With fond memories of Italy’s cappuccino, France’s pastries, Spain’s tapas, Germany’s wurst, Belgium’s beer (the Czechs think their beer is better, but it isn’t), and, most of all, the trains, we decided we would enjoy revisiting Europe. As veteran Medicare recipients, we both realized there weren’t many more years when we would likely to be able to enjoy extended independent overseas travel, so we didn’t want to put it off another year.
During our early visits 20 years ago, we each carried a backpack with everything required for three months away from home. Each afternoon we would hop off a train and wander through town looking for a place to spend the night. On subsequent trips one of us would remain in the train station with the packs while the other searched for a place to stay. Eventually one of us (guess which) purchased luggage with wheels so as to not have to lug a backpack all summer.
On the most recent trip both of us had given up the backpacks for rolling luggage small enough to qualify as airline carry-ons. In addition, we took along a netbook computer to check the weather forecast and search for hotels within walking distance of the train stations in towns where we intended to stop for the night. Rather than getting off the train whenever the desire struck, we planned a day or two ahead to ensure we had a room. You get the picture; as a concession to aging, we have become less adventurous and more willing to pay for better overnight accommodations. As an example, in Alicante, Spain, four years ago, we paid 35 euros a night to stay in a dump. During this summer’s stay in the same city, we paid nearly double that for a four-star hotel. The times they are a changin’.
Because we planned to travel exclusively by train, our best option was a three-month Eurail Global Saver Pass that covers unlimited first-class rail travel through most of Europe. When two or more adults travel together a Saver Pass offers a 15 percent discount compared to the regular Eurail Global Pass. During the three-month trip, during which we were on trains nearly every day, we visited 20 countries with overnight stays in 55 different cities, towns, and villages. We saw a lot, learned much, enjoyed some great food, met many interesting individuals, and returned home in a state of senior exhaustion.
The trip started and ended in Amsterdam, in part, due to the airport’s excellent rail connections, but also because it offered the least expensive airline ticket. With a departure in late June and return in late September, our preference would have been to fly to a northern European city and return from a southern city such as Barcelona, Madrid, or Rome. However, these flights were considerably more expensive. In any case, the arrival and departure cities weren’t a big deal because the Eurail pass allowed us to return to Amsterdam at no expense other than a couple of days train travel which we would have been doing anyway.
We had no particular plan or schedule other than to ride a lot of trains, travel in areas where the weather was favorable, experience a broad swath of Europe, and enjoy the summer. During the trip, we rode a wide variety of trains including an Austrian Railjet from Munich to Budapest. In August, we boarded a 6 p.m. train in Stockholm and rode 19 hours northwest to Narvik, Norway, a port city 140 miles inside the Arctic Circle. We paid for a sleeping compartment which came with a breakfast consisting of a box of juice, a cup of bad coffee, and something resembling a burrito with reindeer meat. In September, we rode a night train from Madrid to Paris and the next morning hopped a German ICE to Frankfurt.
Over a three-day period, we rode a series of three trains from Stockholm, Sweden, to Stuttgart, Germany, with overnight stops in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Lubeck, Germany. At one point during this trip, they drove our train onto a ship that ferried it, along with an assortment of cars and trucks, across the 11-mile strait between Denmark and Germany. Other rail trips included a ride north along Spain’s Mediterranean Coast, crisscrossing Switzerland several times, and scenic rides through the mountains between Munich and Venice and between Spiez, Switzerland and Milan. Our fastest train was a Spanish AVE that hit 182 miles per hour on a trip from Barcelona to Madrid. An Italian train from Milan to Florence tooled along at 180 mph. Somewhat slower, but perhaps even more impressive was the Arlanda Express that travels up to 120 mph on the 23-mile journey between Stockholm’s central train station and the city’s airport. It’s a quick trip.
One of the great delights of European train travel is the opportunity to meet interesting people. On a trip from Budapest to Prague, we enjoyed a conversation about the history of Europe while traveling with a university administrator raised in New Zealand and now living in Hanoi. The conversation, a relatively one-sided affair by both necessity and choice, consisted of us asking questions and listening to his answers. On a train in Denmark, we sat across from a college professor who talked with us about his country’s taxation, educational structure, and medical system. During a train trip in Slovakia, we shared a compartment with the female business manager for a musical group based in Bratislava. For over an hour, we discussed music, education, and life in Slovakia. On a train to Vienna, we sat near an executive of German industrial giant, Siemens, who discussed a variety of topics ranging from Austrian geography to how his firm is evolving. On a Swiss train, we sat across from a Norwegian woman employed by the United Nations who for 16 years has traveled the world helping coordinate disaster relief. And on it went with unusual individuals and interesting conversations.
One of our lasting memories is of a conversation in the Czech Republic with an older Czech college student who had recently been hospitalized for several months and was attempting to discover his place in life. We realized he spoke English when we heard him singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” while sitting beside us. During our subsequent conversation, we mentioned that we were on a three-month rail trip through Europe without reservations or even much of a plan of where we would head the following day. His comment was, “I hope this doesn’t offend you, but I am so happy to see someone your age traveling like this.”
David and Kay Scott reside in Valdosta and are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot).