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Trip Report Two weeks in Western Europe by Train

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Last October, my husband and I had the most wonderful adventure. Granted, it was an adventure that may sound like madness to many people. For us, it was perfect! Our goal was to see beautiful scenery and to scout out areas that we may like to return to some day. (There really is something to be said for the idea of setting clear, attainable goals. ;-))

When we left the US we had very few reservations/plans - though we had a general idea of our itinerary. Here is what we knew for sure when we left home:

1) We would arrive in Copenhagen on the 16th of October. We also booked our hotel for the first two nights before we left (we didn't want to show up exhausted with no place to stay. Sometimes, we're very smart like that.)
2) We had booked an overnight train to Cologne, Germany. That train would be leaving Denmark late in the afternoon on October 18th.
3) We had booked an early morning passage on the Bernina Express out of Northern Italy on October 29th.
4) Our flight home from Zurich would be leaving at 5:30 PM on October 31st.

Armed with a 21-country, 15-day Eurail pass and a carry-on each (plus my camera bag), we set off.

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    Copenhagen, Denmark/Malmo, Sweden (Oct 16-18):
    We arrived in Copenhagen, tired and jet lagged late in the afternoon on Saturday, Oct 16th. With eyelids that felt like sandpaper after the long flight, we headed right from the airport to our hotel in Malmo.

    Side note: we did pay a little for the train to Malmo that first night so that it wouldn't count as one of the 15 travel days available on our Eurail pass. (The rest of the trips back and forth between Malmo and Copenhagen were covered by the pass.)

    There were those who thought we were crazy to use Malmo as a base for Copenhagen. The feeling was that the half-hour trip in each direction would rob us of precious time in Copenhagen. One thing about my husband and me, though, is that traveling from place to place is just part of the adventure! So, for us, the choice couldn't have been better!

    That first night, we crossed the Øresund straight as the sun was sinking low into the sea and arrived in Malmo to find the city bathed in a beautiful golden light. Hoisting our carry-ons onto our backs, we made our way from the train station to our hotel in the old city, about two blocks away.

    We stayed at the Mayfair Hotel Tunneln (http://www.mayfairtunneln.com/en). To say that it was a quirky old hotel is an understatement. It was, however, quite charming and the staff were delightful. Once we checked in, we made our way through a crazy maze of hallways and staircases to our room, which had a romantic little balcony overlooking a courtyard.

    After a brief nap and calls to our family back in North America, we set off in search of a good meal. The person at the hotel made a few suggestions. She then mentioned a place that most tourists don't like. She described it as Swedish food with a bit of twist. That sealed the deal for us and off we went through the cobblestoned squares of Malmo to find the restaurant. My husband had a lamb dish while I had pig cheeks stuffed with plums and spices. It was truly superb! The name of the restaurant is Bastard and we would both highly recommend it. We found out afterward that we were lucky to get a table so be warned.

    Early the next morning, we made our way to Copenhagen. It was a gloriously sunny day and we spent our time wandering the city aimlessly. My husband makes fun of me because if I see a pretty alleyway, I want to go down it. Our exploration of Copenhagen was no different. He chided me that I was taking us on the frequent mugging tour of Copenhagen. (Of course, he said that about most every place we went. ;-))

    I am happy to report, though, that we did not meet any Danes or foreigners with nefarious intent. We explored unmolested all around making stops at the Round Tower (Rundetårn), which we stumbled upon, and the Danish Jewish Museum, which was on my husband's must-visit list. For anyone interested in photography - Rundetårn has incredible light. If you're lucky enough to go when it isn't very crowded, which we were, you can get some really lovely shots. The people at the Jewish Museum were extremely friendly. We spent quite a bit of time there chatting with some of the locals.

    That first day, we also stumbled upon other Copenhagen landmarks such as the parliament building, the stock exchange, and, of course, Tivoli. We also explored the maze of pedestrian areas around Town Hall Square - where we found a great bakery (I'm drooling just thinking about the cream-filled berry tart that I had there. Mmmmmm. Alas, I digress) and took in the work of some decent street performers.

    When our bellies told us they were hungry, we left the hustle and bustle of Copenhagen and made our way back to the serenity of Malmo. As our train sped toward our temporary Swedish home right at sunset, we were lucky enough to see the fiery red sky mirrored in the calm water. I will travel half an hour anytime for a view like that!

    It was a little trickier to find a restaurant that was open in Malmo on a Sunday evening but we did find a little place in the old city and had a lovely meal. After our supper, we strolled through the quiet old streets enjoying the romantic tranquility after a busy day. Once we made it back to the hotel, we spent an hour or so chatting with the desk clerk before making our way to our room.

    On Monday, we checked out of our hotel and headed for the Copenhagen train station, where we stored our bags and headed off in search of adventure. We took a bus around the city and then went to Nyhavn, where we did a boat tour (if we had the time back, we probably would have skipped the boat tour - especially since it was quite cold).

    After taking the obligatory pictures of the waterfront (it really is lovely, after all) we went in search of lunch and found ourselves in a restaurant serving a traditional herring buffet (of course, it's hard not to find a herring buffet in Nyhavn). Feeling a little susceptible and seeing a lot of locals going mad for the buffet in this restaurant, I decided to take the plunge and see what all of the fuss was about. Now, maybe it was because of the super-strong, homemade schnapps I had there but I quite enjoyed my herring experience (not that I'm longing to find a herring buffet now that we're home, mind you).

    Stomachs full and head slightly buzzing, we struck off once again. As the day wore on, it got colder and colder and by the time we boarded our 5:30 PM train bound for Cologne, we were ready to bid farewell to "beautiful, beautiful Copenhagen."

    Next stop: Rhineland

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    This is great vict4ia, really enjoying your writing style. Brings back some lovely memories of Copenhagen, so thanks for that. I will look forward to further chapters as this is something we want to do when we retire.

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    Thanks for the kind comments, everyone. =) Now, for the next installment:

    Rhineland (Cologne, Bacharach and surrounds, and Heidelberg), Germany: Oct 19-21

    The overnight train from Copenhagen to Cologne was a pleasant enough experience. Certainly, the cabins were much better appointed than those in the train that we took across Canada a few years ago (though that was a lovely trip, too). The bunks of the train to Cologne were plenty long for my husband's 6'6" frame and the champagne we received upon boarding was a welcome surprise.

    We actually left Copenhagen at around 6:40 PM, not 5:30 PM (my mistake). By that time, it was quite dark and it was obvious that this would not be a journey that would afford hours of gazing at the countryside. So, after finishing a bizarre supper of champagne and a strange-but-tasty sandwich we had purchased in Copenhagen we came up with a loose plan for the following day, brushed up on our German a little bit and called it a night (though I never sleep well on trains).

    When our train rolled into Cologne on the morning of Oct 19 it was just after 6 AM and still dark. Cologne really wasn't on our agenda for any other reason than it is a hub with easy access to the Rhine region. We decided to spend a couple of hours in Cologne so that we wouldn't be competing with commuters for trains and then head on down the Rhine.

    Though we were only there for a few hours, we had a great time in Cologne. First of all, nothing had prepared me for the sight that awaited us outside the main entrance of the Hauptbahnhof. Sure, I had read that the Kölner Dom was right outside the train entrance but to see the cathedral swathed in the dark purple light of early dawn was jaw dropping, even on an overcast day. I don’t think I was expecting it to be quite that close. If you look closely, there may actually be an imprint of my chin in the concrete outside of the train station.

    Too early to enter the cathedral, we went in search of a warm drink and then decided to try to find the Rathaus, which we knew was fairly nearby and which we heard was worth seeing.

    Now, we had decided to learn German just over two months before we embarked on this adventure. Our quest for the Rathaus provided us with our first opportunity to really try out our newly acquired German skills.

    Seeing that we were obviously looking for something, a kindly stranger stopped and asked if she could help us. Instead of looking at her and pretending to be mute, we screwed up our courage and said that we were trying to find the Rathaus. Admittedly, we didn't understand her answer completely but we did manage to pick out enough of the words to find our destination.

    Sure, the Rathaus itself was a little disappointing - especially since it seemed to be closed to the public that day, but we didn't care. We had just had an actual conversation, IN GERMAN, with a real, live German person. We were unstoppable!

    Filled with self-congratulation and giddy with a somewhat over exaggerated sense of accomplishment, we headed back to the Kölner Dom and we arrived just as the bell tolled. I believe the vibration may have actually rearranged some of my teeth. It was wonderful. (I'm a sucker for church bells anyway.) By this time, we noticed people going into the building so we decided to go in, too. Well, truthfully, nothing could have kept me out. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to just walk past a cathedral.

    There is a lot to be said for visiting landmarks like this one in the early morning hours near the end of tourist season. I was able to wander all around and discreetly take photographs – though no photo can really capture the grandeur of a space like that.

    Satisfied that we had gotten more out of our pit stop in Cologne than we had originally anticipated, we boarded our train bound down the Rhine right around 9:20 AM. We goofed a little, though. We had thought that we would take a slower train from Cologne and get off at the first little town that caught our fancy. We didn’t realize that the train we chose would take us to Mainz with almost no stops.

    It actually turned out to be a fortuitous mistake. After a long night on the train and a few hours of walking around Cologne, it was lovely to sit back and relax as the train sped along the Rhine. Although it was a rather gray day, the trip was beautiful and serene as we wound our way along the river, through small villages and past castles nestled in hills that were painted with the first blush of Autumn.

    We had read about Bacharach and our German friends gave it high marks as a place to stay. What we managed to see of the town when we blew through it on our way to Mainz looked pleasant enough. So, once we arrived in Mainz we turned right around and took the next available train back up to Bacharach. This time, it was a milk train that stopped in every nook and cranny.

    The milk train, though slow, had its rewards. It was fun to sit among so many people going about their daily lives and to just revel in the very “foreignness” of it all. Admittedly, we were also trying to see how many German words and phrases we could understand from the conversations around us. (As it turns out, not many.)

    By the time we arrived at the tiny train platform in Bacharach it was early afternoon. Therefore, the first order of business was finding a place to spend the next couple of nights.

    We had read rave reviews for Hotel Kranenturm and we decided to head there. Once we had checked in and dropped our bags, we made a reservation to have dinner at the hotel and then set out to experience Bacharach.

    Fortunately, by the time we grabbed a quick meal the sun had started to break through the angry-looking clouds. Off we went, first through the town’s beautiful old streets and on up through the hillside vineyard to the tower there. It was a fairly easy climb that provided some great photo opportunities. From there, we wound our way back down through the village to a charming lane that almost seemed to meander through people’s back yards. Then, we strolled to the Gothic cathedral ruins and on up the hill to the castle. I’m sure that Bacharach gets quite busy in peak season but in mid-October we felt like we had discovered an unknown gem of a town.

    After several hours of wandering and picture-taking, we went back to the hotel to have a rest before supper.

    The next morning at breakfast, our host happened to mention that there is an artist in town who happens to be a very strong chess player. My husband, a chess fanatic, decided that he simply had to meet this man.

    Once we had stuffed ourselves with a typical German breakfast feast, we went in search of this man’s store. By now, we were getting a little braver with our meager German-language skills and my husband quickly befriended the artist. As I browsed the artwork, my husband and his new friend settled in for a few quick games of chess.

    Although our original plan had been to explore more towns along the Rhine that day, the forecast was for rain. The next day promised to be sunny. Given the “anything goes” nature of our trip, we decided upon alternate arrangements. Before we left on our trip, some German friends had suggested that Heidelberg is an interesting place to visit and we knew that we could do it as a day trip. So, once my husband had, at least temporarily, satiated his chess cravings we headed for the train platform.

    The train ride to Heidelberg was nothing extra special – though it was pleasant enough.

    For my husband, especially, our visit to Heidelberg got off to a very good start. In addition to being a chess fiend, he is a HUGE Muppets fan, and was therefore thrilled when one of my “frequent-mugging-tour” detours brought us to a used-book store where he happened to spy a children’s book about the Muppets written in German. (The book now sits proudly on our bookcase. No, we don’t have children.)

    In Heidelberg, we did more of our usual aimless wandering. In the pedestrian zone near the University, we passed by a store selling huge confections called Schnee Ballen. They looked so mouth-wateringly delicious that we just had to try them. Honestly, they looked much better than they tasted. Still, it was fun to try something new.

    After paying a brief visit to the University grounds and wandering through the cobblestoned streets of the old city, we eventually made our way to Heidelberg castle. We knew that the World’s largest wine barrel was housed somewhere on the castle grounds but really didn’t have any great desire to visit it. Still for all, we inevitably found ourselves in the building where the barrel was housed, as I’m sure most tourists do, and decided to take a look. It really is rather impressive. Though, I did joke to my husband that it’s little wonder that the castle is now in ruins. They must have been sloshed most of the time! I’m not even sure they would have noticed the place caving in around their ears.

    Late in the afternoon, we decided to say Auf Weidersehen to Heidelberg and rushed to make the rather long walk back to the train station so that we could get the last reasonably scheduled train back to Bacharach.

    By the time we arrived in Bacharach, it was dark and the streets were deserted. The town square is beautifully lit at night, though, and we took a romantic stroll through the town. It felt like we had the whole town to ourselves. When we started looking for a place to get some supper, the Café Restaurant Rusticana caught our eye.

    We had such a lovely evening. The food was pretty good but the company was great and the atmosphere was downright cozy. It was a very quiet night for business and my husband and I ended up chatting for a few hours with the owner of the restaurant. She told us all sorts of stories about her experiences, about life in Bacharach and Germany in general, and about her family. She also provided us with German lessons and tips. In truth, we had a hard time getting out of there but she was a lovely, lovely woman.

    The next morning was bright and gloriously sunny. After a rushed breakfast, we hurried to the waterfront to catch the ferry that would bring us up to St. Goar. It was such a treat to be able to spend time on the Rhine and see the wonderful sights in all of their Autumn glory against the back drop of an achingly blue sky. Although it was chilly, we were able to spend the whole journey on deck with a group of drunk Germans who belted out Lorelei as we steamed past the famed rock.

    When we disembarked in St. Goar, we headed to the train station to check the schedules and then made the steep climb up to the castle – not because we intended to visit the castle but because we figured that we would have the best view from up there. Once we had our fill of the castle and the scenery, we made our way down the hillside through a vineyard to the quaint streets. By early afternoon, we were ready to move on and caught the next train back to Bacharach.

    Because we had such a lovely time there the night before, we decided to go back to visit our new friend at the Café Restaurant Rusticana. Then, we went back to visit my husband’s chess buddy and, after a couple more chess games, it was time to leave the Rhine area and start making our way to Ulm and then onward to Austria.

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    A word about Hotel Kranenturm: Although it had received rave reviews from some, frankly, we were underwhelmed and probably would not stay there again. Our room did have a lovely view of the Rhine. However, and this may sound snobbish, most of the potential charm of the building had been renovated and “decorated” out. That wasn’t a big deal – more of an observation. However, we also found Fatima, the owner, to be very changeable. One minute, she was sweet and solicitous. The next moment, she would act as though having guests this late in the season was really such a bother. It was incredibly odd.

    As an example, when we checked out of the hotel before heading to St. Goar on our final day, Fatima was all sweetness and smiles. When we went back to Hotel Kranenturm to pick up our belongings, she asked how our stay was. My husband said that we had enjoyed our stay in Bacharach and he very politely mentioned that the hot water in our room only worked sporadically and that he’d ended up taking a cold shower that morning and that I had taken a cold shower the morning before. He was careful to say that he wasn’t making a complaint but just letting her know. Instead of apologizing or saying that she would look into it, she got quite defensive and said that they had just had a new boiler put in and that we couldn’t have had cold water. Like we would make something like that up? It was most odd – especially since we weren’t even really making a complaint. Afterward, we found out that we weren’t the first people to have water problems there. Maybe she was just frustrated by the whole situation. Who knows?

    Ah well, there are plenty of other places to stay and I would go back to the area in a heartbeat.

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    Ulm, Germany (Oct 21/21 – a flying visit)

    Satisfied with our taste of the Rhine area, we started to make our way to Austria. Since we didn’t leave Bacharach until fairly late in the afternoon on Oct 21, we decided that we would spend a night in Ulm, Germany – another place that had been recommended by our German friends.

    The train ride, once again, was fairly unmemorable. We had already done the southbound journey from Bacharach to Mainz a couple of times and, to be honest, that portion of the Rhine is not as scenic as the area north of Bacharach. From Mainz to Ulm, there didn’t really seem to be many landmarks – at least none that stick out in my memory. Still, there are worse ways to spend a few hours than zipping through the German countryside in a fast, efficient train.

    When we finally arrived in Ulm, we thought our friends had been crazy to recommend this place! Having just left the quaint charm of Bacharach, it was a bit of a shock to be dumped in the middle of a bustling modern city. Still, we were only going to be there for one night and it was getting a little late so we decided to locate the hotel that we had found on Trip Advisor and just make the best of it.

    Hoisting our bags onto our backs (you’ve gotta love convertible carry-ons) we trudged through the traffic and noise to Hotel Stern and checked in. When we brought our bags up to our room we consulted an area map we had snagged from the front lobby and realized that the hotel is located on the edge of Ulm’s old city. Things were looking up after all.

    It was already dark by the time we checked in to the hotel but that has never stopped us from exploring. So, after a quick freshen-up, we headed off to see a few of the sights. The area of the old city around the Hotel Stern is quite pleasant with typical cobblestone streets, residences, and various shops. (We were struck by the number of hair salons, for some reason. The people of Ulm must be exceptionally well coiffed.)

    As we wandered farther into the old city, the noises of the modern city gradually fell away and we were transported back to a quieter time. Suddenly, though, the night erupted with the peel of church bells. Like moths to a flame, my husband and I were drawn to the sound. We zigzagged through the stone streets until we arrived at Ulmer Münster – a cathedral slightly less imposing than the one in Cologne but impressive, nonetheless.

    Once the chimes finished their little concert it suddenly occurred to us that it was getting quite late and we hadn’t eaten. The write-up of the hotel had mentioned that the food was quite good. So, we made our way back there.

    We still really don’t know what we had for supper that evening. We asked the waitress for a recommendation (in German) and were able to figure out enough of her response to know that it was some sort of meat stuffed with cheese and spaetzle. Whatever it was, it was delicious! For dessert she recommended a sort of apple dumpling that was simply scrumptious!

    The next morning, we got up bright and early and after a yummy breakfast in the hotel’s dining room, we went to explore the old city a little more. Though we weren’t out the door at the crack of dawn, we were early enough to see the sun hung low in the sky, peeking out around the massive spire of Ulmer Münster. After stopping for a photo shoot and a quick visit inside the cathedral, we headed down to the Fishermen’s Quarters – a trip I would recommend to anyone who visits the Ulm area.

    In the Fishermen’s Quarters, the traditional half-timber houses are built right on the waterways while cobblestone streets and bridges provide romantic and scenic passage for pedestrians. The Fishermen’s Quarters is also the location of the most crooked house in the world – which was an interesting landmark to stumble upon.

    From the Fishermen’s Quarters, we strolled along the old city wall along the Danube, past the Rathaus, with its brightly painted murals and interesting world clock, and finally back to our hotel to pick up our bags and check out.

    Though I am sure there is much more to see in Ulm and I would actually like to go back some day, we had plans to head to Salzburg and we didn’t want to arrive there too late. So, around mid-morning, we made our way back to the train station to jump on the super-fast ICE train that would take us to Salzburg.

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    Thanks, Irishface. I am glad that you are enjoying it. ☺


    Salzburg and Hallstatt, Austria – Oct 22-25

    Originally, we thought that we would work a couple of days in Munich into our itinerary. A review of our priorities prompted a change in that plan. Since we really wanted to concentrate on scenic areas we decided to scrap Munich this time and spend more time in Austria. A decision we did not regret for a minute!

    Once we left Ulm, we set our sights on Salzburg.

    The journey to Salzburg was quite scenic; especially once the Bavarian Alps came into view. As we sped toward our destination, each twist and turn revealed mountains that were at once tantalizingly close and frustratingly far away. Unfortunately, as we got closer to Salzburg, the beautiful blue skies of Germany were swallowed by clouds and the mountains retreated into a featureless gray fog.

    The feeling we had when we got off the train in Salzburg was similar to the feeling we had when we arrived in Ulm. In retrospect, Cologne had probably created an unrealistic expectation. After all, not every train station can have a cathedral on its doorstep to welcome weary travelers.

    To say that the train station in Salzburg is in a dreary neighbourhood is a huge understatement. To make matters worse, at the time we visited the train station was undergoing extensive renovations. Leaving behind the relative luxury of the ICE train, we made our way through the rats maze of pressboard that had been erected to take the place of a train terminal and exited the “station” to find rows of slightly dilapidated train lockers set against a backdrop of typical, ugly, communist-era buildings. Surely, this could not be the Salzburg we had heard so many people rave about.

    We suspected that our moods would improve greatly once we found the famed old city. Unfortunately, finding our way out of all of the construction was no easy feat and we got slightly lost in a neighbourhood where I feared “frequent mugging tour” may no longer be a joke. A quick consultation of the map revealed our mistake and before too long we were on the right road.

    As the blue-green Salzach River and the splendid-looking buildings of the old town came into view, our spirits were buoyed once again. THIS was the Salzburg we had dreamed of. Now, we just had to find a place to stay.

    The first place we tried was one that had been mentioned in one of our guidebooks. However, when we found the main entrance it was locked and nobody seemed interested in answering the doorbell. As it turns out, that was a rather lucky break. We found another recommended hotel, the Altstadthotel Weiss Taube, just around the corner. For a ridiculously low rate we managed to snag a top-floor room with an incredible view of the fortress.

    Once we had checked into the hotel and chatted with the receptionist about possible plans for our stay, we set out to explore the old town for a few hours before getting a meal and eventually calling it a night.

    Shortly after 9 AM the next day, we took the bus to the train station (a much better idea than walking). The idea, based on a recommendation from the hotel receptionist, was to visit Hallstatt. We boarded our train with only moments to spare and it wasn’t until we looked at one of the travel cards someone had left on a seat that we realized that there were two trains leaving at approximately the same time – one bound for Innsbruck and the other for Attnang-Puchheim (where one connects to Hallstatt.) There wasn’t time to change trains or even to get off to make sure that we were on the right one. So, we settled back into our comfy seats and accepted that this would be an adventure. After all, in the “worst-case scenario” we’d wind up in Innsbruck.

    Whoever said, “The trill is in the journey, not the destination,” couldn’t have been more correct. For the first 40 minutes or more, we sped through the Austrian countryside, not at all sure where we were headed but loving every moment of where we were. Finally, the train pulled into a smallish station. According to the sign on the platform, this was a stop on the line to Attnang-Puchheim. It looked like we would, indeed, be spending the day in Hallstatt.

    I have heard some people say that Hallstatt is over-rated. As soon as we stepped on the small ferry, though, we were charmed. It is such a magical and peaceful little spot nestled, as it is, in the embrace of snow-dusted hills. We spent a few hours wandering through the little streets and alleyways, up hillsides, and down along the water’s edge. We marveled at the unexpected beauty of the Catholic graveyard, browsed in some of the quirky little shops, and feasted on the confections we purchased at the small bakery on the main street. Once again, we experienced the advantages of traveling so near to the end of the season. We practically had the whole town to ourselves and were able to easily go everywhere we wanted to without battling any crowds.

    Because we wanted to make the journey back to Salzburg in daylight, we left Hallstatt in the late afternoon and arrived back in Salzburg in time for yet another delicious supper and some late-evening window-shopping around the old city.

    The next day, a damp Sunday, we took it in our heads that it would be fun to go to church at the Dom (okay….really, I decided and my husband went along with it.) Now, thus far on our trip, our rudimentary German skills had served us very well for things like shopping, ordering at a restaurant, and booking hotel rooms. Wouldn’t you know it, though? None of the service was devoted to shopping, eating, or lodging. On top of that, neither of us is Catholic, so none of the rituals were even familiar.

    I had been expecting that the music during the service would at least be good but, as it turned out, they had a musical guest from South America that, while good, wasn’t the classical music experience I was hoping for. Still, it was fun to sit and soak in the architecture and to daydream about the days when Mozart was the organist there. Besides, there are worse things than an hour of forced relaxation and reflection.

    Of course, we had plenty of time for rest and relaxation that day. Salzburg on a Sunday is not exactly a hopping place. We took advantage of the time and had an easy day of wandering through the old town, walking up the hillside to an old monastery, climbing up to the fortress (though we didn’t go in then), and visiting little cafes for hot drinks and treats. I believe we actually nockerl (a wonderful, sweet, soufflé-like dessert) for lunch that day. How can that be bad?

    That evening, we decided to take the funicular up the hill to attend the chamber concert in the fortress. Yes, I’m sure that it’s a very touristy thing to do and I’m sure that there are better musicians elsewhere in the city. But, the atmosphere was lovely, the strings weren’t bad and the guest pianist was really very good. More than that, though, attending a chamber concert in a 1000-year-old fortress is just not something you can do “back home”. It provided a relaxing ending to a relaxing day.

    Monday morning greeted us with a gentle snowfall slowly blanketing the city. With a few hours to spare before continuing on with the next leg of our journey, we revisited some of our favourite Salzburg sights, delighting in a city that was fast transforming into a winter wonderland. It was the first snowfall of the season for us, and a wonderfully romantic way to end our first visit to this wonderful town.

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    It's been a little while since my last installment. Here is the next phase of the trip:


    Innsbruck, Austria – Oct 25-27

    As we rolled out of Salzburg on our delayed train (something about construction, apparently) the snow really picked up and we couldn’t see much of the scenery. At times large shadows loomed behind the curtain of white but we could only assume they were mountains. When we finally pulled into Innsbruck late that afternoon, the snow was tapering off but it was still cloudy and quickly getting dark.

    As always, the first order of business was to find our hotel. We had found “Basic Hotel Innsbruck” on Trip Advisor and made a reservation before we left Salzburg. To be fair, my expectations of a place named “Basic Hotel” were fairly low. I must say, though, the hotel really blew my expectations out of the water. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the rooms were spacious and had the modern/funky feeling of a much more expensive boutique hotel. As light travellers, we were also happy to find a big trough-like sink in the bathroom and heated towel racks (perfect for a quick wash of some of our clothes).

    Now, if you’re the modest type and are not travelling with someone you love and/or know really well, the frosted glass bathroom may not be the thing for you. My husband and I joked that it felt a lot like the cone of silence. Still, we got used to it pretty quickly and by the end of our stay, we hardly noticed it anymore.

    Overall, if you were looking for a reasonably priced place to stay in Innsbruck, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Basic Hotel.

    After we settled into our hotel, we strolled to the old city and found an interesting looking restaurant. Our server was incredibly kind and patient with our attempts at speaking German. It’s true – people really do seem to appreciate the attempts of visitors to speak the language.

    Following a delicious supper of venison in some sort of rich berry sauce, the meal our server recommended, we wandered through Innsbruck’s old town. The town seemed to have quite a party atmosphere for a Monday night and we had fun watching people make merry in the square. Finally, we headed back to our hotel to make plans for the following day.

    Originally, we had been thinking of Innsbruck merely as a quick overnight stop, not a destination. After seeing that the next day’s forecast was for more snow, though, we decided that we would stay put and have a restful day in Innsbruck rather than miss out on the scenery of the Brenner Pass between Austria and Italy. Maybe we would finally give in and do a little shopping – something we had mostly avoided to this point.

    The next day, after yummy breakfast at the little bakery next to our hotel, we headed out to take in Innsbruck. As it turned out, the sun was beginning to break through the clouds so the first order of business was to find a pair of sunglasses to replace the ones my husband had lost.

    We didn’t get very far down the street before we noticed that things seemed eerily quiet. There was very little traffic and all of the businesses seemed dark, their doors locked tight. Was there some weird time change we didn’t know about? Did things just get started late in Innsbruck? What was going on? Finally, we managed to find an open tourist office and we ducked in. It turns out, the revelry in the square the night before should have tipped us off: Oct 26 is a national holiday in Austria.

    By then, the sun was really beginning to break through and was starting to give my husband a headache as we walked around. Therefore, we spent a couple of hours scouring the crappy little souvenir shops, the only businesses open, for a pair of sunglasses. If, like us, you thought that sunglasses would be fairly easy to find in a ski town like Innsbruck, you would be terribly wrong. Eventually, we managed to find one pair of hideous snow goggles in a weird little shop. They weren’t pretty but they did the trick.

    As the sky continued to clear we realized just what a lovely spot Innsbruck is! Based on a recommendation we found online, we decided to go to Hungerburg and take the ride to the top of the mountain. We headed to the train station, where we had seen another tourist office the day before. The man there suggested we buy an Innsbruck card and kindly told us which bus we needed to take to get to Hungerburg.

    In our excitement, we accidentally hopped on a tram that didn’t take us anywhere near where we wanted to go but did provide us with a lovely “tour” of the city with a number of locals. In retrospect, the fact that we were on a tram and not a bus should have tipped us off. Oops. When we had completed the full loop, we found the bus we needed and headed to Hungerburg – a short and very pretty ride.

    As luck would have it, our little detour on the tram gave the sky a chance to clear up a little more. By the time we made it to Hungerburg, the view from the “base” of the mountain had cleared to reveal a beautiful view of Innsbruck.

    Unfortunately, it seemed that the top of the mountain was still enshrouded in clouds. We debated giving up and maybe trying to make it to the top the following day. However, we were hoping to leave Innsbruck fairly early the following morning and the timing really wouldn’t work out. Plus, we had already purchased the ticket for the ride as part of the Innsbruck pass and didn’t want to miss out – besides, maybe there would be enough breaks in the clouds that we would at least be able to catch a glimpse of scenery here and there. And so, we made our way to the top.

    We were so glad that we did! Although we did not have the full panoramic view, only one side of the mountain was cloud covered. The other side afforded a spectacular view of the Alps. In fact, because we couldn’t see Innsbruck we almost felt like explorers – like we were among the first people to ever make it to the mountaintop. There was no sense that we were so close to a city. We were on top of the world!

    We lingered on the mountain for as long as we could, enjoying the surprisingly warm sun. Then, we made our way back down to the “base”. From there, we took the funicular back into town – a fun ride in its own right.

    Once we were back in Innsbruck, we realized that we still had time to make the last run of the city bus tour that was included in our Innsbruck pass. With not much else to do, we made our way to one of the designated bus stops. It turned out to be an odd little trip but it was a pleasant enough way to spend an hour or so.

    When we made it back to the downtown, the clouds had almost completely burned away and the sun was just beginning to set. The effect, as the snow-covered mountains turned pink, was striking. It was almost as if the town were blushing self-consciously at its own beauty.

    That evening, we had another terrific meal in the old city after which we wandered one last time around the old city. The streets were practically empty this time. It was quite a different atmosphere than we had experienced the previous evening.

    Tired but pleased with the way our day had turned out, we headed back to our hotel to pack up our things and get ready for our departure the following morning.

  • Report Abuse

    This just goes to prove what a LOT of us have been saying over and over again...people travel in different ways and at different paces and they can all be very satisfactory as you have easily proven.

    i had to laugh when you mentioned "our precious time in Copenhagen" since I know a couple people who have been and didn't think the place was all that great (and yes, they are just as smart as the rest of us).

    Thanks for taking the time to post this report.

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    Hi Dukey,

    Thanks for your kind reply.

    Perhaps if the goal of our trip had been different, the pace would have been a little too much, even for us. However, we weren't trying to cram in every site of importance or visit every museum or even touch on all of the "must sees" in the places we visited. Rather, our goal was to have fun, identify places we may want to revisit at some point, and to enjoy the scenery and unique gifts of each place we visited. We were very much guided by a sense of adventure (I wonder what's around that corner) rather than a sense of obligation (we won't really have seen this place if we haven't seen this or that landmark). I suppose it's the zen approach to travel. We saw and enjoyed the things we were meant to see and enjoy at that time.

    I think traveling near the off season was also very helpful. We were able to enjoy each of our chosen locations fully without ever having to compete with throngs of people.

    As for Copenhagen, I think that if we had done our trip in the reverse order we may have been a little underwhelmed by the city. Then again, we are firm believers that most every place has something to offer if one is willing to keep an open mind. Certainly, Copenhagen had some lovely sights and the people we chatted with were just lovely. We also really enjoyed breaking up our trip to Copenhagen by staying in Malmo (an idea that nearly sent some people into convulsions of horror when we were making our plans). Different strokes for different folks.

    My philosophy is, "Travel with an open mind." I have said many times that I can have fun just about anywhere. =)

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    vict4ia,

    I am enjoying reading your trip report, I didn't like Copenhagen but I am considering going back. I wish I didn't have to go to work so that I could finish reading the rest.

    Thanks

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    Really enjoying your report. I'm considering a visit to Scandinavia, and am intrigued by the idea of Malmo as a base for Copenhagen. I'm glad you enjoyed Innsbruck, one of my favorite cities (posters here tend to stay in Hall instead), and am jealous you got to see Hallstatt with few visitors.

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    Northern Italy - Oct 27-29

    Shortly before 9:30 AM on October 27, a gorgeously sunny day, we bid farewell to Innsbruck and began the marathon trip that would take us to Tirano, Italy.

    The ride through the Brenner Pass lived up to its reputation. It was a lovely ride through valleys and along mountainsides. We marveled at the highways and bridges that seemed to cling precariously to the mountains on the other side of the valley. Then, when we realized that we were actually looking down on some of those precarious highways we decided, for the sake of sanity, that it was best not to think about it too much.

    At one point in the Brenner Pass, we stopped for about 45 minutes – seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Eventually, we managed to figure out that this must be the border between Austria and Italy and we were waiting for a crew change. As we waited longer and longer we began to lose confidence that we would be able to make our connecting trains.

    Finally, we started to roll along again and we stared out the windows as the landscape gradually began to change and the snow was replaced by row upon row of vineyards and groves.

    Miraculously, when we arrived in Balzano our connecting train to Verona was waiting for us. That’s when we realized that the military precision of the German train system was long behind us. In this case, it was a good thing.

    The train between Balzano and Verona was rather rundown and had clearly seen better days. It was fun to watch and listen to the people who got on and off of the train at every little town and village of our milk run. We were sitting near the front of one of the cars when a couple of frazzled looking teachers boarded with a group of school children. The group stayed out in the space between train cars and my husband and I took turns smiling and making silly faces at the children who pressed their faces up to the glass in the door. When they were about to get off the train, one little guy sheepishly came back to wave and gave us a big gap-toothed grin before racing off to join his friends. It was a sweet and perfect example of bonding and communicating without saying a word.

    Once we arrived in Verona we changed to one of the shiny, new, super fast trains that would carry us to Milan in style. As we sped through the Italian countryside we were both rather underwhelmed. As we got closer and closer to Milan that underwhelmed feeling turned to dismay. The humdrum scenery gave way to the dilapidated buildings and dirt that seem to be staples of urban rail systems everywhere. Surely THIS couldn’t be the Italy we had imagined.

    Of course, we have travelled enough to know that it is impossible to judge an entire country by one small part and we were hopeful that at some point during our brief stay we would find at least a glimpse of the Italy that so many people rave over.

    In Milan we waited about an hour for the train that would bring us the rest of the way to Tirano – the town from which we would be taking the Bernina Express in a couple of days. While we waited for our train we strolled through the open-air market outside of the rather impressive train station and stocked up on delectable Italian treats since by this time it was late in the afternoon and we hadn’t really had anything to eat since breakfast.

    Now, I’m sure that Milan is quite lovely and that there is plenty to do and see. However, we were quite happy to leave the city behind.

    As our train travelled slowly northward out of the city, the Italy we had imagined came to life. In the relaxing warm glow of the setting sun, we twisted along through beautiful Italian villages nestled like a kiss between the lake and mountains. Perhaps it is needless to say that we enjoyed this train ride as much as any other part of our adventure.

    We arrived in Tirano just after dark, checked into our hotel, and went in search of a meal. At that time of the year, at that time of the evening, our options were limited. We walked around the town in search of a meal off the beaten path but ended up back at our hotel’s restaurant. Fortunately, my husband had been brushing up on his Italian a little bit. As it turned out, our waiter spoke no English. Still, we managed to order with no problems and had a very pleasant meal. If I remember correctly, I had a risotto that was quite good.

    The following day, we decided to head down to Varenna for a taste of the Lakes region. The train we took, shortly after 9 AM, served as another example of the stark contrast between the German and Italian trains. This train was on time, sure, but there was no heat! We could literally see our breath and by the time we reached Varenna, my feet were numb chunks of ice inside of my thick socks. Brrrrrrrrr...

    Once we stepped off the train in Varenna, though, all was forgiven. It’s impossible to say whether it was the heat of the sun in the cloudless sky or the beauty of the town that warmed us up more assuredly than a cup of hot cocoa. I could say that the day was perfect or magical and I still wouldn’t be doing justice to the time we spent exploring the charms of this captivating little town.

    I imagine that in the high season, Varenna would be quite a different experience. On a mid-week day in late October, though, we once again had practically the whole town to ourselves. We strolled cobblestone paths and made up romantic stories about the people who had walked here hundreds of years ago. We clambered up the steep path to the fortress and, after some debate, decided to pay the entrance fee to access the grounds. The view from the fortress grounds, with sweeping views of the lake and mountains, was well worth the price of admittance. Incredibly, for most of the time we were there we were the only two people on the grounds!

    After we had our fill of the fortress, we slowly wended our way back down to the village through a hillside olive grove. The view of the town from the grove was breathtaking. Through the silvery foreground of the olive trees, we saw that the sparkling path the sun traced on the water was interrupted only by the pretty little town itself, jutting out into the lake. The whole scene was then tucked within the protective embrace of the mountains. Yes, it was every bit as romantic as it sounds.

    We joked that it is rather unfair for one little town to hog so much of the world’s beauty.

    Back in the town and with limited dining options at that time of the year, we ducked into a small pizzeria that we shared with a few locals and had a leisurely lunch. Then, we struck off for more adventuring. We strolled along the waterfront, ventured into a small shop where I bought a couple of beautiful Italian scarves for presents (the perfect gift for light travellers), filled up on gelato, and just sat for a while to watch the world go by and soak up the atmosphere.

    My one regret is that the monastery grounds were closed while we were in Varenna. Of course, it’s probably just as well…I may still be there taking pictures otherwise. Aside from the monastery, though, I don’t think we left any stone unturned.

    Finally, just before sunset – with feet aching from a day on the cobblestones, bellies full of yummy treats, and hearts smiling from a wonderful day of beauty and exploration – we boarded a train back to Tirano. Following a late supper and another stroll through the town, we called it a day. The next day would bring us to Switzerland for the final stage of our adventure.

    Ciao Italia!

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    I'm still in the process of writing the last installment. At the moment, I'm also putting some of my photos up on Flickr and thought I would share them in case anybody is interested.

    The first set is from Copenhagen and Malmo. It's just a small sampling of the many photos I took while we were there:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/vict4ia/sets/72157626366250065/show/

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