The grandparents’ story
Note from Silver Travel Advisor
In March 2015, we ran a competition in partnership with My InterRail to find 2 grandparents and 2 grandchildren who would be willing to spend 10 days travelling 1st class around the Benelux countries by InterRail and to keep a diary about their experiences. The winners were Grandparents Dennis and Maureen Walby. When we advised Dennis that he was the winner, the hardest job for him was to pick which of his 25 grandchildren to take! Lucky Lottie and Ollie (both aged 13) both made the grade.
Here are the journals from their trip taken in June 2015 which we hope you enjoy reading.
With the Silver Travel Advisor full of tempting, wonderful travel holidays for those of us lucky enough to have a fairly healthy retirement, the prospect of enjoying the vast number of travel opportunities with grand children may seem bizarre. When STA offered this chance, it sent me into a flurry of planning. The big problem with having to consider children there is a need to make sure they do not get bored. I should have known better. They offer a wonderful excuse for going around a tram route twice or over the raised metro in Hamburg more than once. The view is great and I am sure we may have been self-conscious about racing around to catch the train back the same way we had travelled just for the view. We soon discovered that day tickets or freedom passes on public transport is a very useful way of finding the sights of any city.
The journey started with a Eurostar journey to Belgium. We broke our journey in Lille to catch a local train to Kortrijk. We started early in order to reach this large Belgian town during the school day. One of the grandchildren has a project about ‘no more war’ that involves several European schools. They write, email and even Skype, so they were thrilled to receive an ambassador in the shape of a diminutive girl of eight. If one is using a travel pass, little journeys are best done on ‘non-rail pass ‘days and saving the travel concession to longer journeys. Cost for urban trains is not excessive. It’s a great pity that Kortrijk is not on normal travel routes or stops. The grim faced hotel we stayed overnight was 100 metres from the station.
Under normal circumstances, it would have been called ‘Station Hotel.’ However, it was The Park Hotel and it was fantastic. The enjoyment was made all the better for the children who absolutely loved it. Unused to five star treatment, the hotel justified all the online reports. There were the best beds I have encountered in a hotel. Subdued lighting like they used to have in West End cinemas and a pool made it wonderful. Best was to come with breakfast, included in the price. As it is in Belgium, chocolate featured in the menu. There were even lumps of chocolate to add to hot milk, cereal or just eat. Sheer heaven for children. Goodness knows what their parents thought when they read their notes on the adventure.
Much to their dismay, we stopped only one night at the Park Hotel. The fast Inter City (IC) service happens to stop at Kortrijk, probably because it is en route to Ghent and Bruges, which are tourist hot spots. As we left the station we saw the first of many bicycle parks, outnumbering cars.
The next destination was Amsterdam, which meant a change in Antwerp. Antwerp station is amazing, with platforms on five levels.
Planning had been difficult as hotels are very expensive in Amsterdam. We settled for a Best Western in the suburbs called Blue Square Hotel. It was on the tram route and with frequent services to the town centre. Ensure to validate day tickets when boarding and getting off. The booking system for Anne Frank museum would have been a great advantage, but was booked up until the end of August. We couldn’t afford the queuing time and settled for an extra tram ride and a canal cruise. Amsterdam needs longer than two days, hotel prices dictated the length of our stay. It is worth staying even further out and commuting into Amsterdam.
We left a rather damp Amsterdam for Hamburg. The journey was not without incident, but the joy of the railways is their frequency. Although two hours late, we had little trouble in finding a connection to Hamburg. We even found four seats together, although it took a bit of determination. The reservation system is very good. Little electric signs appear over the seats and advise one at which stop that seat is likely to be occupied. It does mean it is possible on some trains to swap around. People also tend to spread out, especially in first class, if there are no scheduled passengers. As we were not scheduled due to ‘unforeseen problems’ we found a carriage and had to insist that we could take up places. One disadvantage of first class travel is that there are often passengers of determined opinion. My wife happens to be a very good negotiator.
My wife did not like Hamburg. It may have been the rain or the unfortunate location of the hotel Novum Style (part of the Accord group). It was in an area that one normally associates with station hotels. To be fair, the hotel was clean but despite its five star rating did not have a restaurant. It was surrounded wth what guide books would describe as a ‘lively’ community. The main purpose for visiting Hamburg was to go to Miniature Wonderland. A truly amazing model railway layout that covers several countries, a harbour with tides and a working airport! Perhaps that’s another reason my wife didn’t like Hamburg. I also remembered when I first visited the town the taste of a real Hamburger. No beef. There we travelled the metro a few time because of the stunning view it offers of the harbour. It didn’t seem so bizarre as we did have children with us!
In spite of the fact that there is a lot to see in Hamburg, we cut short our visit and on a whim decided to go to Copenhagen. This is the joy of a rail pass. It counted as a day from our travel allowance, but was well worth it. We visited the land of Hans Christian Anderson and a welcoming city. We used Best Western again. Although just a brief walk from the station, it was comfortable and not in an intimidating area. True that the ‘Best Sex Club’ in Europe’ was next door, but it could have been a library for the effect it had on the area. The most memorable part of the excursion was the train ride. This particular Inter City never went very fast due to the number of level crossings on this very flat route.
When the train arrived at Puttgarden the track ends abruptly at the dockside. A ferry docks and completes the track. Passengers and train are swallowed by the ferry, which then makes the forty five minute crossing to Rodbyhavn. Time for a generous helping at the smorsborg and onwards to Denmark.
Back in Hamburg we had booked an overnight train to Munich. Second class, as this was not included in the travel pass concessions. The children liked it, but both complained of the hard beds. It was very much like camping without the benefit of space. I would expect first class to be more comfortable, but this was the result of trying to fit so much into the excursion. Munich was a very tidy and I think, wealthy place. We had a wait to meet friends and unfortunately the first class lounge was out of bounds to rail pass holders. The ‘keeper’ was very keen to observe the letter of the law. Other lounges in other stations were more accommodating. Munich is a very law abiding town, but even so, employs plain clothed ticket inspectors on its public transport. Their choice of disguise is often startling. There are nice parks, but we were told that they can be very difficult about what credit/debit cards they accept in the restaurants.
So, the final day of Rail Pass travel. As we had used all but one of the permitted 5 days in 10 travel, we were going to do Munich to Brussels Midi in one day. The joy of IC and IC Express is the speed in which these journeys can be made. There is hardly need for sleepers, except on the long legs of a journey. It was here, unfortunately, that the short comings of ICE travel can be easily highlighted. Changing at Frankfurt to a ‘sick’ train, we were finally expelled from it at Liege two and a half hours late. The connection was finally located without help from German rail DB staff assistance.
Arriving at eight thirty in Brussels Midi station we found that the hotel, despite its five star rating, had no restaurant. We had promised our travel companions a good last meal in Europe but had to settle for a burger in the station buffet. The following day, we had time to explore Brussels a little. Most hotels will look after luggage, so that it isn’t necessary to carry it around the tourist routes. If the hotel is near the station, one just collects it and makes the train connection.
Thus to Eurostar, which despite its years of service, is a fast and comfortable way to travel. Although there are a few perks travelling first class, second is comfortable and roomy. As we sped back to the UK, missing the disruptions caused by strikes by just one day, we summed up lessons learned.
- Travel light. Especially when there is a connection to make, toting heavy wardrobes around is definitely not recommended. It’s also easy to stow small bags in station left luggage or hotel left luggage.
- If travelling with children, check out the difference between a family room and two twin rooms. These tend to be more frequent anyway. Having their own hotel room does make them feel like real travellers.
- Although planning an adventure is half the fun, don’t over do it. One of our best times was the impromptu trip to Copenhagen.
- Certainly consider the extent of the wanderings. High speed train, second or first class, are great for quick journeys, but don’t try to go too far.
- Wheely bags or rucksacks? It is a matter of choice. I found the back pack more convenient, but did feel a bit like an aged hippy.
- Use the Inter Rail team to help. We had great assistance, especially from a young man called Rory who managed to plan one leg that I couldn’t find a way to do. It wasn’t his fault the train broke down!
And the children? All they could say was, “when can we do it again?”
This trip was sponsored by My InterRail.