Riding the Rails in Europe
Actually, train travel in Europe used to be a sad affair: very bumpy and uncomfortable, like a really fast horse and cart. Nowadays, though, it's wonderfully efficient -- all clean and smooth. Plus, you get to meet people of different nationalities. Although I'm not quite sure why that's a good thing.
As I say, I'm still not sure why that's a good thing. Anyway, that was Jim Prchlik of Rail Europe. And Rail Europe gave me, actually gave me, a free ten-day go-anywhere, annoy-anyone European travel pass. It's a marvelous invention, the travel pass. It means you can visit dozens of new places and find out how ghastly they are without ever getting off the train. It's better than flying, as my train guard in Holland, Jan Planthof, was never done telling me.
What, and miss a free ride? Are you kidding?
No matter how long the train journey, somehow, you never get bored. Just playing with my foldaway table and picking my teeth after breakfast took me happily from Amsterdam to Paris. Well, when I say breakfast, it was a cup of coffee and two tiny bread rolls that looked like the buttocks of a ventriloquist's doll.
One warning, though: the stations in European cities are overrun with beggars and winos. So be careful. But there are lots of lovely buskers, too, ranging from the ones who give you a warm feeling inside...
....to the ones you give you tinnitis.
And before you ask, I have no idea who he was, what instrument he was playing, or the name of the tune. However, he did do requests. So I asked for a medley from that great musical, "Showboat."
[Same bad tune]
I did this trip in late August, which was a bit of a mistake. There were so many people on the trains, all of them depressingly young.
Hmm...I don't know. But there's something quite chilling about German train announcers. Like we're not just visiting a country, we might also invade it while we're there. But the key to European train travel is to go first class. Don't be a cheapskate. Even if you have to sell your kids to make up any shortfall, go first, or Comfort 1 as it's called. There are no backpackers, no screaming children. They're all stuck in Second Class, or Discomfort 1, as it's called. Probably. The only downside of first class is that you travel with businesspeople
[Sound of businesspeople on cell phones]
Not one person you can here is talking to the person next to them. They're all on their mobile phones. Frankly, my advice, if you're going far, would be to travel overnight. The sleeper service is excellent and helps you skip all the dreary, in-between places...like Belgium. Although, if you go second class, you may have to share with undesirables.
As it was, I got a compartment on my own.
Things to beware of on trains, though: First, Europeans consume tobacco like it's a food substitute. They're convinced the health scares are a hoax and smoke everywhere, even on trains, and even in no-smoking areas, so be prepared for that. Second, beware of rowdy, drunken travelers. Or should I just say, beware of the British. We have a unique ability to make nuisances of ourselves in any situation, a fact confirmed by my tour guide in Amsterdam.
Yup, that's us, I'm ashamed to say. Also, in Italy, beware of muggers with syringes. That's what Fabio Scaffardi, my travel man in Florence, told me when I asked the fairly simple question:
Well, anyway, I had no problem. But if your train's late, there are plenty of things going on at the station. In Florence, I spent a very happy half hour watching a married couple having a blazing row on the concourse.
Great fun. In fact, on the whole, I had a wonderful time exploring Europe, and highly recommend it. Rail Europe will even do you a cheap deal and plane tickets if you ask them nicely. Just remember, though: A, plan your trip carefully; B, go first class (which is not as expensive as you think); and C, start smoking at least a month before you leave for Europe, as you'll need to be up to two packs a day to fit in with the locals.
[Sound of bad busker]
Oh, and D, take earplugs.
In Amsterdam, I'm Cash Peters for The Savvy Traveler.
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