Salt Town

Trip Start Dec 16, 2007
Trip End Feb 24, 2008

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Monday, December 24, 2007

After I completed the last blog entry Mum was starting to feel a bit crook, probably from a multitude of reasons including letting herself get too cold on her walk that afternoon and drinking warm glu wein (mulled red wine) at lunch. As a result dinner was only a 3 person affair at the hotel and was once again delicious and accompanied by the soothing sounds of the harp.

In the morning Mum was still feeling iffy but had the guts (well, not much of her gut after the previous evening apparently) to come down for breakfast. Dad decided to stay with Mum and see what activities they could achieve in the circumstances while Charles and I were to take the 10:40am train to Plzen. Suffering from an absence of small change with which to purchase a trolleybus fare Charles and I decided to relive the memories of our family walk from the Mariánské Lázne nadrazi (station) on the day of our arrival by doing the opposite, and without baggage. I purchased a one way ticket from the international ticket desk, where the lady spoke a little English, while Charles ensured his Czech Railpass was valid. Because Charles is leaving the rest of the family before we go to Prague he only required 2 travel days within the Czech Republic, instead of the 4 that the rest of us required. To simplify and streamline our travel proceedings it was decided to purchase Charles a Czech Railpass although the minimum number of days is 3 and thus he had an excess day to use. I, like the parents, have a 4 day pass and as such had to purchase extra tickets for this day trip so that I could keep my pass days free for the essential family travel.

The train was a loco-hauled Rapid service, with 6 all compartment carriages. We enjoyed an entire 8-seat 2nd class compartment to ourselves for the 1 hour and 11 minute journey through the hills to Plzen. The first part of the journey is through a scenic river valley, turned white by the extreme frost on all the trees and the ground. The train took a leisurely pace, often over traditional, non continuous welded rail track until it reached the track duplification works. Here the European Union is paying to double and enhance the tracks through to Plzen, as well as upgrade many of the stations to EU standards. As the project is only half complete we had to crawl through several sections although closer to our destination we were treated to a smooth 110km/h trip, quite a contrast to the fun and evocative nature of the single-track line closer to Mariánské Lázne.

Upon arrival we headed down through the tall station building to the main street heading to the old town. In Plzen they enjoy both tram and trolleybus services, resulting in quite a few exciting intersections with wires criss-crossing in every direction. Charles and I were headed for the Pilsner Urquell brewery and to this end we followed the brown tourist signs on the road as these were our only guidance. Our journey to the brewery ended up being a giant zig-zag when we could've just walked straight down a single street to get there, thanks to poor car accessibility and the lack of pedestrian signage.

At the brewery we popped into the visitor centre and booked ourselves in for the 12:30pm tour in English. It was 12:20pm when we arrived so we decided to stay in the warm and wait for our tour to start. Two North American girls (1 from the USA and 1 from Canada) who were on holiday from teaching in Doha made up the rest of our group for the tour, which began with a satisfyingly corny video about how fantastic Pilsner Urquell beer and its legacy is. The tour lasted for 90 minutes and showed us the bottling plant, where and how the beer is made and culminated in a visit to the brewery's historic cellar system. The cellars were all hand dug and are a total of 9km long. Unfortunately the beer is no longer fermented down there on a commercial scale but they do still make a few barrels of beer there for quality control against their modern system, and also for tourists like us. We were lucky enough to be served young (only halfway through its final barrel-sealed fermentation period) beer straight out of the barrel, in all its unfiltered glory.

By the time the tour was over we were getting hungry and it was decided that we would forage for food in the old town. Just before crossing the river from the brewery we were lured off course by golden arches and changed plan, instead skirting the southern edge of the old town to visit the Maccas nearby. A McCountry burger each provided us with the sustenance to get back to the station, via the centre of the old town and nearby Tesco. Charles had spied the Tesco during our earlier walk and had wanted to check out his first store of this international chain, especially to see if he could pick up some famous Czech 70% alcohol absinth.

We had a while to wait for our return train but that gave us an opportunity for me to buy my ticket, again from the international desk, study the timetables in more detail and admire the grand design of the station. I enjoyed the sight of a few trains arriving and departing before our train arrived and we easily found an empty compartment to occupy for our journey. The scenery was again impressive but the light was fading and the heater in our compartment was pretty ineffective. Nevertheless, this 60km/h trip was a fun one and even though I enjoy trains that travel 5 times as fast I feel that this kind of travel is something that must not be lost to progress.

Our final night in Mariánské Lázne was celebrated over another dinner at the hotel's restaurant while we exchanged stories of our different days in the region and prepared for our long travel day ahead.

Our first early start of the trip was surprisingly easy to deal with, most likely due to the enjoyable selection available at the buffet breakfast. The hotel was very helpful in ordering the taxi to get us and our bags down to the nadrazi in time for our 8:40am train. Our routing took us once again to Plzen, where we changed to a similar all compartment service to Ceske Budejovice. Our longest leg was then on a short 3-car, 2nd class only train that ran every second stop on the slow and winding line across the border to Linz. This experience was somewhat similar to the line from Mariánské Lázne however even slower and less direct. The scenery was increasingly cold and foggy, with the remnant snow icy and reflective so that the empty fields looked like they had thousands of twinkling lights embedded in them. Once in Linz we finally had enough time to purchase a late lunch and some drinks before waiting for our EuroCity train to Salzburg arrived. This train was a striking contrast to all the others we had taken that day, traveling at high speed on smooth track, with full carriages and even a restaurant carriage.

After walking to our hotel from the station in Salzburg we had to wait for some annoying American tourists to stop hogging the staff before we could check in. Our first activity, in the newly fallen darkness, was to walk down to Linzer Gasse and then into Salzburg's Altstadt for the last night of the Christmas Market. We lapped the entire set of stalls that spills over 2 squares in the centre of Salzburg but didn't buy anything, choosing instead to leave that until tomorrow morning when we plan to visit the markets again just before they close for the season. We managed to get to dinner at a restaurant back up on Liner Gasse just before the cold overcame my lower body. The meal warmed us up nicely but the return walk to the hotel, later in the evening was almost too much to handle.

I'm now updating the blog from the hotel after having started typing it on the EuroCity train, where we had laptop powerpoints at our seats.

I'm glad that the Mandurah line is finally open in Perth and would like to share that almost all the comments I have received about it from people at home relate to fears of "undesirables" taking the train down to the southern suburbs, as if they never took the bus before!

I hope you all have a great Christmas, I may get an update out on Christmas day but we'll see what happens.
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