Saturday, 30 August 2014

Train travel in Europe

Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone.

Philip Larkin – ‘The Whitsun Weddings’

Like many of my fellow students, I spent my summer holidays travelling by train, covering vast distances crossing Europe. On some journeys I ‘inter railed’ through Italy, France and Spain. On another, I endured a three day journey from Victoria Station to Istanbul, via German guest workers, intimidating Bulgarian border guards, and a very nice Greek lady who tried in vain to persuade me to smuggle something deeply dubious for her. I was awoken by drunks, a man unforgettable for his appalling foot odor, and random baggage falling from luggage racks. I discovered that West Berlin was (in those far off days) something of an island in a sea of Communist walls and bad –tempered sausage sellers, and that after sitting on my back pack for an entire wakeful night, swaying in time with the undulating corridor outside a packed carriage, there was no better meal to be found than from an early morning, fragrant bakery selling off yesterday’s fare. Dizzy with sleeplessness, a handful of onion bread and a cup of scalding coffee set me up for the day ahead.

Over time, travelling changed; there was a little more money and flights became cheaper, and I got a car. Then the only train I took was to commute into London, and that was strictly eyes down, absorbed in my book, never recognising any one of my fellow commuters who must have got on the same train as me for years on end.

After years of cars and ‘planes, I’ve started travelling by train once more. We try to limit the amount we fly these days, so our European holidays are often started on the Eurostar. And there is something utterly seductive and timeless about the glass temple-like roof at St Pancras, giving the walk along the platform and the groaning and grunting of the train as it waits to depart that uniquely muffled quality that echoes down the years, even centuries. There are the same harried families as there have always been, too much baggage and too few hands, searching for the right carriage, and the anticipation of the journey and holiday to come.

Travelling long-distance by train has a unique feel to it. It is comfortable, inherently leisurely and provides constant ‘in-flight’ amusement. You can settle in, walk about; you have space, fresh air and views. Last summer we went to Italy; by mid-afternoon we were passing Lyon and within 12 reasonably relaxing hours of leaving our front door we were sitting outside a restaurant on the gracious streets of Turin, sipping wine and watching the world pass. En route we had watched the French countryside roll by, rivers and hills giving way to escarpments and snow capped peaks. I will never forget climbing over the Alps in the train, the majesty of the mountains within touching distance through the window as France gave way to Italy.

We have been to Amsterdam, Paris and Lille, packs on backs and self-contained. No lining up at the carousel to reclaim luggage, no schlep from some distant airport to the town centre. The train takes you to the heart of where you want to go and you walk from your carriage to the main street within minutes.

We plan our route with help from a great website, The Man in Seat 61 ( a massive resource put together by Buckinghamshire man, Mark Smith. Practical and clear, it steers your through the various train networks of the world. So far, we have only used the European section of it – but in future, who knows?

Train travel is not perfect – there have been dogs on the line, broken signals, nail-biting transfers and underground waits. But compared to the sweaty factories that are airports, travelling by train gets my vote every time.

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