ticking off the cobbled squares, the medieval castle backdrop, the passing river, as well as church bells, and quaint local architecture. If only the funicular hill-train was in service, and it had been all covered in snow. So in
Our stay in Heidelberg was more of a pitstop on the way to the Swiss Alps. Which left us with slight regret for not making more of the stay. But this is actually why we take on these somewhat rushed itineraries, where we scout for destinations we might enjoy, and then maybe return for a longer stay down the line.
It can be tricky to track down traditional eats in Berlin these days, as with most major cities, where local foods are often hidden behind currywurst, kebab shops, and modern multiculturalism. So we are quick out in Heidelberg to find something local, reasonably priced, and most importantly serving traditional German grub. And while there are a handful of more rustic/touristic German restaurants in town, it’s drizzling at the time, so we opt for a nearby local joint (Weisser Schwan) where we arrive
But the restaurant is surprisingly empty at the time, and the owner, who reminds me of a German Jesse Plemons, seems somewhat thrilled for us to be there. Meanwhile, Mosch Mosch, with all its TripAdvisor, and probably Lonely Planet, badges on the windows, is dishing out Soba Noodles like there’s no tomorrow. I will never quite understand this whole “social travel” thing. Anyway, our meals come to around 30 Euros for Bratwurst with Sauerkraut and Schnitzel with mushroom sauce, along with a gin and tonic and a big glass of local beer. We really couldn’t have been happier.
Day 2: Heidelberg to Bern
The Continental Breakfast
Heidelberg would be one of few
Anyway, our next train to Bern was set to leave near
We actually had a bit of snowfall at the train halt in Heidelberg, and really we had somewhat expected snow in every one of the last days of travel. But weather and snow are never so predictable. Unless you’re in Switzerland and the Alps, where even in the height of summer we’ve found knee-height snow through places like Jungfrau and Mont Blanc. Although these are obviously some of the highest peaks in Europe. So if you want to be guaranteed some snow in winter, it’s best to just head straight for the Alps.
Anyway, shortly after Freiburg in Germany’s Black Forest region, we finally come to our first snowfall, then not long after crossing the Swiss-German border at Basel we open out to landscapes of thick snow. But these scenes are otherwise a bit intermittent throughout the journey, and it’s a tad disappointing when we arrive to wet footpaths at Bern. But just minutes after arrival, the snow comes thick and fast, and the city, which already looks straight from a Wes Anderson movie, is quickly blanketed in snow. I can’t help but fall in love with Bern.
Back to Basics
Switzerland coes bring fantastic value to the Interrail Pass, at the same time, everything else comes with a rather hefty price tag. So we are therefore back again to hostelling in Bern, with a basic
Day 3: Bern to Zermatt
Into the Alps
The landscapes really are quite stunning from Bern onwards, as we travel past lakes, mountains and snow-topped pine forests, towards our transfer at the small mountain city of Visp. From Visp we then transfer towards Zermatt, following the same lines as the Glacier Express, where the incline becomes steeper as we cut between the alpine settlements and traditional chalets of the Swiss Alps. Then there are the sharp turns as we wind between cliffsides and mountain ranges, and I really don’t know how people live up here. How do they even reach their houses? But weirdly there is no snow now, and while Zermatt has long been on Fanfan’s “dream” list, there had to be snow. So I was near touching cloth right until the 2nd last stop, and it’s not long until we reach the snow covered town of Zermatt.
A Room with Views
I will always prefer to travel short stints in comfort than travel for prolonged stretches as a backpacker. At the same time, I would forever be a backpacker for a couple of nights to give us something fancy along the way. And we almost always do this with a room with views. So this time it is a mountain chalet with balcony views over the famous Matterhorn (£139, Hotel Capricorn). An iconic Swiss image best-known from the Toblerone packaging. And it makes the perfect setting to watch the chalet lights switch on, and chimneys fill with smoke, as homes get warm and cosy for the ridiculously cold -16’c night ahead. Even when the sun’s out it is well in the minuses. And while it didn’t quite snow through the day, there was still plenty of snow to help cushion the empty wine bottle I knocked from our 4th-floor balcony, with little more than a thud. So we did make the most of our time at the hotel, enjoying the views while we had them, before moving to a cheaper place (£85) for
Zermatt is touristy, as expected, so it does feel Christmassy even in January, with Christmas trees, and general festiveness through the winter months. And it would probably be half-and-half as well, between winter sports and sightseers, with skiers clumping around in ski boots, and resort buggies nipping to the ski lifts, and there’s always the horse and carts strutting between the more high-end resorts of the town. And while we originally planned to go up in the cable cars, it cost near £60 per person, and really it just didn’t feel like good value for us at the same time. But were it one of those once in a lifetime opportunities, we probably would have paid, as we have done similar, and arguably better, cable cars in the Alps. To places like Mont Blanc (France)/Monte Bianco (Italy), Jungfrau, Titlis, First, Brunni, and probably a load more throughout Switzerland. I think we even passed the Matterhorn before when crossing the Schynige Platte. But the reason we paid similar amounts for these cable cars was to get a view of the mountain summit. And, in Zermatt, we already have decent views of the Matterhorn from our balcony window.
But again my focus is on food, and with fondue still high on my tick-list of Europe’s “national dishes”, we find ourselves at Cafe Du Pont, apparently the oldest restaurant in Zermatt, which is famous for its herb-laced cheese fondue. Although fondue is more of a shared meal, which I’ve found it hard to find on the menu for one, so I have always just lumped for the simpler solo option of Raclette in the past.
But fondue may have not been the best idea, given I’m already bunged up on bread, sausage, and cheeses through the days. When I am served the equivalent of probably 2 blocks of boiling cheese in a fondue pot, with a whole load of potatoes and cheese.
But it is obviously all about the experience, and the highlight of this one was the owner, with his full face of hair, mutton chops and all. Who literally took my knife and fork from me, so he could teach me how to smash my potatoes, and how to eat fondue. Choo-choo.
Otherwise, the highlight on the table was likely Fanfan’s rösti (often considered to be Switzerland’s National Dish) which is a bit like a big plate of hash potatoes.
After eats, we then called in for some apres ski local drinks, Grizzly’s Bar, on the way back to the hotel.
Day 4: Zermatt to St Gallen
The Glacier Express
The Glacier Express, which travels between Zermatt and St Moritz, is thankfully included on the Eurail/Interrail Pass, although it is necessary to reserve seats in advance (CHF23.00 pp). So we had booked two window seats, on the right, and best side of the train, for views and scenery.
However, an American tourist had managed to book wrongly for the 19th January (19/01/2019), which was a week ahead of the day. And a weird argument followed where she was determined to blame the European date system for her mistake, despite the attendant telling her that there was no problem in changing the reservation date. But, even with the American date system (01/19/2019), this would mean she had booked for the 19th month, which obviously doesn’t exist. And it was all just a bit weird. Anyway, she was allowed to change her reservation date, and she even found window seats, at no extra cost.
But I really wish they had “quiet cars” on the Glacier Express, because it is obviously a bit touristy/backpacker-ish, and we have to listen to passengers recite their life stories, loudly, from various aisles. Which kind of goes against the overall serenity of the journey.
The World’s Slowest Fast Train
The Glacier Express is a high-speed train, but due to terrain, it is slow at travelling from point A to B. Making it “The Slowest Fast Train in the World”. And the overall experience is well put together, with a free guidebook and headsets on each seat, and every time a “dong” rings in the carriage, the headsets share titbits about local culture, geography and the development of the region we’re. Or, alternatively, you could listen to the “authentic, traditional Swiss music” channel which really didn’t have as much yodelling, cowbells, and alphorns, as I had hoped for.
So I have included the full journey in the video below, but to share some highlights from the journey, there is Oberalp Pass, which is the highest point of the train ride, the Rhine Gorge, and the start of the River Rhine. Then there is the famous Landwasser Viaduct. Not to mention the boundless snow scenes found along the way.
There will also be an alternative stop and disembarkation at Chur, pronounced Coor, before the Landwasser Viaduct, but we continued on through to the end at Saint Moritz. Even though we would return again to Chur for onward travel.
A Deer in the Headlights
Chur also marks the beginning of another rather spectacular train ride, known as the Bernina Express, which cuts over the Swiss Engadin Alps, and along the Rhaetian Railway (World Heritage Site) to finally reach Tirano in Italy. But we
While we were a bit undecided on the necessity of this journey, we were happy to have covered the full length of the Glacier Express, and return at night was still rather romantic, as we passed the intermittent lights of ski slopes, junctions and mountain settlements, which dot the otherwise pitch black night time landscapes. But, suddenly, the train stops and we are left sitting for a good 20-30 minutes, as we apparently hit a rather large deer on the train lines. Then, once the track had been cleared, the locomotive appeared to struggle in starting back up again, with drained batteries and blinking cabin lights every time they tried to start the ignition again.
Eventually, the train was back up and moving again, but given the delay from its usual schedule, it would now have to stop to let oncoming trains pass on the tracks. And, in all, the delays make us an hour late for our arrival in Chur. On the plus side, I did ask if the deer was okay, and the conductor said it was, with a chuckle. Although I’m pretty sure he was humouring me. And that deer is all kind of dead. All over the tracks.
It is after
To make things worse, the 3 locals we asked had never heard of the address, and it is just ridiculously hard to climb hills covered in fresh snow. And more so when carrying a massive backpack, and rolling along 12kg of baggage. So when I tried to climb the slopes, I was more or less being pulled back down again by the weight of my bags. On every step. So at times I was slinging the 12kg cabin bag up the hill ahead of me, to then shimmy along fences and walls after it. Then repeat. We looked like right tits.
But soon the streets were empty apart from us, and with near a foot of snow on the ground, we were no closer to finding this elusive apartment in the back hills of Saint Gallen. And we were close to cutting our losses with a new hotel in the town centre, when I noticed an apartment building, similarly shaped to the image in the booking, only now we were standing above it. From behind. So now we had to slide back down the hills again to find it. And what should have been a 15-minute stroll through Saint Gallen, had become more of a 1-hour arctic expedition.
Day 5: Saint Gallen to Munich
This was our 2nd big mistake, as we again skimped on our budget for this apartment in Saint Gallen, where, given an extra tenner, we could have had a decent town centre hotel. And while we did have nice views over the historical sights of the town, we never really had time to enjoy them with a checkout time of
So we managed to cover Saint Gallen relatively well in these morning hours, before picking up our still damp bags, and filling in the main touristy bits around St. Gallen Cathedral. As before now, the Cathedral had been closed to tourists due to Sunday services, although we do sneak in at the end of the service. And it really was surreal, and somewhat unsettling, to hear someone preaching loudly in German. For obvious reasons.
The Bangor Connection
This is a bit of a niche interest for the local readers of Bangor in Northern Ireland. At the same time, Fanfan chose this stop in Saint Gallen without knowing anything about the local history and relevance with Bangor. “Who’s Saint Gall?”. As she was otherwise drawn by the extreme beauty of the “world’s oldest library” found next to the central Cathedral. It was really just a happy coincidence.
So, Saint Gallen is named after a former monk from Bangor, who jumped on a boat leaving our coastline (joined by Saint Columbanus and others) as they began setting up various Christian monasteries throughout Europe. And the now Swiss town of Saint Gallen is where Saint Gall finally retired to hang out with a friendly bear in the woods. Or something along those lines. (We cover the journey in full in our From Bangor to Bobbio article).
Anyway, there are many relevant historical sites in and around the cathedral, including the World Heritage Site in the Abbey of Saint Gall, as well as one of the oldest, and most beautiful, libraries in the world which contains manuscripts written by the monks of Bangor Abbey in the 7th Century. There are also various monuments and mentions dotted in and around, including a Saint Gall statue in the main square, and a smaller statue of Saint Gall’s bear-friend in the nearby commercial area.
Otherwise our day in Saint Gallen was expected to be less-rushed, with a 14:00PM departure from Saint Gallen, which just meant longer now lugging around our baggage. The next train would then be to Munich, which should takes less than 4 hours, and this would maybe give us a night out in the city. Although this was wishful thinking. As we arrive to Saint Gallen station to find that every high speed train to Munich has been cancelled through the day due to snow on the tracks. Which is apparently something that hasn’t happened in over 10 years.
So instead the train was to transfer at
But there was still a lot of uncertainty along the lines, and the train must have sat stationary before Lindau, for close to 20-minutes, before an announcement tells us that we no longer had to transfer at Lindau. A second announcement then came saying that we no longer had to transfer at Ulm either. So we were now avoiding the transfers at these stations. But the “direct route”, around and avoiding the snow, still arrived near 2-hours late to Munich. And now I was really getting tired of train travel.
Day 6: Munich to Prague
The Bavarian Capital
This would be my first visit to Munich, yet it does feel familiar, where I really find it hard to set European cities apart these days. At least away from the obvious tourist attractions. And, on this short visit to the Bavarian Capital, it is only really these obvious tourist attractions that we have time to cover. So, shortly after sunrise, we are out on foot with a good 3-hours to explore the city before our hotel checkout. Which is made easy with our hotel being a stones’ throw or so from the train station, as well as the relatively close-knit attractions nearby.
So we began to tick-off the general tourist tick list, starting at the central Marienplatz square, before climbing the tower at Saint Peter’s Church for views over the city, and lastly chasing between a whole bunch of the city’s churches. Although I am kind of up to my ears with churches right now. But, coming from Thailand, Fanfan is still obsessed with them, and their paintings, and their architecture, and I guess I am no different
The Kebab Comparison
Through years of travel, I have found the best way to measure comparative prices between countries is through food. And the obvious constant through pretty much every city in Europe would be the doner kebab. Or “Doner
So there is a fair variance in prices between these destinations in Europe, but, in general, big cities will likely be more expensive than smaller tourist towns. And Switzerland is by far the most expensive country we have travelled through
Indulgence in Prague
One of my sincerest regrets in travel is having not visited Prague many years ago. And I had once planned on a visit during my first European road trip 15 years ago, only it all ended early, when my crappy car engine exploded and were left stranded in the French Pyrenees. We also considered Prague on our latest road trip, but, with traffic and parking, the city just doesn’t suit well to a road trip itinerary. However we did include Cesky Krumlov on our latest itinerary, where, through the 8 country road trip, it was by far my favourite destination of all. Which is partly due to the low-cost of everything.
And hotels in Prague appear to be similar in price, where we stay in the old town area of the city, in a guestroom with enclosed entry hallway, towering ceilings, carved hardwood interiors, a compressed marble bathroom, branded toiletries, a big breakfast, and, for the first time on this journey, a kettle with coffee. So our digs were pretty much palatial in comparison to the past week of hotels and hostels. Yet cost only £42.
Meanwhile, our cheapest accommodation in Switzerland was that £70 bunk bed hostel room, with shared bathroom, and no towels, in Bern. As there really can be massive contrasts in prices in Europe. But we did forget to photograph the initial hotel, so here is the 2nd (£48) hotel where we stayed next to Prague Castle.
The Bohemian Feast
Our first hotel is just around the corner from U Fleků Restaurant, a well-known tourist trap in Prague, which we can at least walk into without much worry without blowing our budget. As we are now closing on the finishing line well within our outcast. And soon we were taking off just where we left it in Cesky Krumlov. With the accordion chords playing, the grog flowing, a jolly Bohemian feast. For me, I go with a plateful of goulash with traditional Czech Knedlíky dumplings, while Fanfan goes with a massive pork knuckle. It’s hard not to be happy.
But the night becomes somewhat sketchy as a waiter plops down two shot glasses, saying honey and… I didn’t hear the rest, as he snuck off to the next table. So we just assumed that these drinks accompanied the meal. But then he’s sneaking back with more, so I stop him this
At the same time, they do make some rather fantastic cinnamon and honey liquors. And I probably would have ordered them, were it not for the sneakiness, and annoyingness of it all. So we were soon out. And, in the end, for 2 meals, 2 beers, the 2 shots, and some random “service charge” costing more again than the drinks we ordered. The final bill came to 37 Euros (Kč 942). Which just sounds embarrassingly overpriced compared to local costs in the Czech Republic. And prices are not so different
While it does feel a bit silly complaining, considering we somewhat knew before going in. It no doubt ruins the experience, knowing that people are only being nice to you, to rip you off. Because you’re not really a guest in their tavern, you’re a mark, and they’re going to scam you for whatever you’ve got. Anyway, my real regret is never having made it to Prague 15 years ago, before it had this notorious tourist reputation, and when cobbled backstreets were still full of cheap and cheerful bohemian charm.
The Charles Bridge
There would be two sides to the city of Prague, separated by the Vltava River, and connected by the famous Charles Bridge. Along with a bunch of lesser-known bridges. So instead of travelling back-and-forth between the 2 sides, we Ubered to the opposite for the second night, costing little more than a fiver. And made the most of both sides of the city. Again we would be staying in 4* digs, next to Prague Castle, and while we originally booked a guestroom with a built-in fireplace (£88) we decided to downgrade after realizing how little time we would have to enjoy it. As there’s a lot to see in Prague.
But, before crossing the river, we still have a full day of sightseeing in the old town of Prague. Only my feet are killing me by now, and Prague doesn’t really help, given it’s probably the most
Day 7: Prague to Berlin
I could probably spend a good day in the museums and exhibits of Prague Castle alone. But, on this rushed itinerary, the ticket prices would likely be wasted on me. As I’m pretty much clueless to everything I am looking at. So I would much rather learn a bit about the history and relevance of these buildings beforehand, to at least put a bit of context to it all. Only, for now, we just circle the buildings and take in the sights. As I am sure we will be back again to Prague, with more time, and better knowledge of local history and whatnot. I’m sure we’ll be back.
So this has been similar for pretty much all of this Interrail journey, where the only entrance fees we paid for were at the “World’s Oldest Library” in Saint Gallen, and for the rooftop viewpoint in Munich. Otherwise the only real expenses on this journey were in eating, drinking, hotels, and train travel. Meaning it was easy enough to predict a budget, and we then managed to stick to it. And, all in, including flights (£150), Interrail Passes (£600), and everything between. We spent roughly £2,000 on the two of us.
The Last Stretch
The return to Berlin was one of the more enjoyable, although this was partly due to the mini bottles of Absinthe I smuggled on board the train. As we are otherwise tired, with aching feet after two days on Prague’s never-ending cobbles, and we are really now just ready to end this winter Interrail journey. Within
In all, this would be our 12th and final night, and the 7-days of travel on the Interrail pass has come to an end. Which honestly feels like enough for us. As the overall journey was very tiring, due to our own fault, having squished such far-flung destinations into such a short period of time. But I don’t feel like we would change any of it? Not the destinations, anyway. At the same time, we were very much beginners on the Interrail in Winter, so there are obviously bits and bobs we could make better in between. Such as hotels, and timing. But we will try to top it down the line.