Ok, I’ve done it the long way (Part 1) and I’ve done it the quick way (Part 2), so now it’s time to talk about the scenic way!
On our way back to the UK we weren’t in much of a rush. We had decided to get a boat down the Danube to Vienna (spending 4 days in Vienna), then take the train from Vienna to Zurich (spending 2 days in Zurich), and from Zurich to Paris (spending 1 day in Paris), and the Eurostar home.
I felt conflicted about our decision to get the boat for the first part of our journey. Part of me loved the idea of meandering along the mighty Danube, passing by Bratislava, and the journey taking a really slow 6 hours. Yes, it was expensive (£150 for the two of us), but I thought we’d see the world from a different view, and as reluctant as I was to abandon train travel, the thought of doing something different excited me.
The weather so far in Hungary was often unbearably hot. To the point where on some days we couldn’t face leaving the house. The sun shone so fiercely that it felt oppressive. Robs parents told us that it hadn’t rained in a month. But the nights were wonderfully warm and tranquil. Well, all nights except one. The night before we were due to leave Budapest, the largest thunderstorm I have ever seen in my whole life played out around us. It was terrifying, and exhilarating. As we watched the storm from the (relative) safety of the porch, we were surrounded on all sides by powerful forks of thunder bolting to the earth with almighty crashes. It didn’t seem unreasonable to expect to see one make contact in the back garden. The power for the whole area went down. It was spectacular.
The next day the rain was still pouring. We arrived at the boat departure point to discover that it had been cancelled due to flooding. They were offering either a replacement bus service (and no refund), or a complete refund. Like heck was I getting on the bus. Plus, at the price we paid for the boat, it would have made for a ridiculously expensive bus journey. We applied for a refund, then headed to the train station.
Being used to train travel in the UK, we anticipated having to spend a lot of money on an ‘on the day’ ticket to Vienna. When we got to the teller’s window, we asked for 2 one way tickets to Vienna on the next train. ‘Ok, the next train is the high speed service and will take 2.38 hours… That’ll be 66 Euros please, and you can come and go on this service as often as you like for the next 4 days.’ If this was a cartoon, that would have been the point when our jaws would have dropped to the floor.
We didn’t have a seat reservation so we tried to board the RailJet train as quickly as we could when it arrived, so that we could a) get a seat, and b) get a seat together. The service was extremely busy, and other passengers were frantically trying to do the same as us. But we managed to hold our own and, thankfully, no blood was shed… just a few fighting words.
The journey was rather uneventful, the rain was still hammering down, and the scenery wasn’t anything to write home about. We occupied ourselves by eating the 6 hours worth of food we’d brought with us… when you have specific dietary requirements you learn to stop expecting to be catered for, and bring your own rations.
We arrived in to Vienna without a hitch, and 3 and a half hours earlier than planned.
The next leg of the journey was from Vienna to Zurich. Now this was a journey I was really excited about! The down side of sleeper train travel is that you miss all the scenery because, well, usually you’re sleeping, so we intentionally chose to do this route during the day. After all, this journey was point of going to Zurich, not the other way round.
We arrived at the station and, remembering the seat finding fiasco at Budapest, we weren’t up for having another fight, so Rob went to reserve seats for us at an extra 6 euros each. When he rejoined me at the platform, he was beaming – both of us had completely forgotten that when we booked the trip, weeks ago, we’d bought first class tickets for this leg! We were going to do the 7.43 hour journey through the alps in style! Wahoo!
On board we were thrilled to see the comfort we would be travelling in: Almost obscene amounts of leg room (you could place a large hard shell suitcase in front of you and still have room to move), enough space between seats that you wouldn’t touch another person unless you intended to, reclining seats, a restaurant menu (with vegan options!) served at your seat, and a free bag of pretzels to get you started! The RailJet train was clean an smelt fresh (they always seem to be spotlessly clean and well maintained… and on time!), and, as on the previous leg, had screens displaying where we were, where we had come from, where we were going, and our expected arrival time. I love this feature, I think more train operators should have it.
Now, time for a confession. I have no idea how I am going to describe the journey to Zurich. Of course words like ‘spectacular’, ‘stunning’, ‘incredible’, ‘beautiful’, come to mind… but those words seem weak in comparison with the views. We were enchanted, and in awe of what we saw, dashing from one side of the car to the other so we could see as much as possible. Choosing which side to look out at was an almost impossible decision, as both were equally breathtaking. Ice white river rapids, turquoise lakes, the rocky Alps towering on either side, with roads and railways carved in to them, and abandoned ski slopes waiting for snow to fall. We saw locals swimming, kayaking and sailing in the enticingly tranquil lakes. I wished I could join them. On board, the wine was flowing (mainly because I kept ordering it), and in the excitement of it all, we got quite drunk.
I do NOT recommend arriving in to Zurich drunk. Zurich station was a frenzied maze of confusion. We struggled to use the overly ambiguous ticket machine, and got lost in the seemingly infinite corridors and multiple levels of the underground station (or was it a shopping mall??). Add to that the suffocating heat and heavy luggage… we lost our heads pretty quickly. Though, to be fair, I think we’d have struggled only slightly less were we sober.
After 2 nights in Zurich, it was time to leave for Paris. This time the train operator was SNCF. And boy was it different to the OBB RailJet. It was filthy, with long twines of dust and dirt dangling from the luggage rack above our heads, rubbish all over the carriage, and the inescapable smell of cigarette smoke permitting the whole space. Thankfully it was only a 4 hour journey.
We only stayed in Paris for one night (I have been multiple times so really only wanted to stop there for dinner and a nice evening of drinking and people watching), so mid afternoon the following day we were back at the Gare du Nord, awaiting the Eurostar home.
I thoroughly enjoyed both the slow and quick way of travelling between London and Budapest (though only when a sleeper berth is available on the night train… believe me, travelling through the night in a seat is not fun), but the stand out highlight so far has been the Vienna to Zurich leg of the journey. This really must be done during the day. I have done it both with an Interrail Pass, and with point to point tickets, and my advice would be to check that the Interrail Pass really does save you money – I found that often it’s cheaper to go with the point to point ticket, especially if you have fixed plans on where you’re going. And remember, the price of the Eurostar isn’t included as part of the Interrail Pass if you’re starting from the UK.
Have you been to Budapest by rail? If you have, or even if haven’t but you’d like to in the future, leave me a comment below. I’d love to hear your story!