Railplus European Educational Trip
17-27 MAY 2010 CAROL MALLETT
We flew from Melbourne to Milan via Kuala Lumpur and Dubai on EK409/91. The first aircraft was the A340-500 Airbus which has a seating configuration of 2/2/2 in Business class. The 0230hrs departure is very tough, but being in Business Class made up for it. The check-in was seamless and we able to use the Emirates lounge which is very comfortable. The seats on the aircraft are not flatbeds, but still comfortable with built in massage. The entertainment system on Emirates was excellent.
On the shores of Lake Maggiore, there are several towns, the most well known being Stresa.
We stayed in the town of Baveno at the Grand Hotel Dino. The town is very small, but very friendly with several hotels and restaurants. The Grand Hotel Dino is a lovely 4 star hotel and many rooms have a great view of the lake. The rooms are a good size with a balcony and modern bathroom.
It takes 5 minutes to drive from Baveno to Stresa. Stresa is larger and has the nearest train station. There are more hotels in Stresa, including the 5 star Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees which is very grand indeed. We also saw two good 3 star hotels, Hotel Flora and Hotel Lido La Perla Nera. The Lido was larger and better located by the lake, but the Flora had a nice pool. Both were very good in the 3 star category.
The sightseeing is the same whether you are staying at Baveno or Stresa, with the lake being the main focus. On the lake are several islands owned by the Borromee family, a very old, wealthy Italian family. The most visited is Isola Bella where the 16th century Borromee Palace is open to the public. The family still use part of the palace as their summer residence and for special occasions such as weddings. The Palace and Gardens are spectacular and well worth a visit.
When it was time to leave Italy, we drove the 5 minutes to Stresa station where we validated our Eurail Select Passes and caught the train to Switzerland.
In 2 hours we arrived at Montreux on Lake Geneva. Montreux is famous for its lake and mountain scenery, as well as the Jazz Festival (July) and the Deep Purple song, Smoke on the Water. It is a good base for sightseeing around the local area. Famous ski towns like Gstaad are only a short train trip away.
After a short walk and lunch with our guides from the Tourist office, we took the train to Chillon Castle. The local trains are free to all Swiss Pass holders and all visiting tourists who are given a travelcard at their hotel. The castle is a 13th century fortress and here our excellent guide really made the visit enjoyable and fun.
We then got back on the train and visited one of the local wineries at Chexbres where we had a tasting and met the owner. His family have owned this particular winery for 7 generations.
In Montreux, we stayed at the Hotel Eden Palace du Lac. This is a lovely 4 star hotel on the lake. The rooms were very large and comfortable. I would recommend a room on the lakeview side of the hotel.
Using our Swiss Pass, we took the 20 minutes train trip to Lausanne. We were met by a guide from the local Tourist office and after a walking tour including the Cathedral, we took the underground train to the Olympic Museum. This was fantastic and we all wished we could spend more time here.
After lunch we boarded the train to France, via Geneva.
We left Lausanne at 1245 and arrived in Lyon at 1530. The station of Lyon Part Dieu is not in a very nice part of town, but it is only a short taxi ride to the old town, which is much nicer.
We stayed at the Citadines Part Dieu, which is 3 star property within walking distance from the station. The rooms were well equipped with a kitchenette and were clean and comfortable, but I would rather book clients a hotel in the old town.
A guide from the Tourist Office took us on a walking tour of the Old Town and its historic houses, which was very interesting.
We left Lyon at 9.00am and arrived in Paris at 11.00am. We immediately started using our Paris Visite cards to use the Metro to get to our hotel.
The Hotel Concorde LaFayette is a modern 4.5 star hotel adjacent to the Congress Centre, so most of their clients are business travellers. From our room we had a good view of the Eiffel Tower. It is just outside the Arrondisements of Paris, but there is a Metro station, so getting around is not difficult. There is not a lot of interest within walking distance of the hotel, but there are some cafes and restaurants.
We were guests of Galeries Lafayette for lunch and we dined in their cafe. The cafe is small and quiet and not very crowded. The food was delicious. This cafe is a wonderful haven from the busy department store.
In the evening we had a tour of Paris in the ever-so-French Citroen 2CV. The tour company is ‘4 Roues Sous 1 Parapluie’ (4 Wheels under 1 Umbrella) and tours can be booked through Railplus. The tour was lots of fun and our guide was very engaging.
The next day we had a free day in Paris and we had our Paris Visite cards to get around. In our sub-group of six, we decided on a route of sightseeing around the city and we covered it all in one day using the Metro. We took the Metro to the Eiffel Tower, then walked to the Arc du Triomphe, down the Champ Elysees and into the Tuilleries Gardens. We stopped at a cafe in the gardens for lunch, then onto the Louvre (no time to go in). We then used the Metro again to visit Le Marais, then back on the Metro to have afternoon coffee at the famous Cafe de Flore on St Germain on the left bank. We ran out of time for our stop at Sacre Ceour, so it was back to the hotel. It is incredible how much you can do in one day, if that is all you have.
This evening we enjoyed a Seine River Cruise with dinner aboard. Whilst the event is special, sailing through Paris by night, the food is average. As these cruises are not cheap, I would recommend a cruise without the dinner and enjoy a meal at a restaurant.
This morning we boarded a train and 8.50am and arrive in Rouen in Normandy (North-West France) at 10.00am. Rouen is a lovely, picturesque, historic town. It is famous for the trial of Joan of Arc. We had lunch at La Couronne which is the oldest inn in France (www.lacouronne.com.fr). This restaurant is worth a trip to Rouen, the building is ancient and the food is wonderful.
After lunch we took the train back to Paris to board the Eurostar for London.
As we were leaving Paris on a Sunday evening (departure 8.43pm), the check-in area for the Eurostar was extremely crowded with long queues. It is located on a mezzanine level of Gare du Nord which will be extended next year. It is necessary to clear customs, so check-in takes a little while.
The train was fantastic. We travelled in Leisure Select Class which is the lower of the two First Class categories. You sit in First class and receive a meal, but have no access to the lounge. After August 2010, this will change to Standard Premier Class and the meal will change to a light, cold meal. The journey was faultless and the staff were very friendly. We arrive at St Pancras (not Pancreas) station at 9.59pm and took the Tube to our hotel.
We stayed at the Radisson Edwardian Grafton Hotel (Warren St Tube stop). The hotel was very nice and our rooms were spacious, with large bathrooms. The location was not so good as there was not much of interest within walking distance, but as we used the Tube, this was not such a problem.
We had a free day in London and again planned to cram in as much sightseeing and shopping as we could. We started out on the Hop on Hop off bus and intended to complete the loop, but the traffic was so bad, that we stood still for some time. It was hot on the top deck and not air-conditioned below, so we decided to use the Tube instead. As in Paris, the Tube is the best option if you wish to cover a lot of ground. We took the train to Westminster to see Big Ben, Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. We then walked down Whitehall (stopping for lunch in a pub on the way), past Downing Street to Trafalgar Square. We continued on between the parks to Buckingham Palace, then took the Tube to Harrods. With time running out, we split up and I headed off for some shopping in Oxford and Regent Streets.
The next morning we left London Kings Cross Station at 8.30am and arrived in Durham (North-East England) at 11.23am. We were met by a representative of the local tourist board for a walking tour. Durham is a gorgeous little town and the thriving University keeps the town full of young people. The streets are small, cobble stone alleys with lots of quaint shops. Historically, this was a mining area, but now the University is the largest employer of the town. Durham Cathedral is famous and worth a visit. The courtyard at the back was used in one of the Harry Potter films (I was the only one in our group who could name the scene).
At 2.45pm we left Durham by coach and travelled to Newcastle, with a stop at the Angel of the North statue. Newcastle is a large city and recent renovations of the Quayside area are nice, but the smaller town of Durham is better.
We stayed at Matfen Hall, which is 40 minutes from Newcastle. Matfen Hall is a stately home which has been a Golf and Spa resort since 1999. The building is beautiful and the rooms are enormous. My room had a Four-Poster bed, a lounge suite, a desk and a dining table in the bay window that overlooked the golf course. The bathroom was also huge. I was a bit scared to open the large wardrobe in case I fell into Narnia. We dined in a private function room that is a spectacular setting for weddings. We all expected the staircase that entered into the room to move. The food was fabulous. There is a bar at Matfen Hall, but there is also a pub in the tiny village within walking distance.
The next morning we visited Chesters Roman Fort which is part of Hadrian’s Wall. This World Heritage Site is fascinating and well worth the visit as the wall was built in AD122 to mark the northern boarder of the Roman Empire.
It was then off to Newcastle Airport for our Emirates flight scheduled to depart at 1.35pm. Checking-in at Newcastle was quick and easy as it is a smaller airport. Emirate fly directly to Dubai and this is an excellent option if clients are ending their travels in the north of England.
We flew home in Economy class, connecting to the direct flight from Dubai from Melbourne. Service in economy was excellent.
This was a very well organised trip and we used trains everyday. All the European trains were on-time and an excellent standard, but the Eurostar was the highlight, so efficient. I would definitely recommend clients pre-purchase Oyster cards for London and Paris Visite cards for Paris (although this one is for consecutive days, so may not suit everyone). The London Pass offers excellent value for clients doing a lot of sightseeing and the Paris Musee Pass gives free entry and dedicated entry doors at museums. All of our walking tours were with Tourist Office staff and these can easily be booked locally by clients.