Every other train we’d taken that week we’d had to run for. This time, we pulled up to the station with 10 minutes to spare.
“Do you want me to come in and help you figure out the track and all that?” asked our host, helpfully.
“Oh no,” I said, “If we can’t figure that out on our own then we have no business traveling via Eurail.” There were four witnesses to this statement.
15 minutes later, still staring at the departure board, I was convinced that our train was 20 minutes late. “Are you sure, Mom?” asked Magno. “Don’t you think you should ask someone?”
Finally the track number was posted for “our” train, and we made our way there with our backpacks and suitcases. But why did the board say “Berlin” when we were heading to Vienna?
I went back to the main hall to check the departure board. Huh. Right. I was looking at the arrivals, not the departures. “Our” train to Vienna had left on time; the train FROM Vienna TO Berlin was late, and was arriving at the track where my family stood waiting to board. Doh!
This could have been a serious blow to my travel cred, except that I had downloaded the Deutsche Bahn (DB) train schedule app on my phone and was able to reroute us on a train leaving in 10 minutes that would get us in only an hour later than “our” train. It did require 2 changes, and the first train didn’t have a first class compartment (horrors!) but it would be just fine. No one was mad at me. Except me
The third month of our round-the-world trip is known as “Our Eurail Adventure.” Thanks to the folks at Eurail.com, who had asked me to write some articles about traveling with children by rail, we were in possession of four Global Flex passes with which we could have 15 days of train travel to go anywhere in the Eurail network.
I had used a Eurail pass when I was in college, and it was a great way to see broad swaths of the European continent on a budget. I really wanted to show my girls how much fun it was. We had rented a car to explore Spain, which was fun, and it did get us to places we might not have been able to reach by train, but it was just not the same as a family Eurail experience would be. There is nothing like leaving one country on the train, riding through amazing scenery for a couple of hours, and then arriving right in the center of a new city, in a new country, often using a new language, and not having to worry about parking tickets.
We started off with a bang, with an overnight trip from Paris to Berlin, which you can read about here. The Eurail pass includes different perks in every country, and here it covered our fares on the S-Bahn, the Berlin city train. We found the S-Bahn one of the most difficult city trains to navigate – the trains were not well marked, the maps had the tiniest fonts I’ve ever seen, and different train lines ran on the same tracks, but there were no indications next to the tracks as to which train would be arriving and in which direction – for that you needed to go upstairs to view the boards. And the people we asked for help were not at all helpful. So we’d give the S-Bahn an F for failing to be tourist-friendly, and give Eurail an A for offering perks above and beyond the virtually limitless train travel.
We rented bikes and rode around the wide boulevards, by the river, and through the Brandenburg Gate, ending up at a Superdry store – a Japanese brand that was all the rage in the UK, and with which Calla had become quite enamored. She decided to spend some of her travel money on a Superdry sweatshirt, which it turned out she would be happy to have in the coming weeks of chilly weather. Across the street, we spied what looked like a tiny streetside sausage stand, but on closer inspection it was a massive modern beer hall. We went with it, and found Berlin’s famous currywurst to be not our favorite thing. The sausage was good, but currywurst is all about the sauce, which is a sweet curry ketchup, and just not as good as a spicy mustard, in our opinion.
So Berlin didn’t really deliver for us, but then again, we were only there for 24 hours or so. We’ll give it another chance someday, but on this trip it was a not-particularly-memorable stopover on our way to the Czech Republic where we would stay with our old friends, Beth and Martin.
The train from Berlin to Decin follows a path along the Elbe River that is listed on the Eurail map as a “Scenic Route” and it certainly delivered. The fall colors shone on the hills next to the river, and the train hugged the shoreline for about an hour. We were almost alone in the First Class car (thanks again, Eurail!) and it was a nice relaxing trip.
We spent a wonderful week with Beth and Martin and their kids. Adina had baked an apple cake for our arrival, and we stayed up way too late and drank way too much wine as we caught up on our first night. The next days were filled with hikes in the woods, several trips to Prague, and many board games with Oliver, whose mastery of Monopoly was truly impressive. He has learned well from his realtor father. The girls went to school with Oliver one day, and accompanied Beth to the high school English class she teaches one day.
On our last day with the Tonders, it was Martin’s name day, and we went to Novy Bor, a town known for its glass and crystal factories. We went to Ajeto, a restaurant inside of one of the glass factories, which had a glass observation wall so we could watch the glass artisans at work while we ate. Not only was it a great activity to watch, the food was some of the best we’d had anywhere. I had a dish called St. Martin’s goose, which was caramelized and served with the great big bready Czech dumplings and red cabbage and fried onions on top. It was fantastic. And went very well with the nice Czech beer.
After the slight glitch described in my intro above, we arrived in Vienna, which I had for many years declared my favorite city in Europe. It is a very elegant city, but this time around seemed stuffy and snobbish and boring. Even the wacky Hundertwasser Haus, that had once seemed so radical and rebellious and organic to me, now seemed just childish after we’d seen the majestic and meticulous Gaudí buildings in Barcelona. We did have some nice cakes in a lovely (but stuffy and snobbish) (and smoky! why do they have the smoking section right at the bottom of the stairway to the non-smoking section? and why do they have a smoking section at all?) Viennese tearoom.
In every city, we watch the locals to see how they approach crosswalks and traffic. In the US, the zebra striped pedestrian crossing zones don’t mean much, but in much of Europe they indicate that cars should stop if a pedestrian is in the crosswalk. And at traffic lights, we’re never sure if it’s ok to cross if the light is red for pedestrians but there’s no traffic – generally we follow the natives. In Vienna, we approached a crosswalk at a busy intersection. The light was red for pedestrians. The light was also red for cars. No one moved. After 15 seconds or so, a young woman crossed the street. “HALT!” came a booming voice from next to me. “Do you think you’re God or something?” The man was sort of laughing, but still everyone waited. Eventually, a young man shouted to a nearby police officer to ask if it was ok to cross Just then the light turned green, but this whole incident had involved a full 40 seconds, and a single lane of traffic to cross. We were clearly in a very different culture than where we come from.
From Vienna, we took a quick train to Bratislava to spend the day on the way to Budapest. I was last in Bratislava in 1990, as an idealistic college kid ready to spread democracy by teaching English after the Velvet Revolution as part of Students for Czechoslovakia. Bratislava in 1990 was just emerging from under the heavy mantle of communism, and things were pretty grim. I remember we had a tough time finding food to eat once the university cafeteria closed for the summer just a week after our arrival. Stores just didn’t have much of anything in them, and the only restaurants we knew of were a hot dog cart on the street near our dorm, and the fancy restaurant in the big hotel downtown that had catered to communist party officials. My how things have changed. Today, Bratislava has a thriving tourist center filled with bars, restaurants and shopping, and some of the nicest cafes we’ve seen anywhere in Europe.
I was hoping we’d find that hot dog cart, though, because it had a technique I haven’t seen anywhere else. There was a slim rod in the cart whose sole purpose was to impale the fresh hot dog bun at the precise width of a hot dog, so the fried dog could slide right into the bun from the short end. Sadly, all the hot dog vendors seemed to have abandoned this practice and just had the boring old steamed dogs in packaged buns. Oh well. It’ll live in my memory, anyway.
After picking up our luggage from the bag storage in the train station, we hopped on a train to Budapest. I don’t remember much about Budapest from the trips of my youth, but this time around I really loved it. Loved it so much that we extended our two nights there to four! We met up with Kristyn, a neighbor from home who had moved here with her family about a year ago, who took us on a whirlwind tour of the city. It was great to have our own tour guide, and we really did see a lot.
On our first extra day, we went to the Szechenyi Baths, where thermal waters heat indoor and outdoor pools in a 19th century complex. It was a great way to spend a chilly, cloudy day. We topped off the day with a great Hungarian dinner at a small neighborhood joint – the kind of place you’d love to just stumble across in your travels but you never do, except we did! And it was pretty inexpensive to boot, just adding to our love of the city.
The next day we went in search of some of the city’s “ruin pubs” which are bars created in some of the run-down buildlings in the city. They reminded me of Amsterdam’s squatter bars. We learned that many of them were in the area where we had stayed our first two nights, and that many are only open in summer, when the lack of roof or heat is not such an issue. We did find one, a small indoor version of a summer pub, that was homey and warm and playing a great selection of soul music, and we just enjoyed sitting and chatting with each other for a while.
On Sunday, we set out for Zagreb, Croatia. We had made reservations for this trip, since it would be a longish one and we wanted to be sure to sit together. Of course, we got on the train, and there were only two people seated in our car – and they were in our seats. The only ones in the whole car that were reserved. It was kind of funny.
When we arrived in Zagreb, we realized quickly that things might be a little different here. As soon as the train pulled into the station, people started disembarking and stepping right over the tracks instead of making their way down the platforms. After we walked the length of the platform, down some stairs and back up again, which is always fun with luggage, we realized that they had been right. Always follow the locals.
We had chosen Zagreb mainly because we found a nice-looking apartment there where we could cook Thanksgiving dinner. Not all rentals have ovens, and we wanted to be sure we could roast a turkey. We managed to find all the ingredients we needed at the main market in town, and had a pretty close facsimile to our traditional Thanksgiving, but we really missed our family back home. Skyping helps, but sometimes makes us miss home all the more.
We spent a quiet week in Zagreb, with Calla and I both feeling a little ill. We ventured out for a few city tours and a great trip across the river to the stunning Modern Art Museum, which the girls loved, if only because part of its architecture includes a three story slide for visitors to get from the top floor down. Zagreb is also home to the Museum of Broken Relationships, which shows relics of broken relationships (mix tapes, teddy bears, love notes) along with their stories. It was odd, but sweet in a melancholy way. It fit with our impression of the city as one that values tradition, modernity, and nostalgia equally.