Saturday, 15 June 2013

A truly great 'Great Rail Journey'

Most of last summer we were occupied with having a new kitchen installed, so we decided we'd book a quality holiday for 2013. Quite a few people had recommended 'Great Rail Journeys' to me; holidays which wherever possible avoid the hell that is modern air travel and instead use the most civilised transport available - first class high speed trains, together with upmarket hotels.

Chris (my wife) had not seen Venice or Lake Garda. I'd visited both, as well as Verona on a motorcycle tour some years ago (and first visited Venice about 40 years ago!). Neither of us were familiar with the Tyrol however, and Great Rail's 'Lake Garda, Venice, & the Austrian Alps' was the holiday we picked from the brochure. 'Great Rail' holidays are not cheap, but they are good value. If you try to put such a quality package together yourself you will soon exceed the price of one of their equivalent holidays, despite the provision of an unflappable and helpful tour manager to ensure the holiday goes ultra-smoothly and free of any hassle.

Our chosen trip started at the magnificently restored London St. Pancras station early on the morning of 30th May, and lasted two weeks taking in Paris, Stuttgart, Munich, Jenbach, Innsbruck, Verona, Lake Garda, Venice, Milan, Turin, and home via Paris. There were also days out to some other locations.

I booked a first class return to London from Wilmslow with Virgin Trains, at a favourable advanced fare using our senior rail cards, and a night's accommodation at the 'adequate' but reasonably priced Premier Inn at Kings Cross. We enjoyed a complimentary light lunch on our trip down to London, checked in at the hotel, and strolled down to take a look at Leadenhall market. It was interesting to see some of the new buildings in the 'City', such as 'The Ghirkin', at close quarters. I couldn't resist revisiting Bishopsgate where I spent three days a week in the last months of my employment as an IT consultant before my retirement in 2008. It seems a lifetime ago and I'm so glad to be out of it and doing stuff I want to instead.

An evening meal in our hotel, followed by breakfast next morning, saw us at St Pancras by 08:00 to meet our tour guide Ian Sergeant and book in for our departure to Paris by Eurostar (Leisure Select class - in the First Class coaches of the train).

As ever, click on any image for a larger picture. Twice for a larger one yet!

Our Eurostar train at St Pancras on the morning of 30th May

Chris installed in a 1st class Eurostar carriage, John and Mary across the aisle, though we didn't know them at that stage of course

Eurostar whisked us to Paris Gare du Nord, and a bus transferred us to the nearby Gare de l'Est, a relatively quiet capital city station where we enjoyed a spot of lunch, and whose character reminded me of London's Marylebone

From Paris, this SNCF TGV high speed train took us to Stuttgart, where we spent a night at the superb Hotel Maritim, complete with Champagne on ice at breakfast

Next morning this German ICE high speed train took us on a highly scenic journey through the Voges mountains to Munich

Probably the most comfortable of all the trains we travelled on; first class on ICE

Front end of an ICE, from inside. Ours (here) was coupled to another (leading) unit hence the unoccupied driver's compartment.

On the loco-hauled train Munich to Jenbach, in the Tyrol

Yours truly, on our Jenbach hotel balcony

The first day in Jenbach was free day, so we took a taxi to the Schwartz Silver Mine. Here is an electric loco of the mine's railway; our guide is in the red coat.

In the silver mine - an underground waterwheel was used to pump water out of the mines; water moving water!

On board the little mine railway; minimal clearance between the passengers' shoulders and the tunnel walls!

Left to right, front to back; Helen and John-the-stick, John, Jane, Wynn, Ian, Julie, and me. We had several Johns on the trip, and several Annes, two Peters, and two Ians. An indicator of the age demographic perhaps?

The taxi took us on to Schloss Tratsberg where we had lunch and a fascinating guided tour of this impressive castle. Small audio players were provided (in English for us) to realise the tour. Each room was described by a 'charater' from the distant past who had occupied it, and English speaking guides were on hand to answer any questions.

The weather had been poor on our first day in Jenbach, though the first morning was dry. The rain set in by the afternoon for our visit to the Schloss, and the next day was no better for our trip up the Ziller valley on the Zillertalbahn Railway from Jenbach. Here our locomotive prepares at Jenbach for the journey to Mayrhofen, the Ziller valley terminus.

Tour leader Ian (in the hi viz) checks out his tablet in the rain on the balcony of our first class Zillertalbahn train while South Wales farmer (and former Wilmslow resident) Peter looks unconvinced. 

Elsewhere in this blog (6 / 9 / 2012) you can find a report of a day out on the lovely Welshpool & Llanfair Railway in Powys, Wales. That too boasts balcony-ended coaches and I was interested to discover that they originated on this Zillertalbahn Railway (which shares the unusual 275cm track gauge) being donated to Powys from here.

Chris, Anne, Cate, Anne retreated to a second class carriage to avoid the steamed up windows in our first class one. A strategy with limited success, it would seem.

But most of us soon discovered the bar car, decked out in Schwartz crystal!

We had lunch in Mayrhofen and walked up the town's main street. Many days of rain had turned the river into a torrent. Later we learned that the main line railway from Innsbruck to Italy via the Brenner Pass had been breached by a rain-induced land slip which was a tad worrying; we planned to use that line in a few days to reach Verona!

The steam train back to Jenbach was not until 16:30, so we caught this earlier diesel-hauled service.

Our Jenbach hotel. Our room is the centre one with the balcony immediately above the hotel sign.

On two evenings during the tour an inclusive evening meal was not provided as they were 'free' days for us to go where we pleased; for the first, we took over the Jenbach Chinese Restaurant (yes, there really is one!). Richard, Jennifer, Peter, John, Anne, Mary, Cate, John, Chris.

Julie, Anne, Peter, Eric, Karen

Leslie, David, Jane, Wynn, John-the-stick

Jane and Wynn in foreground, Carolyn and Jennifer behind

'The' umbrella. Ian raised it up, visible for miles, and we followed it. I got so used to just glancing up to follow 'the Umbrella' that on the final evening of the holiday as we bade our farewells at St Pancras I found myself looking for it, seeing it was no longer there, and feeling all initiative had deserted me as I now had to get used to once more making my own decisions on where to head!

The train that took us from Jenbach to Innsbruck for a tour of that city

Highly entertaining city guide, who walked us around Innsbruck's old town section and regaled us with interesting facts about it
The Golden Roof; actually, it's copper!

Inside the cathedral

This looks like an ordinary street tram, but it will not only take us across the city but then climb up the valley side through many outlying mountain villages to the terminus at Fulpmes on the Stabaitalbahn line

But halfway up the line we met this. A landslip caused by heavy rain had blocked the line and it was being repaired.

So we 'de trammed' and followed The Umbrella on foot past the section under repair to join a second tram, which took us from there to the terminus

Chris and John check out the Alpine wild flowers

An Alpine flower meadow, seen from the tram

John-the-stick conquers the recalcitrant auto-loo at Fulpmes, and emerges triumphant to much merriment and many congratulations! I recommend you click and then click again on this picture, if only to enjoy John's triumphant gesture on his success!

A view from the tram on the return journey to Innsbruck

The Innsbruck ski jump tower, from the tram

Our train back to Jenbach from Innsbruck, at Jenbach

The summits become visible from our hotel balcony as the weather improves

Achenseebahn train at Jenbach, about to take us to the Achensee lake

Our little engine works hard pushing its train up the valley side out of Jenbach

Looking back to Jenbach

The Ziller valley joins the Inn valley north of Jenbach, as seen from the train

Inside the train

The crew of an opposite-direction train, seen as we pass them in a loop

The engine crews have a chat as we stop in the passing loop

John, Chris, and Mary on the boat on the Achensee lake

Ferry boat on the Achensee lake

Data plates on our 1889 locomotive

Achenseebahn locomotive footplate. No gauge glasses, only test cocks to indicate the water level in the boiler!

For the run back down to Jenbach, we sat on the rear balcony of the train. Notice the lack of a rack on this relatively level section of line.

For the run back down to Jenbach, we sat on the external balcony at the back of the train. Note the lack of the central rack on this fairly level section. - See more at:
Further down the mountain on the steep section, the rack returns

The transition to rack at the Jenbach

As the weather improves, the view from our balcony just gets better!

A view from our balcony looking slightly northwards

This shows how the rack locomotives transmit their power to the rack. The cylinders drive the jackshaft via the two red flywheels, and this is geared to the centre axle of the loco, which is fitted with the cog to engage with the rack between the tracks. The centre axle also has external cranks (not shown here) which drive the front and rear axles, which carry the four wheels that ride on the track. Thus there is both rack drive and normal wheel drive (for the rackless level sections).

Thankfully the railway line though the Brenner pass was opened (albeit single line working only) just in time for us to use it for our train from Jenbach to Verona. Here's Chris and Cate in our first class compartment.

The adjacent road through the Brenner. Better to be on the train, I think.

A feisty lady we called 'Henry' (that was the name on her trolley) frightened away potential customers for half an hour or so out of Innsbruck (YOU VILL VAIT!), but then relented after she'd set up her 'Henry' and began to serve them instead. Here Chris enjoys a sandwich and some wine (no, she wasn't drinking both bottles - one was mine!).

A view out of the windows in the corridor connection doors at the back of our train

Here's somewhere I once stayed on a motorcycle tour (Bolzano, that is; not the railway station).

Ian gathers his flock at Verona

The Adige River in Verona, seen on our walking tour of the city

Our guide in Verona

Time for an afternoon break in Verona

A market square in Verona

Chris, under Juliet's balcony, Verona

The amphitheatre in Verona, famous for its operas

After the Verona tour, our coach took us to the Hotel Salo du Park. This is the view from our balcony overlooking Lake Garda. The Juniper flowers in the tree opposite sent beautiful wafts of scent across to us - divine!

The 'Andromeda', which took us on a day trip to Sirmione, calling at other points on the lake on the way there from our Lake Garda base in Salo

Salo, from the 'Andromeda'

Our hotel in Salo

When I came across this scene, Anne and Peter on 'Andromeda', it looked very 'Titanic' and I remarked as much to Peter and Anne. "Do you know something we don't?" joked Peter. "Well", I replied, "if you see any icebergs just ring that bell as hard as you can!".

Lunch, in the delightful town of Sirmione. Chris tucks into her pizza, while John and Helen at the next table do the same. These real Italian pizzas are so much lighter than UK ones, with a wafer-thin base. Pizza Express could learn a lot from a visit to Italy!
 That  glass of beer on our table was first one I've encountered that took two hands to pick up. It's litre, and looks a lot... but it's no more than the others had in their litre carafes of beer!

After lunch we took a stroll around Sirmione. Here's the harbour.

Back in Salo, a passing hydrofoil on the lake seen from our balcony

....And a 'car ferry', identical to those we'd seen on Lake Como a couple of years ago

Our hotel room in Salo

Salo cathedral

Relaxing by the lakeside in Salo

Salo cathedral exterior; much plainer than the interior

Now that's nice.... a classy speedboat on the lake

Chris takes a swim, photographed from our balcony

We enjoyed a day out in Venice. Here Chris enjoys a drink as we speed Venice-wards on the Trenitalia express

Our train at Venice

Outside the station this private boat took us around the west of Venice to St Mark's Square

Our group on our private boat

This used to be on the 'spare' plinth in Trafalgar Square

'Canaletto' view of St Marks

The Bridge of Sighs.... or regrets... or 'oh dears'.

The famous bell tower. On a previous visit to Venice I climbed the many steps to the top. On this visit, the crowds waiting to enter put me off a repeat climb. That's my story, anyway.

One of many small canals in Venice, the haunt of gondolas

Rialto Bridge

A view from the Rialto Bridge of the Grand Canal. I photographed this view about forty years ago as well, and comparing that picture with this, nothing has changed.

Another side canal

 Off to Gardone from Salo to visit the tropical gardens

Chris in her element admiring orchids growing on trees!


As we waited for the ferry back to Salo I noticed that the approaching boat looked broader than the usual lake boats. "I think it's a paddle steamer" I said to Chris. And it was! Just as on Lake Como the paddle steamer seems to only be used on Sundays, so we were lucky to get a ride on this one - right time, right day! But we nearly didn't sail on it; it called at Portese on the way from Gardone to Salo, and our ticket stated "no intermediate stops", which is a tad ambiguous - no stops for the boat, or no stops for passengers?.
I went to the booking office on the quay to check, and was assured our ticket was OK for this 13:35 sailing, as long as we didn't break our journey at Portese. But as the boat drew alongside the pier our ticket was checked and... 'there may be a problem'. Crikey, the next boat to Salo was 3 hours later! We had to get this one. The woman from the ticket office who'd 'OKed' our tickets came across and explained that the Portese stop entails an extra charge. "But that's why I asked you" I protested. "How much more; we have to get this ferry". "You pay on boat" she replied.
We boarded, ticket checked... and no extra fare demanded. How very Italian is that!

The paddle steamer moored at Salo

Next was a day out to a winery at Negrar, near Bordalino. On the way our coach stopped at Lazise where we relaxed at a cafe.

Lazise is a walled town

The winery at Negrar; our host serves a dry white and introduces his winery to us

Anne and John relax on the steps next to the now disused water wheel

Further wine explanations in the winery vaults

There followed an absolutely superb meal of real (as opposed to tourist) local dishes. I'm normally no fan of Italian food, but this was good - very good! And as you can see, our group was having a ball!

This was one reason for the merriment - Amarone, a lovely chewy smooth full bodied red. We bought a bottle to bring home.

This dessert wine was a bit good too. Sweet yet strong, and wonderfully smooth.

As for the Grappa that followed.... I can't better Blackburn Ian's incisive statement; "best kept well away from varnished surfaces". 

Breakfast at our hotel, as seen from our balcony

Next day we began the journey home; initially by coach to Milan, to the wrong railway station. The coach driver's instructions were to take us to Milan Central, which he eventually found and parked at with difficulty. Ian checked our tickets and discovered that our train to Turin departed from Milan Garibaldi! In this picture unflappable Ian is 'on the case', and eventually directions for our driver were found (he didn't know Milan) and we re-loaded our suitcases onto the bus and set off for Milan Garibaldi which we reached in plenty of time for our train.

Our high speed train for Turin pulls into Milan Garibaldi

Ooh! Goody! More Champagne as we speed smoothly to Turin at about 180mph in big comfy seats. What a contrast to that cramped and bumpy coach that took us from Jenbach to Milan.

The Alps in the distance, rice paddies in the foreground, as seen from our Turin-bound train

We transferred by coach to our Turin hotel from the railway station

After checking in we went for a walk. This is the older part of Turin, which is mostly pedestrianised. Chris decided to try the Aperol which went down well - so when we got home she bought a bottle.

'The Last Supper'. For the last night of our holiday we dined in the hotel in Turin. Left to right Peter, Anne, John, Anne, John, Mary.

Round the table; Karen, Ian, Julie, Cate, Anne, Leslie, David, Eric

Tour leader Ian, John, Helen, Jane, Wynn, and John-the stick

Our Turin hotel. Didn't seem to warrant its four star rating, and I think everyone was glad we were only there for one night

The next day going to be a long one, and Ian stuck our itinerary up by the hotel lift. Up at 06:30 for breakfast, walk to the station for our 07:29 train to Paris, then Eurostar to arrive in St Pancras at 17:59 UK time. Then we had a couple of hours wait in London before our Virgin train home to Wilmslow.

On board the French TGV train from Turin to Paris

The first part of the journey was though the Alps, allowing stunning views from the train

Alpine scenery as we make our way up to the Frejus Tunnel on our journey from Italy into France

Plenty of snow on the high peaks

The journey through the Alps was scenic, relatively twisty and slow, even single track in parts. However, at Lyons St-Exupery TGV station our train joined the high speed line to Paris and we accelerated up to about 200mph in perfect smoothness for this section of the route. Here is our train on arrival at Paris Gare de Lyon.

Our train is the left hand one here. The other (double deck) TGV must have been coupled to the front of our train during our brief stop at Lyons St-Exupery (named after Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a French airman and author).

Another coach transfer took us across Paris to Gare du Nord for our Eurostar to London. Here it is on arrival at St Pancras. As we left the train, and after two weeks of 'look for the Union Jack umbrella', I scanned the crowds in vain until I spotted Ian, now off duty, umbrella in pocket. "You're on your own now" he smiled. All initiative was gone! Drained by a fortnight of following Ian. I had to decide for myself where to next! We gathered our wits and our cases and set off for Euston.

In keeping with the standards of the holiday I had booked an advance first class return Wilmslow to Euston, and had allowed time for a late arrival in London from Paris. In fact our Eurostar train was on time and we had a couple of hours to spare, so made use of Virgin's first class lounge at Euston. The time flew by, and soon we were speeding our way to Wilmslow on a Pendolino. OK, 125mph seemed slow after the TGV but is pretty good for UK rail, and 1 hour 47 minutes for the journey is just fine, and a lot less than it was in pre-Virgin days. 

Here are some videos of our holiday:

The river running past the hotel in Jenbach gets more swollen by the hour as the rain falls

Wet morning at Jenbach as the locomotive for our Zillertalbahn train backs down for water

This is about as high as the river got. We could hear the boulders being rolled along the
river bed by the force of the water

On the Achenseebahn railway, our cog locomotive working hard

Our cog locomotive on the Achenseebahn railway runs around the train on the way up to the lake

Our train through the Brenner Pass to Verona had windows in the corridor doors of the last coach. I filmed this view of the train emerging from a tunnel. I need to figure out how to rotate the video 90 degrees, though.

 This was a choir we came acroos in Venice, practising in a church. Again, it's 90 degrees out.

As our Turin to Paris TGV hurtles across France at about 200mph, my glass of Bardolino barely has a ripple on its surface

So ended a superb holiday. Fast, comfortable trains, lovely hotels (except perhaps the last), fabulous scenery, great experiences, good weather when it was needed... but most of all fantastic company. We were a small group (25 plus Ian our guide) and we all got on well. Perhaps the fact there were only 25 of us helped us to gel into one bunch of great friends. As we made our farewells on the Eurostar into London tour guide Ian commented that he had never before seem a group so genuinely sorry to leave each others company. I certainly hope we meet again, perhaps on another Great Rail Journey. 



  1. John & Helen23 June 2013 at 11:47

    Dear Vince and Chris

    I sincerely hope we do meet again on another holiday. We had an awesome time and I know the weather wasn't brilliant in Austria it didn't seem to dampen our spirits.

    Thank you for these photographs, proof of a memorable holiday and if you decide to go to York within the next 2 weeks for the 'Mallard 75 Years' at the Railway Museum, we will be there on Friday & Saturday 5th & 6th July.

    Our best regards to you and Chris

    John & Helen

  2. Dear Vince

    Thanks for sharing the link to your blog. I'm really pleased you had such a fantastic holiday and hope you travel with us again in the future.

    Alex Roberts
    Marketing and Sales Director
    Gret Rail Journeys Ltd.