Interrailing isn’t just for students: the joys of travelling Europe by rail

It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of holidaying through Europe conjured up two opposing ideas, both of which most of us were unlikely to do. At one extreme was interrailing, typically taking a month out to join the throng of students slumming their way from hostel to campsite, party to menial job. The other was the Orient Express, travelling in unimagineable luxury, at unmanageable cost.

How different it is today. It’s am early summer’s morning, and I’m sat with my girlfriend waiting for my Eurostar train under the English Channel to Paris. We arrived an hour before departure, checked in with minimal fuss and unlimited baggage. And now we are sat at the longest champagne bar in Europe, beneath the airy architecture of London’s new St Pancras station.

A little later we’re off on a 1500 mile trip to Brasov, in the fabled Romanian region of Transylvania. It’s a journey rich in literary allusion, as (excluding the fact the Channel Tunnel didn’t exist then), it’s basically the same route as Jonathan Harker took in Bram Stoker’s classic gothic novel Dracula. And like Harker, we’ll be ending up the guests of a Transyvanian count.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, we’re off to lunch in Paris, thanks to the two things that have transformed European rail travel. The first is the building of a network of high speed raillinks to connect the continent in speed and comfort, and which mean I can step on a train in central London and get off in central Paris two and a quartrer hours later. The second is another icon of high speed connectivity – the internet.

Using the website of the German railways system (www.bahn.de, available in English) it’s possible not only to research and book any itinerary through the continent you might imagine, but also to customise it by adding in how long you want to stop in each city, enabling you to appreciate the places you pass through at your own pace. Of course you could stop in Paris for years, but we wanted to move on that day, so lunch would have to suffice.

It’s a short walk from Gare du Nord (where the Eurostar arrives), to Gare D’Est (for trains east). Once there we lock our bags in left luggage (come with a few euro coins in your pocket to save having to get change from the station) and find ourselves a suitably Parisian bistro round the corner.

Three hours, two pepper steaks, one bottle of cabernet sauvingon and several pommes frites later we board our next train, and find our cabin for two on the sleeper to Munich. I love everything about sleeping on trains, from the compact ingenuity with which beds fold into walls and sinks are stored under table tops to that old school romance of the ticket collector coming round and checking your passport as you hurtle through the darkness. But most of all I just love lying back on my bed and feeling the rat-a-ta rat-a-ta of the wheels running over the rails beneath me. I sleep deep everytime.

Pulling into Munich early in the morning, we’ve allowed ourselves just enough time to find some local coffee and a German pastry before changing train once again in order to get to our first overnight stop – Vienna – for lunch.

For four hours we watch Europe’s landscape shift as we pass through the foothills of the Alps. In the distance we can make out various unnamed peaks, whilearound us the houses become ever more – the only word I have is Tyrolean – the closer to Vienna we become. More like ski chalets than town houses, with steep sided long roofs that snow slides easily off.

Arriving in the Austrian capital we check into our hotel and head off to explore one of Europe’s great classical cities – home to the Spanish Riding School, the ferris wheel made famous in Orson Welles’ The Third Man… and the largest number of Segway riders I’ve ever seen.

They are the most welcoming riders too. We are standing by the side of the road, poring over the map trying to work out our way to our next art gallery, when a dapper gentleman in his sixties pulls silently up alongside us on his Segway (for those not sure what I am talking about, they are those space age two wheeled personal transport machines straight out of the Jetsons which we were all supposed to be riding by now) and offers in precise and clipped English to help us on our way.

After one night and a day and a half of dodging segways, ticking off museums, and gorging ourselves on various meals based around that failsafe ingredient of melted cheese, it’s time to begin the final outward leg of our journey, to Romania. Again it’s overnight, and again the only way I know that we have crossed from one country to another is when I get an automated call from my cell phone to welcome me to the new national provider. And once more, after a night of rat-a-ta rat-a-ta lulled rest, we arrive on time and unstressed in Romania, ready to meet the count.

Unfortunately space does not allow me to go into much depth about our magical stay with the urbane Count Tibor Kalnocky. Suffice to say that from the wooden crucifix hung above our bedpost to the housekeeper offering us a glass of cherry brandy on arrival with the words ‘the count will be back later’ one doesn’t have to look far to imagine oneself in the world of Bram Stoker. And as Transylvania itself feels a step back in time, with horses and carts as common on the dusty streets as cars, the illusion is not hard to sustain.

Rather I want to spend what lines I have left trying to convey just how much travelling by train around Europe has to offer. You can take a ski train up into the Alps, one of which even has a disco on board for nightime revellers. And as you are travelling over night you actually gain a days skiing. For the sophisticates or the sunlovers there’s the ‘trainhotel’ between cities such as Paris, Zurich, Barcelona, and Milan. You can reach the edges of the continent too, whether it’s Moscow for Asia, Istanbul to the Middle East, or the arid south of Spain for a short ferry across to Morocco. Even the UK has a couple of sleeper trains, the finest of which leaves London each evening and heads north to Scotland. When you wake up the next morning you are surrounded by the heather-covered mountains of the Scottish highlands, perfectly framed through the giant picture windows of the saloon car, while you tuck into a full Scottish breakfast from the comfort of a proper armchair. As travel by air becomes ever more constrained by terrorism, volcanoes and the chair of the man in front, life on the open rail just gets better and better.

(originally published in Southern Sun magazine (www.southernsun.com)