stats
globeinteractive.com: Making the Business of Life Easier

   Finance globeinvestor   Careers globecareers.workopolis Subscribe to The Globe
The Globe and Mail /globeandmail.com
Home | Business | National | Int'l | Sports | Columnists | The Arts | Tech | Travel | TV | Wheels
space


Search

space
  This site         Tips

  
space
  The Web Google
space
   space



space

  Where to Find It


Breaking News
  Home Page

  Report on Business

  Sports

  Technology

space
Subscribe to The Globe

Shop at our Globe Store


Print Edition
  Front Page

  Report on Business

  National

  International

  Sports

  Arts & Entertainment

  Editorials

  Columnists

   Headline Index

 Other Sections
  Appointments

  Births & Deaths

  Books

  Classifieds

  Comment

  Education

  Environment

  Facts & Arguments

  Focus

  Health

  Obituaries

  Real Estate

  Review

  Science

  Style

  Technology

  Travel

  Wheels

 Leisure
  Cartoon

  Crosswords

  Food & Dining

  Golf

  Horoscopes

  Movies

  Online Personals

  TV Listings/News

 Specials & Series
  All Reports...

space

Services
   Where to Find It
 A quick guide to what's available on the site

 Newspaper
  Advertise

  Corrections

  Customer Service

  Help & Contact Us

  Reprints

  Subscriptions

 Web Site
  Advertise

  E-Mail Newsletters

  Free Headlines

  Globe Store New

  Help & Contact Us

  Make Us Home

  Mobile New

  Press Room

  Privacy Policy

  Terms & Conditions


GiveLife.ca

    

PRINT EDITION
Renewing the romance of rail travel
space
Drained of literary notions, or the vagabond charm of gap-year backpackers, John Semley writes that travelling by train in Europe still has plenty to offer
space
By JOHN SEMLEY
Special to The Globe and Mail
  
  

Email this article Print this article
Saturday, July 13, 2019 – Page P14

Somewhere between Cologne and Frankfurt, as I sat slumped in the back of a second-class car, earbuds crammed in tight to filter out the barking of a group of loud men who, with their bad tattoos and too-tight Lacoste T-shirts - all hammered on Beck's at 10 a.m. - fully fit the archetype of the "English soccer hooligan," I arrive at a dispiriting realization: My fantasies of European train travel aren't likely to come true any time soon.

Apologies to Patricia Highsmith and Agatha Christie, and good old Graham Greene. There will be no high-society heists. No sordid affairs. No tastefully comported sociopathic playboys beguiling me into committing homicide. No intrigues of any kind.

Drained of such archly literary, woefully romantic notions, train travel in Europe still offers something else: practicality. And maybe that's enough.

Piqued by a particularly tantalizing Black Friday/Cyber Monday bargain that effectively halved the price of select Eurail passes, my partner and I hatched a plan to see Europe, or at least a solid swath, by train. We booked a flight into Paris and, two-weeksand-change later, a return flight from Krakow, Poland. In between, we'd cast our fates to the four winds. Sort of.

These particular passes (the Adult Saver; $359 Canadian apiece, with the massive discount; the regular price would have been $718) permitted five "travel" days within a one-month period. As defined by Eurail, an organization owned by some 35 European railway and shipping concerns with the express aim of marketing European rail travel to non-Europeans, a "travel day" is pretty much what it sounds like: an unlimited day of travel aboard however-many trains, through however-many countries. So, the day we travelled from Paris to Cologne, Germany, with an afternoon stopover in Brussels (to glug overproof beer, drag fatted fries through thick mayo and make the requisite pilgrimage to the city's famous bronze of a small boy urinating eternally), counted as one day, despite the multiple trains and connections. (That most train depots we passed through had daily luggagestorage options, for as cheap as a few euros, made stashing bags and puttering around a city on a stopover that much easier.)

It's a good system. With some research, anyway. Cost-benefit-wise, the Eurail pass becomes more valuable in countries where train tickets snagged day-of can be relatively expensive (such as Germany) and proves relatively useless in places where highspeed trains demand additional reservations (such as France or Belgium or the Netherlands), effectively foiling the whole fly-by-the-seat-of-one'spants appeal. Also, in the very process of flashing a Eurail pass to an on-board fare inspector, one risks exposing oneself as a tourist, if that's a concern.

Trains were, for the longest time, the way to get around Europe. Booking a one-way airline ticket between cities was ultraluxe, Old Money stuff. Like: You might as well charter a zeppelin.

But air travel has changed.

The rise of zero-frills low-cost carriers (LCCs) has made intraregional travel vastly more accessible. A recent report prepared by the Centre for Aviation, a travel data hub, showed that the global LCC fleet has doubled in size over the past decade (from 2,900 to 6,000 aircraft), with Europe having the highest penetration rate.

This is due to the increasing capacity of both "legacy" LCCs (Ryanair, easyJet, Eurowings) and newer, zaniernamed arrivals (Wizz Air, SkyUp, French Bee). These airlines have expanded the possibilities of European travel, at a drastically lower price point. When, a few years ago, a friend in Britain agreed to meet me in Prague for a few days, she made arrangements with all the nonchalance of someone planning a lunch date two towns over.

Continent-hopping budget flights, combined with ultrafast high-speed trains, also spelled curtains for opulent rail travel. When the old-school Orient Express made its final Paris-toIstanbul journey in 2009, it was declared, by NPR, "a victim of high-speed trains and cut-rate airlines." Likewise, Deutsche Bahn's 2015 decision to scrap overnight sleeper trains out of Berlin was motivated by a 1.3-billion ($1.9-billion) decline in profits, which the operator attributed to consumer preference for short-haul flights.

Yet, these flights, for all their apparent convenience, are beset by their own problems: little-to-zilch in the way of in-flight amenities, checkedbaggage fees that effectively double the cost of tickets, scammy up-charges on everything from a bottle of water to an oversized carry-on (which might well be a bag deemed regulation size on a different carrier) and routes to major capitals that, in actuality, land well outside that capital, necessitating an expensive cab or several publictransit transfers. There's also the more general hassle of getting to an airport, passing through security etc., which can itself turn a swift 55-minute flight into a four-hour affair.

Trains, while perhaps all but drained of the lavishness of some long-bygone era, offer comparatively more in the way of convenience: comfortable seating, (relatively) wellstocked bars, tables at which one can fritter away a few hours learning the rules of skat or some other regional card game. Best of all, trains usually deliver voyagers smack in historic city centres, allowing wayfaring passengers to hop off and carry on their gallivanting, with little in the way of inconvenient rigmarole.

There's also the easygoing pleasure of train travel itself, the appeal of which extends well beyond Old World locomotive fetishists. Sat sunken into the jammy red plush of a Thalys train, pulling out of Paris's Gare du Nord en route to Bruxelles-Midi, it is undeniably pleasant to watch the City of Light recede and soon give way to what Edith Wharton described as "the sober disciplined landscape which the traveller's memory is apt to describe as distinctively French."

Even at speeds approaching 300 kilometres an hour, the Intercity-Express train connecting Cologne, along the banks of the Rhine, to Munich, where Bavarians in lederhosen and peasant dresses celebrated May Day framed by the snow-capped Alps fuzzy in the distance, never felt rushed; the ripening springtime canola crops a sunny, expressionist blur against the deep-green farmlands. And unlike airplanes, trains elevate travel into what Paul Theroux called "a continuous vision ... a succession of memorable images across a curved Earth." One feels ferried not merely from one discrete place to another, as on an airplane, but carried between these places. Cities, and whole nations, separated by language, culture, history and conflict, seem bound together by a vast webbing of wood and steel.

There may not have been some mysterious chap luring me into some convoluted plot to ferry a mysterious briefcase for him, or some meaty Turk offering me a pinch from his gilded snuffbox. But when, upon our return home, I was asked for the most memorable day of the fortnight abroad, my mind kept settling on an afternoon ride aboard the Berlin-Warsaw Express, where my partner and I split from our compartment and installed ourselves in the bar car, whiling away 6½ hours playing war and gin rummy while draining about as many bottles of stiff, reasonably priced Polish beer as the Earth rumbled underneath us.

Romance of a less literary sort, more everyday sort, perhaps. But I'll hold it close all the same.

Associated Graphic

Travelling by train in Europe still has its charms, whether it is heading out for an adventure from Cologne, Germany, top, or heading on a historical train tour of England starting at London's Paddington Station, above.


Huh? How did I get here?
Return to Main Rex_Murphy Page
Subscribe to
The Globe and Mail
 

Email this article Print this article

space  Advertisement
space

Need CPR for your RSP? Check your portfolio’s pulse and lower yours by improving the overall health of your investments. Click here.

Advertisement

7-Day Site Search
    

Breaking News



Today's Weather


Inside

Rick Salutin
Merrily marching
off to war
Roy MacGregor
Duct tape might hold
when panic strikes


Editorial
Where Manley is going with his first budget




space

Columnists



For a columnist's most recent stories, click on their name below.

 National


Roy MacGregor arrow
This Country
space
Jeffrey Simpson arrow
The Nation
space
Margaret Wente arrow
Counterpoint
space
Hugh Winsor  arrow
The Power Game
space
 Business


Rob Carrick arrow
Personal Finance
space
Drew Fagan arrow
The Big Picture
space
Mathew Ingram arrow
space
Brent Jang arrow
Business West
space
Brian Milner arrow
Taking Stock
space
Eric Reguly arrow
To The Point
space
Andrew Willis arrow
Streetwise
space
 Sports


Stephen Brunt arrow
The Game
space
Eric Duhatschek arrow
space
Allan Maki arrow
space
William Houston arrow
Truth & Rumours
space
Lorne Rubenstein arrow
Golf
space
 The Arts


John Doyle arrow
Television
space
John MacLachlan Gray arrow
Gray's Anatomy
space
David Macfarlane arrow
Cheap Seats
space
Johanna Schneller arrow
Moviegoer
space
 Comment


Murray Campbell arrow
Ontario Politics
space
Lysiane Gagnon arrow
Inside Quebec
space
Marcus Gee arrow
The World
space
William Johnson arrow
Pit Bill
space
Paul Knox arrow
Worldbeat
space
Heather Mallick arrow
As If
space
Leah McLaren arrow
Generation Why
space
Rex Murphy arrow
Japes of Wrath
space
Rick Salutin arrow
On The Other Hand
space
Paul Sullivan arrow
The West
space
William Thorsell arrow
space





Home | Business | National | Int'l | Sports | Columnists | The Arts | Tech | Travel | TV | Wheels
space

© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Help & Contact Us | Back to the top of this page