An edited version of this article was published in the April 19th, 2018 print and online editions of The Hindu, in their MetroPlus Travel Supplement. The published online and print versions are linked at the end of this blog post.
We celebrated Deepavali taking an eight-day train journey across picturesque Germany, Switzerland and France, far away from the noise and cracker-induced pollution. Having decided to veer-off the package tour route, we bought a 1st Class Eurail Pass, and picked places and activities that interested us the most.
Day 1: Frankfurt, Germany
Landing in Frankfurt, Germany, we took the regional Deutsche Bahn Intercity (IC) train to the beautiful baroque city of Heidelberg.
Nestled between the Neckar River and the foothills of the Odenwald forest, Heidelberg is a popular University town and home to Heidelberg University, Germany’s oldest.
The pleasing and hospitable ways of the Germans warmed our hearts and eased the winter chill. The affable German matron, unfamiliar with the English language flagged down another German lady to help us with directions. A young German man on a stroll with family offered to escort us on a bus ride all the way to the mountain railway station and another showed us the way to our bed and breakfast.
Day 2: Heidelberg, Germany
Bright and early the next day, the charming mountain railway also called funicular railway, took us on a sloping joy-ride up to the famed ruins of the Heidelberg Schloss or Castle presumed to have been originally built before 1214.
Wikipedia lists the castle ruins as among the most important Renaissance structures north of the Alps. Majestically perched on the slopes of Mount Königstuhl 300 feet above the Neckar River, the vast castle grounds offer spectacular views of the fairy tale town below and the Karl Theodor Bridge across the Neckar River.
The mighty fortress houses the biggest wine barrel in the world with a capacity to hold 221, 726 litres of wine. Built in 1751, it is said that 130 oak trees were used to make the colossal barrel spanning seven metres across and over eight metres in length. The castle also houses an Apothecary museum, which allows visitors a peek into the history of pharmacy.
Back in town, we cruised down the Neckar River taking in the mesmerising sights of Heidelberg on its banks. The nippy weather notwithstanding, we took a late evening stroll on cobbled streets around the Heidelberg Alstadt or old town.
We explored the old-world Marktplatz (marketplace), KornMart, a grain market in the middle ages, the University bars and many more nooks and crannies of the city. A pair of prized German Birkenstock sandals made up the evening’s shopping loot!
Day 3: Stuttgart, Germany
We took the IC to Stuttgart the next morning for a much-anticipated tour of the famed Porsche and Mercedes Benz automobile museums. Our two boys were beyond themselves to meet the real Sally Carrera, a Porsche 996 motorcar featured in the Pixar movie, Cars! From timeless vintage beauties to sleek and futuristic machines, the museums are a treat to automobile aficionados.
With a pit stop overnight in the city of Karlsruhe, we took an IC to the Swiss city of Lucerne via Bern, the Swiss capital. In the evening, a city map in hand, we jauntily set-off on a self-guided walking tour along the red line to explore Lucerne, famed for its medieval architecture.
Day 4: Lucerne, Switzerland
Wasserturm or Water Tower, a common imagery on Swiss postcards is an octagonal tower — over 111.5 feet high, built around 1300 as part of the city wall and used as an archive, treasury, prison and torture chamber.
We walked through the Kapellbrücke or Chapel Bridge, a covered wooden footbridge adjoining the Wasserturm, built diagonally across the Reuss River. Built in 1333, it holds the distinction of being the oldest covered wooden bridge in Europe and the world’s oldest surviving Truss bridge.
Along the trail, we visited ‘The Dying Lion of Lucerne’, the famed war memorial of a wounded stone lion in memory of Swiss mercenaries massacred in 1792 during the French revolution. Mark Twain famously termed the sculpture “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.” We missed visiting the Musegg Towers or City Towers of Lucerne owing to our tight schedule.
Early next morning, we made the short yet surreal train journey from Lucerne to Engelberg past lush green meadows with the proverbial grazing Swiss cows and charming thatched Swiss cottages.
At Engelberg, we took the cable car to the middle station and lifted-off in the Titlis Rotair, the world’s first revolving cable car to the summit of Mt. Titlis, the highest peak in the Uri Alps at 10,623 feet above sea level. Our Rotair soared along stately snow-clad mountains dotted with lush green pine trees.
Day 5: Mt. Titlis, Switzerland
High-adrenaline adventure awaited us up in the Titlis Glacier. We rode the Ice Flyer Chair with nothing between us and the icy depths below but thin, chilly mountain air. A slip from the chair would have meant a fatal fall into the treacherous valley below!
We were suitably rewarded with stunning Alpine panorama for tackling the Titlis Cliff Walk, Europe’s highest suspension bridge built at 10,000 feet above sea level and officially the world’s scariest bridge.
Day 6: Paris, France
Next day, we took the much-anticipated Intercity-Express or ICE bullet train from Lucerne to Paris, famously called the ‘City of Light’ as also the ‘City of Love’.
The term ‘City of Light’ pays homage to its fame as a centre of enlightenment in the 18th century and its early adoption of street lighting. The populous streets of Paris reminded us of home.
We visited the Grevin Wax museum and posed with wax figures of Queen Elizabeth, President Obama, and our own Mahatma Gandhi, Pele, Jimmy Hendrix, Joan of Arc, Esmaralda and the Hunchback of Notre Dame among many others. It would be cheaper to get a museum pass if you plan on visiting all the museums in Paris.
The not-so-touristy Catacombs of Paris, also called the ‘The World’s Largest Grave’, was high on our list of experiences since before the trip. The non-descript entrance led us into the depths of the ancient limestone mines converted to an ossuary holding the artistically stacked skeletal remains of six million Parisians.
We walked quietly along the eerie labyrinth of lit tunnels lined on either side with neatly piled browned human skeletons. History has it that the ossuary was founded when Paris city administrators had two concurrent problems — a succession of street cave-ins beginning 1774, and overflowing cemeteries. From 1786 to 1788, remains from Parisian cemeteries were transferred to the reinforced tunnels, and more remains added during later years. Since the 19th century, the underground cemetery has been a tourist attraction.
Day 7: Disneyland, Paris
RER, Paris’ suburban commuter train took us to Disneyland Paris the next day. The Eurail pass did not cover RER and we had to purchase tickets for this leg of our travel. We spent a magical day at Disney Land and Walt Disney Studios, mostly alternating between standing in long lines for rides and catching spectacular shows.
Crush’s Coaster, the rollicking ride seated in Crush the Turtle’s shell from ‘Finding Nemo’ left me dazed and disheveled, while the family stayed collected! We turned rat-sized in the ‘Ratatouille’ ride and navigated the world of Remy the rat-who-could-cook in Chef Gusteau’s restaurant kitchen.
We watched in wonder as all Disney characters took out a colourful parade at the end of the day with magnificent floats and costumes.
The grand finale was the gloriously larger-than-life night time show featuring Peter Pan in ‘Disney Dreams’. The show played out enchantingly on Sleeping Beauty’s castle with a fascinating interplay of fireworks, castle projections, water fountains, lasers and more. There is no escaping Disney’s magic, and for Disney fans, age is but a number!
Day 8: More of Paris
We reserved our last day in Paris to go monument-gazing, our first stop being the Eiffel Tower, France’s cultural icon, and among the most recognized and most-visited paid monument in the world. The day started with a light drizzle and the rain kept pace throughout.
We reached early and beat the queues. At the summit, riveting views of Paris’ famed monuments such as the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte, the meandering Seine River, Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre Museum and the beautiful city of Paris, carpeted-out on all sides.
The charming little secret apartment that Gustav Eiffel, the creator of this wrought iron lattice tower built for himself on the fourth floor is maintained intact with mannequins of Gustav Eiffel and Thomas Edison in conversation. Photographs of prominent global personalities who graced the inauguration of the tower are displayed on the top floor.
Rain played spoilsport and we had to give a miss to some of the other famed Parisian monuments. We navigated the Paris Metro train network in the evening to pay a fleeting visit to the Louvre museum. After a mandatory viewing of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile, we explored the various marble sculpture galleries across the vast museum.
A late-night visit to the Arc de Triomphe gave us a dazzling view of the ‘City of Light’ from the Arc’s viewing platform on top. Built as a memorial to honour soldiers who laid down their lives for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the structure has the names of all French victories and French generals inscribed on the outer and inner walls.
Beneath the Arc’s vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I and the Eternal Flame that was first lit in 1923 and is kept lit to this day. Paying silent homage to the Unknown Soldier, we headed back to our cosy Parisian pad to pack up and head back home with memories to last us a lifetime.
We rode the Paris Metro to Charles de Gaulle Airport, our last train ride of the trip, and promised ourselves to return for more of Europe.
Link to the published version of this article in The Hindu, MetroPlus Travel Supplement: For a Destination called Peace