Our rail journey begins, like all great rail trips, at McDonald’s. Scratch that: I mean the rail journey begins, like all our harmonious family rail trips, at McDonald’s. This particular McCafé is in Milan, where we’re attempting to chalk off Leonardo’s The Last Supper, some of the world’s great shopping streets… and a Big Mac.
Soon we’re aboard the night train to Vienna, bedding down in a snug, spotless couchette for four. Vienna isn’t an obvious kids’ city, so we chose our hotel carefully. The outdoor pool and American breakfast buffet at the Hilton Vienna Danube Waterfront more than compensate for a 15-minute Metro ride into the centre. “They have baked beans!” hoots Ruby (eight) on our first morning.
Even waltzing around at a kid-friendly pace, we cover all the classics in a couple of days. A stroll through the Burggarten; coffee and Sachertorte at Café Central, across the road from Hofburg Palace; super-sized schnitzels at Figlmüller. On occasion we use a bit of judicious job-splitting — her to the Mozarthaus Vienna (the composer’s one-time residence), me with the kids to a Claire’s Accessories store.
The Vienna Ring Tram is a universal hit, as is the Riesenrad Ferris wheel. I love it for its film noir chic (it was a backdrop in The Third Man), the others just love riding it. At the Belvedere Palace, Ruby asks us to explain Klimt’s The Kiss. “Is that real gold?” she wonders. We speculate on what the people are up to in The Bride, on the next wall. We’re not totally sure, but it looks rude. Lili (12) is too buried in Instagram to notice anyway.
Walking to school a couple of months ago, Ruby had said, “I love getting wet, it’s the funniest thing in the world”, so I’m confident our next leg, to Budapest, will be hit. Bathing is a national pastime in Hungary. Even at the touristy Széchenyi Baths, a cross-section of society is in evidence. In outdoor neo-Baroque pools, old men playing chess share steaming waters with jabbering teens, backpackers fresh from Keleti railway station, serene elderly ladies, and us. Inside, are room after room of mineral pools. We soak like Romans in 40C waters, then plunge into a shock pool 20C colder. One sulphurous bath “smells like my science classroom”, according to Lili.
Aquaworld is less serious, and even more fun. There are water slides, thermal pools, a pleasing bit of plastic kitsch in the shape of an Angkor temple. A large dome protects us from the thundering rain. Water park boxes are basically all ticked.
Not every side-trip is popular. We’ve only been in the House of Terror for five minutes before my 12-year-old wants to leave. This excellent museum, dedicated to the victims of the country’s Communist and Nazi occupations, is located in a former World War II secret police building. Written and video exhibits pull no punches, especially those in what were once the basement cells and execution room. A grubby cellar with no windows, it turns out, is what terror really looks like.
The Holocaust Memorial Center is even more harrowing. The recorded sound of marching jackboots permeates the space, which documents the wartime suffering of Hungary’s Jews and Romani people. A century ago, almost a quarter of Budapest was Jewish. The Dohány Street Synagogue is still Europe’s largest. Although repressed, the city’s Jews lived in relative physical safety until April 1944. By the beginning of 1945, over half a million Hungarian Jews had been murdered by the Nazis and their local collaborators, at a speed unparalleled even in those savage times.
Had I been alone I’d have lingered longer, but with the kids it was enough for them to understand what happened, rather than to consider every image, every atrocity.
Soon we’re on the rails again, heading deeper into Hungary, to Eger, on the edge of the Bükk Mountains. We find a small town littered with pretty Baroque architecture. Its main square has a bow-fronted Minorite church beside a florid town hall. Eger’s cultural importance belies its size. When its castle withstood a siege by Ottoman Turks in 1552 it became part of national lore. “Hungarian history is not full of victories,” our guide, Gabor, notes ruefully. This success wasn’t to last, however. Within 50 years, Eger — and much of Hungary — was occupied, and the next morning we’re floating in the evidence.
Our large octagonal bath was built during Ottoman rule, in the early 1600s. Its dome is lined with 200,000 gold mosaics, and Zsolnay ceramics decorate the walls. Warm spring water bubbles through its stone floor. With the place almost to ourselves, between dips the kids refine their echoing skills. I don’t think they’ve ever been so clean.
Who: Donald Strachan travelled between Italy, Austria and Hungary with his partner and daughters Ruby (eight) and Lili (12).
Best for: Kids who are able to carry their own bags on and off trains.
Highs: “The buffet is really, really nice. I wish we could have school dinners from it.” Ruby at Aquaworld, Budapest.
Lows: “Is that our train? It looks like something pulled from a skip.” But Lili soon learned not to judge a railway carriage by its cover.
How to do it: Loco2 has easy search and booking for European rail travel to/from and around countries including Italy, France and Germany. The Milan-Vienna sleeper costs from £43.50 per person each way. Two interconnecting rooms at the Hilton Vienna Danube Waterfront start from €147 (£105) room only (€190/£135, B&B). Two-room apartments at Aquaworld from €122 (£87) a night. A free shuttle bus is available to Heroes’ Square in central Budapest.
Published in the Family supplement, distributed with the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)