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Riding the Rails in Europe

Remember the wondrous days of slumming it through Europe? You'd throw all your important worldly possessions into a backpack (important possessions at the time being a toothbrush and a couple pairs of shorts) then hop a train, never knowing where you might end up or who you might meet? Well, The Savvy Traveler's Cash Peters thinks those days don't necessarily have to be over. You can still have the romance of the rails now that you're all grown up...well, sort of.

Riding the Rails in Europe
by Cash Peters

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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.

Prchlik: "When you're on the train, for better or for worse, whatever kind of experience you have, is interfacing with the the local population. In fact, by train is the medium where you have to have to interact with the locals."

at the station

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.

Planthof: "Tourists like to have a taste of the country by traveling as well. Once you're above the clouds in a plane, the clouds are everywhere the same, but the countryside and the houses and everything is different everywhere.

Cash: "Yeah, but Holland actually is a very flat country. It's not like you're seeing vast lakes and mountains. If you were to take the first hundred yards and just keep on repeating it, it's the same."

Planthof: "Yeah, you don't have to look for four hours through the window what the countryside is like. It doesn't have to be spectacular."

Cash: "But I'm looking for spectacular. I want spectacular!"

Planthof: "Then, well...take a plane!"

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...

[Good busker]

....to the ones you give you tinnitis.

[Bad busker]

at the station

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.

Prchlik: "Well, you did travel in summertime, so there's enormous amounts of youth who are on school holidays who don't own a car, or for that matter may not even be old enough to drive a car. So in summertime you will see a lot more youth using the trains. In general -- we're about the same age..."

Cash: "I wouldn't necessarily say that! [Prchlik laughs] You're old enough to be my father!"

Prchlik: "In my travels in Europe, I don't really notice being particularly aged."

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.


Prchlik: "Only in first class we have private sleepers. In second class what you have are couchettes, which is a shared, sort of dormitory-style kind of sleeping arrangement."

Cash: "And you're sharing with 12-year-old backpackers."

Prchlik: "Yeah, you have six people in a room and you don't know who's going to be in there. It's mixed sexes and can be a nice, interesting experience. It can also be an unfortunate sleeping arrangement."

Cash: "I was praying for nuns. I was just praying for nuns."

Prchlik: "Well, I'm sure that the nuns would be pleased to know you were praying."

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.

Tour Guide: "Every weekend, we get thousands of British people. They come over; they have a package deal. Those people, they behave themselves like animals."

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:


Cash: "Am I safe on Italian trains?"

Scaffardi: [Pause] "Yes, yes, yes."

Cash: "You had to think about it, though, didn't you? You weren't sure."

Scaffardi: "It depends on where you travel and at what time. If you travel by night, second class, there are drug addicts sometimes that can rob you with a knife or with a...what do you call it...a syringe."

Prchlik: "The chances of anything happening like that are so miniscule that I would say that it's much more dangerous to cross the street. And in fact, the beauty of being an American is that you can go almost anywhere in the world and it's safer than it was at home."

Scaffardi: "Basically, they are safe."

Cash: "And are they better or worse than the rest of Europe?"

Scaffardi: "Umm...I think..."

Cash: [Whispering] "Say better, say better."

Scaffardi: "I think...yeah, I think that they are better."

Cash: "And they run on time?"

Scaffardi: "They run on time? Not always. Not always."

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.

[Couple arguing]

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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