Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Eurail Passes: To Buy or Not to Buy

As I mentioned in my Paris post and probably others, Eurail passes are a mixed bag.  It's unclear if we actually made up the amount of money that we paid for ours, although based on very rough estimations, we think we may have.  I'm not sure I want to run the numbers, though.

The passes are wonderful for hopping on and off regional trains at will, which we did many times. Without one, we may not have just hopped over to Pisa for a few hours.  It was also nice not to have to wait in lines to buy tickets every time we wanted to catch a train.  Some of those ticket lines were long!

Also, Switzerland has some lovely benefits for Eurail pass holders, namely that a pass covers the ferries in both Interlaken and Lucerne.  Woot!

However, there are a number of downsides:

1.  People aged 26 and older are not able to buy a second class pass.  We had to buy a first class pass, which was over $400 more per person (and that's with the discount you get for buying one 'group' pass for two people instead of two individual passes!).  I'm not going to lie, I enjoyed first class.  It was easy to get a seat because it was so often empty, and it frequently had some cushy benefits.  But not being allowed to buy anything else seems silly.

2. France severely limits the number of seats available for Eurail pass holders.  It would seem it is especially limited in first class.  We were told there were no first class seats available on a train that we noticed was very empty when we boarded.  And first class was usually much more empty than second class.

3. France charges a lot of money for reservations.  We paid 54 Euro (for the two of us) for a 3 hour first class train ride from Paris to Basel (Switzerland).  However, we did get breakfast, which was pretty exciting to me.  We paid 109 Euro for the first class "super reclining seats" on the overnight train from Spain to Paris.  As a point of comparison, we paid 6 Euro for local trains and 20 Euro for longer trains in Italy.

4. Making reservations for future train rides is an extreme pain in the arse, except in Italy where you can make reservations online using your rail pass (France allowed online reservations, but you couldn't tell it you had a rail pass).  As I mentioned in the Paris post, we spent 2 hours trying to make reservations for a Swiss train.  Not fun.  After Austria (or maybe even starting in Austria), we avoided all trains that required reservations.  Of course, that was easy to do since few trains require reservations in those countries.

5. Eurail ticket offices are not easy to find (thanks, France) and sometimes are even closed and long gone (thanks, Spain).

6. The pass itself is ridiculously flimsy!
This shows the front side.  I folded part of it to hide personal details.
Back side of the pass.   This is the full size of the sheet.
The official pass part is two little pieces of paper stapled to a much larger piece of paper that folds many times over.  There's a huge section where you must write down every train you take.  If you don't, ticket checkers may fine you or tear up the pass (supposedly).  This makes sense for those who have passes that can only be used for a certain number of days.  Ours was continuous, so what does it matter?  I skipped writing down a few of the small train hops, but wrote down the rest, mostly for our own records.  Only a couple of ticket checkers looked at it on the over 80 trains we rode.  Not to mention, the space provided isn't long enough for all the trains, so here's the very official piece of paper on which we recorded the remainder:
7.  If something happens to your rail pass (stolen, lost, etc), you must report it within 24 hours, and they will not replace it.  Your only option is to keep all receipts and records of any money you spend on trains, and they will supposedly reimburse you.  This made me paranoid, so I kept ours in my money belt the entire trip, which is why it looks rather wrinkled.

In the end, I am glad we had one.  Not having to buy tickets was awesome.  However, for a shorter trip, or one that includes fewer countries, it may not be worth it.  Especially if you'll be spending a lot of time in France, where reservations are ridiculously pricey, or in Italy, where trains are actually really cheap without a pass.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Last Day

On the last day of our trip, we visited Kilkenny, which Rick Steves says is "often called Ireland's finest medieval town."  While wandering into town we noticed this little eatery with a great name:
Crazy though it may seem, we did not avail ourselves of the sandwiches.

Kilkenny has a picturesque castle:
Front View
Back  View
Paul made friends with Indiana Jones:
We also saw quite a few bookmakers in Ireland.  At first I was all "that's so awesome, look at all these small independent book making shops!"  But then I realized I didn't quite understand the meaning of the term 'bookmaker':
We decided to enjoy one last kebab as dinner for the train ride back to Dublin:
where we were greeted by the friendly cat residing in the Airbnb place in which we were staying.  He made himself right at home in our room:

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Troubles in Belfast

On the way back to Dublin from the Giant's Causeway we spent an afternoon in Belfast. One of Belfast's claims to fame is the shipyard that built the Titanic and its lessor known siblings the Olympic and Britannic. The museum now dedicated to the famous ship sounded very interesting, but we decided to skip it in favor of learning more about another thing Belfast is famous for, The Troubles.

We took a taxi tour through the sectarian neighborhoods involved in The Troubles. Paddy Campbell's Famous Black Cab Tours arranged for Pat, our driver, to picked us up for a 90 minute ride with plenty of explanation.

This was a sobering experience.

First a (tiny) bit of history. The Troubles refers to the conflict between two groups in Northern Ireland: the loyalists (loyal to UK), a predominantly Protestant group; and the nationalists, a predominantly Catholic group.

The period starting in 1969 had a great deal of violence. In an effort to combat it, a set of walls were built to partition the neighborhoods. The gates still open every day at 6 AM and close again at 6 PM.

We were visiting during marching season, a period aligned with the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne. There was a parade in Portrush while we were there. Pat informed us that Portrush is a Protestant vacation town. During the tour Pat pointed out a very large burn mark on the grass in one neighborhood and explained that there'd recently been a large bonfire there.

Many walls in these neighborhoods are painted with conflict-related murals. Here are a few:

Pat pointed out that the gun appears to follow you as you walk past this mural.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Giant's Causeway

To see Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, we took trains back to Dublin and then north to Portrush.  The trains in Ireland radiate out from Dublin, so you have to go back through Dublin to go northward.  There are buses but they take just as long as the trains and would have cost us money.  The trains were covered by our Eurail pass.

Portrush is a popular beach getaway town, so we spent a little time on the beach our first evening:
We also saw this huge cruise ship with sails - pretty crazy!
The next day, we went to Giant's Causeway.  The hexagonal rocks are neat!

It was hard to get pictures without other tourists - there were many:
After some time at this very touristy area, we started walking along a path along the edge of the cliff... and just kept going.  We walked 4.8 miles to the next bus stop, realized the next bus wasn't for an hour, and walked the 4.8 miles back.  It was a beautiful walk:

Paul claimed the cliff (I think he's really gotten confused about Carcassonne)
We brought a small picnic lunch and ate it while enjoying the beautiful view:
We were walking along farmland, and these cows were nice enough to pose for a picture:
 The sky cleared up a bit when we were just about finished with our walk:
I continued to try to conquer my fear of heights by standing far out on a promontory:
Okay, okay, to get out to the last little bit (which isn't actually represented in this photo), I had to put my hands on either side of my eyes like blinders for a horse.  But I made it, dangit!

And because I can't help myself, just one more photo (we took a bazillion, it's so hard to choose!)
And finally, on our way back to Portrush, we stopped by the very picturesque Dunluce castle:

Friday, July 26, 2013

Back in the 'Burgh

We interrupt our regularly scheduled (ha!) Ireland blog posts to let you know that we are back home in Pittsburgh:
Us in front of our house the moment we got home (after taking public transit all the way from the airport - go us!)
Our house sitters did an amazing job - the house was super clean, and the yard was tidy.  They even managed to win over Jez (although they said it took about a month).  Jez seems happy to see us:
I was sitting on the couch, and she crawled in next to me.
We are busy trying to adjust to the weirdness of being home. It really is strange.  Not many people talk about the weirdness of coming home after a long trip (maybe because not that many take such a long trip!), but I've talked to a couple others that have experienced it.  One of these people has assured me that I'll feel pretty much back to normal after about a week.  And we are adjusting  - nothing like grocery shopping, cooking homemade meals, and laundry to make you all too aware of your normal life.  Oh, and Paul started working on his projects (deathmobile is getting really close to completion!) almost as soon as we walked in the door.

Even though we are home, the blog will continue for a little while longer.  We have a few more Ireland and Northern Ireland posts as well as some general thoughts on travel, including trains, packing, Eurail passes, and more.  After that, no more posts until our next crazy adventure (I sure hope there is one!).  Paul tells me that next time I get some insane idea, I'm limited to only one month.  I think I can agree to that.  Three months is a long time away from friends and family. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Cliffs of Moher

After Killarney, we took the train to Ennis to see the Cliffs of Moher.  It was a busy day.  We caught a train to Mallow then another to Limerick, then finally to Ennis.  Next, we hurried to our hostel to drop off our bags before returning to the train station to catch a 50 minute bus to the Cliffs of Moher.  We had a little under 3 hours at the Cliffs before the final bus back.

The Cliffs are pretty impressive:

Also, we liked this sign (to throw in a little CSI: Creative Sign Interpretation)
No walking on fire while admiring birds!

Ireland has been so dry for quite a while that this is the result (our shoes are normally black):
This was great for us because the weather was truly amazing.  How often do people get a clear blue sky at the Cliffs of Moher?  Not very often.  It was actually too hot - probably 85 or so - with no shade in sight.  We suffered through it, though.  :)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Killarney and the Ring of Kerry

Ireland is beautiful.  I think Paul and I both have questioned whether book-ending our trip with Ireland was wise.  It was the cheapest round-trip flight but we ended up flying between Ireland and mainland Europe both times.  However, it has been the perfect way to end this trip, and we are both very glad we included it.

We flew from Amsterdam to Dublin, stayed the night in a hostel, and headed out to Killarney via train to visit the Killarney National Park and tour the Ring of Kerry.  It's obvious that Ireland is really best done by car, since so many sites are inaccessible or inconvenient by public transportation.  However, we wanted to use our rail pass and didn't want to drive.

Our first night, we wandered around Killarney National Park and saw some amazing views:

The second day, we took the Ring of Kerry bus tour.  Not my favorite way to see an area, but our only option without a car.  The first stop was a bog village for an extra fee, so we opted not to participate.  It didn't look very interesting.  Then, we stopped to take some pictures here:

We also stopped at a sheep-herding demonstration.  We both weren't super-excited about it, but it ended up being really neat.  There were three dogs who all knew the same commands but had different signals for them.  There was a full set of whistles and a full-set of spoken commands for each dog.  These included left, right, forward, back, and stop, I think.  A dog's hearing is incredible!  The shepherd spoke pretty quietly, and the dogs could hear him way up the hill.  Here's a movie of the dogs in action [visit the blog website to see the movie]:
More views:

Ireland makes up for its (usually) drab weather with colorful buildings.
Unfortunately, scenery photos with mountains in the distance just don't turn out well, so most of our other photos of the Ring of Kerry aren't super-exciting.

After the tour, we rented bikes and toured more of Killarney National Park.  We saw some deer:
And took more pretty photos:

Ross Castle

Monday, July 22, 2013

Bikes Everywhere!

The bike culture of Germany, Belgium, and especially the Netherlands is impressive.  In Germany, I started noticing separate lanes for bikes - often with a divider between the road and the bike lane.  Much safer than Pittsburgh, that's for sure.

As we continued northward, I noticed the emphasis on bikes more and more - parking lots of bikes, bikes chained to every available surface, and more.  Brugge had parking for bikes near a music event.  There was no parking for cars anywhere in sight.
But the Netherlands truly had bikes everywhere:
There are sidewalks for walkers separate from bike paths for bikes (and scooters apparently) separate from the road for cars - pretty impressive!
Many bikes have saddlebags since people use them to do their shopping:
And there are some truly huge parking lots for bikes:
This huge 2.5-level structure is a bike parking lot in Amsterdam near the train station.
Here's a close up of one end of the parking lot:
Bikes are also modified to transport multiple children (and apparently cost several thousand dollars):

It was also common for one person to be peddling a bike while another was sitting side-saddle on the back, although I didn't manage to get a photo of that.

I also loved this parking garage for bikes in Haarlem:
So take note, Pittsburgh, you may be bike friendly, but you've got nothing on these countries.