By Don Heimburger
Spreading a colorful 22 x 30″ Deutsche Bahn (DB) railroad map out on the dining room table one evening, I savored the prospects of a European rail adventure.
I had seen many photos of the exciting and sleek European trains, and could actually name some of them, such as the Eurostar, the fast TGV’s and the ICE (InterCity Express) trains. I just had to ride some of the 160,000 miles of Europe’s railway lines to experience them for myself.
The DB rail map showed so many lines—there were electrified lines, lines for both long-distance and short-distance trains, private railways and high-speed lines under construction. There were even bus lines and rack railways.
As the first 15 minutes of map scanning lapsed into almost an hour because of all the rail possibilities, and places I wanted to go, I recognized that I’d have to scale back my plans for a 10-day trip, otherwise I’d never return home again. Besides, once I called up the DB rail schedules on the internet (www.bahn.de), I realized it would take as much as a full day of train riding to journey to some of the towns I wanted to see.
I knew I’d be able to secure good March airfares before the official traveling season began through American Airlines Vacations. I had found AA to offer quality air-hotel packages, so I booked one night in London (to recoup from the seven-hour trans-Atlantic flight), and an evening in Frankfort, Germany, the last city we’d visit.
My wife, Marilyn, would be an excellent travel companion as she could speak and understand enough German to allow us to eat (this is very important). We had planned a number of tight train connections during the trip, so her knowledge of German was a vital component in keeping to our schedule. She had a number of years of German in high school and college, as well as helped chaperone a tour group to Germany before. And the last time we went on a tour of Germany together, people from our bus followed us down the street so they could eat at the same establishments that we did, thinking they could ask Marilyn for help in translating the menu!
COMPLETELY ON OUR OWN
I had been to Europe several times before, as had Marilyn, but this would be a trip completely on our own without the help of a guide or any tourist service or agency. Thus it was with determination, and a bit of humility, that I set out to see just exactly how we could piece a 10-day European trip together using many original sources and no middlemen or travel agencies.
My idea was to travel on as many trains as possible, and on as many different trains as possible, see numerous points of popular interest and historic sites along the way, and also do some very specific sightseeing that we had in mind.
While American Airlines was the air carrier, Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com or call 888-382-7245) issued first class Eurail Flexipasses (cost $778 per person) which allowed us to travel 15 days during a two-month period in 17 countries, including Belgium, Denmark, Germany, France, Luxemburg, Spain, Switzerland, Portugal and Italy, among others. This was an absolute bargain because of the number of trains we could ride and the locations to which we could travel.
Other types of Rail Europe passes and terms are also available at different prices.
With the Eurailpass, you are afforded unlimited travel, as well as discounts for tourist railways, hotels and car rentals. You must purchase your ticket while in the U.S. prior to traveling to these places, however. Another requirement is that you have your ticket validated prior to boarding your first train (more on this later). Naturally, you’ll also need a passport, which you can obtain from designated post offices.
Our itinerary would take us to London, then Paris for two nights, then to Wernigerode in the Harz Mountains in former East Germany to ride the steam trains there, and then through Leipzig to Seiffen (the “toy village”) near the Czech Republic border, then to Frankfort. Between all these points were numerous towns we would travel through or at which we would change trains, and we were looking forward to making these connections part of our rail experience.
RAILFAN DREAM TRIP
What I had planned was a railfan’s dream trip throughout a portion of Europe that would not involve any transportation other than trains (both above ground or the underground species)—or the occasional DB bus. In Europe, you don’t need a taxi or a car in most cities if you’re willing to do some walking. The “ring” area of many European cities is best seen by walking anyway.
We left Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on a cold, damp Thursday afternoon on a direct flight to London. After dinner, we had learned from previous flights to begin to relax and try to get some sleep. First-timers will find it hard to get much sleep because of all the excitement, but if you sleep even a few hours, it can pay off once you land.
On a seven-hour flight that begins at 5:20 p.m., you eat supper by 7 or 8 p.m., watch an in-flight movie, get some rest, and before you know it the flight attendants are serving breakfast prior to landing at Heathrow Airport.
We negotiated the famous London Tube from the airport okay, having purchased just a one-way tube ticket to a stop near the four-star Melia White House Hotel near Regent’s Park. After checking in at about 10 a.m. and finding that our room wasn’t ready, we were ushered to a comfortable sunken dining area of the hotel where hot coffee, fresh-squeezed orange juice and pastries were being served. This was very welcoming after a long flight and the cold, damp London winds that literally blew us into the hotel’s front door.
When our room was ready about an hour and a half later, we found that the hotel clerk had upgraded us to a better room because we had to wait. I kinda like those British.
After sleeping off the effects of jet lag, we decided we still had time to walk to the British Museum, where a friend had said the Magna Carta was on display. While the Magna Carta is no longer in the museum, we did enjoy the museum’s food court. It’s a large, open space under a high sun roof that rivals most American shopping mall food courts. Later we were told the Magna Carta was moved to the British Library, but we did see plenty of ancient sculptures, rare books and paintings, nonetheless.
After a candlelight dinner of English fish and chips and Pilsner beer at the Green Man pub across the street from the hotel, we headed back to our room. By 7:30 p.m. we were asleep; that is, except for the unmistakable sound of Far Eastern religious chanting emanating from the next room, which mercifully stopped about 2 a.m.
We were up by 6:15 a.m. and carbed up on the hotel’s “Full English Breakfast” promised us. We noted we had only 10 British pounds left to spend, so we were glad the Eurostar beckoned.
We had made reservations on the 10:39 a.m. Eurostar from London’s Waterloo Station, located not far from the Eye of London and the Royal Festival Hall. Just a couple of weeks before, I had spotted the Waterloo Station facade on a television travel program, and wanted to make sure I arrived in plenty of time to get a photo of it. It seems few people around the station actually know where the front of the station is because there are so many entrances to the structure, but finally a rail information clerk was able to tell me where it was.
Don shakes hands with German-born Eurostar driver Detlef Hofmann.
After taking pictures (it has a marvelous front—nothing like that of most rail stations in the United States), and grabbing a quick mocha coffee, we headed for the Eurostar gate. I noticed seating in the station was at a premium, but a “Station News” bulletin in a rack mentioned that 40 additional station seats were to be added in early 2004.
The Eurostar departure gate is situated a long walk from the regular train platforms, and in this part of the station there’s another entire retail outlet section where I could have purchased coffee as well, plus numerous other items. But this section is really in need of more seating.
Seems like everyone north of the Thames was riding with us on the Eurostar to Paris that morning. We passed through security, but the attendant said I didn’t have to take off my shoes (which I usually do at airport security screenings because of the steel bars that support my Rockports). “Our X-ray machines aren’t that strong,” said a clerk.
After security came Passport Control, but our agent quickly waved us through and didn’t ask any questions such as, “Are you one of those insane railfans?”
My excitement mounted as the station clock ticked closer to departure time, and finally the doors were opened to the train platform. There were neatly-dressed, accommodating rail agents at nearly every passenger car door to help passengers. We found our seats in first class (there are 58 standard seats per car, for a total capacity of 560 passengers in standard class). In first class cars, there are up to 39 seats, for a total of 206 first class seats. Car #9 is reserved for 24 premium passengers.
I was able to get off the train for a few minutes before departure to photograph the front of the sleek train. After settling in my comfortable seat, I learned we’d be served champagne en route, followed by a complimentary three-course meal at our seats with a choice of wine. Premium passengers are served a four-course meal. I was already beginning to like this trip.
At 10:39 a.m. I noticed that we were moving, but had to tell Marilyn that we had begun our rail adventure—the departure from the station was so smooth she hadn’t even noticed. A Eurostar test train in 2003 hit a speed of 208 miles an hour.
I must say, speeding from central London to Paris in 2-1/2 hours on this express train left me wondering why anyone would want to fly. Since 1994, the Eurostar has transformed cross-channel (they call it the Chunnel) travel, taking people to Avignon in Southern France for skiing, to Calais, to Disneyland Resort-Paris or to Lille. Of course, Paris itself never fails to charm and delight.
Last year, the Eurostar carried 1.7 million passengers in the fourth quarter alone, an increase of 15% from the year before. Eurostar says it savors a 66% share of the London to Paris rail/air route, and a new Channel Tunnel rail link in the United Kingdom cuts the journey by 40 minutes.
FEW BUMPS OR SQUEAKS
As the train left the outskirts of London, there was a noticeable difference in speed, but fewer bumps or squeaks than you’d encounter here in the U.S. on such a fast ride.
The cars feature excellent lighting, they’re carpeted, seats are nearly 20″ across and windows are four feet long and 24″ high for good viewing. Each seat features footrests, and trays that unfold for food service. The cars have wide aisles and gray and red cloth interiors.
Our car purser (“chef de cabin”) was named Virginia Caron, a most pleasant and courteous young woman, who along with two other crew members, served us in their dark grey and charcoal Jacqueline de Baer-designed “non-uniform uniforms” which have a more relaxed, casual look to them.
Our train engineer (the English call them drivers), was Detlef Hofmann, the only German-born driver the Eurostar employs. David Hake, the train manager, reported that the train travels 186 miles or 300 kilometers an hour. He explained the line was built originally for TGV trains, and later used by the Eurostar.
Watching out the window as we passed automobiles on the highway, I couldn’t help but wonder how fast the cars were going and how fast we were going. All I know is that we were passing cars faster than I’ve ever passed anything on land in my life, and I wasn’t all that used to it.
The scenery passed by so quickly that no sooner did I see it when another panorama appeared, and they all ran together.
Crossing the English Channel, on the bottom side no less, might make some anxious, but it amounts to only 15 to 20 minutes of no scenery; anyway, by then first class passengers are well into their champagne, lunch and wine, and soon the enchanting rural French countryside appears. We never were able to see the tunnel entrance from the train, which is probably a good thing.
The Eurostar experience drew to a close as we headed into the Gard du Nord (North Station) in Paris. As the train drew near the station, I brushed up on a few more French phases just to make sure I had the language correct. One that I worked particularly hard on was, “Je ne parle pas francais.” The words mean, “I don’t speak any French.” If all else failed, at least I would have that excuse.
SERVED AT SEAT
Not too far from Paris we were served a delicious breakfast at our seat, consisting of juice, coffee, rolls, a croissant with jelly, a chocolate pastry, several small pieces of cheese, ham and a prune fruit bowl.
The Thalys zipped through the countryside on a high-speed line with concrete ties and superelevated curves. There were more bumps than on the Eurostar, and when we passed another train, the air pressure between the two was noticeable.
In looking over my rail map, I saw we were to travel through Belgium, adding another country to our list of traveled lands. I really hadn’t noticed until then that Belgium was on the rail route to Cologne.
What I was already be-ginning to notice was that in Europe, modern, smooth-riding, comfortable passenger trains are taken for granted. You get on, sit in a comfortable seat, sometimes you’re served snacks, coffee or meals at your seat while the comfortable, clean trains zip you to your destination at great speed and on time. There’s little or no commotion about this feat, it’s just a fact of life.
I was getting a bit nervous that I might be enjoying this trip way too much already. It was easy to just sit back and relax, watch the scenery or read. My travel was in the hands of rail people who knew how to get me there on time and in style. I couldn’t help but think of the horror stories I’d heard about passenger train travel in the U.S., and I was glad I was in Europe.
Our train travel today would take about 9-1/2 hours, but I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. We’d get to see the countryside, with several train changes that would allow us to stretch our feet.
As we pulled into Cologne, from the train window we saw the tall, impressive two-spired cathedral in the city center near the station, something Marilyn had learned about in a high school German project, and recognized instantly. We had 41 minutes to wait at Cologne for our ICE train (InterCity Express) to Hannover. It was a chance to purchase a salami and/or turkey sandwich on fresh-baked bread in the station. Our train hadn’t appeared on the train schedule board yet, so I finally asked a DB agent who told us the platform was #2, and the departure time was 11:49 a.m, not 11:30. I guess you need to occasionally verify train information even in Germany.
The ICE is an all-white train with what seem to be even roomier cars than on the Eurostar or the Thalys. Certainly there were wider aisles, large windows, light interiors and plastic and cloth seats and armrests. The ICE pulled out right on time, headed for Hannover.
The weather alternated between sunshine and rain; station stops along the way included Remscheid, Wuppertal, Hagen and Dortmund. I watched the overhead illuminated board from time to time to see the speed of the train—it reached 200 kilometers an hour at one point. I liked the ICE because it was roomy, and the large windows helped us enjoy the countryside.
TRICKY PART OF TRIP
Probably the trickiest part of our entire journey was waiting for us at Hannover. As we left the ICE, we walked into the main train station area to find the typical train departure board, but our Regional Express (RE 3613) due to depart at 14:32 p.m. (2:32 p.m.) wasn’t listed on the departure board. Besides, Hannover station was a busy place, and everyone seemed to be in a hurry. As the minutes ticked away, and not having been able to determine which platform our train was to depart from, I scrambled up a platform stairway and asked a DB service agent for help. I knew time was getting very short, so I was anxious to find the right track quickly.
The DB agent, who spoke little or no English, looked at our schedule, grabbed Marilyn’s bags and motioned us to follow him as he hightailed it down one flight of stairs, and then shot up another flight of stairs to the tracks. As we ascended, I could hear the conductor’s whistle blow prior to departure, and my stomach knotted up when I realized that could be our train!
It was. The DB agent yelled to the conductor to wait as we literally jumped into the open car door, at which moment the train lurched forward and out of the station. Talk about a DB angel. We had one that day.
But now we were on the Regional Express, sitting in first class, out of breathe, but on board and on our way. This was the last train of the day, and it was still a two-hour trip to Wernigerode. The RE was a red two-car train with a distinctive whine, much like a gas-electric motorcar. It also could notch up the speed when the track allowed.
At Baddeckenstedt I spotted a small switch steam locomotive and an old coach on a siding near the station. I had no other information about it, but I did get a photo.
NEAR THE HARZ MOUNTAINS
Prior to our trip I had read about the intriguing Harz Mountains, and the railway map showed we were going to be traveling next to them. The lush forests in the Harz are home to many wild animals, and the entire region is dotted with towns and tiny old burgs of historical interest.
One of the significant towns near the Harz is the imperial town of Goslar. This medievel village boasts the Royal Chapel of St. Ulrich, the Imperial Palace and nearby 1,000-year-old Rammelsberg ore mine. Our train made only a quick stop here, but it is on a future agenda for us to visit.
The Harz is home to the Brocken Mountains, the highest point in northern Germany, and they began to loom in the distance, complete with layers of white clouds stacked above the peaks. A few miles from Wernigerode, the stately Schloss (castle) Wernigerode, built in the 13th Century, appeared dangling off the edge of a high cliff.
The town of Wernigerode itself is known for its many half-timbered buildings, but the real treat for railfans comes as you enter the station area. Off to one side I saw three—count ’em—three 2-10-2 steam locomotives all in shiny black paint with red trim sitting at the engine facilities.
These well-maintained steam locomotives pull passenger cars through the mountains and forests of the Harz.
STEAM IN 2004
I had to remind myself that this was 2004, and that these coal-powered locomotives ran nearly every day of the year here, and have been for 100 years! This was the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen (www.hsb-wr.de), and it features an extensive network of rails running 60 km between Nordhausen and Wernigerode, passing many of the Harz Mountains attractions. Other steam rail branches sprout in other directions into the mountains, and you’d need three solid days to see it all. It’s definitely a destination for dampflok (steam engine) railfans.
Because of our schedule, we had planned to ride the 9:10 a.m. train to the Brocken Mountain, arriving at the top at 12:04. We would return at 1:33 p.m. and arrive back at Wernigerode at 3:20 p.m, enough time to explore the town.
Upon arrival at the new and modern Ramada-Treff Hotel (www.ramada-treff.de), just a few short blocks from the Harz steam train station and the DB station, we learned the Brocken line was closed the day before because of 110 mph winds at the top! We made alternative train plans that evening pending the outcome of the morning’s weather report.
After a delicious German supper at the Ratskeller in the center of town, we awaited the next day’s adventure. Early in the morning we asked the hotel clerk to call the railroad for us to see what the weather was like on the mountain.
Fortunately, the weather was clear, and there was no new snow or high winds, so we got to the station about 20 minutes prior to departure, enough time to check out the engine and cars. On the ready track was a 2-10-2 3-foot-gauge black-with-red-trim engine (very smart) with orange and white coaches; a snack car was also attached.
After having my picture taken in front of the locomotive (always a must), the train headed out (right on time) for the 1,125-meter ascent to the Brocken, the highest peak in northern Germany.
400 BRIDGES ON THE ROUTE
The Harz railroad owns 25 steam engines, 17 of which are used to provide rail service between 41 stations all year round. The oldest locomotive dates to 1897. On the entire line there are three major routes, 400 bridges and the only tunnel in former East Germany.
The trip over the line takes visitors past deep forests, over mountain streams, through meadows and along sheer rock cliffs. The steepest part of the line to the Brocken takes about 50 minutes from Drei Annen Hohne station, and during this portion the line passes through the Hochharz National Park.
At Drei Annen Hohne three steam trains are at the station at the same time—this in 2004!
About three quarters of the way up the mountain, snow began to appear on the right-of-way, and as the train chugged up the last few miles near the top, the landscape began to look like Antartica, with snow and ice caked on the mountains and trees.
At the top was a station, several restaurants and a viewing station, but we decided to take the next train down at 11:03 a.m. so we could change trains at Drei Annen Hohne for Eisfelder Talmuhle. That train left at 12:03, on the way down I think we were the only people on board besides the crew—we had our pick of seats.
The rest of the day we traveled by steam train through the forests and hills of the Harz; it’s a beautiful area with plenty of hunting, picnicking and hiking opportunities. We could have spent much longer investigating the various Harz rail lines, half of which we left unvisited.
The next day was another non-steam all-train day (and one bus), departing from the Wernigerode station at 8:32 a.m. One woman on the train, who spoke fairly good English, promised to send me details on the town of Heimburg, which the train passed from a few miles away.
LEIPZIG TRAIN STATION
We again changed to the intercity train at Halle, then to another regional express at Leipzig. I like the Leipzig train station—it’s such a grand structure. I had been there about four years earlier and toured the station with a railfan friend. We caught the regional express here at 12:05 p.m. (after downing a delicious bratwurst from a station vendor). This train took us to Chemnitz, where we boarded a regional train for a 35 minute ride to Grunhainichen-Borstendorf, which was a very small unmanned station at the end of the line near forests and a fast-moving mountain stream.
We departed the train, walked through the tiny station and boarded a waiting DB bus, which took us to Seiffen. This 1 hour 11 minute ride took us through very hilly country, over curving roads where the tree trunks were nearly into the roadway, and where the woman bus “agent” asked us how long we’d be in Seiffen. We thought she wanted to know our length of stay so she would make sure we left the area afterwards! But she and the bus driver were very friendly, and even called our hotel on their cell phone as we arrived at the bus stop in Seiffen to have them pick us up. Otherwise it was a two-mile trek uphill in the snow with our luggage to the beautiful 64-room Hotel Wettiner Hohe.
Our four-year-old hotel overlooked beautiful forests and hills (always ask for a “zimmer mit blick” [room with a view]); we planned on staying here three nights. Seiffen, near the Czech Republic border, is a remote spot situated in “the land of the toys.” It’s here that about 100 families have produced handcrafted Christmas toys and decorations for the last 300 years. The small industry yields a town full of wonderful wooden toys and Christmas decoration surprises, marked by great German craftsmanship, and a toy museum.
Marilyn in Seiffen at a large outdoor pyramid and at a pyramid store.
FUN IN THE ERZGEBIRGE
The region is dubbed the Erzgebirge, and small treasure-filled shops line the street. But it’s best if you speak some German here, because we found no one in town who could speak English, except Katja Frenzel, a reservation clerk at our hotel. It also helps to know the phrase “Guten Tag.” We toured the well-known octagonal Seiffen church after which many of the decorations are fashioned.
You may have heard of the German nutcracker, the smoking man, the flower child, the candleholder angel, the Christmas pyramid, the German music box, candle arch and others—all lovingly made here in the old-fashioned German way.
The first evening we were the only people staying at the hotel (March was their off season), and we woke up the next morning to our own buffet breakfast in the dining room. Talk about being pampered! We were served muesli, yogurt, breads, meats, cheeses, two types of juice and coffee. At the hotel that evening we met our friendly 19-year-old chef who also knew some English and who had traveled to England for two weeks.
After loading up with toys, including some wooden toy trains, we had to depart this unusual village and head for Frankfurt for our flight home. While at Seiffen, we had considered visiting the 3-foot-gauge steam train of the Fichtelbergbahn at Cranzahl, a 17-kilometer line to Oberwiesenthal, and the railway’s management graciously sent us tickets. But without a car, transportation in that part of Germany is only by bus and train, and the 40-mile trip would have taken about 3 hours. We decided to take a pass on this steam train and try to visit it on a future trip.
ON TO FRANKFORT AND HOME
We caught the 9:46 a.m. bus from Seiffen and reversed the process to get back to Chemnitz, where we caught the 12:02 p.m. regional train to Nurnberg. This city has another German station I love! The grand train shed allows light to pour through onto the many tracks, and both the passenger and train activity is vibrant. Our InterCity train departed on time at 3:34 p.m, and we traveled the last two hours and five minutes by train, arriving at the main Frankfurt train station.
Our hotel was directly across the street, and we prepared for a quick “night on the town,” settling on the Ristorante Rustico near the downtown pedestrian plaza. We ordered a four-cheese pizza and a salmon/pasta/zucchini entree, and our favorite Pilsner beer. The atmosphere was quiet and warm inside the little cafe. Outside was chilly as we returned to the hotel, and we realized this year spring had not come early to Europe.
After breakfast we decided to get a few last shots of the trains at the station, and noticed that the station clock was an hour ahead of what we had on our watches. A thought struck us that perhaps Germany had “sprung” forward, and we had lost an hour. Sure enough, that was the case, and we scurried back to the hotel, checked out and boarded the S Bahn to the airport.
Our flight on American had been overbooked, and we toyed briefly with the idea of staying another night and getting free tickets on another future flight—return tickets to Europe perhaps? After 10 days away and a business to run back home, we decided we just couldn’t stay another day longer.
NEXT ADVENTURE MIGHT BE
We landed safely on U.S. soil and were already dreaming about what our next European adventure might be. This trip was fun, exciting, and a lot less harried than we thought it would be. The people we met were friendly, even when we could only manage a few words in their language. The trains were excellent. On a scale of 1 to 10, we had to rate all of them a 10. They were punctual, clean and fast. Next time we’ll try to tour more of the small steam lines near Dresden. There are several of them worth investigating for a railfan. If you’re tired of trains in the U.S., try Europe. They have thousands of trains worth riding, and you’ll gain an appreciation of European history at the same time.
We’ll always remember this trip. It was a golden opportunity to meet people from other countries and see things we never thought existed or knew about. That’s what makes travel so exciting.