I haven’t been everywhere.
But it’s on my list.
After a couple of brief train trips, at speed, in Italy and France, I thought we’d lost our minds deciding to (mostly) train it around Switzerland, Portugal and Spain for 10 weeks.
But after an ‘initiation of fire’ in Tokyo’s efficient maze of subways and metro lines, we were well-prepared for our train adventures in Europe. And now we are huge fans…
Here’s five great reasons to take the train – and five tips on doing it stress-free. All aboard!
On past Europe adventures, we’ve always hired a car and hit the road. Taking a train around Europe just seemed like too much trouble. Who wants to be tied to train schedules and stuck with booking seats, dragging baggage off and on trains – and up and down stairs?
In fact, it’s super convenient and relaxing. This was confirmed for us when we hired a car to drive from Oporto to Estoril – when the hire car people didn’t set up our GPS to recognise the streets of Portugal (read how to fix that problem here). Give me the train anytime…
The best thing about train travel is you can both sit back and enjoy the ride. There’s always a restaurant car if you’re peckish, and the toilets are usually clean (especially on Swiss trains).
There’s no traffic, tolls or fuel stops and you arrive at your destination ready for the next adventure.
It seems expensive to go by train, especially because you pay for your ticket, then you can pay up to €25 (for domestic travel) to reserve your seat for each trip.
But compared to the cost of hiring a car, insurance, fuel, tolls and a GPS – and finding your way around when the GPS has a hissy fit or the fuse blows – then train travel is a pretty good deal.
We had the ‘select pass’ which lets you travel in 2-4 bordering countries of your choice, for a specific number of ‘travel days’. Read all about it here.
Knowing you have to be mobile and flexible is a great incentive for lightening your load. So you pack what you’d like to take, and then you take half of it out. There is nothing better than streamlining your stuff (this from me, your classic over-packer) and feeling an incredible lightness of being.
At first, train travel can be daunting. You’re in unfamiliar territory, you don’t speak the language and, when you arrive at your destination, you have to find your hotel. It helps to have a decent street map (see tips below) and to leave the station at the right exit!
But after you’ve been doing it a few times, you really get into the swing of it – and even enjoy the process.
Ignorance may be bliss, but not when you jump on the train, find a great seat – and discover it belongs to someone else. You end up standing uncomfortably near the doors, wondering what to do next…
While the guards were friendly and helpful to us two crazy Aussies, we made sure to reserve seats for our next trip each time we arrived at a destination. You can reserve your Eurail seats up to three months in advance, which is my ‘note to self’ for next time!
Before the train leaves the station, always complete the travel details on your Euro-pass, with your name, passport number and (most importantly) the date you’re travelling.
Yes, the guards will check it… carefully. No, never change a date or the information. We saw someone caught out and it wasn’t pretty. It would be hard to swift talk these guards (who have heard it all) when you speak the language, let alone when you don’t. As the hapless couple found to their peril (and a dent in their travel funds).
The biggest thing I noticed on our train travels was the ridiculous amount of luggage people had with them. I swear some of them were moving house.
The size and weight of their bags made every entry and exit a drama – and I was so glad we travelled light.
It meant we were flexible and mobile – and our backs didn’t cave in with all the lifting.
It’s surprising how little you need – especially in Europe where the women have turned flats and loafers into high fashion.
If you want to spot the touristes femmes, look for women hobbling across the cobblestones in killer heels, while the locals are striding out in their stylish flats looking supremely elegant.
After peering at the black & white maps our travel agent printed off for us, we decided there are two types of maps you’ll need:
We only got caught out once in Portugal, when we weren’t prepared for a huge line-up to get onto the train. We missed it and had to wait almost two hours for the next train. Cheap lesson – and we weren’t caught out again. It’s not unusual to see people rushing to their carriage, dragging massive bags, but that’s more like hell than a holiday!
There will always be train-travel skeptics, but we absolutely loved the whole adventure. So don’t be put off – but do travel light and be prepared. Then sit back and enjoy the ride…
It’s Friday – here in Spain anyway. So here’s our Five for Friday great things to do in the beautiful city of Cordoba (and on your travels, wherever you are in the world).
Don’t walk past La Furgo on Calle Ronda de Isasa! We found it by accident (or divine intervention) and knew we had stumbled upon foodie heaven.
Chef Manuel Morilla is passionate about creating innovative food and it shows – so be ready for divine flavours, great wine and service with attitude (in a good way).
We just had to go back for lunch the next day and Manuel invited us to taste-test a new dish. I’m a pescatarian but this could convert even me. Stunning.
And yes, there are delicious choices for vegetarians (I think I tried them all!).
Immerse yourself in history and tranquility at the Hammam Al Andalus Arab Baths.
Once a vital part of Islamic hygiene and public health, the hammam was also a meeting place where people could relax and socialise.
When we were in Ronda, it was the weekend so the hammam was fully booked. But we booked in early at the Cordoba bathhouse – and we weren’t disappointed.
There were a few tourists unfamiliar with the routine in the bathhouse and a little anxious about what they should do.
So be prepared to go with the flow – from that first icy plunge, to the tingling lukewarm soak, on to the hot bath, then the steam room.
Along the way there is time to relax with a massage, mint tea and cool water. Perfection right there.
Okay, these aren’t exactly playmates – but they are fun to watch. This was another unplanned visit (because we like to discover stuff along the way), but Zoo de Cordoba is so worth it!
I’ll let the pictures do the talking with these content, cute and sometimes crazy creatures…
Be sure to get out on the streets at dusk and into the night. It’s safe, beautiful – and you never know who you’ll meet out there!
It’s too easy to just tick off all the tourist attractions – and to get caught up in the dreaded FOMO (fear of missing out).
I’m sure we’ve missed so much along the way – but we’ve also discovered amazing places, met great local people, and had exceptional experiences.
So wherever you are in the world, be there.
It’s the difference between being a traveller on this planet – or a tourist.
If you love water sports and beach chill time then Lagos, in the beautiful Algarve region of Portugal, is the perfect place to hang out. Especially when the Autumn temperature feels a lot like summer.
First on the list for us was a Days of Adventure cruisy kayaking trip, where a catamaran took us to the kayaking spot… no hardcore paddling involved (poor EB!).
We paddled along the coastline, past the most stunning beaches and into eerie grottos and sea caves.
Along the way, we passed towering cliffs that looked like they would completely crumble at the slightest puff of wind, and rock stacks crafted by tides and time into shapes like elephants, camels and even the Titanic.
The perfect end to the trip for me was diving off the boat into the deep, chilly aqua-blue waters.
It was sheer bliss to swim away from the boat, relax in the water… and not have the theme music to Jaws playing in my head.
In Australia, the whole shark thing always lurks in the back of your mind (or the front, if you’re a tiny bit neurotic like me), but here you just go with the flow…
Are you up for dolphin watching, snorkelling, surfing lessons or paddle boarding? There’s so many options for getting wet or awestruck here and all easily booked in town or at the marina.
Soaking up the sun at the beach is also de rigueur here – with not a sun-smart slip, slop, slap routine in sight.
Of course, people-watching is endlessly entertaining too.
All that activity definitely works up an appetite (and a thirst).
It’s time to stop at one of the beach or marina restaurants, or head to the historic town centre.
Inside the town’s ancient Moorish walls you can meander along narrow streets passed a charming patchwork of crumbling, life-worn and revamped buildings and some incredible street art, to chill at one of the many great eating places and bars there.
We loved The Garden, a bohemian-style bar and restaurant with delicious barbequed meat (EB assures me) and great choices for pescatarians and pure veggos.
A short stroll away is the fascinating Mar D’Estórias, where it’s easy to get caught up in the arty retail area and galleries as you wind up each narrow staircase until you reach the Terraço Bar.
Here you’ll find great food and wine, a relaxed atmosphere and views stretching along historic streets to the ocean.
With only one more day here, we’re off explore more of this delightful town – which will possibly involve me annoying EB as I stop to take more photos of street art.
Assim é a vida.
A local station attendant, who was helping us buy train tickets from S.Pedro to Cascais today, asked us what we liked about Portugal the most.
“A gastronomia? O vinho? A música?”
All of that but mostly the people, we said.
He was pretty-much blown away and was high-fiving us all over the place (we nearly missed the train!).
But that’s the Portuguese.
Take the beach culture. There is nothing uptight about the Portuguese. And I’m not talking about flashing bits here.
In this region, the locals are just comfortable in their own skin. Well, if there are any body image issues, I’m not seeing it.
Yes, there’s Zumba on the boardwalk (and it’s a hoot!). Yes, there are women running (but not an ‘I believe’ tee-shirt or flashy tights among them). Yes there are fit blokes hanging about (but not a muscle-man to be seen).
And down on beach, women of all shapes, ages and sizes (and I mean ALL) are rocking their bikinis. Eat your heart out Botticelli.
Away from beaches and bikinis… more than one local Portuguese creative on our journey from Porto to Lisbon has told us they are good at what they do – but they suck at marketing themselves.
I agree. These people are (mostly) warm and wonderful and creative and talented (and, of course, they make exceptional port and wine).
No, I’m not talking about more tourist buses arriving at monuments (even though there are a lot and they are remarkable).
I’m talking about who they are and what they create. Time the world sat up and paid attention! Cheers to that!
You’ve got to have a least one of those (travelling) days, don’t you? Well, today was ours.
After a few days in Porto (a story for another time), we picked up our hire car from Europcar … and that’s where it all began to unravel.
The portable GPS they gave us (at €8 a day) was clearly set up at around the time of the Ark.*
Seriously, it didn’t even register the oldest streets (or the casino) at our destination three hours away in Estoril, near Cascais in Portugal.
Oh, but we did have a dodgy map to show us the way (also an archeological find I’m sure).
Eventually, we muddle our way to our destination.
Our travel agent has booked us into ‘apartment’ for eight days… inside someone’s house. It’s kind-of cutesy, but does a toaster oven count as self-contained? Hmmm
Eternally optimistic, we head off to find the Tourist Information Centre to get a map of the area. Except it closed 12 months ago.
At least we located a nice red.
Ah, First World problems. When it comes to travelling, attitude is everything.
And tomorrow’s another day.
* Here’s a tip for travellers: if you’re using a GPS, go to settings and select the country you’re travelling in (in our case, Portugal). Thanks to a tech-savvy Europcar lad in Cascais, our GPS was re-set and now gives us Portuguese streets instead of streets like Barcelona and Seville (go figure), and still gives directions in English. And we’re off!
Monuments and other tourist tick-off points are impressive, but our favourite thing to do is to take to the streets on foot. Apart from the odd slippery cobblestone, we inevitably stumble upon the unexpected and delightful.
The sign on the street says ‘gin lovers’. Yep that’s me. Besides, we’ve been walking for hours (and it’s hot) so this is the perfect place to stop.
Inside we know we’ve found somewhere special. This is Embaixada, a unique Portuguese shopping gallery created in a XIX century Arabian Palace.
An ornate staircase draws our eyes upwards to the sensational murals and figurines, and beyond.
In the palace rooms, national brands and recreated vintage clothing mix with the work of local artists and artisans.
Even a non-shopper like me can get blissed-out here (and I have the credit card hit to prove it).
Eventually, we stop at Gin Lovers Principe Real in the centre of this jaw-dropping building for a delicious gin & tonic (or three) from their extensive list – and some amazing food.
Like so many Portuguese people we’ve met here, everyone is friendly and enthusiastic. No wonder they call it ‘the meeting place’…
When the street is your canvas, the possibilities are endless in Lisbon.
From commissioned to clandestine, and gaudy to subtle – street art is everywhere here.
I notice so many people don’t really ‘see’ it as they hurry past, but to me it says so much about the creative energy of a city…
Street art isn’t everyone’s thing, but it’s one of my passions. No doubt I’ll be banging on more about it some other 60 seconds. Meanwhile…
Portuguese people love their food and it shows (in a good way!).
There’s something to satisfy the foodies, the fuellers and everyone in between in the many small cafés and impressive restaurants and wine bars sprinkled liberally across the city.
And the vino, port and spirits. Phew.
We soon redefine our perception of a ‘glass’ of wine. It ‘s more like a small carafe in a glass.
A ‘tasting’ can also be the entire glass filled to the brim. Per taste. Which makes pacing yourself pretty much impossible.
Then there’s the traditional sherry, Ginja. We’re told it’s taken as both an aperitif and an after-dinner drink.
I’m sure there are plenty of happy home chefs using Ginja too – and some of it might even make it into the cooking.
Perhaps it’s all that fabulous wine. Perhaps it’s just this place. The Portuguese may be struggling economically but they don’t let it affect their open and generous spirit.
So come to Lisbon, take to the streets and come alive here.
It’s impossible not to.
As soon as we arrive in Lisbon, the city of the seven hills and capital of Portugal, we dump our bags in our hotel room and head out to explore the city’s ancient Arab district…
In Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest quarter, we lose ourselves in tangle of cobblestone alleys and narrow streets, where a vibrant energy gives you light feet while the breath of the past brushes your neck.
At every turn, there is something to surprise and delight.
In picture-postcard alleys, colourful tiled and sometimes crumbling buildings huddle together – and steep stairs beckon you up and around another corner.
There is street art and tile art and sculptures and galleries, and small shops selling kitsch and classy souvenirs, fashion, homewares and groceries.
Nearby there are 17th-century churches and an impressive cathedral – and up on the hill there are views to take your breath away.
At dusk, the old quarter comes alive.
Cafés and restaurants serve delicious traditional and international food and fabulous Portuguese wine and beer, while the sound of Fado music drifts out into the street.
There is so much more to this beautiful city, but for now here’s a glimpse of the old quarter…
From urban edgy to outdoor rec heaven, from the steamy heat and energy of a city jammed with people to the crisp alpine air of a town nestled between two lakes – flying from Tokyo to Zurich and jumping on a train to Interlaken in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland feels like intergalactic travel…
Yet both Japan and Switzerland have much in common, including their love of sticking to the rules, their stunning scenery, their strong connection to culture – and how they seem to come alive at night.
In the evening in the village of Interlaken, everyone is out promenading, eating, drinking, chatting and lapping up the long days before winter sets in.
And when the sun comes up, out they come in their walking gear, with their hiking poles and backpacks…
On our first day here, we join them on Europe’s highest train ride. Along the way, some jump off to walk between alpine villages.
But we’re going all the way – through tunnels chiselled in the mountains, on a railway that is an impressive feat of engineering, up to Jungfraujoch… 3454 metres above sea level.
Here the scenery is epic – but there’s no time to get comfortable. EB has spotted a snowy trail disappearing off in the distance.
So off we go, slipping and sliding in the snow. Apparently there’s a café up there somewhere, but it’s way out of sight right now.
This reminds me of our trek in Nepal where the sherpas would smile and say ‘bistaarai, bistaarai’ (slowly, slowly).
With the altitude affecting us a little, we’re taking that advice here… and we definitely lap up the beer and soup in the café that really is there (that’s what I love about Switzerland – you can get food just about anywhere).
As we head back down the slippery slope towards the impressive station at the top of Europe, it’s hard to believe that just a couple of days ago we were bathed in sweat as we walked the streets of Tokyo – and that two countries we never had on our bucket list have managed to capture our hearts.
Hakone (箱根) is in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, not far from Tokyo. It’s famous for hot springs, the stunning landscape and views of Mt Fuji (when she chooses to show herself).
We’re staying in a traditional hotel with a spa, called an onsen. Onsens are a big favourite in Japan. They’re super healthy and revitalising, but negotiating the bathing etiquette and searing water temperatures can be quite daunting.
And there’s the sticking point. Tattoos are associated with the underworld here in Japan, and flashing them in bathhouses is a definite no-no.
So we took our tatts back for a traditional onsen experience in the privacy of our room. And we (mostly) stuck to the rules:
Wait, I’m with the Energiser Bunny (EB).
Translation: get dressed, put on your walking shoes and head off…
Can’t you just feel the serenity?