Travel

The Journey Through Europe by Rail

This post was written by Manveen Maan

LITTLE DID MANVEEN MAAN REALISE THAT A TRAIN-BASED TRIP AROUND EUROPE WOULD BE MORE INSIGHTFUL AND FASCINATING THAN SHE COULD HAVE EVER IMAGINED.

“Excuse me, do you want to switch seats?”

I open my eyes, wipe the drool from the side of my mouth, and stare at the Javier Bardem lookalike, seated next to me, who peers at me enquiringly.

“It seems you’re quite tired, maybe it’s better for you to lean on the window,” he says, gathering his laptop and belongings. How does he know I’m tired? Oh right, because I fell asleep on him. Apologising profusely, I trade places with my neighbour and pause to admire the beauty of the rugged Spanish coastline passing me by out the window, before falling back into a deep slumber somewhere between Valencia and Barcelona. And this – waking up at dawn to a new, stunning vista after a great night out – was to be the recurring theme of my trip.

EUROPE BECKONS

After having lived in Sydney for a decade, I decided it was time to embark on travel through the Continent – a rite of passage for every young Aussie. Having already explored significant parts of the US and Asia, Europe seemed a tad more exciting, mainly because travelling a few hours was all it took to move from one country to another. The same distance in New South Wales wouldn’t even get me out of the state.

After extensive research, I decided travelling by train would be the most appropriate form of transportation. Most people’s rationale behind this would be to enjoy the scenic wonders of a foreign land. My decision, however, was motivated by trains offering the ability to arrive in the heart of each city and save on airport travel time and associated costs. Call me a penny-pincher, but when you’re spending only three to four days (on average) in each city, time is of the essence.

As I am lucky enough to have friends in various countries, I planned my trip around the different cities where I would be able to crash on someone’s couch for a few days, resulting in a spiderweb-like path through towns all over Europe. The thought of organising a trip that stretched through more than ten countries was enough to give me palpitations but, luckily, there was an antidote to all my anxiety: Eurail.

TRAIN FAIRY GODMOTHER

Eurail is a co-operation of 30 European Railway companies and shipping lines and offers rail passes to non-European residents who are looking to travel by train. After a quick look at the website and deducing that a ten-trip Global Pass (valid for 23 countries) would suit me best, I popped down to my nearest travel agent to book. As an added bonus, I managed to squeeze in a youth discount – always a win when travelling on a budget!

A week later, I was the happy recipient of confirmed train tickets complete with seat numbers (the pass doesn’t guarantee a seat of choice, just a space on the train), and thus followed a month of frantic packing before boarding the 22hour flight across the globe with three pals.

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Eurail tickets do not cover trains in the UK (my point of arrival in Europe), so when it was time for the Paris to Amsterdam leg, we were thrilled to get that first stamp in our Eurail passports. Unfortunately, the initial euphoria took a hit when we encountered a rather grumpy French conductor who informed us that we had failed to validate our Eurail passes before commencing the journey, prompting a charge of twenty Euros! After much negotiation we managed to wrangle our way out of the fine and celebrated our achievement by happily investing the salvaged money in ham and cheese baguettes.

EUROPEAN CHARM

Whenever I think of travel, I’m always reminded that it is the people and not the place that makes the whole experience special. In the case of my trip, nothing could ring truer. Every train journey featured at least one interesting person – from the Brazilian IT professional who let us watch movies on his laptop, to the Kiwi DJ who shared his train snacks; from the German businessman who saved our seats from pushy tourists, to the American soldier who recounted tales of her deployment in Afghanistan. I never met more interesting people than the ones I encountered along the journey I took.

The most defining feature of the European trip was the array of scrumptious goodies we had the privilege of sampling. I returned home with a newfound love for stroopwafels (syrup-filled Dutch pancakes), jamon sandwiches (cured Spanish ham), salami focaccias doused in ajvar (a Serbian relish made from red bell peppers, eggplant, and garlic) and cacao (German hot chocolate that, for some reason, tastes better than all other hot chocolates).

SILVER LININGS

As train travel does not feature prominently in a nation as vast as Australia, it came as no surprise that every time our phones beeped (signalling the entry to a new country), we’d squeal with delight, much to the annoyance of fellow travellers. Similarly, upon boarding our train in Zurich, we marvelled at the futuristic design of the carriage, which was sleek and came equipped with flat screen TVs and luxurious seats.

Of course, travelling always comes with its fair share of hairy moments, but never without a silver lining. Our train from Berlin to Prague was delayed by over two hours, resulting in everyone having to squeez on the next scheduled train to the Czech capital. Needless to say, after a massive night out and two hours of sleep, fighting other disgruntled passengers for a seat on the five-hour journey was not a highlight of our trip, but somehow we succeeded in not only finding a seat for ourselves, but securing ones in the first class berth! Similarly, when the air-conditioning went bust on the train to Rome, I found a spot between carriages to escape the stifling conditions inside and was soon joined by a lovely young attendant who brought out some iced tea (on the house) and gave me the lowdown on the best gelato in the city. It is often said that travel is the only thing that you buy that will eventually make you richer. I wholeheartedly believe this, and am sure that all the people I encountered along the way would vehemently agree. Henry Miller described this perfectly when he said: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things” – a testament to the raw beauty of the wanderlust experience.

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There are four types of Eurail Passes available. The costs, timeframes, and journey limits vary. Visit www.eurail.com for more information.

To purchase Eurail Passes in Malaysia, contact Pacific World Travel by email on [email protected] pacificworld.travel or by phone on 03.2141 3080. Visit www.pwtmal.com.my to locate the nearest office.

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Source: The Expat November 2012

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