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Monita Explores London and Europe

Staff member: Monita // Trip date: Sep 2014


London Underground - Heathrow to Acton North

 

After 3 flight changes I arrive into London, tired and jet lagged. Relieved that I had finally arrived! I went to retrieve my baggage, the airport is all easily sign posted which way I had to go, I cleared customs and found the London Underground by the use of the clearly marked signs which directed me. There's only the Heathrow Express - 15min non-stop service to Paddington station or the London Underground "Piccadilly Line" out of Heathrow so there isn't any confusion.
The Tube is quite spacious and allows for areas to put your bags, and hand rails to hold onto. Inside there are maps to indicate what line you are on and shows all the stops along the way.


Oyster Card

 

I used an Oyster card for the London underground, which Rail Plus sells already topped up and ready to use which saves on the long lines queuing up. I took the Piccadilly line to Acton Town, from there got off at the wrong stop, back tracked then I changed and went to Eailing Broadway then to North Acton to where my hotel was located within a 4 min walk. The Oyster card allows for you getting lost as you get charged for the journey when you tag off at the station, the machine also tells you how much credit you have left. The bonus feature of the Oyster card is if you do not have enough money on your card, it will allow you go to go into a negative balance so when you top up it will take off the amount then. No need to panic if you do not have much credit left or if you are unsure of how much the journey is going to cost. From Acton North - being on the central line allowed me to move around the city where I had the chance to spend the next 3 days exploring.

 

Hop-on / Hop-off Bus - London


Having being jet lagged and wanting to see it all, the Hop-on Hop-off bus was the way to do this with over 80 stops, 3 main sightseeing routes and countless photo opportunities.

Eurostar - London to Paris


The Eurostar station (London St Pancras) is very big. My ticket was to be inserted into the machine for the gates to open, where I then queued up to have my bags scanned and the passport control took my passport to check and stamp. Due to security reasons and border control, photos are not allowed to be taken in the station. Further along the station, I saw a very big departure board where my train number and time was displayed. The trains only showed which platform it was on, 20-30 minutes prior to departure and I discovered this was the normal time frame. Upon arrival to the platform where my train was waiting, I looked for my coach number. The coach numbers were all marked on the concrete floor so it was easy to find. The train attendant offered to help my baggage on board.


The Seating is spacious allowing for ample leg room. There are some seats that are facing each other with a table in-between and others that are in an airplane like style with seats in rows. All seats have a power socket and a table. There are luggage racks at the end of the train carriage and overhead. I found my seat and my first taste of high speed train was finally here and I loved it. I travelled in first class with extra comfort and was taken aback at how fast we were actually going. The train moved with such ease that only by looking outside and watching the world move fast, did I realise the speed of the train. A light cold meal was served which consisted of a choice of a chicken salad or cheese board, a soft drink or alcoholic beverage, a muffin and a lemon tart. Tea or coffee was also an added option served afterwards.


Paris Sightseeing included using the Paris Pass


With 2 days of unlimited use of the metro system and the additional bonus of the Hop-on/Hop-off bus pass to see such sites like the Eiffel Tower was definitely worth the money spent. Entry tickets to attractions do add up and I found this set my mind at ease knowing all my sightseeing was paid for by this one inclusive product. Some of the highlights included:

  • The Bateaux Mouche - Seine River cruise where I was pleasantly surprised by on board commentary, enjoying the view of the silk like waters and ever changing scenery.
  • Musée Grévin - where I got to "hang out" with Obama.
  • Moulin Rouge Show - definitely a must see!

 

Paris to Barcelona and Eurail pass


This was my first train where I now needed to start using my Eurail pass. You need to activate your Eurail pass before you can start using it and it must be activated within 6 months of the issuing date.
I had my pass pre-validated in office at Rail Plus which is an extra service we provide that means I do not have to do this locally, but means that the pass is then non-refundable/non changeable with no exceptions. Alternatively you can validate your pass locally at the ticket office in most large train stations before your first train commences. The validation processes simply consists of checking your pass against your passport, a railway official will then fill in the start and end date of your pass as well as your passport number. They will also stamp the pass in order to validate it and all you then need to do is fill in the date as you use it, along with the travel report.

In the TGV duplex, I was to be seated on the top level. The narrow stairs proved to be a mission for my oversized suitcase and I realised if I had been seated downstairs I wouldn't have been disadvantaged by the view at all. There's no WiFi, but the train has power sockets at all seats, a drop down table in front of you, a cafe-bar, toilets and luggage space both upstairs and downstairs. You're free to bring your own food, wine or beer on board, or you can buy from the bar car. The clean seats and comfortable head rest made for an enjoyable scenic trip. The Barcelona station featured lifts and I discovered over 80% of stations in Barcelona are wheelchair accessible.


Barcelona City Sightseeing Hop-on Hop-off Tour


This tour takes two different tour routes to explore the city - the Blue Line and Red Line. A Green Line also operates from April to October. I was able to see the sights from aboard an open-top Double-Decker bus. The top is always full and sometimes you can wait for two buses to pass by before you board a bus where the top deck is available. The trick is to hop on the bus and sit on the lower half and then the moment you see people hopping off, you wait by the stairs to climb up before others get on. As the temperature is hot, the cool breeze from the open top bus was heavenly. I highly recommend sun screen! The tour will highlight all the things to do in the city so that you can hop on and off at your convenience at more than 44 stops. The key sights and world famous attractions of this fantastic city are included on the tour including the Gothic Quarter which is the centre of the old city of Barcelona and has an amazing cathedral. Don't forget to take a scarf if you're wearing a singlet to cover bare arms. Any clothing too short is not permitted.

 

Barcelona to Nice via Montpellier


I took the swift TGV from Barcelona to Montpellier. I was impressed how comfortable the seating were and how they featured a softly padded headrest. There were power sockets and a drop down table and only had overhead luggage space. There is a viewing area which I sneakily placed my luggage.

Arriving in Montpellier I had lunch and enjoyed the light mist sprinkler system from the station ceiling as it cooled the room from the heat. The station is quite spacious and not over complicated. There are lifts to enable you to change platforms. Arriving in Nice just as easy, I got off the train and followed the crowd toward the exit. I spent the next two days at the paid beaches - an extra 10euro for an umbrella and deck chair, it was worth it!

 

Nice to La Spezia via Ventimiglia and Genoa


The French journey train from Nice to Monaco was very, very busy. I had to stand as all the business commuters were also on-board and after a few short stops, ¾ of the people exited the train at Monaco. I was spoilt for choice where I wanted to sit. It was quite scenic with lakes, streams and cottages along the way.

Arriving into Ventimiglia was a breeze with only 2 platforms made of light work with luggage in tow. Genoa station is the same. The ICP train seating consists of a cabin of 6 seats in first class with only overhead luggage space. On the main entrance glass door showed how seats were numbered. It made for great conversation! I meet a lovely couple from Germany which made for a very quick trip! I can now happily say Germany is now definitely on my bucket list!

Finally arriving into La Spezia into Platform 1, I could see that at the end was a left luggage service. This was shown by a picture of a suitcase.
As a funny side note, there are lifts at La Spezia Centrale but you have to hold down the up or down button the entire time in order for the lift to move.

From La Spezia I dropped my bags off at the hotel and off I went to the Cinque Terre.
The local regional train wasn't as nice as the fast TGV's but just as comfortable without the added leg room as you get in first class on the TGV's. Heading to Riomaggiore, the left hand side of the train was the most scenic with views of the ocean.

 

Rome Termini Station


After La Spezia and its magical villages - I then continued my travel on the Italian domestic trains from La Spezia to Rome. Rome Termini station is very big with well planned out. The platforms are all lined up in rows where you do not have to go up or down stairs to change platforms nor do you have to take stairs to get out of the station as you come out of the station at street level.


Italian High Speed Trains


My onward journey continued on the Italian domestic trains from Rome to Florence (Frecciaregento), Florence to Milan (Frecciarossa). Both these trains were quite similar with décor, featuring its own power point in First class, seating that slightly reclined and some seats which faced each other with a table in-between. Both trains also featured an in-seat meal service for First class passengers. The biggest difference I found was that the Frecciaregento had space in-between seats where you could put your luggage and the Frecciarossa had luggage racks at the end of the train car.


Zermatt to St Moritz on the Glacier Express


I wasn't disappointed by the breath taking view, cutting through the Swiss Alps! On board you receive ear phones to listen to commentary if you choose or the cabin sounds music to listen to for comfort, so you can choose to listen only if you wish. Service on board includes a train attendant asking if you would like a drink throughout the journey. Payment for the drinks is made toward the end of the trip. A lunch menu is provided, with a selection of a 3 course meal, a selected meal or on-board snacks. Our service didn't have any on-board snacks so I would recommend to double check with the attendant if snacks are available if the other choices are not an option for you. The seats are luxurious, and all seats had a table but strangely enough there were no power sockets. At the end of the train car there were luggage racks on both ends.


The never ending streams, mountain, hill rock formations and vineyards on hills had me glued to the window for most of the train ride (except the tunnels or when I was reaching for my camera to take yet another photo). The panoramic side windows and glass skylights allowed me to see the tops of mountain and trees. When departing Chur, the train changed directions and my seat was back facing. My favourite part of the journey was after Filisur - there are line spirals that climb high on a ledge to Bergun through more loops and spirals passing through the Albula tunnel.


City Night Line from Zurich to Prague


I was booked in a deluxe double sleeper with my very own toilet and shower. The room was quite masterfully planned out and there was no room that went without purpose. The shower head had a multi task of two jobs. Being the head of the shower and the tap to wash your hands and refreshen up. The back of the toilet door were where your towels hung. The bunk beds had their own reading light, a switch for the cabin night light and a wee pocket where you can place loose items for safe keeping when you were ready to sleep. Baggage was to be stored overhead and had netting to ensure it didn't fall. The ticket conductor had then taken my Rail Pass to then return in the morning. He also enquired what time I wanted my wake up call to be and I had the option between two times half an hour apart which was 2 hours before the scheduled arrival time in Prague. The gentle movement of the train rocked me to sleep. In the morning I was awakened by a speaker advising where we were and how long the journey was going to be - this I discovered was my wake up call. Breakfast was served half an hour later of my scheduled wake up call. The ticket conductor asked if I was ready for breakfast and returned my Rail Pass. He promptly returned with a tray that clipped onto the railing of where the drink holder was and it soon became a table. Coffee, liver spread, honey and a selection of bread was served and what I thought to be yoghurt, was actually apple sauce. After breakfast this was cleared and it was time to pack. Lucky I was ready as it wasn't announced that I was so close to arriving. Having had a good night's rest waking up in a new city and country I was ready and roaring to explore before my long flight home.

 

In Conclusion:


I would recommend taking a smaller bag; size around 17-20kg or a size your able to lift over your head to put in overhead luggage storage. This saves worrying about trying to find room to store your luggage or man handle your luggage up and down stairs. Pre-booking seat reservations saves on time queuing up and not having to worry about added stress to find seats available. The left luggage service is quite expensive but well worth it if you do not have much time in a city and want to have a look around, I used this service in Milan and it works well. I had used a Eurail pass for my trip and having this be the first time used I found it to be easy, and flexible for the regional trains. You simply fill in the day as you use it along with the travel log, show your pass and seat reservation for the high-speed trains and away you go. The travel log is very important to fill in as you go as well, the ticket inspectors on board check that you are filling this out and some even check your passport too.
As a smart woman once said to me, it goes without saying 'you will see more from your cabin window than you would from 35,000 feet above'.

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