Story and photos by Denise Mattia
A pale wintry light pierced the Vienna sky at dawn, revealing the tops of roofs and the silhouette of the Hofburg Palace Dome. I returned to my room ready for a journey by train from Vienna to the Wachau Valley in Krems, traveling on to Salzburg, Basel, Zürich and lastly Paris. Prior to this trip I’d reached all destinations directly by air and hadn’t traveled throughout Europe by train since 1964.
Thanks to the Internet, most transportation tickets can be purchased online from Rail Europe prior to travel. I bought the Select Pass, which allowed me to travel into each country over a one-month period. Still, the brochure, “Helpful Tips for Train Travel,” didn’t prepare me for the changes in the rail system.
To my disappointment, gone are the stationmasters who ushered passengers to the appropriate cars, helped them up the high steps and assisted with luggage. Replacing those guardian angels of train travel are computer boards specifying track numbers and arrival and departure times. Additionally, there’s no signage indicating where the first- and second-class sections are located when the trains come into the station. Doors don’t open automatically; they slide apart when a button is pressed. Locals have the knack and share information willingly. They also understand the difficulty of lifting luggage onto the train and provide assistance. Accepting an offer of help with my bag, I left Vienna for Krems.
Outside the window, wide expanses of snow-covered flatlands punctuated by church spires and farmhouses flickered by as the train sped past remote villages called Absdorf Hippersdorf and Kirchberg am Wagram. The noise this manmade predator made didn’t bother horses, which were busy nibbling grass in the snow, but it disrupted the peaceful winter scene and caused deer and rabbits to scamper. Nearing Krems, rows of grape vines cut through the snowy landscape uniformly. Once the harvest was over, vineyard keepers cut back the vines, leaving squat stumps topped with bursts of odd-shaped branches.
With impressive museums, wineries and spas, the Krems and Wachau valleys are anything but sleepy, even in winter. After an enjoyable stay in this region, I was off a day later to visit the Baroque city of Salzburg, a lively place where palaces crowd the skyline and where Mozart was born.
In Salzburg, there are several dozen cafes where Mozart and Hayden were reported to frequent. When I wasn’t scurrying from the chill winter wind to visit museums, castles and crypts, I was ducking into a sweet shop to have coffee and the decadently delicious chocolate Venusbrüstchen (Venus breast) — Mrs. Mozart’s favorite. Several days and pounds later, I boarded the train to Basel via Zürich.
Not having reserved a seat, I was displaced by a couple who had purchased the one I’d assumed. Fortunately, the train was only half full and a conductor showed me to a private compartment, albeit a messy one. The restaurant car waitress bore no responsibility for cleaning the containers and papers left behind by preceding passengers, nor was she willing to find the appropriate personnel for the job. Since the detritus detracted from my enjoyment of the pristine turquoise-blue water cascading from the mountaintops outside, I tidied the compartment.
Before long, the crisp clear sky turned cloudy, enveloping the train in a white fog that nearly obliterated the towns from Bludens to Sargans. Although it was eerily beautiful, I imagined being caught in a snowdrift – the setting for a modern-day who-done-it. The next stop should have been Zürich. It wasn’t. Minutes away from the city, the train reversed inexplicably and returned to Sargans, which made making my connection from Zürich to Basel doubtful.
When the train finally did arrive in Zürich, my connection was at the other end of the station. A mad dash and a different kind of guardian angel of train travel – an unsuspecting young man – got me on board and into a seat. For the next hour my Basel friend and I talked about banking, European and American politics and the future of the world. Upon arrival, he escorted me to the appropriate tram and, when I couldn’t find my Basel pass, bought me a ticket and refused reimbursement. We parted, as people sometimes do when traveling, as happy companions, likely never to see each other again.
Having become enamored of a town that loves art, architecture and fun in equal proportion, I left Basel vowing to return. The impeccably clean ICE rail sped without a hitch to Zürich, a city that’s an amalgam of church spires, narrow, hilly streets, business and culture centers and Swiss watches (but not the cuckoo clock – that originated in Germany).
On my last day in Zürich, I stopped off at the Stadelhofen to confirm a seat on the train to Paris (a must any time of year). With help, I’d gotten the knack of train travel and had avoided the “pat downs,” liquid checking, passport scrutiny and baggage invasion prevalent at airports. Looking up, I noticed that flying high in the rafters was a sculpture, which I learned later was by Nikki de Saint-Phalle. It was titled Guardian Angel. “They’re not gone at all,” I thought. “They simply take on different forms.”
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Travel prices and tips:
Only non-European residents can purchase a Eurail Pass. I purchased a first-class adult select pass, which allowed seven travel days within a two-month period and cost $569.
Excellent public transportation systems make getting around European cities easy. Most cities offer discount cards or city passes (usually with unlimited rides and discounts to museums, shops, restaurants cafes and more), which go a long way. Once in Vienna, I purchased a regular 72-hour public transportation ticket (euro 13,50, about US $17). The 72-hour Vienna Card (about US$25) offered only 5- or 10% discounts to museums, cafes and restaurants and didn’t seem worthwhile. For more information, visit www.wien.info. Salzburg is small and many attractions are within walking distance of your hotel. For that reason, I chose the 48-hour Salzburg Card (about US $41), which offered free admission to all of the city’s attractions (museums, use of the funicular, cableway and transportation). Visit email@example.com. Warning: Control officers board trams and buses. Fines are steep for riders without a paid fare.
Since I was only traveling from Basel to Zurich, with a side trip into Germany to visit the Vitra Design Museum (about $US 5 roundtrip), I purchased a single, one-way ticket to Zurich, which cost about US$26.
For more information, visit Rail Europe.
Denise Mattia is a freelance writer and photographer (underwater and topside) whose works are published nationally and internationally and include all aspects of leisure travel: art and architecture, culture, resorts, spas hotels, food and wine and sports’ activities. Her outlets include print publications for upscale professionals, web e-zines and trade magazines. She holds two degrees in theatre and art and was awarded a grant from the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation in 1990 for her work in reef conservation. Visit www.nytwa.info/DeniseMattia