I’ve always loved international rail travel – watching the world go by through the window, the chance to stretch your legs when you get tired of sitting, the ease of navigating the station, and the pure excitement of getting to a different country from where you started.
So, with two of my sons studying in different countries in Europe and a third with a half-semester break, the obvious way to ensure we’re all together for a few days is to travel to one city and out of the other with a train ride in between.
After leaving Dublin on a humid February morning, we took an early flight to Vienna before leaving the terminal and boarding our first train bound for Innsbruck, which would take us across the country to beautiful Salzburg.
Seasoned travellers, we always travel with carry-on baggage only (even for month-long adventures), but the red tape involved in plane flights and after mandatory security checks, baggage weighing and long waits are inevitable beforehand. Taking off from Dublin, I was pleased to see the train come to the platform and just jump.
In three hours the journey was longer than the journey, but there seemed to be no time at all where cities and villages and rivers and then mountains, and so many majestic mountains, appeared. Minutes after we reached our destination we were standing on the platform, breathing fresh, fresh air.
Our overnight family was only a 10 minute walk from the station, so after a quick consultation with Google Maps, we wandered down the cobbled streets to the quaint Wolf Dietrich (my husband’s €177, salzburg-hotel.at).
Just like Vienna, there is a cultural atmosphere in Salzburg
Salzburg is a small city, and everything is within easy reach, so after we got a tour of the facilities (which included a small pool, sauna and steam room) and checked out our cozy family room, we deposited our bags and headed outside for a snack and a local beer with the now practical local second son Five months later.
Just like Vienna, there is a cultural atmosphere in Salzburg. Being Mozart’s birthplace, his early life has been clandestinely documented with frescoes and place names, and classical music, whether real or imagined, appears to be flying in the air descending from the Alps and through city streets. Music students holding instruments is a familiar sight. And in a wonderful marriage of old and new, natives are just as likely to wear the latest fashions as they are to wear sporty leggings and dirndls.
Over the course of three days, we visited the Gallery of Modern Art and took the funicular to Festungsberg and the towering castle of Hohensalzburg, which overlooks the city and provides a fantastic backdrop for pictures. It also houses a superb museum documenting the region’s history and past as a jewel in the archbishop of Salzburg’s crown and also a prison during World War II.
There is a restaurant with a panoramic view of the city, the mountains and the countryside beyond; Just the right place to enjoy a meal or a glass of wine while watching the sunset behind the Alps.
The Salzburg City Card (€26 per adult for 24 hours, €39 for 72 hours) gives you entry to the top attractions; From Mirabell Palace and Mozart’s birthplace in Getreidegasse to Hohensalzburg Castle and cathedral. But it also allows users to travel for free on public transportation, and offers discounts on events and activities. Since the center is quite compact, it is possible to accumulate a lot of activities in a short period of time.
A bus trip to Untersberg, the northernmost massif of the Berchtesgaden Alps, is a must. The last stop on Route 25 is located in the heart of the Austrian countryside, only 25 minutes from the Mirabellegarten or the Rathaus. An eight-minute ride on the cable car in St Leonhard/Grödig reveals the most spectacular views as it rises to 1,800 metres, with views across Salzburgerland and into Germany.
The next stage of our journey will include a nine-hour train journey across three countries. It may sound a little strange, but I like the pleasant speed of train travel, the ease of boarding and the ever-changing scenery. When I live on an island, I never fail to appreciate how easy it is to travel between countries on the continent.
And when the train left at 6.30 am on the first leg of its journey to Munich, my forward-facing seat was the perfect viewing platform for watching the sunrise over the Austrian and German countryside.
In our fast-paced lives, we don’t often have time to watch the sky change from dark blue to purple and pink before the colors blend and merge to finally reveal the misty sunbeams of a new day’s frost-breaking-covered fields. He was charming.
Two hours passed, and soon we were collecting our belongings and disembarking in Munich, crossing the platform to board a larger train that would take us across Germany to Bonn in just over four hours.
In our private carriage of six, we gratefully accepted fresh coffee from a passing waitress before settling in for a few more hours watching the world go by.
When we got to our next stop, we ran into a potential dilemma. Due to an ‘accident’ there was an 11 minute delay – this most likely meant that we would lose our connection which would take us to our final destination in Maastricht. We originally had a six-minute window between trains, so if the driver could take four minutes, we’d be fine. Certainly, with the increased speed of the train, we were updated along the way and reassured that not only was the three minutes back, but that we would in fact arrive a minute early in Aachen, where we would catch our last train of the day.
By 3:30pm we made it to Holland and got off the way we rode, with no hassles or long lines. Within minutes, we were out on the cobblestoned streets and made our way to the Hotel Kruisheren (doubles from €224, oostwegelcollection.nl). Formerly a monastery in the heart of the city, this stunning building is now a five-star hotel, and home to an eclectic collection of paintings, drawings, and sculptures.
We were six days apart, but due to the variety of the trip, the different locations, languages, culture and cuisines, it felt like longer.
The café culture is evident in Maastricht and everywhere you go there are restaurants, bars and cafés with outdoor seating. They all have efficient heating systems, so, no matter the time of year, you can sit under an umbrella for a coffee or eat while watching the world go by. As the sun sets, we find a spot in the Vrijthof, the city’s main square, and tuck into some Bami Goreng (a traditional spicy pasta dish), prawns and calamari with paprika, and bitterballen (meatballs), followed by poffertjes (small pancakes with syrup) to finish.
The next morning, after breakfast in the hotel’s stunning lobby restaurant, we set off on foot to Boekhandel Dominicanen, a one-of-a-kind bookstore located in a cathedral and a great place to unwind for an hour browsing novels and biographies.
Throughout the day, we visited the Museum of Natural History and the Bonnefanten Museum (which houses a mixture of Art Nouveau and Old Masters), before taking a lovely walk through the city park and up into the hills overlooking the river to see the Maastricht Caves.
We spent the rest of the short visit browsing and shopping, and after a first class dinner in the hotel restaurant, with locally made Dutch wines, we bid farewell to this vibrant Dutch city (and two of our sons) and took our last train, this time from Maastricht to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport.
We spent six days away, but given the variety of the trip, the different locations, languages, culture and cuisines, it just felt much longer.
Watch out for Europe, I will be back in the summer.