October 6, 2011 6:48 AM   Subscribe

EuroTravelFilter: Help us determine stops, a route, strategies, tips, dangers, etc. for our Summer 2012 Rome-Baltic odyssey, currently in its very early planning stages. What can we hope to achieve in ~2 weeks and $3-4k?

Our current planned phases:

1- Fly into Rome. Spend 2+ days.
2- Proceed north... to someplace. Most of the "middle part" of the trip is meant to be in Germany. I envision going through at least a bit of the Black Forest.
3- Reach Baltic, presumably at Lubeck.
4- Fly back to U.S., presumably from Hamburg.

Like I said, very early planning stages.

Things we're thinking about:
- We really want to get a good amount of scenic rail travel in. However, we're not averse to short-hop flights if it helps us balance time/money.
- Driving in Europe?... ehhh, if we have to.
- Switzerland... at least a little time here. Would just Geneva suffice? Also, I want to go on one of those aerial trams that one associates with the Swiss Alps.
- Dijon? I've been to Paris and it's great and all, but it seems like it might be a bit out of our way. Mrs. Augustus has never been to Europe at all, and while she's stoked about Germany, I feel a day or two of France is needed. Would Dijon constitute a suitably French experience?
- What's the can't-miss stuff around the, um, middle part of Germany? (big question, I realize)
- How much scenic awesomeness would we be missing out on if we skipped western Austria? (Again, it may be a bit off our route, but as the route is not yet set in stone.........)
- Luxembourg! Worth a slight detour?

Our interests:
- historical sights (the older, the better, but really any era is of interest)
- museums that contain more than just art. (for reference, the military museum in Paris was perhaps the coolest thing I remember from Paris)
- not-too-intense nature hikes
- amateur photography
- wine

- hosteling. We are just slightly not outgoing enough for that, I suspect.
- nightclubs

Additional considerations:
- We are AAA for now. Considering a switch to Better World Club or something similar, and likely before the trip.
- Mrs. Augustus doesn't eat meat. I do. We both like cheese.
- We are fit enough for fairly long walks and lugging moderate loads. No major health issues, not overweight, but not exactly Olympian stamina.
- We both speak "barely-enough-for-the-tourist" German and I speak about that much French.

Thanks for whatever input you can provide!
posted by AugieAugustus to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Freiburg, in the Black Forest region of Germany, right across the border from Switzerland/France, is old, historic, and beautiful. All of the pretty, historic cities in Germany are smaller towns (everything else got bombed). It's a small town, but perfect for a day trip or for spending one night there if you are passing by the region.

Vegetarian German food is near non-existent, especially in smaller towns. So, you may want to research specific restaurants in the towns you are traveling to.
posted by Peter Petridish at 7:12 AM on October 6, 2011

Since you are looking at about two weeks, maybe try to focus on just two countries? With possibly a short foray to one of your other goal destinations, like do Rome-Salzburg-Munich-Hamburg or something like that, all by train. Or if you're set on getting into France, go the other direction and do Rome-Lyon/Dijon-Freiburg (Black Forest)-Hamburg. I think trying to shoe-horn more than that would get into "if it's Tuesday this must be Belgium" territory. It's a huge amount of ground between Rome and Hamburg, and you might find scenic rail travel becomes samey after the first couple legs.

On a more specific note, for a very cool somewhat under the radar historical site in Rome (if anything in Rome is really under the radar), visit the Basilica di San Clemente. The current church there, built in the middles ages, stands over two older sites: another church/Mithraic Temple and a first century AD Roman home, all of which you can walk through. It's a very compact, accessible version of the layers of history that exist all across Rome.
posted by CheeseLouise at 7:18 AM on October 6, 2011

I don't have specific recommendations for that area, but I wanted to recommend you not dismiss driving in Europe out of hand. I just got back from my first overseas trip in which I rented a car, and it was a life-changing experience. We had total freedom to go and do whatever we wanted, and after a few harrowing hours of figuring out the signs and customs, it quickly became second nature.

I'd also recommend getting Lonely Planet guides, especially if you rent a car, so you can investigate the dining and hotel options in each city you visit. I'm vegetarian, too, and found it pretty useful for identifying food options even in smaller towns.
posted by something something at 7:23 AM on October 6, 2011

We live close to the Luxembourg boarder in Germany and really enjoy going there to hike and see some of the smaller towns/cities (Echternach and Vianden to name a couple). Luxembourg City is also very cool--we've spent a couple days wondering around there at different points. They have some neat underground tunnels.

Trier, Germany is really nice, especially if you are into Roman history. It is the oldest city in Germany and was founded by the Romans. Plenty of sights to see there.

If you are into wine, the Mosel valley in Germany, Luxembourg and France is great.

And driving in Europe isn't bad...as long as you aren't in Italy.
posted by chiefthe at 7:26 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd wing it. It's easy to travel by the seat of your pants in developed countries. Just book your flights and somewhere to stay the night you arrive and you'll be fine. If you like the city you start in, stay for a few days, otherwise jump on a train to wherever looks interesting between you and your flight home. Personally, I prefer to rent a car and wander through small towns along the way to wherever I randomly decide I want to go, but then again I like driving in Italy, so I'm probably not the right person to listen to.
posted by foodgeek at 7:37 AM on October 6, 2011

We really want to get a good amount of scenic rail travel in.

From (very far) northern Italy, you can pick up the Rhaetian Railway's Bernina Express to Chur. This train is insane. It's straight-up Harry Potter style. I feel like this is kind of BS-y because I haven't ridden on the majority of the world's scenic rail routes, but I would be shocked if the Bernina Express didn't turn out to be one of the most beautiful rail routes in the world. There's two types of cars: regular cars (which, because it's RhB, are pretty nice), and these "gallery" cars where you pay a little extra and the windows are enormous. The one negative of the gallery cars is sometimes there's announcements on the intercom about touristy stuff. I've done it both ways though and I'd go for the gallery cars.

From Chur, you can transfer to a regular SBB train to Zurich, which is still a pretty nice ride, and then you're practically in Germany.

If you need to travel from northern Italy to Germany, and you have any interest in scenic rail travel, you should really consider the Bernina.

Also, I don't know if you had Playmobil toys when you were a kid, but if you did, taking those trains and cable cars is hilarious, because it seems most of those toys were designed after the pattern of that part of the world, so you feel like you are in a giant Playmobil set.

Switzerland... at least a little time here. Would just Geneva suffice? Also, I want to go on one of those aerial trams that one associates with the Swiss Alps.

If you take the Bernina, there are a lot of towns where you can hop off and ride one of those cable cars, say in the Engadin valley, especially at the ski areas. In particular, there is one at Diavolezza that is also serviced by the RhB, so you can hop off the train, hop on the cable car, and hop back on the train. Diavolezza is a steep and beautiful mountain so it's a pretty good cable car ride.

Mrs. Augustus doesn't eat meat. I do. We both like cheese.

There are these little Grand Illusion-style restaurants that serve fondue and raclette (and, most importantly, rösti) in tumbledown old houses tucked into the Swiss Alps. Some of these are only accessible from cable cars, but they give you a good reason to take the cable cars. I can't remember if there is one on Diavolezza or not.

Anyway, one way you could this: from Italy, take the train in the morning to somewhere around Pontresina, hop off, get on the cable car, take it up to a restaurant, eat some raclette and drink a huge beer, go back down on the cable car, get back on the train, take it to Zurich. One powerhouse Swiss day.
posted by jeb at 8:25 AM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'd say forget about Dijon. If you really want to spend a day or 2 in France, aim for Strasbourg or Colmar. Both located very close to the German border.
posted by rom1 at 8:37 AM on October 6, 2011

I'm going to recommend far more places than you'll be able to see in a fortnight.

+1 for Trier and Luxembourg, which are fairly close together. Trier's so full of historic sites (and sights) you can hardly move for tripping over them, and Luxembourg city is built over an incredible gorge - photos really don't do it justice; I strongly recommend arriving by train from Germany for the full effect.

For another pairing, Freiburg and Basel (Basle), my favourite Swiss city. It's littered with public art and museums, including fantastic mechanical fountains by Jean Tinguely, and it's got some remnants of the old city wall here and there too.

I spent about a month travelling in Switzerland. I never made it to the Italian part and I didn't feel fashionable/cool enough for the French part (Geneva, for instance, isn't really my sort of place), so I'll leave those to other people to evangelise; but I liked the walled streets of Bern(e) and the mediaeval towers of Lucerne (Luzern), the beautiful painted houses of Stein am Rhein and Schaffhausen, the majestic Rheinfall, the atmospheric Chillon Castle (OK, that one's in the French area), the strange red-carpeted St Gallen, and the peaceful blue Bodensee (Lake Constance).

In western Austria, I'll repeat this recommendation for Innsbruck and Salzburg.

On the way up through Germany, Frankfurt is the prettiest of the cities I've been to. It was bombed in the war, but parts of its historic centre have been rebuilt in the original style, and it's got several fairy-tale towers scattered around the city too, mostly remnants of the mediaeval wall. It's also very well off for museums. Berlin and Munich are fantastic, but likely too far out of your way. Other than that, pretty much any smaller town is going to be worth a look, as Peter Petridish says; I have photos of beautiful old houses from Münster, Hameln, Heppenheim, Oldenburg, Koblenz, Goslar, and lots of stops along the Rhein - which has a train line running fairly close by on both sides, incidentally. And if you like your sites so historic they're pre-, Düsseldorf is very close to the Neander Tal. Yes, that Neanderthal. I'm not sure how much there is still to see there, but there's a museum, at least.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 9:16 AM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I spent a week in Kufstein and Kundl Austria for work (so my time was not my own and I couldn't see a lot of things I'd have liked to) but if I'd been on my own I could have easily spent two weeks and never gotten much more than 100 Km from Kufstein.

I think you could easily do something like Lyon - Zurich - Milan - Verona - Innsbruck - Munich (and maybe squeeze Ulm in there for the Cathedral), spend a lot less time en route and still feel like you'd just taken a drink of Central Europe from a fire hose. Though, if there are specific things you want to see in Rome or in Northern Germany, that's different.

I'd brush up on my German in the time I had - my German is nearly non-existent which made Austria less fun than it might have been.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:27 AM on October 6, 2011

You really won't enjoy your trip if you try to shoehorn Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France and Germany into any kind of meaningful trip, especially if that trip starts in Rome, which is a goodish bit away from the other borders - way too many places.

Work out if you want to head north through Austria and Munich or Switzerland and the Black Forest and go with one of those options.

Either way - get some guidebooks and take it from there.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:54 AM on October 6, 2011

Oh, on the language front... It's obviously useful if you can read signs, menus and so on, but a pocket dictionary will help with that if your tourist German/French isn't up to it.

When it came to actual communication, I found I needed my German much more in Germany than in Austria or Switzerland. It was especially useful in taxis and small hotels. Thankfully, every time, the person I was talking to was patient and helpful.

In Austria, I visited such touristy places that everyone spoke English.

In Switzerland, I think I only met one person in the German-speaking regions who preferred my German to her English (the attendant in an interesting little museum that really wasn't set up for international visitors). In the French-speaking regions, though, my schoolgirl French was definitely useful.

And in Luxembourg, the hotel staff and the person selling tickets for the casemates (the tunnels someone mentioned earlier) switched into English when they heard my accent, but nobody else did, so again, French was useful.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 10:05 AM on October 6, 2011

How much scenic awesomeness would we be missing out on if we skipped western Austria?

I am here to answer this question: potentially A LOT. Hallstatt Austria is dramatically scenic. Rick Steves highly recommends it, as do I. And its beauty and historical importance as a Roman salt mine and town have earned it status as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

We had a glorious few days there last summer. With only 900 residents, the town is perched between the Alps and one end of a lake, Hallstatter Zee. It's about 2 hours by train from Salzburg (and the closest connecting train station), which I've been to and would skip if you had to choose one or the other.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 4:45 PM on October 6, 2011

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