Europe: Train of thought

By Pamela Wade

Pamela Wade discovers the joys of life both inside and outside her carriage

A passenger waits as a Eurostar train arrives at Ebbsfleet, Kent, England. Photo / Bloomberg
A passenger waits as a Eurostar train arrives at Ebbsfleet, Kent, England. Photo / Bloomberg

In a train versus plane debate, sleep scores the winning point. When you're travelling by air, one of your main preoccupations - other than not falling out of the sky, of course - is managing to get some sleep so you can begin your holiday feeling refreshed.

Or, at least, not so spaced out that you don't quite know where you are or what time it is. On a train journey, however, the last thing you want to do is sleep, because you might miss something.

Your holiday begins when you climb on board: you're not in some strange limbo, unplugged and unconnected, you're actually part of real life in whatever country you're travelling through, and there's always something to look at and be interested in.

Also, the chances of your plunging 30,000 feet to a fiery death are virtually nil.

On a trip around Europe, from France to England and then all the way to Hungary, I was never bored, cramped or confused about the time, and didn't queue once.

Instead, I lounged in comfort in the sun, got up to wander about whenever I felt like it, took photos, was kept well-fed and watered, and endlessly watched the real-life movie outside the window, populated by actual people, some of whom got on the train and sat near enough for me to observe them closely as they behaved in an authentically French or German or Hungarian manner.

It was fascinating. It was also deeply relaxing, whether I was travelling in first class on the Eurostar with complimentary trolley meal service and dinky bottles of wine that made the experience so much like flying that it felt strange to have no seat belt; or stuttering through the suburbs on a French commuter train; or flashing past the scenery at up to 300km/h on a TGV.

It was a chance to explore the depths of my iPod, to think both deep and shallow thoughts, and even to make contact with the locals, some of whom were kind enough to help me manhandle my embarrassingly huge suitcase.

There were fields of bright yellow canola, woods and farms and villages, little onion-domed churches, rivers with barges and locks - and also factories, Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks, graffiti on embankments and the back sides of cities.

It was the perfect introduction to European life, and the last thing I wanted to do, as it was all laid out before me, was miss it by sleeping.

Tips for Europe by rail

From packing to racing for that 11.23, planning is the key.

1. Travel light. Porters unfortunately only exist these days in Agatha Christie novels: you'll have to shift your suitcase yourself, on and off the trains, up and down flights of steps between platforms and along carriages to where there might be, if you're lucky, an area to leave it at the end.

This will be out of your sight so, for peace of mind, take a smaller bag that you can stow overhead.

2. For travel around Europe, get a Eurail Pass. There are four types that are individually customisable according to your needs, enabling discounted travel through 22 countries on many types of trains.

They must be purchased before arrival, and it's wise to pre-book your most important journeys.

3. Note that if you're going from Europe to Britain or vice versa, you'll need a separate ticket for the Eurostar between London and Paris or Brussels.

4. Spend many happy hours clicking your way around the timetables on the Rail Europe website, fitting your trip together while keeping in mind such challenges as time zones, public holidays and railway stations being on opposite sides of a city.

Or you can talk to a human at Rail Plus, and have the whole messy business taken out of your hands and turned into a proper itinerary like magic.

5. When all the planning is done and you're at your first railway station with your small bag and your validated pass and list of bookings in your pocket, do two things: take in a deep, excited breath as you begin what will be a fascinating journey, and check your watch. It's not just in Germany that 11.23 departures leave on the dot of 11.23: it's everywhere.

CHECKLIST

Rail Europe offers the widest selection of European rail products across 22 countries and 25,000 destinations on over 11,000 routes. For a 15-day Eurail Global Pass, prices start from $746, while a Eurostar ticket between London and Paris starts from $131. For more information, prices and deals, visit www.raileurope.co.nz.

For personal help with tickets and bookings at the end of a telephone, call Rail Plus on 09 377 5415 or go to www.railplus.co.nz.

* Pamela Wade rode the rails with assistance from Rail Europe.

- NZ Herald

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