June 29, 2011

Trafalgar Train Tours

I've loved traveling by train ever since my first trip to Europe in the '80s. I purchased a Eurail Youthpass and journeyed from Amsterdam to Rome, to Florence, Vienna, Munich and Paris. In 2010 I returned, traveling this time with Trafalgar Tours on the Contrasts of Europe train tour through England, France and Italy.

Tower Bridge, London

The tour started in London and since this was my first visit to this cosmopolitan capital, we booked two additional nights at our hotel in advance of the tour to do some extra sightseeing on our own.

After passing through security at St. Pancras International Station, we boarded the Eurostar train for our 2 hour journey to Paris. We traveled under the English Channel, through the 50-kilometer Chunnel which opened in 1994.

Eurostar Train, St. Pancras Station, London

We arrived at the Gard du Nord station in Paris for a three night stay. And one of the highlights was our visit to the Musée d'Orsay, which was converted from a railway station and hotel that were built for the 1900 World Fair. The museum opened to the public in 1986 with a treasure trove of Impressionist art.

Musée d'Orsay, Paris

The former restaurant of the Hotel d'Orsay is a listed historic monument, and now serves visitors to the museum. We had a special dinner there on our last evening in Paris.

Restaurant of the Musée d'Orsay

Our next destination on the tour was the city of Nice on the fabulous Cote d'Azur, via the TGV Mediterranee. We departed from Gare de Lyon. I had hoped to check out the belle époque splendour of Le Train Bleu Restaurant (a Rick Steves recommendation) but we didn't have quite enough time at the station. Perhaps on another visit.

The trip to Nice was one of the longer journeys of the tour, about 6 hours, taking you from the rolling countryside, quaint farmhouses and grazing cows outside Paris, to the palm trees, terracotta rooftops and yachts of the French Riviera.

French Riviera

When the tour director tells you not to get off the train during the brief station stops, heed the warning. One of our group members ventured off the train while in Aix-en-Provence to check on the luggage which was stowed in the next car. When the whistle blew, the train quickly resumed its journey and left him running alongside in a fruitless attempt to catch up. But our tour director dealt with the incident calmly and efficiently, and had him back with the rest of the group in Nice in time for dinner and the evening excursion to Monte Carlo.

After two nights in Nice (and I wish we would have had one more day here) we undertook the most difficult day of travel in the itinerary, the journey to Venice. We started our day on a bus that took us across the Italian border to Ventimiglia, where we then boarded a train that took us as far as Milan.

Fields of Spring Poppies in Italy

From here we took another bus the rest of the way to Mestre, on the mainland near Venice.

Ventimigilia Station, Italy

To get to the islands of the Venetian lagoon from our hotel, we had to take a short train ride across the causeway that links Venice with the mainland. The Mestre train station was located conveniently across the street from our hotel, and Santa Lucia station in Venice sits right on the Grand Canal.

Ferrovia Vaporetto Station on the Grand Canal, Venice

This is the only portion of the tour that I found wanting. I would have preferred to travel by bus from Nice straight through to Venice, rather than making all the transportation changes and connections. And it would also have been preferable to stay in a hotel right in Venice, rather than on the mainland. But Trafalgar seems to have responded to the client surveys, and the program for 2011 has made both of these welcome changes.

We spent three nights in La Serenissima before continuing by train to Florence (two nights) and Rome (two nights).

Travel via high speed train means that you will spend less time on your journey, and more time enjoying the sights you have come to Europe to see, with a minimum of two nights in each city. European rail stations tend to be located in the historic urban centres, and this is where many of the tour hotels are found as well.

Monte Carlo Casino, Monaco

The tour includes sightseeing in London, Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome, as well as the excursion to Monte Carlo. Optional excursions (ranging in cost from 32 to 145 euros) are also offered in each city, and we chose to join most of them. But some days we preferred to venture out independently. On the optional excursions featuring a meal, wine is included. But this is not generally the case with the regular meals included in the itinerary.

I personally find trains to be more comfortable and enjoyable than buses. And some trains, for example the Eurostar, offer a buffet car service. You also have the opportunity to mingle with European travellers, which is not the case on coach tours.

The one caveat travelers should be aware of on these train tours is that each person is responsible for their own baggage handling through railways stations, many of which are old buildings with no elevators or escalators, and while boarding and disembarking from trains. At some stations, there isn't a lot of time for boarding, so you need to hoist your luggage onto the train quickly and find a place to stow it. Therefore a certain level of fitness is required, and packing light is highly advised. Several of the city tours are also walking tours. And in Venice, there are no automobiles but plenty of bridges and stairs to navigate.

Rialto Bridge, Venice

Trafalgar offers two more tours through Europe in which the main method of travel is by train:  Contrasts of Italy (Rome, Florence and Venice) and Contrasts of Switzerland (Zurich, St. Moritz, Zermatt, Geneva and Lucerne).

To read about our travels day by day follow this link to our first day in London or select a destination in the sidebar.

Visit the Trafalgar Tours web site for current information on the Contrasts of Europe tour.

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