Japan 🇯🇵: an introduction by rail 🚆 – Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Niigata, Tokyo

This was my first time visiting Japan. A beautiful country with a welcoming culture and an inspiring transport network! The one thing I couldn’t wait to try was the Shinkansen, or bullet train, that Japan is so highly renowned for. Rest assured, there would be plenty of train trips planned in this jam-packed week-long visit.

My Japan premiere (and therefore this blog post) features:

  • Flying with LOT Airways London City Airport to/from Tokyo Narita Airport via Warsaw Chopin Airport
  • Tokyo Narita Airport to Central Tokyo onboard the Narita Express
  • Tokyo to Kyoto by Shinkansen Hikari
  • Exploring Kyoto including Hozu-gawa river boat ride
  • Kyoto to Hiroshima by Shinkansen Hikari and Shinkansen Sakura
  • Exploring Hiroshima and Miyajima
  • Hiroshima to Izumoshi by Shinkansen Kodama and Limited Express Yakumo
  • Izumoshi to Tokyo by Sunrise Izumo sleeper train
  • Tokyo to Niigata by Shinkansen Max Toki

London City (LCY) to Tokyo Narita (NRT) via Warsaw (WAW) with LOT Polish Airlines

Staying over at London City airport, we kicked things off early for our Premium Economy experience through to Tokyo with LOT Polish Airlines.

Our first leg departed London City at 8am sharp, taking two and half hours to Warsaw Chopin airport onboard an Embraer-190 plane. This had the same type of seats and legroom for all classes, which was a little cramped, however we were treated to our own private cabin with Business Class customers separated from the Economy cabin by a curtain drawn shortly after departure.

Peculiarly, myself and my friend Ed, sat in row five, were the only customers travelling in Premium Economy. In the front row, a gentleman was travelling Business Class to Israel.

Upon departure, our dedicated Cabin Crew member delivered us a welcome orange juice and much to our surprise, a cooked breakfast. This was the second breakfast of the day, having also ate at the airport, but naturally we were on holiday so felt zero guilt for eating this too. We expected only a snack for this leg.

We arrived into Warsaw airport with three hours to kill before our next flight direct to Tokyo. The airport wasn’t the most comfortable with the waiting areas being small and cramped. Premium Economy doesn’t come with business lounge access, but we were able to pay a 120 PLN (c.£23.16) supplement per person. We were able to relax in there enjoying even more food, wine, beer and soft drinks. It was a busy lounge, but it was well worth paying the supplement for the duration we were in Warsaw.

We then departed Warsaw at 14:40 on our 787-Dreamliner, travelling overnight and arriving at 09:20 Japan time. The total journey time of this leg was ten hours and 40 minutes.

The service with LOT on both flights was second-to-none with meals on the Dreamliner fusing European cuisine with Japanese, making for some interesting dishes. Also on the Dreamliner, there was a basket of goodies that was always available. Drinks were plentiful with a glass of bubbly being offered upon boarding, another drink offered shortly after (I had a G&T), then the first meal being served with wine then tea or coffee afterwards.

Tokyo Narita Airport to Tokyo by Narita Express train

We wasted no time before travelling on our first train. We travelled on the Narita Express straight into the heart of Tokyo. The train is non-stop and takes approximately 54 minutes. We visited the JR booking office where we exchanged our JR Pass Exchange Order for the real deal – the dated JR Pass. We opted for an Ordinary Class pass over the Green Car (Japan’s First Class equivalent), the difference in the service being the seat and 3+2 seating vs 2+2 seating. The pass gave us total freedom to go anywhere we wanted to in Japan! A great feeling.

We also obtained free seat reservations for the day including the compulsory reservation for the Narita Express.

Immediately while arriving at the train station, the efficiency of the Japan Railway became apparent. We found our platform and the inbound service from Tokyo arrived and we were asked not to board. A staff ‘squad’ boarded the train at different carriages and pulled a belt across the door behind them, why? Their mission was to go through the train as quickly as they could, wiping down tables, the floor and turn around every seat with a lever so it would face the direction of travel. It was a fine art and fascinating to watch.

We boarded the train and by the entrance doors were luggage racks. Not only was there plenty of room for cases of all sizes, there were wires to wrap around the suitcase handle where you self-set a number lock to ensure your case wouldn’t be stolen. I couldn’t imagine a theft for one minute in Japan, but it’s best to be safe and we were going to the capital city afterall. If you forgot your number there was a process – travel to the final station and speak to staff who will release it. They thought of everything.

Within the passenger saloon with its spacious, reclining seats there were screens detailing information about the train’s journey featuring pages about the various weather disruption incidents across the JR East network. Line closures due to typhoons and earthquakes popped up!

Tokyo to Kyoto by Shinkansen

This would be our first ride on the Shinkansen, travelling to Kyoto on a Shinkansen Hikari service in two hours, 40 minutes. We asked the Booking Office Clerk at the airport to make us a reservation on the side of Mount Fuji. She did so and thanked us for showing interest in the beauty of her country. Throughout the week, this culture of gratitude kept popping up.

Onboard the Shinkansen, just like the Narita Express, all the seats were facing the direction of travel. Ten minutes into the journey, a trolley manned by a very polite lady came through the carriage. She turned and bowed to customers in the carriage as she walked in and out of each carriage – that’s a lot of bowing she must do in a day’s shift! We purchased lunch from her selection of Ekiben (train bento boxes) which were shown to us on a menu complete with pictures. A delightful meal which was beautifully presented, and part of the fun is there’s always something which you’re not quite sure what it actually is!

We passed Mount Fuji in the distance, capped with snow, and took a snap.

We arrived on time into Kyoto station. The station boats an impressive array of shops – perfect for bagging that souvenir of your visit. Also don’t miss the very long ride up the escalators to the top floor of the station, where the Cube food court is. I enjoyed pork cutlet.

Exploring Kyoto

Kyoto is a very walkable city. Everywhere you walk you can see Shinkansen trains gliding past. In fact one 16-car N700 Shinkansen series train alone weighs 715 tonnes – it was unreal to think that was flying above your head!

It is worth spending time visiting at least one Buddist temple or Shinto shrine – there are many around the city. We went to one of the oldest – the Tō-ji temple, built in the year 796.

While wandering around admiring the architecture, statues, plants, ponds and art work a lady invited us into her temple for a morning prayer and blessing. We took our shoes off upon entering, took part in the ceremony listening to her instructions throughout. It was a very relaxing experience and made me slightly envious that her morning routine started this way every day.

We visited the wonderful Kyoto railway museum in Shimogyō-ku spending three hours wandering around the exhibits. It had everything from the first Shinkansen to a mock control centre and a museum shop.

Hozu-gawa river cruise

The following day we started with a ride onboard a JR Ltd Express train from Kyoto to Kameoka, the starting point for the must-do river boat ride along the Hozu-gawa river.

Kyoto to Kameoka by Ltd. Express Hashidate train

At Kameoka, the river boat terminal is a five minute walk from the station. The Tourist Information Office is within the station and they provided invaluable help with directions to reach the terminal. You purchase your ticket there and then wait for your number to be called out in order of purchase. We had roughly a 20 minute wait and there was a very enthusiastic man holding the board with the ticket numbers calling them – no chance of missing your number!

The ride was exciting, dealing with varied water currents. There were three men rowing the boat however only Japanese was spoken, but the scenery alone was enough to enjoy the trip. There were many bridges where you could observe trains passing and a boat arrived towards the end selling soup and drinks.

The boat journey finished in Arashiyama some ten kilometres from central Kyoto. It was delightful to walk around this area with temples, looking out for Geisha, see the manned level crossing in action and stroll in the Bamboo forest. Then we took a regional train to travel back to central Kyoto.

Our few days in Kyoto concluded and we then headed to Hiroshima.

Kyoto to Hiroshima by Shinkansen

There are direct trains from Kyoto to Hiroshima however these are Shinkansen Nozomi services which are marketed as the premium bullet train services. These services cannot be used with the JR Pass. Therefore we would have to complete the journey with an easy change of train at Shin-Kobe station on the same platform and board the next train.

The change of train is a good chance to stretch the legs, if anything, and gives the opportunity to purchase an Ekiben bento box from the station kiosk. The trains used on the majority of Shinkansen Hikari and Shinkansen Sakura services are actually formed of the same N700 series Shinkansen as the Nozomi services, so comfort levels are exactly the same. The journey time is also the same but with some extra minutes for the change of train.

Our first leg for this journey was on a Shinkansen Hikari service taking 28 minutes. Then, with an eight minute change at Shin-Koke, we boarded the Shinkansen Sakura to travel a further 73 minutes direct to Hiroshima.

After arriving into Hirsohima we headed straight to the left luggage lockers to store our baggage – these lockers proved invaluable on our trip to Japan, being available at all major stations costing from 200 yen/day to 600 yen/day depending on luggage size.

Day trip to Miyajima (Itsukushima)

Trains depart Hiroshima every 15 minutes for Miyajimaguchi which is on the JR Sanyo line. Then it’s an easy five minute walk to the JR Ferry terminal for the 10 minute boat ride to Miyajima. Both trips are included with the JR Pass.

Miyajima is the perfect place to bag your souvenir with lots of shops selling Japanese gifts. The island is famous for its Momiji manjū cakes which are made of buckwheat and rice powder, they are shaped like maple leaves and contain a red bean paste. Look out for these and for the thousands of friendly Skia deer wandering the streets.

Once you have finished at the shops, it is well worth a trip on the Miyajima Ropeway to see the view from the top of Mount Misen. The cable car is a 15 minute walk away from the centre of Miyajima and is a mean feet of engineering taking the strain off climbing 350 metres of the mountain’s 535 metres.

At the top of the mountain the views of Hiroshima Bay are fantastic with green islands dotted around the water and the city of Hiroshima visible in the distance. Absolutely delightful on a clear day. There is also a café at the top which we enjoyed.

Exploring Hiroshima

Hiroshima is a city which resonates with most people worldwide because of a devastating event that took place in 1945. On 6th August an atomic bomb made of uranium was dropped on the city by American forces during World War II, ultimately killing a total of 140,000 people. Another atomic bomb was dropped days later in Japan but on the city of Nagasaki this time.

I wanted to learn more about what happened so spent a day visiting the extensive Peace Memorial Museum and Park situated alongside each other. I recommend spending the full day visiting both, the Atomic Bomb Dome alone really hits home.

The museum actively supports the movement against nuclear weapons asking visitors to sign up to International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons (ICAN).

Hiroshima has one of the most impressive shrines in Japan, also a World Heritage Site. The Itsukushima Shrine is significant because its torii-gate and shrine are in the middle of the sea! No photos however as we ran out of time.

Hiroshima to Izumoshi by Shinkansen and Ltd. Exp Yakumo

Izumoshi, also known as Izumo, is probably a place you’ve never heard of, we hadn’t neither. Izumo is a small city on the northern coast of Japan. We went to visit not only to get a taste of a non-tourist region of Japan, but also a chance to use our JR Pass for another day and to pick up the Sunrise Izumo sleeper train which starts its journey here.

Our fastest option, and what we perceived to be the most scenic option, to go from Hiroshima to Izumoshi was to travel on a Shinkansen service to Okayama and change onto a Yakumo train direct to Izumoshi there. The day before, booking seats for the fast Shinkansen Sakura trains proved to be a challenge with trains fully reserved and we were advised in the booking office to queue very early for the unreserved cars if we wanted to travel on this.

Instead, we found the option to travel on a slower Shinkansen to Okayama. This Kodama service had plenty of seats available but a longer journey time of 86 minutes instead of 46 minutes. This was operated by the nice retro, swift looking 500 series Shinkansen, which I have to say was my favourite! Just look at that nose! It was nice to see this train, which features in the Railway Museum in Kyoto, on a passenger service.

There is no green car on the Kodama service, however just by reserving a seat you can get a reservation in a car which used to be the Green car! The 500 series Shinkansen was degraded from the fast Nozomi services in 2010 to these stopping Shinkansen Kodoma services, because of their age, but I do feel it was well worth the extra 40 minutes of travel at least for the space we had onboard.

After the break in Okayama we boarded the Ltd. Exp Yakumo train bound for Izumoshi. This journey leg took three hours, seven minutes and is a beautiful ride through mountains as the train heads north then, as the train reaches the coast it heads west past rivers and lakes of Nakaumi and Lake Shinji. Before boarding we bought lunch to enjoy with the views – another Ekiben bento box of course!

Izumoshi to Tokyo by Sunrise Izumo sleeper train

One of the last remaining sleeper trains in Japan is the Sunrise Izumo. The train actually joins to the one other sleeper train in Japan en route, the Sunrise Seto. The eastbound trains couple together at Okayama and complete the rest of the journey to Tokyo as one train. The westbound trains split at Okayama and follow their respective routes to Izumoshi and Takamatsu.

We joined the Sunrise Izumo in Izumoshi at the start of its journey, departing at 18:51, taking 12 hours and 17 minutes in total and arriving into Tokyo at 07:08.

A variety of accommodation is available priced according to comfort. The most basic option, which is actually free to use with the JR Pass (reservation required), is the Nobinobi sleeping area. This is described by the Japan Railways as a “seat”. This is in fact an open-plan carriage with carpeted areas on two floors for lying down and a section per person. Each “seat” has a window and limited privacy dividers to cover your face.

We had enquired about travelling in the Nobinobi area, but all spaces were sold out (reserving 6 nights before, travelling on Thursday night). We decided to treat ourselves to the other option, a twin sleeping berth, at a total cost of ¥22,000 / £164.30. Just like European sleeper trains – though with a shared WC at the end of the corridor.

We did have a problem with fitting our suitcases in the cabin but once we had been creative with our space challenge we managed fine.

The train had showers and a small seating area with a vending machine selling soft drinks. In order to use the shower there was a dedicated vending machine where you pay ¥320 / £2.39 for a shower card. Then you insert this into the shower and your timer starts for six minutes. This doesn’t sound long, but actually it was plenty of time for a refreshing hot shower.

Life suddenly got busier when stepping off the train into Tokyo. Advertised everywhere was the upcoming 2020 Olympics with a countdown clock outside the station.

Tokyo is a bustling metropolis that boasts an impressive 160,000 eateries. Its attractions include the Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower, which both have observation decks, shrines and temples.

The weather in Tokyo didn’t live up to much, so for our last full day in Japan we dropped sightseeing and searched the country for sunnier climes. We also wanted one final trip on a Shinkansen train. Niigata on the northwest coast seemed a good candidate so we boarded a Max Toki Shinkansen service.

Tokyo to Niigata by Shinkansen

We boarded a Shinkansen Max Toki service direct to the port city of Niigata via the Jōetsu Shinkansen, taking two hours and nine minutes. These double-decker E4 series trains were quite retro (for Japan anyway) dating back to 1997. Each one has a pay-phone located onboard, unmissable due to its luminous green colour!

Shinkansen Toki services operated by single-decker E2 series and newer E7 series trains also operate on the route. We travelled back on an E7 series.

The journey in itself is a delight taking in mountainous scenery cruising past Mount Tanigawa, Mount Naeba and Mount Aizu-Komagatake – be ready with your camera.

Although there’s things to see, Niigata city itself isn’t so much a tourist destination, but for a taste of typical Japanese city (with a small town feel) with a river walk, we had an enjoyable stroll in the sunshine for a few hours.

Tokyo Narita (NRT) to London City (LCY) via Warsaw (WAW) with LOT Polish Airlines

The end of the trip was in sight, and the time had come to reflect on the incredible week that we enjoyed in Japan.

The journey back was similar to the way there. We started at Tokyo’s Narita Airport in the morning for a LOT flight departure at 11am bound for Warsaw Chopin Airport taking 11 hours, 25 minutes. Then we had a two hour layover before our connecting flight to London City Airport taking two hours, 40 minutes.

In true Japanese style, this airport was very zen. It was quiet (for an airport) and less hustle and bustle than most airports. There weren’t just seats available for all passengers, but loungers available too – a great way to relax before your flight!

Food wise we had three delicious meals just like we enjoyed on the way there, again incorporating a mix of European and Japanese cuisine. We made use of the attentive service in Premium Economy and in total enjoyed 10 drinks including wine, gin and tonics and Irish Cream on the two flights!

Train Tickets

If you’re planning to travel for a week or more, then without a doubt the Japan Rail Pass is what you need. This is only available for tourists residing outside of Japan. Passes are available for 7 days, 14 days and 21 days continuous travel and the prices can be found in the table below. You are required to purchase the Japan Rail Pass via a travel agent in advance of travel who will send you an exchange order. Then, when you arrive in Japan, you are required to visit one of the ticket offices to swap it for your train pass. We purchased ours via International Rail, a reputable travel agent in the UK.

Japan Rail Pass2nd Class1st Class (Green Car)
7 Days Continuous£217£289
14 Days Continuous£345£468
21 Days Continuous£441£608
Prices correct at 30th March 2020
TrainSupplement with JR PassFull Price without JR Pass
Tokyo Narita Airport to Tokyo by Narita Express (NEX)Free – including compulsory seat reservationsTicket Price
+¥1,340 / +£10.07

—————————-
Compulsory Reservation
+¥1,930 / +£14.50

Green Car
+¥3,300 / +£24.80
Tokyo to Kyoto by ShinkansenFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price
¥8,360 / £62.82

—————————-
No reservation
+¥4,960 / +£37.27

Reservation
+¥5,690 / +£47.25

Green Car
+¥10,360 / +£77.84
Kyoto to Kameoka by Ltd. Exp Hashidate trainFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price
¥420 / £3.16

—————————-
No reservation
+¥660 / +£4.96

Reservation
+¥1,390 / +£10.44

Green Car
+¥1,960 / +£14.73
Kyoto to Hiroshima by Shinkansen (change at Shin-Kobe)Free – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥6,600 / £49.59
—————————-
No reservation
+¥4,170 / +£31.33

Reservation
+¥4,900 / +£36.82

Green Car
+¥8,360 / +£62.82
Hiroshima to MiyajimaguchiFree – reservations not possibleTicket Price ¥420 / £3.11
Miyajimaguchi to Miyajima ferryFree – reservations not possibleTicket Price ¥180 / £1.33
Hiroshima to Okayama by Shinkansen (Kodama or Sakura)Free – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥3,080 / £23.14
—————————-
No reservation
+¥2,530 / +£19.01

Reservation
+¥3,260 / +£24.50

Green Car
+¥5,330 / +£40.05
Okayama to Izumoshi by Ltd. Exp YakumoFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥4,070 / £30.58
—————————-
No reservation
+¥2,420 / +£18.18

Reservation
+¥3,150 / +£23.67

Green Car
+¥6,610 / +£49.67
Izumoshi to Tokyo by Sunrise Izumo sleeper train*Nobinobi “Seat” (carpeted bed): Free, but reservation required.
Twin Room: total ¥22,000 / £164.30
Single Deluxe Room: ¥17,280 / £129.05
Ticket Price ¥12,200 +
Seat (carpeted bed): ¥4,030 / £30.10 for reservation.
Twin Room: total ¥22,000 / £164.30
Single Deluxe Room: ¥17,280 / £129.05

Tokyo to Niigata by ShinkansenFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥5,720 / £42.98
—————————-
No reservation
+¥4,510 / +£33.89

Reservation
+¥5,240 / +£39.37

Green Car
+¥8,700 / +£65.37
Niigata to Tokyo by ShinkansenFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥5,720 / £42.98
—————————-
No reservation
+¥4,510 / +£33.89

Reservation
+¥5,240 / +£39.37

Green Car
+¥8,700 / +£65.37
Tokyo to Tokyo Narita Airport by Narita Express (NEX)Free – including compulsory seat reservationsTicket Price
+¥1,340 / +£10.07

—————————-
Compulsory Reservation
+¥1,930 / +£14.50

Green Car
+¥3,300 / +£24.80
*Sleeper seats were fully reserved 1 week in advance in our experience. Fares and exchange rates from ¥ to £ correct April 2020

This article was first published in May 2020.

All aboard one of the final Hamburg 🇩🇪 to Copenhagen 🇩🇰 train-ferry 🚆🛳 services and the Schwebebahn 🚟 in Wuppertal 🇩🇪

One weekend in Germany and a lot to fit in! To add to the schedule, we had planned to take the slower, more interesting and relaxed route from the UK to Germany and Denmark exclusively by train. This is all perfectly do-able in a long weekend taking Friday off work and two full days on Saturday and Sunday. Our plan was to kick things off with the direct Eurostar service from London to Amsterdam…

London to Amsterdam by Eurostar

But luck wasn’t on our side… We had booked several weeks in advance on one of the three direct train options from London St Pancras to Amsterdam Centraal stations with operator Eurostar. I wanted a repeat of this smooth journey I had completed in April 2018 where the train passes through four countries seamlessly. Also I wanted to spend the time in Standard Premier class where you can enjoy a couple of small bottles of wine and a light meal and snack… bliss. On this train you don’t even notice the border crossings thanks to pre-travel check-in in London and with France, Belgium and the Netherlands being in Schengen Area. See my earlier blog post from 2018 here.

Unfortunately, one week prior to departure, Eurostar informed us that our train was cancelled due to a French General Strike affecting flights as well as the railway. It was just part and parcel of travel and the sometimes unexpected fun of having to think on your feet.

Naturally, in order to continue with the rest of the trip myself and my friends Mike and Ed had to find an alternative way to travel from the UK to Amsterdam. So I obtained a Eurostar refund and booked a flight with easyJet from Edinburgh to Amsterdam for £29 – not bad for one week before the time I wanted to travel. The flight served its purpose but was quite boring, there’s something truly special about travelling by train instead of flying as well as the environmental benefits.

I arrived in Amsterdam to meet my friend Mike who had flown to Amsterdam from a different airport and Ed was joining us later in Hamburg. We headed for the cosy Cafe Pollux for a few beers and then next door to our hotel, the Hotel Mansion, which was very comfortable.

Amsterdam to Düsseldorf by NS/DB ICE train

The following morning we set off early to catch the 08:08 InterCity Express (ICE) train from Amsterdam Centraal bound straight to Germany, operated jointly by state operators Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) and Deutsche Bahn (DB). The train was booked to be two trains coupled together for its journey to Basel in Switzerland, however our bad luck continued as due to a train fault one of the trains wasn’t there and that included our reserved coach.

Not to worry, we found some staff for advice on the platform and were advised to find any unreserved seats. Much to our delight we found several unreserved in the panorama coach… yes on the DB ICE 3 trains you can sit behind the driver and the cab with a glass screen between!

We arrived in Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof (Main Station) in good time and as we weren’t meeting Ed until the evening in Hamburg, we were able to take full advantage of our flexible pass to travel virtually anywhere in Germany (European rail staff FIP free coupon, but similar to flexibility of publicly available InterRail passes), being able to be spontaneous.

We opted first for a trip to Wuppertal to ride the recently re-opened Schwebebahn, only 20 minutes from Düsseldorf Hbf by DB operated Regional-Express (RE) train.

Riding the Schwebebahn 🚟

Built as a means to get city dwellers from one part of Wuppertal to the other is the Schwebebahn – the world’s oldest electric elevated railway with hanging cars. It was closed for eight months due to an accident in November 2018.

The Schwebebahn is fast and efficient and during our visit it was very well utilised by the locals with our carriage soon filling to capacity. We joined at its southwestern start in Oberbarmen and travelled the full length to Vohwinkel Schwebebahn in the northeast. The full journey time is 25 mins with the train covering 13.3km with 21 stops in total. It weaves its way through city streets then the river Wupper up to Wuppertal Hauptbahnhof.

Next up we boarded an ICE headed for Cologne. We went to the Bordrestaurant for a drink and shared a table with a gentleman travelling to work. We asked for recommendations of where to go and he recommended Bonn so we headed there changing at Cologne for a regional train to Bonn Hauptbahnhof. We spent a few hours here before ultimately heading to Hamburg.

Bonn, one of Germany’s oldest cities, did not disappoint. We enjoyed a walk around the old town, perusing the Christmas markets, supped some beer at the Brauhaus Boennsch, with its famous non-symmetrical curved glasses, and grabbed some pastries for the road from a local bakery before continuing our journey north.

We headed from Bonn to Cologne on a National Express regional train and then changed onto our ICE up north. There was a direct InterCity train from Bonn but we wanted to ride in the more comfortable ICE.

Koeln Hbf to Hamburg Hbf via DB ICE trains

In order to travel by ICE trains we would have to change trains in Hannover.

Our next leg was from Cologne to Hannover was on a DB ICE 2 train, taking 2 hours and 40 minutes.

We were hungry so instead of finding an unreserved seat we headed straight to the Bordrestaurant, the DB dining car. We started with some beers, Erdinger wheat beer was a very tasty choice. We then tucked into the German speciality currywurst followed by a rice pudding with the choice of cinnamon or sugar as a topping. Absolutely delicious and reasonably priced!

Then an easy 8 minute change at Hannover and we continued our journey on a brand new ICE 4 to Hamburg Hauptbahnhof… in the bar of course.

Hamburg to Copenhagen via train-ferry 🚆🛳

Until December 2019 there were three departures each day each way connecting Hamburg Hauptbahnhof and Copenhagen Central Station with a direct EuroCity train operated jointly by DB and Danske Statsbaner (DSB). What was very special about this international rail route is that the train boards a commercial Scandlines ferry as part of the schedule for its journey from Puttgarden to Roedby! This was one of three routes in Europe that has such an operation of a train going onto a ferry.

This route has now been changed so the train-ferry no longer runs and the train from Hamburg to Copenhagen goes on an overland route to the west which is longer in distance but is a similar journey time to what the ferry option was. In the coming years a tunnel will be built between Puttgarden and Roedby calling an end to the future of the train-ferry service.

Luckily, we managed to fit in the penultimate weekend of operation of the train-ferry in December 2019…

We set off on train ‘EuroCity’ 33 from its origin Hamburg Hauptbahnhof and were travelling to its terminus of Copenhagen (Kobenhavn) Central Station. The train was an DSB owned IC3 variety. There were two of these trains coupled together to make a 6-car train and even then every seat was taken, but this could’ve had something to do with the penultimate weekend of operation. The train didn’t have a dining car, but did have a vending machine selling some expensive Coca Cola which didn’t tempt me unsurprisingly.

I don’t know whether the ferry related quotes on the wall will survive once the route has changed!

The scenery wasn’t much to write home about and there wasn’t much life along the route – though there was plenty of sea on the approach to Puttgarden. At one point the train was surrounded with views of the sea from both sides.

As the train went onto the ferry, there was a thorough announcement by the conductor in three languages, Danish 🇩🇰, German 🇩🇪 and English 🇬🇧, asking customers not to remain on the train once it boards the ferry – the train would be locked shut.

See below the video of the train boarding the ferry complete with the announcement!

Train EC33 boarding the ferry en route from Hamburg to Copenhagen for one of the final times

Once we had boarded the ferry the capacity issues had become apparent – the train was practically touching both ends of the ferry – some impressive train driving going on there!

The ferry was large and had a number of amenities from a restaurant to a supermarket. You could tell it was a Scandinavian ferry by the eye-watering prices onboard, however the deck space was free for some fresh Baltic sea air.

The train arrived into Copenhagen and what a beautiful historical station it was with red and black checkered tiles and a very grand wooden roof.

Copenhagen city itself was a great place to finish the trip with some beautiful historical buildings and churches. The Christmas market was on and who knew the Danes were as crazy about Christmas as we Brits are? There were many places to buy ‘gloegg’ (mulled wine) at the market, and we were able to try ‘snaps’, a local floral-flavoured spirit traditionally served with a meal.

Tickets

TrainFIP Rail Staff Travel FacilitiesPublic Fares
(purchase online at DB Bahn)
London to Amsterdam (Eurostar)£44.50 in Standard / £62.00 in Standard PremierFrom £35.00 in Standard / From £79.00 in Standard Premier
Amsterdam to Duesseldorf(NS/DB ICE)NS/DB Free Coupons + 4,50 EUR Optional ReservationFrom 18,90 EUR bought in advance in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation

From 29,90 EUR bought in advance in 1st Class (inc. seat reservation)
Duesseldorf to Wuppertal (DB RE)DB Free Coupon
Wuppertal to Cologne (DB ICE)DB Free Coupon + 4,50 EUR Optional ReservationFrom 13,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation

Cheaper RE trains also available.
Cologne to Bonn (DB RE)DB Free Coupon
Bonn to Cologne (DB RE)DB Free Coupon
Cologne to Hannover (DB ICE)DB Free Coupon + 4,50 EUR Optional Reservation23,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation

Cheaper IC trains also available.
Hannover to Hamburg (DB ICE)DB Free Coupon + 4,50 EUR Optional Reservation From 12,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation

(through tickets from Cologne to Hamburg from 27,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation)
Hamburg to CopenhagenDB/DSB Free Coupons + 4,50 EUR (on train-ferry)From 28,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation on current IC train route (non-ferry).

From 54,90 EUR in 1st Class including seat reservation

This article was first published in January 2020.

U.K. 🇬🇧 to Istanbul, Turkey 🇹🇷 Exclusively by Train 🚆 – 2,100 miles, 12 days, 12 trains

I embarked on a voyage with my Mam to travel exclusively from York, England to Istanbul, Turkey by train – that’s right, over 2,100 miles without leaving the ground once!

In total this would mean 52 hours being spent on 12 different trains (albeit inclusive of a few days ‘off-piste’ to visit beautiful Split, Croatia.. who said there were rules?!). This would be nicely spread out across 2 weeks which meant for a journey of pure relaxation and excitement. Much more interesting than flying!

Here is the itinerary and that all important route map…

JourneyTrainDuration
Leg 1York 🇬🇧 to London 🇬🇧LNER Azuma1h59
Leg 2London 🇬🇧 to Paris 🇫🇷Eurostar e3202h16
Leg 3Paris 🇫🇷 to Munich 🇩🇪TGV EuroDuplex5h41
Leg 4Munich 🇩🇪 to Villach 🇦🇹ÖBB RailJet4h56
Leg 5Villach 🇦🇹 to Zagreb 🇭🇷EuroCity Mimara4h00
DetourZagreb 🇭🇷 to Split 🇭🇷Sleeper train7h16
DetourSplit 🇭🇷 to Zagreb 🇭🇷ICN6h13
Leg 6Zagreb 🇭🇷 to Belgrade 🇷🇸Regional6h39
Leg 7Belgrade 🇷🇸 to Nis 🇷🇸Regional4h43
Leg 8Nis 🇷🇸 to Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸Regional3h35
Leg 9Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸 to Sofia 🇧🇬Regional2h12
Leg 10Sofia 🇧🇬 to Istanbul 🇹🇷Sleeper train8h00

The grand plan was to spend 2 or 3 days in any one city and then spend a day travelling. We did however take two time-effective and very comfortable sleeper trains.

Day 1

Leg 1 – York 🇬🇧 to London King’s Cross 🇬🇧(1 hour, 59 mins)

We kicked things off with travelling by the new LNER Azuma train from York to the heart of the capital London King’s Cross in just under 2 hours.

Day 3

Leg 2 – 11:31 London St Pancras 🇬🇧 to Paris Nord 🇫🇷 (2 hours, 16 mins)

After a day exploring London we really kicked our European adventure off by travelling ‘sous la manche’ from London St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord on the high-speed Eurostar service.

We then had one hour in Paris before leaving on our next train to Munich. We allowed an hour between trains in Paris to give time to the 10 minute walk from Paris Gare du Nord to Paris Gare de L’Est and any minimal delay on Eurostar. Thankfully we were running to time. However we had the knowledge that if we missed the connection we would be covered by the self explanatory Hop On The Next Available Train (HOTNAT) agreement between Railteam members.

Leg 3 – 15:55 Paris Est 🇫🇷 to Munich Hbf 🇩🇪 (5 hours, 41 mins)

Our next train was the double-decker TGV for 770 km direct from Paris Est to Muenchen Hauptbahnhof (translated as Munich Main station). Upon entering Germany it was apparent that the train didn’t require customers to have a seat reservation as in France, so we timed our visit to the bar badly having to navigate our way around standing customers through four carriages as the train travelled between Strasbourg and Stuttgart.

When we arrived at the bar we treated ourselves to the in-house TGV chef menu by Michel Sarran. I had the ’Poulet Grillé’ and ’Comme une Charlotte aux Fraises‘ for dessert, both of which were very tasty however I was disspointed at the lack of chicken with the main course. The bar had also run out of white wine so I had to opt for rose and bought an extra one… why not!

We arrived into Munich Hauphtbahnhof on time ready for a full day of sightseeing the next day. Although the weather was wet, we did a walking tour to learn about Munich’s fascinating history and take in the sights of the glockenspeil in the main square, the Residenz and visit the Hofbraeuhaus.

Day 4

After a day exploring Munich, and what beautiful city it was, we were eagerly awaiting the next leg of the journey. Today would see us travel some 850 km through four different countries and on three different trains with our final destination being Split in Croatia.

Leg 4 – 07:47 Munich Hbf 🇩🇪 to Villach Hbf 🇦🇹 (4 hours, 56 mins)

First up, we had planned for an afternoon in Austria’s seventh-largest city, Villach.

The train was due to depart at 08:17 originally as marked on our reservations, however it’s just as well we checked the Deustche Bahn app the night before. Due to engineering work, our train was scheduled to depart half an hour earlier than scheduled! A lesson learned here is definitely to check your train before you travel.

Luckily we were in for a absolute treat with this journey so it was well worth the extra early start.

The smart Austrian RailJet train was our chariot for this leg. It boasts 3 classes of travel from Economy to First Class and even Business Class. It also has a sit-in restaurant called DoN’s Bistro which is available for all customers to use!

Mid journey we were peckish, so consequently headed to said restaurant for a spot of lunch. We were transiting through Austria and so chicken schnitzel and potatoes felt an appropriate choice. We also shared a bottle of very nice white wine while enjoying the spectacular scenery.

My Mam tried to flog Alex, who was looking after us in the bar, a £1 coin instead of a €1. He commented how much he liked Elizabeth, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to accept GBP so we did more digging for Euros.

As marked in the menu the Viennese-style chicken breast with parsley potatoes (Wiener Schnitzel von der Hendlbrust) main course cost €11.20 each while the large, high quality ‘Riesling’ bottle of wine cost €10.20. There was wine on the menu for €3.80 for a small bottle as well however this was the only one Alex had left on this trip.

While eating, we enjoyed the most scenic leg of the trip with lush green fields and steep mountain sides, especially in the run up to Bad Hofgastein during and after. Simply stunning.

Leg 5 – 16:53 Villach Hbf 🇦🇹 to Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 (4 hours)

After a relaxing 4 hours in Villach, where we explored 3 churches, had a long walk by the river and found a café serving Sachertorte (hurrah indeed!) we headed to the main station to board our next train. This was the cross-border EuroCity service to direct to Zagreb.

The train had come from Frankfurt and the it divided into two parts at Villach with one portion for Klagenfurt and the rear three coaches for Zagreb, the latter of which we joined.

This train was immensely popular, especially with interrailers. All three carriages were full upon departure from Villach, however 1.5 hours into the journey the vast majority of customers disembarked. The train was then only around half full for the rest of the journey to Zagreb.

We watched the sunset as we travelled towards the Slovenian-Croatian border. The mountains were dominating the landscape more and more as we travelled south so less of a view to enjoy from the train.

As the train was approaching the Slovenian-Croatian border, it stopped at a place called Dobova where our Slovenian conductor left the train for the authorities to conduct passport checks. It was now pitch black outside.

The station had an eerie feel to it as if this small village had history. The border police were searching the train on the adjacent platform, the Serbian carriages departing for Ljubljana, before moving onto our train so we sat waiting.

We watched as the torch was shone in a search for something in the toilet as you can see in the photo below. They then evicted a gentleman from the train.

We stood for around 40 minutes then our Croatian Railways’ conductor joined the train and we departed for Zagreb.

Upon arrival into Zagreb we had a couple of hours to find a hot drink and stock up on supplies before our next departure, the domestic Croatian Railways’ night train from Zagreb to Split.

22:56 Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 to Split 🇭🇷 (7 hours, 49 mins)

Our train was ready to board approximately 20 minutes before departure. In the meantime we sat at the station watching the train being prepared. There were staff walking on the tracks to access carriages with various manoeuvres and uncoupling of cars taking place, others were sat in the station platform bar drinking and enjoying a cigarette.

The train consisted of a motorail coach at the front followed by one sleeping car (1, 2, 3-berth cabins), two couchette cars (6-berth cabins) and four 2nd Class seated compartment cars. There are no catering facilities so luckily we brought our own drinks and snacks.

We had reservations in the sleeping car which was very comfortable, although the beds were quite short. On this train, in the sleeping car, despite three beds being made up the cabin is reserved exclusively for your booking. There are two toilets at the end of the carriage.

We arrived into Split station on time, refreshed and ready to sightsee whilst looking for coffee due to the 06:42 arrival!

We had a good couple of days exploring and relaxing in Split, especially enjoying its Roman old town. This was beautiful and a great place to get lost in the winding streets, not knowing which monument you’re going to bump into next from Diocletian’s Palace to the Cathedral of Saint Domnius and a number of restaurants serving high quality cuisine. Just outside the old town was a enticing fruit and vegetable market.

We also had time for an afternoon visit to Hvar with frequent ferries direct from Split with Jadrolinija and Kapetan Luka ferry companies. Fares were priced as one-way journeys around 40 kn / £4.63 each way depending on the departure time.

Hvar was quite similar to Split in size and feel and was easily walkable from the port. Hvar also had an impressive Spanish fortress dominating the skyline. To walk to the fortress, this involved a large number of steps.

After three days enjoying Split and Hvar we were due to travel to Zagreb on the one direct train per day leaving at 08:33 the next morning. Well, we weren’t officially due to travel since our compulsory reservation bought in the UK in advance was actually dated for April…

This meant an impromptu trip to the station was in order at 21:45 to be issued with a new reservation. The booking office clerk laughed at the error and issued us with a new reservation and actually at a fraction of the cost of the original.

While we were at the station I couldn’t help but notice the sleeper train about to leave for Zagreb and a shunting type of locomotive on the front. Apparently this is normal for the front of the sleeper for the first part of the journey out of Split to Ogulin. It has a sole purpose of climbing the steep mountain from the port town up to Ogulin then the locomotive is changed.

Day 7

08:33 Split 🇭🇷 to Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 (6 hours, 13 mins)

We arrived at Split station on time to catch our one daytime train option to the capital. Much to our surprise the train waiting to take us had only two carriages! As expected the train was relatively busy upon leaving, but we found that roughly 90% of customers travelled the entire route to Zagreb!

With two of us sitting at a table of four, we were convinced we were going to have to share with some other travellers at some point in the journey. Another surprise… At the 15 stations en route no more than 4 people joined at any one station! Most stations had no customers, so we never had to share our table with anyone.

There wasn’t much demand for travel at intermediate stations and there was nobody sitting in the 1st Class at any time in the journey. Not even the train conductor sat in there. She set up camp in 2nd Class placed her HŽPP branded antimacassar onto a seat of her choosing after departure. She mustn’t have wanted any customers to sit in her seat!

The train didn’t have any catering facilities, though there was what looked like a shop in the centre of the train albeit closed for us. I was informed on Twitter that this is supposed to be used as a ‘coffee point’ where the conductor can give you free coffee, but we were not offered this unfortunately.

The ICN train travelled through some beautiful mountainous terrain. The trains tilt around the corners to allow for a faster journey time which is a strange sensation.

Upon arriving at every station, even stations where the train didn’t stop, we found there was a Station Master awaiting the train’s arrival ensuring it safely departs. This railway pride was lovely to see, especially as we were travelling through many remote areas in the Croatian countryside. I don’t expect their jobs to be stressful in the slightest.

We arrived in Zagreb’s Glavni kolodvor station on time. The afternoon arrival enabled us to make the most of sightseeing and we particularly enjoyed exploring the Old Town up the mountain accessible by foot or by the funicular railway.

There was a wedding taking place in the Old Town, and what an amazing place and weather for it! We were in time to see the official photographs being taken with the bride and groom and their guests.

Day 8

Leg 6 – 11:03 Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 to Belgrade Centar 🇷🇸 (6 hours, 39 mins)

Next up was our train direct to the Serbian capital. There is one day train per day from Zagreb to Belgrade and the train consisted of just three carriages, two 2nd Class Serbian carriages and one 1st Class Croatian car. The latter car was detached within Croatia at Vinkovci however, so only 2nd Class was available for customers travelling to Serbia.

The Serbian carriages weren’t too inviting especially from the outside. They were drowned in grafitti. Inside the colour scheme is bland however the seats are very comfortable with decent legroom on offer.

The train actually starts in Zurich and runs direct to Belgrade as a EuroNight service. However, to travel from Zurich to Belgrade you must change cars since there is no through coach travelling the entire way. The Serbian day carriages are attached to the train at Villach and the night train carriages from Zurich are detached in Zagreb.

Mid-journey, I noticed that there was a steady stream of passengers moving themselves and their luggage into the next coach. Interested to find out what was happening, I went for a walk and discovered that one of the 2nd Class carriages was a declassified 1st Class coach and there was plenty of room for us to sit and enjoy it.. what a winner I said! In the carriage, there were more comfortable, larger seats and more leg and arm space than 2nd Class. Plus there was carpet instead of lino floor.

Without hesitation we moved our bags and enjoyed the second half of our journey even more. The scenery was mainly countryside and flat landscape, but pleasant enough.

There is no catering car so bringing your own picnic is recommended. Zagreb Glavni kolodvor station has an underpass beneath the station accessible by escalator in the square, at the front of the station. This features a supermarket and a number of bakeries with delicious pre-made sandwiches. Upon entering Serbia however, at Šid station, there was a very welcome arrival onto the train… a vendor with his cool box of drinks!

Six hours is a long time for no drinks to be available so unsurprisingly many people took advantage of his good selection of Serbian beer, canned soft drinks and strong coffee to keep them going for the remaining 2 hours while transiting through Serbia.

I saw him get off the train at the following station which concerned me as I hadn’t been able to ask him for a drink yet. Behold, he got off the train to hand strong coffee to the train drivers up front as I captured in the photo below. I’m sure they were in awe of his arrival as well!

He soon got back on the train and I was able to put in my order for a can of lovely Serbian Lav beer. Much nicer than the name suggests in English!

For payment he accepted both Serbian Dinars and Euros, which was a great way to use up our change from Germany and Austria.

The arrival into Belgrade was quite something with a view of the Ada Bridge whilst crossing Railway Bridge across the Sava river.

Our arrival into Belgrade was into the new Beograd Centar station, 2.7km from the centre of Belgrade. That evening following a visit to the excellent Zavicaj restaurant we went to see the sad state of affairs at the old Belgrade Main Station which has been closed to trains since June 2018. Following from my visit 4 months ago in June 2019 (see my blog post here from then) the old platforms have now been completed dug out.

Belgrade is a friendly city full of history. Its position on the confluence of the Sava and the Danube rivers has made it an important location for trading historically and today makes a lovely view from the old fortress.

Day 10

Leg 7 – Belgrade Centar 🇷🇸 to Nis 🇷🇸 (4 hours, 43 mins)

In the summer one direct train departs Belgrade Topcider station at 09:12 for Sofia arriving at 20:30, however we were travelling a day after the summer schedule had finished. This meant we had to be up for a planning challenge!

In order to get to Sofia the next day we would have had to either travel from Belgrade to Niš at 06:10 in the morning, with a risky 21 minute connection at Niš or travel the night before and stay over in Niš so we opted for the latter.

We decided to walk to Beograd Centar station from the centre of Belgrade. At first this was a nice walk through some leafy suburbs but we were soon faced with a series of motorways and we got confused.

We asked a series of very pleasant locals “where is Beograd Centar station please?” and not one of them knew where it was. The most common response was “I never use the train”. As a last resort we managed to find our location on Google Maps and which way we had to go. We had minutes to spare before our train was due to leave.

We soon realised that if we didn’t find a taxi we would miss the train. Luckily by the roundabout for the motorway there was a series of five taxis. We asked them one by one and four of them weren’t able to take us nor knew where the station was. Luckily our last driver did know and we made the train with 3 minutes to spare. Unbelievable.

We found the train and behold there were only 3 customers travelling on the smart, modern Serbian train. This departed at 17:30 on a Monday but wasn’t anything like a ‘peak’ time service in the vast majority of cities with a railway!

“Why oh why did Serbian Railways decide to build a centre station 2.7km from the centre of Belgrade?” was going through our lips several times as we caught our breath. We calmed down and we were then able to enjoy the journey to Niš.

Unusually as darkness fell we were faced with police conducting an ID check. This was very unusual for a domestic service not leaving Serbia, but nevertheless we showed our passports.

We arrived into Niš on time and we were faced with its brutalist check-in hall built just after World War II.

Day 11

We had an early start in Niš so we made the most of being somewhere new and fitted in a walk before the next leg of our journey. Niš was delightful and has its own fortress which is worth a look.

Leg 8 – 11:10 Nis 🇷🇸 to Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸 (3 hours, 35 mins)

We arrived back to Niš railway station for our next leg. There were no departure boards so we had to look at a printed timetable on the wall to find which platform we needed for the departure to Dimitrovgrad.

The train was a regional type and stopped 25 times during its journey. The scenery was breathtaking, especially the mountains following Ostrovica station. As at each station en route from Split to Zagreb in Croatia, on this route every station had a Station Master seeing the train through.

The train passengers were a mix of locals and tourists. On the train I had met a fellow traveller, Peter from Cambridge, who had travelled a similar route as us but a day later! He was talking at the European Association of Japanese Resource Specialists conference in Sofia so it was lovely to share the last leg of his journey from Dimitrovgrad to Sofia with him.

Leg 9 – 15:35 Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸 to Sofia 🇧🇬 (2 hours, 25 mins)

At the border at Dimitrovgrad in Serbia (not to be confused with Dimitrovgrad in Bulgaria) our train pulled into the one platform at the station. We disembarked the train and then 15 minutes later, the same train departed on a service back to Niš.

A few moments later a train arrived from the sidings – this was our international train to Sofia. It had only one carriage!

The train was very hot upon boarding as it had clearly been sat in the sun for hours and the windows were closed. Naturally myself, my Mam, Peter and our new train friend Alejandro from Spain soon opened every single window to help cool the carriage down.

This was our first train without air conditioning and thankfully the last, but luckily when the train set off it cooled down inside the carriage. There were curtains on the windows which helped to shield the sun, but once the train got up some speed they started to blow around uncontrollably so I had to open them again!

The train departed Dimitrovgrad, set off promptly but then stopped in some sidings. Bulgarian passport control was about to take place which was the method of taking them away, holding them for 30 minutes and handing them back out again before setting off. The train jumped one hour forward in time.

The train guard had a unusual dispatching device which was nothing more than a cardboard pole.

We arrived on time into Sofia which was a huge station with extremely long platforms. As we disembarked we noticed that this carriage had been used for the direct summer only service from Belgrade Topčider to/from Sofia as displayed on the carriage door. Even though we had 3 train changes, we concluded that we would have preferred to travel in the modern, air conditioned Serbian carriages for the trip from Belgrade to Dimitrovgrad at least.

Sofia was a great place to spend a day. There were many beautiful churches, gardens and palaces to explore.

Day 12

Leg 10 – 21:45 Sofia 🇧🇬 to Istanbul Halkali (for Sirecki) 🇹🇷 (8 hours)

Time for the final train of our trip with 400 miles to go on the cross-border sleeper train from Sofia to Istanbul.

We arrived at our train to find five carriages going to Turkey, four of which were modern Turkish Railways’ sleeper cars and there was one Bulgarian Railways’ couchette car which didn’t nearly look so new and inviting. We were glad we had booked a sleeper.

Once onboard the sleeper we were impressed with the size of the rooms onboard. It was left up to us to put the beds out but these were easy enough to set up. There were two members of staff in the sleeping cars but they were looking after four coaches of people.

The sleeper cars came with their luxuries. The large cabins came complete with their own fridge which was stocked with free bottled water, orange juice and cheese crackers! There was a choice between a western-style and squat toilet onboard in each carriage. The western-style toilet, which also had toilet paper available, even had a bidet fitted to the toilet bowl. I can’t vouch for its success though as I didn’t use it!

As the train crossed out of the EU and into Turkey, we were in for a night of disturbances. This was the negative associated with the sleeper train. The train reaches the first border point in Bulgaria at Svilengrad at approximately 01:30, however on this occasion it was running over an hour late. The EU Bulgarian police check passports on the train, taking them away and then returning them upon leaving Svilengrad.

The train then continues across the border to Kapikule where you must disembark the train with your luggage, walk under the tracks and queue up at passport control. After the passports are checked you then queue up to have your bags scanned.

The authorities don’t start the bag check until after the last person has had their passport checked. This resulted in being outside for a while, in fact one hour which was quite surreal at that time of the night. There were wild cats roaming around the platforms which did provide some entertainment until one cat started bullying another one. This caused some upset among passengers.

Due to engineering work the sleeper train terminated in Halkali instead of Sirkeci which is 23km from the centre of Istanbul. We were still able to finish our journey by rail however by using the Marmaray Metro direct from Halkali to Istanbul Sirkeci.

It was lovely to finish our trip at this beautiful station which is where the Orient Express finished its journey from Paris from 1883-1977. The station has its own museum which is full of old Turkish Railways’ merchandise and machinery and free to enter.

Whilst in Istanbul we visited the Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern and Grand Bazaar. All of these attractions are in walking distance to each other. We also had a boat ride along the Bosporus crossing between Europe and Asia.

I used Rail Staff FIP facilities to make this journey. Most of the trains accepted FIP Free Coupons and only required a nominal fee for a reservation. My Mam used an Interrail pass and we travelled in 2nd/Standard Class for every train.

Tickets

For both of us, with our passes, the following services required supplements to be paid:

  • flat fares for Eurostar between London and Paris
  • the cross-border TGV between Paris and Munich
  • the overnight sleeper from Zagreb to Split for private 2-berth sleeper cabin
  • the overnight sleeper from Sofia to Istanbul for private 2-berth sleeper cabin
Train No.Journey LegFIP Facilities UsedFIP Reservation Fees (inc. supplement where required)Global Interrail Pass Reservation Fees (inc. supplement where required)
ES9022London to ParisReduced Rate Card / Staff Travel Card£34.50£26.50
TGV9577Paris to MunichReduced Rate Card – no free coupons accepted on cross border TGV€15.00€13.00
RJ111Munich to Villach – reservationFIP Free Coupons (DB, ÖBB)€4.50 €4.50
EC213Villach to ZagrebFIP Free Coupons (ÖBB, HŽ)€4.50€4.50
D821Zagreb to Split sleeperFIP Free Coupon (HŽ)€25.00€25.00
IC520Split to ZagrebFIP Free Coupon (HŽ)€4.50€4.50
EN/D 415Zagreb to BelgradeFIP Free Coupons (HŽ, ŽS)€4.50€4.50
793Belgrade to NisFIP Free Coupon (HŽ)Free – reservations not possibleFree – reservations not possible
5903Nis to DimitrovgradFIP Free Coupon (ŽS)Free – reservations not possibleFree – reservations not possible
7991Dimitrovgrad to SofiaFIP Free Coupon (ŽS, BDŽ)Free – reservations not possibleFree – reservations not possible
493/
12501
Sofia to Istanbul sleeperFIP Free Coupon (BDŽ) & full fare for leg in Turkey (TCDD)€15.25€15.25

This article was first published in November 2019 and updated in December 2019.

London 🇬🇧 to South of France 🇫🇷 direct by Eurostar train – what’s the journey like?

For my sun seeking September trip this year, I took advantage of the once daily direct Eurostar train service from London St Pancras International station straight to the heart of Marseille in the South of France. This took 6 hours and 28 minutes. No train changes were required for this trip in Paris or Lille, where normally you would have to change onto a comfortable domestic TGV to the South of France. This meant I could just sit back and relax and let the train take the strain.

As is the norm with all Eurostar services, you simply walk straight off the train when it arrives at your destination and through the station exit – all security checks are completed before the train leaves London.

There is one train per day (on selected days of the week), mainly in the summer months, which leaves St Pancras at 07:19 local time and arrives into Marseille at 14:47 local time making stops en route to drop off customers only at Lyon Part Dieu and Avignon TGV stations. The return direct train journey takes an hour longer for security checks to be conducted at Lille Europe station and leaves Marseille at 15:22 local time.

Eurostar offers two classes of accommodation on this service – that’s Standard and Standard Premier. I opted for Standard Premier and the journey was a breeze with a complimentary breakfast and lunch served with wine while speeding through the French countryside.

In terms of food, I specified a gluten free meal after booking on the Eurostar website (other special dietary requirements are available) and I was served at my seat – no questions asked. You do only have one option if you specify a dietary requirement with the meal being prepared just for you. Customers who don’t specify are given the option of two meal choices when the trolley comes to your seat.

Below is a video I took of the trip’s scenery showcasing some of the best views on offer of the trip speeding through the French countryside. Imagine having a glass of wine in hand enjoying this on a beautiful summer’s day… it was bliss.

Here are some other pictures of the trip including those all important meal photos!

FIP Rail Staff Travel FacilitiesPublic Fares 
(purchase online at VR and SJ)
Helsinki to Kemi with VR sleeper trainSeat
Couchette
Sleeper
Lulea to Stockholm with SJ sleeper trainNot availableSeat
Couchette
Sleeper
*each way based on a return. Fares updated April 2020

This article was first published in December 2018.

London 🇬🇧 to Amsterdam 🇳🇱: city centre to city centre by direct Eurostar train in 3h 41

I was fortunate to travel on the first direct Saturday Eurostar service from London to Amsterdam on 14th April 2018.

A city centre departure from London St Pancras International and an easy check-in procedure (compared to that of flying anyway) meant a stress free start to this epic train journey to Amsterdam Centraal station.

We were soon boarded onto the c. 900 seat train and this followed with a prompt departure at 08:31 (while allowing us to take some very necessary photos) prior to 3 hours, 41 minutes of relaxation whilst gliding through four countries and making stops in Ashford International, Bruxelles-Midi and Rotterdam Centraal.

(Necessary photos below)

We had upgraded and opted for Standard Premier. Catering consisted of a continental breakfast soon after departure and tea/coffee and juice until departure at Brussels where we were served an aperitif of wine and nuts. Eurostar catered nicely for my Gluten Free needs, as always, but for the normal breakfast in Standard Premier see my friend’s photo below.

We had a brief stop in Brussels South station to drop off and pick up passengers (yes, entirely continental journeys are permitted on this train which is unusual for Eurostar).

Then we headed north to Amsterdam via Rotterdam arriving at 13:12.

In summary the direct Eurostar from London to Amsterdam was a very fast and smooth journey from city centre to city centre in an impressive 3 hours, 41 minutes, making the train a great contender vs the plane. The view wasn’t much to write home about and the lack of lunch meant we were in search of food upon arrival. However, Standard Premier on the e320 train was a comfortable way to travel. When will you have me back Eurostar? 😊

Tickets

FIP Rail Staff Travel FacilitiesPublic Fares 
(purchase online at VR and SJ)
Helsinki to Kemi with VR sleeper trainSeat
Couchette
Sleeper
Lulea to Stockholm with SJ sleeper trainNot availableSeat
Couchette
Sleeper
*each way based on a return. Fares updated April 2020

This article was first published in April 2018.

Poland 🇵🇱 to the UK 🇬🇧 exclusively by train in less than a day! More interesting than flying.

I can’t start this blog with just the journey. I have to say how much I loved Poland… what a beautiful place.

My trip involved travelling from Gdańsk to Wroclaw to Warsaw. Three cities affected by the war, but the former two built back up again with their facades repaired. They boast charming streets and the milk bars are perfect for solo travellers and warm, hearty food.  Please see my blog here of Poland itself https://gdtravels.co.uk/2017/11/26/route-of-the-amber-road-gdansk-to-wroclaw-poland/

Trip summary: Warsaw🇵🇱-Berlin🇩🇪-Basel🇨🇭-Strasbourg🇫🇷-Paris🇫🇷-London🇬🇧

The journey home

For those tight for time there is a faster route to travel from Warsaw to London via Paris with one train change using the Russian Railways EuroNight service from Moscow to Paris departing Warsaw Wschodnia at 13:05 on Wednesdays and arriving into Paris Gare de l’Est at 09:33. Paris Gare de Nord is a short 8-minute walk from Paris Gare de l’Est where you can pick up a Eurostar direct to London through the Channel Tunnel.

As it was cheaper for me I worked out a different and certainly more fun way to travel to London. On 5 trains. The journey time was 23 hours, 30 minutes to cover 2,878km but this did not bother me: I would make lots of friends along the way, be able to read that book I’ve been carrying around for weeks and see the landscape change through the window… bliss. Plus, a couple of hours to enjoy Paris.

Train 1: Warsaw-Berlin (PKP IC and DB)

A rather elderly train using PKP IC coaches exclusively, this train consisted of mainly seated compartment carriages but did convey an open saloon carriage too. Much to my delight there was a seated bar carriage and it was well occupied, mainly with business travellers travelling from Warsaw to Poznan. Its popularity was justified with its food and drink offering – I enjoyed Smoked Salmon and a Savignon Blanc or three. Soon enough we crossed into Germany, the train crew changed and arrived on time to the impressive multiple-story station of Berlin Hauptbahnhof.

Train 2: Berlin-Basel SBB (OEBB NightJet)

Recently, Austrian Federel Railways (OEBB) have taken over this convenient north-south route from Hamburg to Zurich via Berlin and have rebranded the service as NightJet with other routes. I opted to travel as far southwest as Basel in order to allow enough time to sleep – yes I didn’t opt for that bargain seated carriage and in fact the most budget bed option, still not badly priced at €59 for this six-berth couchette (public Adult fare).

This was a pleasant enough way to travel – I shared with a middle-aged German lady and gentleman and three late-20s friends from Switzerland travelling home from a weekend in Berlin. We did have to make up our own beds since the carriage converts from seated accommodation early evening. It is normal however to have to place your own sheet on the bed and position your pillow, top sheet and blanket.

Soon enough we were able to settle and the Swiss friends kindly shared some of their peppermint liqueur.

Interestingly there was a knock at the door early morning upon entering Switzerland: the police wanted to know whose bag was whose. Lots of peppermint liqueur was handed over… shame we didn’t have a bigger party the night before.

Arrival in Switzerland for the first time. First impressions of Basel- very clean and modern.

Train 3: Basel-Strasbourg (SNCF TER)

Soon I was into France, before I got on this train technically, through Basel’s dedicated rail border area to the French platforms.

This journey involved chugging through the French countryside on a comfortable regional train. What a delight.

Train 4: Strasbourg-Paris (SNCF TGV)

Following an hour’s break in Strasbourg, enough time to walk the streets and enjoy a croissant or several at a French café, I returned to the gare de Strasbourg.

I was graced with a TGV Duplex and a seat upstairs with a window view… perfect.

Train 5: Paris-London (Eurostar)

After a few hours to enjoy Paris, Gare de Nord was in sight for me to enjoy my final leg home.

Arriving at the station 45 minutes before departure to check-in I was soon whisked away to London via the Chunnel on the super speedy Eurostar train with complimentary food and wine in Standard Premier. Heaven.

Trip took 23 hours, 30 minutes but didn’t feel long at all.

This article was first published in January 2018.