Ride the European Rails for Flexibility, Comfort and Adventure…
but do pack light!
Pat Middleton, Photos © Rich Middleton and may not be used with permission of
a Mosel/Rhine River riverboat cruise opened up the possibility of a
long-envisioned hike in Southern France after debarking in Nuremberg, the
potential of a European rail journey beckoned!
We were not new to the rails, having begun our travel life with a
6-week Eurail pass some 37 years ago. Since then, we had also sampled rail
travel in North America on Amtrak, Via Rail in Canada, the Panama Coastal
Railroad, and Alaska Rail. For us, train travel meant independence,
flexibility, safety, and the companionship of the local culture we were
traveling to experience!
internet search produced several agencies which might provide tickets,
itineraries, and a varying degree of information on exactly how to plan our
European trip. We settled on www.Eurail.com
for advice about how to accomplish the trip with the right combination of pass
options. They supplied our tickets, emailed us itineraries, and recommended
reservations they thought might be necessary for our route.
first reason for choosing www.Eurail.com
was nostalgic ... we had traveled on a 6-week Eurail
first excursion overseas... long before internet and email were even imagined.
More importantly, we found our
be spot-on when it came to staying in touch by email and following through on
our short-notice travel needs. Although the agency is located in Europe they
had our passes delivered by Express Mail within two business days.
Our choice for travel was the 1st class, 2-month/10 day Global
Pass. It would allow almost unlimited flexibility as we could travel in 21
countries. We found 1st class a reasonably-priced option. Our other
option might have been a 15 day/4-trip pass good for two countries for about
1/2 the price of the Global Pass. In the end, the Global Pass allowed us to
travel through Switzerland as well as Germany and France. Plus we only used 4
of the possible 10 uses. So if we can get back in the next two months, hey! We
can still use our passes!
travel plans indicated that we would arrive Frankfurt, Germany, by plane and
depart two weeks later from Toulouse, in Southern France. We estimated we
would need the rails to make four transfers during that time frame… From the
Frankfurt airport to our boat in Trier, Germany. From Nuremberg, Germany,
where we debarked our boat, to Toulouse, from Toulouse to tiny Castillon de
Couserans, and then back from Castillon de Couserans to Toulouse.
fact, there were numerous glitches to our state-side air travel plans and the
prospect of using Europe’s finely honed and immensely flexible rail
transportation system was a great source of comfort as all flights out of the
Midwest were cancelled for more than 24 hours because of spring storms!
Because of the rail pass, however, we felt confident that no
matter where they put us down in Europe… just get us to Brussels, Paris, or
Holland we pleaded, we can take the train from most anywhere to get
to our boat.
By the time we arrived at the Frankfurt airport, our boat was 1.5 days (or 5
hours by train!) ahead of us in the tiny community of Zell. The Frankfurt
Bahnhof or train station is located right at the arrivals area of the airport.
There, as at every other train station we passed through, English speaking
staff members helped us by develop and interpret revised itineraries, and,
get on the right train platforms, etc.
For our journey to Zell, as well as our post-cruise rail journey
to tiny Castillon de Couserans in the French Midi-Pyrenees, the itinerary
would include a steady series of transfers with about a 10 minute interval
between transfers, and then a transfer by autobus to our final village
destination. All bus transfers were included in our rail pass.
So the trains proved flexible indeed, but we needed to do our part
and be able to handle our own luggage efficiently. By chance, we had packed
perfectly… l small roller suitcase and a day-pack. This is exactly how the
Europeans traveled, and the necessity of moving one’s own luggage into and out
of the trains is probably exactly WHY they pack that way. Escalators and
moving luggage tracks along stair ways reduced the burden of handling luggage
at the stations, but there is no alternative to hoisting your luggage onto the
train car (short of bringing your own porter!).
means you travel with those you’ve come to experience…
proliferation of escorted tours as the expected way to travel has one major
disadvantage … there is always a level of separation between the traveler and
the places and people of the local culture. Why look AT the locals from a bus
window when you can travel WITH them on the train?
find that train travel puts in the best position to experience the culture
we’ve come to experience. We must find our way by approaching locals who are
familiar with the trains; we sit with them in the compartment, we share our
stories of why we happen to be on the same train at the same time. Europeans
today are increasingly adept at speaking English… even in France! But speaking
the language at least to some small degree truly makes rail travel a
means actually SEEING the Scenery, rather than flying 24,000 feet above it! Windows
on the train were ideal for sight-seeing as the countryside passed by
afternoon nap? The train was just the ticket! .... and
my hubby was relieved that the 12 hour journey to Toulouse was not something
he needed to stay at the wheel for!
class compartments came in all shapes and degrees of wear, but were seldom
You're gonna ask, so we'll tell you right now.
Those vast fields of yellow flowers seen throughout Germany and France are
rapeseed also known as Canola.
The plant oils are used to produce a type of Ethanol,
just as corn is used in the United States.
Nothing beat the train for the long haul.
Restaurants, newspapers,snackbar ... even the sleeping car ... all tagged
along with us on the
train. Traveling First Class offered a degree of privacy
as desired. Even internet access and electrical plugins (bring an adapter for
Europe!) were often available. Bicycles, too, can be brought on board
especially marked cars!
FINDING OUR WAY
in the train stations was never all that difficult. For longer journeys we
learned to ask for a print-out of our entire itinerary. It had all the
transfers and all our arrival, departure times, and gate information. Once on
the platform, we learned to check the charts to see exactly where our first
class car would be located for boarding. Clocks are prominent on the platforms
because the schedules are accurate to the minute!!
the Toulouse train station at 5:30 a.m. We began our trip to southern France
by boarding the train in Nuremberg to Basil Switzerland, at 2:45 p.m. Our
daylight excursion took us through Switzerland to Geneve by 8 p.m. There we
boarded a Sleeping Car (Couchettes) for Toulouse where we would arrive at 5:30
a.m. Had we slept in a 2nd class cabin (just an extra $35), there
would have been six passengers in a very small area. Our first class ticket
allowed us to take a 1st class cabin for an extra $60 or $70, which could have
slept 4 people, but we were the only passengers to use it.
shorter skips... for example when we second-guessed our itinerary and missed
our stop, it was an easy matter to jump off at the next stop and check the
yellow departure chart shown below. These are found at every platform.
traveling by train lived up to our expectations of comfort, safety,
flexibility, usefulness! Absolutely!
Rich threw out his back and it became MY responsibility to hoist our two small
roller carts and two day-packs from transfer to transfer on the trains, we
opted for a taxi transfer of 1.5 hours back to the Toulouse airport hotel. The
$200 taxi bill made us appreciate, doubly, the value of using the train to
criss-cross Germany and France on this excursion!
The bottom line? TRAVEL LIGHT and HOP THE RAILS for a memorable holiday
If YOU GO…
is the European gateway to traveling Europe by train. This is an online agency
specializing in rail tickets, passes, reservations, and itinerary. We found
the agents to be very prompt and helpful in getting back to us by email and
advising us on which itineraries and reservations we needed to have in advance
of our travels. The travel packet was express mailed to our door and included
not only a complete booklet of train connections (which we never could truly
figure out) but an excellent map of all the train routes in Europe. We found
this map to be very helpful as we made our travel plans. Because ALL the
online agencies are internet-based, it really is important to find an agent
who you feel is communicating well with you. With one of the major American
agencies, a full week would go by before anyone responded to our emails!!
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