Hitting the Rails —

It has been a time-honoured tradition for the North American university grad to leave his sheltered nest and seek the unknown in a distant land.

Unfortunately, tradition also lends way to cliché.

The early twenties, book smart grad is filled with an ambition to add some life experience to his new set of professional letters. He sits in a dockside café eating hometown food with French provincial names as he writes into a leather-bound booklet some deep insights that he assumes are original. He dreams of having a torrid love affair with some local peasant girl but settles instead for swapping email addresses with some Canadians doing the exact same thing. As entertaining as this prospect seems, it was not my wish. I wanted to carve out my own adventure, and in Europe there is no better way than by train.

The European rail system has been for years second-to-none for accessibility, comfort, and, with Rail Europe, affordability. There are a variety of Rail Europe passes for different prices that can get you anywhere you wish in little time and from city center to city center. North Americans must purchase the Rail Europe tickets before departing Europe (you can't get them in Europe) and well in advance of their trip, and in certain countries the passes are valid on ferries and riverboats. The passes are easy to use and, if taken advantage of fully, are cheaper than most other forms of transportation. Best of all is that trains can get you to remote areas that you would otherwise miss. For the budget-minded the night excursions or hotel trains save you hotel rooms so that you awake the next day in a new country!

Copenhagen

I landed in Copenhagen and got immediately roped into the standard tourist sites — Tivoli Gardens , the Royal Palace, etc.



One of the pieces you'll
see at the AGNS.

I saw an incredible exhibit of Danish design at the National Art (Kunst) Gallery, and I took a bike ride through an area called Christiania, an area started by a group of Danes in the 1960s looking for free love, free drugs, and free rent, and it hasn’t changed much since. I was here when I was thirteen years old, staying with a cousin. Since, the government has made an attempt to clean up Christiania by taking out most of the drugs but the general atmosphere remains. Old military buildings painted in bright colours are home to all sorts of the local free thinkers from vagrants to artists to very accomplished architects. The tour ended at the National Library, also called the “Diamond” because of it’s seemingly transparently beautiful aesthetics. It is a remarkable example of the old world class of an European city (half of the building is the original building of the National Library) and the clean lines and simple concepts of modern Danish design that act to seemingly tell a story with nothing but light.

Munich

As wonderful of a city as Copenhagen is, the tourist route begins to lose its luster and the rails are calling me East. I've been to Germany before so I wasn’t interested in staying for too long, but the food and beer would be a shame to miss — yet another perk of train travel. Local trains can always be caught if you simply feel like ending up in a small town outside Munich, ordering a heaping lunch and a few giant steins of local brew and making your way out the same day. Needless to say, between Frankfurt and the Hungarian border I was full, comfortably brewed-up, and happy as the beautiful sites of central Europe flew by.

As can be expected, this type of life can take it’s toll on a person’s ability to remain conscious. By chance, when my body and mind were screaming for sleep, I happened upon a rather quiet train car. In fact, at one point a person was asked to keep the noise down behind me. I thought there was going to be some sort of movie starting that necessitated such silent attention until I realized that some of the train cars are specifically designated for the lazy kind of traveler that I felt like being. They are quiet cars and I will snore my praises of them for years to come.

Budapest

A city full of history, incredible architecture, and beautiful women. As you walk around the city you get a definite stench of the former socialist society coupled with an obvious existence of capitalist growth. The city sits on the banks of the Danube. The Pest side is where you would find a much more built-up city center with malls and shopping areas, not to mention the late night venues.  You can imagine my desire to visit the other side of the river.

The other side of the river is the Buda part of the city (are you picking up on the basis of the name yet?). A little quieter and lush, Buda contains some beautiful homes and sites. The Gelhert Hill, marked by a statue that can be reached by hiking paths, offers an incredible view of the city. I was lucky enough to meet a lovely local named Janka and I was invited to a dinner party. Hungarians are often seen as slightly less personable than some western European counterparts. This can be chalked up to a very dry sense of humour. I can attest, however, that this is not the case at all. After a great, home-cooked meal and a few cocktails in a quaint apartment in the hills filled with great people, including Zigga (who I knew for a few days and offered me a lift to the train station), and of course the beautiful Janka; I would say that kindness and generosity are staples in the social diet of Hungarians. They also have an uncanny ability to have a good time.




Take the plunge in Budapest
to soothe the soul.

Again, some relaxation is in order after seeing so many sites.

Budapest is known universally for the natural hot springs. An afternoon in the Gelhert Hotel’s baths sets any aching muscle or mind at ease. For a small fee (about $6CND) a tense traveler sits in tepid water (lovingly referred to as soup broth by a Mexican friend named Sonny) until serious consideration must be given to the extent of relaxation that the human body can endure prior to total release of gastric control. If you’re slightly more comfortable with yourself and others around you there is also the warmer baths in the single sex areas where many of the locals are free to enjoy the baths without the hindrance of a bathing suit. Call me Canadian, but I think I can stand the cooler water!

Jump Onboard To . . .

Paris

A city where the standard tourist fare is still pretty good. With only two days to spend here, the decision was made to plan on seeing nothing but the Eiffel Tower and spend the rest of the time just walking around. But the tower we did in style; a few baguettes, a few bottles of wine (each), and some cheese that, back home would fetch a king’s ransom, but here cost us next to nothing. The Tower by day is awash with tourists and heavily armed guards. At night it is a different story. It is comforting to see that the local people enjoy their culture as much as visitors do. Just before sunset the lawns leading up to the Tower are occupied by locals sporting an arsenal of treats very similar to our own. Within hours, the lot of us, including a native New Yorker named Heather, who I met on a train in the French countryside, were surrounded by people playing soccer, having hen parties, and generally getting nothing short of pissed. It is the modern-day La Bohemé. It is wild. It is classy. It is good.

Amsterdam

We were scheduled for three days. Looking back, we seemed to have spent a week just on that first night. An early morning train from Paris turned out to be one of the most comfortable yet. Again, Rail Europe saved us loads of worry. I did pay a few Euros for a reserved, upgraded seat, which meant I was able to close my eyes as the northern countryside of France whizzed by and not worry about any mid-trip seat changes. A short wake up in Brussels to show tickets is the only memory before rolling into the central Amsterdam station.


Get Your Outdoor Gear HereAfter checking into our hostel I went out to find food. I ended up with dinner on an outdoor patio with both a younger local man and a rather elderly, ex-pat Englishman, and we speak about places to go in town. Apparently, the consensus is clear: young and old alike suggest trying my hand at the local bars.

In a city with foreign signs and more canals that Venice, landmarks are few and far between. I am suddenly in the middle of the red light district. I recall thinking: “That’s a lot of red lights . . . hey, that one’s got her own theme music . . . ", and, “What kind of weirdo would bring his kids here?” I passed by a very entertaining barker trying to drum up business for a sex show.

On my last legs and full of baked goods I found the hostel and retired to a basement room to relax and play guitar. I am suddenly joined by two lovely American girls who, it turns out have two of the most soulful voices I have ever had the pleasure of hearing live. Their names are Heather and Nina and between the three of us we begin to attract a crowd. consisting of other tourists and some locals, one of whom had been a professional busker and is convinced to jam a little and explain some of the local laws. In general, laws in Amsterdam are very similar to most Western countries (with the obvious exception of legalized marijuana and prostitution), but are simply a little more relaxed . . . I wonder why? The hostel is called the Flying Pig and is a definite must stay for students when in the Dam.

I’m not about to suggest that what I’ve shown here is a first. It has probably been done before. Nor would I suggest that that it is an extreme case of European travel experience, but a multi-country adventure which can be accomplished quite nicely with Rail Europe. In fact, due to the large amount of real estate covered I’ve only touched the surface of the experiential possibilities with the use of a Rail Europe Pass. In a time where information transfer and faster, cheaper travel is at our fingertips, it is good to be reminded of how far away we can still get just by hopping on a train.

The Flying Pig Hostel is found at
www.europefamoushostels.com and the soul singers of the Amsterdam hostel can be found at www.ninajosette.com.

Hotel Trains -

These are trains which offer even more service and comfort than regular night-trains; as if you were traveling in a hotel. These trains include:
  • Artesia de Nuit (France, Italy)
  • Berlin Night Express (Sweden, Germany)
  • CityNightLine (Germany, Austria, Switzerland)
  • DB Nachtzug (Germany, Denmark)
  • Hotel Train Lusitania (Spain, Portugal)
  • Elipsos (Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland)

Rail Europe offers you the opportunity to buy directly from the source at www.raileurope.com  You can now order all Rail Europe Passes online.

— By David Lazzarino, Toronto, Canada Correspondent.

Independent Travellers Europe by Rail 2005: The Inter-Railer's and Eurailer's Guide

Independent Travellers Europe by Rail 2005: The Inter-Railer's and Eurailer's Guide

Jetsetters Magazine recommendation.