Tuesday 22 May 2018

Another Brick in the Wall

Now and again when I'm browsing through the Great Rail Journeys brochure one particular trip stands out, and I've always liked the thought of their Grand Imperial Cities holiday, visiting some of the capitals of Europe. It has therefore long been on what I call "the list," a list that has no physical existence yet but is a mental wish list of places and routes which are to be visited eventually, but in the current brochure the itinerary has been combined with a river cruise on the Danube to create an even more interesting (and longer) holiday, so this particular list item rapidly rose to the top and was booked for 2018. We had GRJ also book a hotel in London for the night before departure to ensure that we would be able to catch the morning Eurostar with which the holiday was to begin, and our First Class tickets to and from London at the beginning and the end. Booked and paid-for, the only thing was to wait for the dates to come round (distracted by the Birmingham holiday so that the wait was not too excruciating), and check our EHIC validity, order the currency etc..

The holiday itself began on a Monday so we travelled to London on the Sunday afternoon. The Virgin Trains East Coast on board staff were excellent as usual and we enjoyed smoked salmon sandwiches, crisps and biscuits on the way to Kings Cross. Wine is not included in the complimentary refreshments at weekends, but I bought Prosecco from the cafe-bar to get the holiday off to an appropriate start. From Kings Cross it was a stroll along the Euston Road to the Ambassadors Bloomsbury hotel which had been booked for us, and needing no further refreshment after Sunday lunch and the light meal on the train we were able to get to bed early ready for the morning's excitement!

Eurostar E320 awaiting departure at St Pancras
Eurostar light breakfast
The first train of the tour itself was the 08:54 Eurostar departure from St Pancras to Brussels. Because of the terrorist threat level, check-in for Eurostar is currently one hour, so the latest we could check in was 07:54, and we needed to get to St Pancras well before then to meet our tour manager and get our tickets from him, which meant that we did not have time for breakfast at the hotel, but they made up a boxed breakfast for us which we then carried to the station in the morning and were able to eat after check-in while waiting to board the train. Arriving at the station was lovely: up the carriage ramp to what had been the main entrance at platform level, because that was where, on what is now entitled the Grand Terrace, the Great Rail Journeys office is located and where we were to meet our manager, Steven, and the rest of the group.
Thalys sweet snack

The check-in was busy and the waiting area well-filled with people waiting for the 08:31 train to Amsterdam as well as our train, and when the Amsterdam people had gone up to their train people started arriving for the following Paris departure. It is a huge waiting area but Eurostar's trains are the longest in Britain and take a lot of people, so they need a lot of space. 

Our packed breakfast, together with coffee purchased from the bar in the waiting area, occupied our time until our train was announced and we made our way up to the platform. I was delighted to see that the train consisted of one of Eurostar's new E320 sets which I'd never used before. The comfort and facilities lived up to expectations, and as we sped across Kent we were served the Eurostar light breakfast which, added to the corn flakes and yogurt from the hotel box, meant that we were well fed for the start of our holiday.

At Brussel Zuid we changed to the Thalys high-speed train to Cologne, with another included snack, this time with wine, and then at Cologne caught the ICE (inter city express) train to Berlin, a new route for us, a new type of train and, most importantly, a new destination. No included refreshments on this part of the trip but as dinner was still some way off we bought wine and cake to ensure we were not ravenous on arrival at Berlin. This was not an especially fast part of the journey, although speed did pick up a bit on the high speed line after Hannover. One highlight of this leg of the journey was that we passed through Wuppertal, with many glimpses of the Schwebebahn underslung monorail line. We arrived at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the new triple-decker central station recently built to provide a fitting railway station for the reunified capital, and were taken by coach to the hotel, the Maritim, an enormous establishment near the Tiergarten. Dinner was served soon after our arrival and we slept our first night of what was to be an interesting tour of some hugely significant historic capital cities: indeed, I thought as my mind drifted, we were already in our third capital of the day!

Replica on the site of Checkpoint Charlie
On this tour we only had half a day in Berlin, a taster which taught us that a proper visit will be necessary in the near future: so much (recent) history in one city. We were taken on a coach tour of the city with several stops at which we could visit briefly some of the sites associated with the Berlin Wall, and we were shown the new buildings now occupying what was empty land between the two walls and sites near the wall which had not been worth developing when a Soviet invasion had been expected at any time. Along with other international tourists we visited the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol both of this city and, when it was stranded in no man's land, its tragic recent history. 

Looking down to our platforms at Berlin Hbf
Our tour finished back at the railway station where we awaited our train to Prague for the next stage of the holiday. The train indicator showed that for that day there was no restaurant car on our train, so there was a rapid scurry round to buy sandwiches at the station and then we boarded the train and were off deeper into eastern Europe. It was a lovely, sunny day and the line beyond Dresden closely followed the River Elbe with its tree-lined valley punctuated by rocky outcrops and attractive towns and villages. Although there was no restaurant car, catering staff had fixed up a makeshift buffet in a compartment in one of the second class coaches, so we were able to buy coffee to go with our lunch. There was the occasional shower but basically this was a long journey in very comfortable seats with fantastic sunlit scenery. We were heading south, but also inching further east than we'd ever been before, and soon the spectacular sight of Prague greeted us as we glided through the outskirts of what must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. That city will wait for the next instalment of this international adventure ... along with Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and a host of smaller places along the Danube.

Of all the places we visited on this trip, I think it is Berlin and Vienna to which we must return before too long. Has anyone any comment to make on Berlin?

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