The Swiss Alpine Route to Verona: Solo Interrail Part 5

New to my Solo Interrail series? Start here

I’m going to pick up where I left off last time, after I had just made it back to Zurich station and was now feeling like I was back in civilization having just spent the morning lost in the alps.  I sat down over a coffee and wrote postcards to my Grandma and Aunt.  This was 2008, a year after the EU smoking ban, which Switzerland was exempt from, so smoking indoors was a bit of a novelty and I did make the most of it (I don’t smoke now so I think I would hate to return to any country without an indoor ban on smoking).  I asked two nice backbackers to take my photo with one of my disposable cameras.

Zurich station Switzerland
Me in a coffee shop in Zurich Station, Switzerland holding a postcard of Switzerland, having just had a mini adventure in the Alps. My backpack is on the left and my handbag is on the right. In front of me were a well-earned coffee and a book by Anne Mustoe, as well as another postcard. I remember strategically moving the ashtray out of the shot because I didn’t want to get into trouble for smoking.

From my travel journal:

“Next, I went to the station newsagent and negotiated stamps in German (all credit went to the pan-European phrasebook I’d packed).  Next I searched for a post-box.
“Excuse me?” I flagged down a passing man.
“Hey there!”  The friendly American accent warmed my soul.
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen the nearest post box, have you?”
“Sure!  It’s just out there, on the left.  It’s yellow.”  He said.
“Thank you very VERY much.”  I replied.
“No problem.” He said.
I followed the directions and found the post box just outside the station, then posted my post cards and hoped that was actually a post box (that, or I’d just put them in a used ticket disposal box, but I hoped not because they were nice postcards).

Then I got the 9:00am train to Milan, which terminated at Venice.  Depending on what time it gets in, I may just stay on the train rather than aiming for Verona.  However, I would prefer to stay in Verona as from there it would be easier to get back to Calais.
What followed was a wonderful train ride through the Swiss alps.

Swiss alps
The Swiss Alps, taken through the window of a train at high speed, using a disposable camera. Under the circumstances I’m pleased with how these pics came out.
The Swiss Alps
The Swiss Alps, taken through the window of a train at high speed, using a disposable camera. Under the circumstances I’m pleased with how these pics came out.
The Swiss alps lake
A giant lake in the Swiss Alps, taken through the window of a train at high speed, using a disposable camera. Under the circumstances I’m pleased with how these pics came out.

The scenery is beautiful, especially around Zug station – if I ever get a chance to go to Switzerland again, Zug is the place to go!  Unfortunately, it also means I have already began using up my 3rd disposable camera – I’ll have to get another couple in Italy.  The scenery of grassy fells, snowy mountains and powder-sprinkled pine trees is absolutely breathtaking.  It’s much nicer to see the Alps from the ground than in an aeroplane!  I’m glad not to have tried travelling onwards in the dark otherwise I would have missed this, which would have been unforgivable.

…I think I’ve just done my bit to ensure the continental opinion of English eccentricity; I took a photo of my compartment (because I’ve never been on a train with compartments before, this is like being on the Hogwarts Goddamn Express), but I waited until the other occupants had moved because it’s perhaps a bit over-zealous even for a tourist.

(a little bit later) As we emerge from the Alps, the architectural style has become markedly Italian, with the arched windows and straight-pitched, less high roofs.  We are still in Switzerland, but signs for “ristorante touristes” are at the side of the road which runs parallel with the train track.  There is also significantly less snow, but the sky is still that clear, brilliant blue, and the sun feels warm now.  I feel less close to the sky again – being on the German side of Switzerland was like standing on a very high plateau, and it’s nice, but I’m glad to be at my normal altitude again.  Hopefully it will be sunny in Verona and even more I hope that the tourist office is open so I can find accommodation between now and Tuesday (the Easter weekend is now upon us).”

Changing trains in Milan, I was profoundly disappointed.  It was standard tall buildings type of architecture, nothing particularly chic or attractive about the place, it could have been absolutely anywhere.  I decided to continue onwards.  The next train was, now that I was in Italy, run by Trenitalia.  It had dents all over the outside of the carriages and inside, there was no air conditioning, people were just crammed on top of each other.  Opposite me, a woman sat down with a chicken in a cage.  An actual chicken.  It was squawking up a fuss and flapping its feathers everywhere, and she insisted, on this full-to-bursting train, that the chicken needed its own seat, even when a man tried to sit down.  This tiny old woman clung to the chicken cage with a death grip and started shouting at him until he left the carriage.  I was too timid to get a photo of the ridiculous chicken.

Later that evening, I disembarked at Verona train station and booked 3 nights in a hotel (Novo Hotel Rossi) in Verona, where I decided to remain for the rest of the Easter weekend.  Annoyingly, despite it being the Easter Saturday, when everything is usually business as usual in the UK, in Verona, literally everything (apart from one Sushi restaurant) was closed and since I didn’t speak Italian (I do now, this trip is what prompted me to learn when I got back), I couldn’t understand the signs in the shop doors.

I found the aforementioned Sushi restaurant, only to discover that the staff didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Italian, so I ended up trying to order in Japanese.  Turns out, only the elderly grandmother could actually speak Japanese but she invited me to share a pot of tea with her after I’d eaten, apparently she’d never met a gaijin who could speak Japanese before.  I guess you wouldn’t, living in Verona.  I don’t speak very much though (and I sure as hell can’t read it), so she probably found my conversation lacklustre.  I’d like to learn more at some point so I can navigate Japanese cosmetics but that’s a bit off topic for a travel post!

Anyway, that was my first day in Verona, and I’d used up over half of my Interrail pass (any 5 days of travel valid for 10 days of travel and non travel), but I decided not to worry about that.

I will continue with my Solo Interrail journey here.

As a side-note, if you are wondering why my posts/response times are erratic, it’s because I’m back to work, now teaching at a facility for children who have been expelled from school, mostly young offenders, which is a very intense job, as well as being quite a drive from my house, and I’m a bit exhausted, but I am interested in everything people have to say still!!

Two Unbelievable German Fairytale Castles.

By all accounts, Ludwig II was a mad king.  Of course, madness is subjective, but most people agree that it’s a bit off the wall to build yourself a fantastic fairytale castle, then spend your kingdom’s vast fortune to build another one across the way, just so you have something nice to look at from your own, fabulous castle.  It’s even more ridiculous to hear that Ludwig II married a girl, then moved her into the other castle.  I’m sure that made for interesting sex, sending a messenger on the forty minute walk to ask: “Your castle or mine?” Only to receive a reply, eighty minutes later: “Oh, not tonight darling, I have a headache.”  May as well save oneself the effort and grab a villager instead.  Perhaps this explains why Hohenschwangau castle (often mistakenly called Hohenschwanstein castle) was quite near to the village of Schwangau and Neuschwanstein castle was way off in the distance.  Old Mrs Ludwig II couldn’t exactly complain if she couldn’t see anything that her husband was doing.  Perhaps if Henry VIII had adopted this two-castles-on-two-mountainsides approach, he could have saved himself all the nuisance of having to dispose of unwanted wives after the warranty period.

But he didn’t think of it.

In Britain, we never really consider Henry VIII a mad king, perhaps because he knew which end the crown was supposed to go on, and didn’t roam Buckingham Palace in his nightwear, and anyway, when he was compared to Charles I (who was so despotic, he caused the only English civil war) or George III (who figuratively wore his underpants on his head), he gets a free pass.  I think it comes down to the fact that, historically, we have tended to respect the institution of marriage a little too much.  Henry VIII was married to each of the six women who he wronged, but that’s fine because he married them.  If, as a bachelor, he had treated just one of those women properly but not married her, that would have been a scandal.  But beheading two wives?  That was reasonable, because he was married to them at the time.  I think the other reason we don’t remember any of our kings as properly, truly mad (rather than just bloody stupid), is because we’ve never had a proper despot on the throne.  Add to that the fact that we still have a monarchy and the Germans don’t, and it’s perhaps easier to see why the Germans embrace the madness of their erstwhile monarchy and open it up for tourists to see at low low prices (Austria’s got the market pretty well cornered on this too, but I’ll come to that in another article).

Ludwig II is suggested to have schizotypal personality disorder for which there is evidence from his autopsy – he died in 1886 under highly mysterious circumstances the day after he was dethroned for extremely paranoid behavior.  Fascinatingly, he was claimed to have drowned and it was recorded as a suicide, but he was known to be a good swimmer and there was no water in his lungs.  Add to that the further mystery that his psychiatric doctor was with him at the time – and the doctor was found dead with head and neck wounds and markings concurrent with strangulation.

There are plenty of things in Germany which are spectacular, or ludicrous, or despotic, but nothing in Germany is quite as spectacularly, ludicrously, despotically fabulous as the twin castles of Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein.  We were so taken by them that we actually went to see them twice.

The drive was painful in both directions due to bad traffic around Munich.  We parked in Fussen for a breather and that was when we saw the first of the two castles.  I’ve been told by quite a few people that Schloss Hohenschwangau is supposed to be the best one, but Schloss Neuschwanstein was the first one I saw and it captured my imagination far more.  It was fit for a princess.  It looked like a Disney castle.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a castle that was quite so… well… castley.  If someone distilled pure essence of castle and made a castle out of it, Neuschwanstein would be the result.  This castle belonged to every Disney Princess who ever lived.

Neuschwanstein castle, Schwangau, Germany.
Neuschwanstein castle, Schwangau, Germany; taken from Fussen.
Neuschwanstein castle, Schwangau, Germany.
Neuschwanstein as seen from Schwangau.

We didn’t go inside either castle because (on the way to Salzburg) by the time we’d fought our way through traffic they were both closed for the day.  The same thing happened when we drove here on the way back from Rome, so I’ve not seen first-hand what they look like inside, but when they look like this from the outside, I can’t wait until we actually get to go in.  Photography is not allowed inside the castles.

Castle Hohenschwanstein, Schwangau, Germany, August 2014.
Castle Hohenschwangau, aka Hohenschwanstein, Schwangau, Germany, Taken August 2014.

The castles look even better in real life and I think they were well worth the  effort of driving here even though we didn’t go inside – I don’t think there’s anything like them to be found side-by-side like this anywhere else in the world.

Make it Happen:

There’s two parts to this – getting to Schwangau and then getting to the actual castles.  Once you’re in Schwangau the rest is pretty damn easy (as long as you DON’T mistakenly go to SCHWANAU which is 3 HOURS AWAY from where the fairytale castles are).

Getting to Schwangau:

  1. Fly to Munich airport then hire a car, accommodation is best in Fussen which also has a much better selection of restaurants and bars than Schwangau.
  2. Drive straight to Schwangau from your home address – this is what I did, it took two full driving days and one overnight stay in a layby in central Germany to get here after 5pm from the North of England.
  3. By public transport it’s really sketchy, which is why I never got here on my Interrail trip – basically Schwangau is a little bit remote and doesn’t have it’s own train station.  There is a direct train from Munich to Fussen which takes 2 hours 6 minutes, then you’re on your own to get to Schwangau (Google says it’s a 45 minute walk or a 12 minute cycle – so if you’re reasonably fit and mobile you can probably walk it in under 30 minutes; it wasn’t far at all by car), but if you’re willing to get a taxi this is another option from Fussen.  I can’t find bus info.

Getting to the Castles from Schwangau:

  1. Hohenschwangau is a very easy stroll from the centre of Schwangau.
  2. Neuschwanstein is slightly less accessible, you can take a 45 minute walk if you’re feeling sporty.
  3. The more common option to get to Neuschwanstein is to take the tourist buses (run by private companies) which costs about E2.60 there and back again.  I think there’s still some walking involved and the buses are unsuitable for disabled people due to the terrain between where the bus stops and getting into the castle.
  4. The most awesome option by far to get to Neuschwanstein is to take a horse drawn carriage, at E6 there and E3 back again.  There is a 15 minute uphill walk from where the carriage drops you off.  If you’re feeling especially fancy, you can also ride in a carriage to Hohenschwangau castle for E4.50 there and E2 back again.
  5. Entrance to the two castles on a twin ticket was 9am-6pm (summer) or 10am-4pm (winter) and cost E12 each or E23 for a combined ticket.  For more information click here.

Disabled, Wheelchair and Pushchair Access:
You can’t drive to the entrances, the closest parking is in Schwangau village centre which costs about E5, or there’s free parking even further down the hill in two large lay-bys. Neuschwanstein appears to sadly be generally unsuitable for wheelchair users or people with mobility-related disabilities due to its design (although some people have had success getting around, I think this has to be taken as the exception; if you’re planning a trip for a busload of pensioners, you’ll have to give Neuschwanstein a miss, but if you push your own wheelchair and you’ve got someone to help out on the hilly bits, you will be able to get around enough to see some of Neuschwanstein). Pushchairs can get to Neuschwanstein but if you’re not reasonably fit you will be utterly shattered afterwards.  If you have an invisible disability such as CFS or MS you may have extreme difficulty with Neuschwanstein because the bus queues are a lot of standing around waiting and the walk is hilly with no real breaks; if you’re having a low-energy day, I’d skip Neuschwanstein and go for Hohenschwangau instead.  Hohenschwangau on the other hand appears to be reasonably accessible if you can make it up the much gentler hill to the entrance (but if in doubt, double check this when you buy tickets, because everyone’s level of ability is different) and pushchairs are no problem at Hohenschwangau.  Everything I saw of both castles and Schwangau village was hills rather than steps.

For accommodation I strongly suggest you avoid the expensive hotels of Schwangau and instead stay in the beautiful large village of Fussen, as there is much more choice, it’s a bigger town and there’s lots of cheaper options and more amenities.  If arriving by train, staying in Fussen will also break up the journey a bit.  I found the absolute best selection of accommodation from Booking.com but do book early as it’s a popular but relatively undeveloped area, and when we were travelling to Schwangau/Fussen from Rome, I tried to book us a hotel for 2 days ahead but the cheapest options that were left started at 150 Euros which was out of my price range (this was September prices).  By contrast, there are currently options for mid-August available starting at £43 for two people, which is obviously a significant saving.  By comparison, for the same example date (12-13th August) hotels in Schwangau start at £93 per night for mid-August if you book now.

Has anyone else been to see these fabulous castles?  Let me know what you thought in the comments.

If you’re looking for more info on disabled access of major tourist destinations, I’ve also written about which parts of Rome were wheelchair accessible.

More info about ticketing etc here.

This article contains affiliate links, it doesn’t affect the prices you pay for anything, and if you choose to book accommodation from links on this page it just means I can buy food and petrol and all that lovely stuff (which gives me more time to write articles like this one).

How to Buy a Better European Road Atlas

Choose the right map 1: The big road atlas

This post uses affiliate links.  By purchasing anything through them, you are helping to support this blog being able to continue.  All opinions are 100% my own and I am using the links to show you specific products so you know what I think is worth buying and what’s worth avoiding.

Something nobody ever talks about is buying a map. For city-hoppers, who fly from Phnom Penh to Beijing via Ho Chi Min and Tokyo, there’s probably little need for the various types of maps I’m going to talk about here. If you’re driving from A to B, however, you need a good map (even if you have an awesome sat nav) so you don’t end up at the wrong sea.

The two types of maps you need:
1. A big road atlas.
2. Smaller destination maps – this might be an A-Z city map book or a few Ordnance Survey sheets for the wilderness.

This article is going to talk about how to choose a road atlas. Stay tuned for next Travel Tuesday when I’ll talk about how to choose smaller destination maps.

1. A big road atlas. This has largely been superseded by GPS navigation, aka Sat Navs, but it totally depends on where you want to go. If you are travelling somewhere with poor mobile phone/GPS coverage, or you don’t have the right countries in your sat nav (or even if you do) it’s well worth taking a paper map as a back up. At the very worst, you can use it to do big-picture route planning and see where you are compared to your overall travel goal. I bought a Philip’s European Road Atlas last year for driving from York UK to Rome, Italy via Salzburg, Austria and Stuttgart, Germany. I didn’t pay a huge amount of attention to which one I bought – I thought I’d spent plenty of time choosing one with the most countries covered and the best scale of detail. At 2am, somewhere in central Germany on our first travel day, lost in a hell of redirecting ring roads and traffic cones, with nothing on the (ample) signposts matching ANYTHING on our map, however, I wished I’d spent that little bit more time (and money) and selected my map a bit more wisely. The AA one looked a lot better when I flicked through it in a shop – so I’m going to get this one. I’m also considering a separate, broader scale atlas just for France and Germany.

Things to look for in a big road atlas:
1. Scale. Does it cover ALL of the countries listed at the scale advertised on the front? We bought the Philip’s European Road Atlas because we wanted to go to Romania, and it was one of very few that covered it. We did not end up going. When the Philips Road Atlas arrived, it transpired that it only did Eastern Europe in 1:4,000,000 scale (which would be fine if they didn’t have roads, junctions, towns, etc etc that weren’t remotely marked on the map) in the route planner pages at the front, and only did Western Europe in the advertised scale of 1:800,000, which wasn’t the best scale for the densely populated countries such as Germany and Belgium that we passed through on our journey, and it did struggle in Italy as well.

2. Coverage. Does it cover the countries between your starting point and your destination in enough detail to enable you to actually get there? For example, if we had gotten a map which only covered Western Europe but that covered it in a better scale, we could have saved about one full travel day not being lost (we lost on average 2 hours a day from accidentally taking the wrong road or not having any of the options on the signposts match up with anything on the map), which would have meant more time and energy for sightseeing. Because our original trip focus was Eastern Europe, I didn’t pay attention to how good the mapping of the Western European countries was, which ultimately made our trip less awesome than it could have been. Because there are more people per square kilometre in Western Europe, there is more infrastructure and there are also more settlements. This means you need a map with the same level of detail as you would need to drive around the south of England, not the north of Scotland.

3. Symbols. WTF do those symbols mean??!! If you don’t know, this might not be your best map. Usually there’s a symbol guide at the front (along with the scale, and approximate times and distances), but if you’re struggling or if it’s all in a funny font or all in a foreign language that you don’t speak, try a different one.

4. Font size. Some maps have a font size that is far too small for driving. I don’t recommend reading maps whilst the vehicle is in motion, but even when you’ve stopped, you need to find where you are as quickly as possible. If you can’t read the words because they’re too small, you WILL struggle, because remember they’ll all be unfamiliar words anyway. Make it as easy as possible for future you to get the job done.

5. Price. Most people buy the cheapest map they see. STOP! Don’t do it. I spent a couple of hours choosing my map, and it still wasn’t a good fit. Buying the cheapest one you see will cost you money in the long run in the form of all that petrol you’ll waste when you’re driving around and being lost.

Final advice on your road map:
1. Never see it as a “just in case” for if your sat nav breaks, even if that’s the intended use. Scrutinize that map so you know whether it will actually get you to where you need to go when it matters most. When you lose sat nav signal (I did once we left Dover, and never got it back all through Europe), you will be stressed, usually in a hurry to make a decision or not in a sensible place to stop, and you will need that map to work fast. My map was a back up, but it wasn’t good enough. There’s no shame in buying a second one after the first one arrives if you bought it online and its crap.

2. Change the page on your map every day of your journey, so you can just pick it up and find where you are when the sat-nav loses signal.

3. Familiarize yourself with what your route looks like on the map, so your brain can speed up your response using it’s pattern-recognition abilities. The human brain is an incredible tool if you use it right – I always do this when I’m road tripping so I can find where my car is on a page as fast as possible.

4. Draw with a marker pen where you’re going (if you’re cool with writing on your map). I wish I’d done this at every rest stop. Or at all.

5. If you have a passenger navigator, get them to follow the route with their finger or regularly update themselves on where you are in relation to the map in some other way. Pins, post it notes, or a pen would also work but a finger leaves no trace so the map is still readable.

Stay tuned for next Travel Tuesday when I will talk about smaller scale sheet maps, and feel free to ask me any of your questions about maps in the comments or via Twitter.

Future Post Plans

Hey readerinos and literati,

So I’ve been absolutely blown away with the support for my blog – readership and views DOUBLED this month compared to the last three!  And there’s a third of this month still left!  I’m really excited about what I’m going to do to take this blog into the future, so here’s some ideas I’ve had for regular posting slots:

Meat Free Monday – gluten-free vegan recipes; 100% edible, 100% TASTY clean eats.

Travel Tuesday – an article on travelling, logistics, cars, driving, planning travel or somewhere I’ve been.

Wedding Wednesday – an article about weddings, every Wednesday.  Inspiration for simple, minimalist weddings which pack more fun in for less money; also (of course) vegan weddings (and vegan, minimalist weddings if anyone other than me is thinking of doing/has done both), and lots of information on the practicalities and budgeting.  I feel really strongly about weddings that people have lost sight of the true meaning of a wedding with all this overpriced, bloated gimcrackery.  If you want a consumerist wedding (read: £5,000 or more that you’ll never see again), or a wedding where everyone is dressed in bearskins, you might want to read someone else’s blog on a Wednesday.

Anything Can Happen Thursday! – Any article, completely at random.  The suspense….

Friday – day off.  Or an article.  Because I’m unpredictable on Fridays.

Saturday – A beauty or hair post, or a link to my latest youtube tutorial, hopefully in time for anyone going out on the town who needs info.

Soft Soft Sunday – A day for fluffy bunnies.

Let me know what you think as I’d love to have your input in shaping the future of this blog!  After all, without y’all, I wouldn’t have any readers.

Happy Sunday!