Train nut Steve McKenna spends a month - and travels 8000 kilometres - putting Europe's network to the test.
"COME to Barcelona," said my friend, who, on a whim, had decided to spend the northern summer enjoying a cocktail of sun, sand and sangria in one of my favourite European cities. She had, she added, a spare bed if I fancied visiting. Perfect. Well, almost. I was in Genoa, on Italy's Ligurian coast, with vague plans to head east, while Barcelona was a 900-kilometre trek west. I ummed and aahed for about two minutes before coming to a conclusion. My schedule wasn't set in stone, I had a month-long rail pass - and this is Barcelona we're talking about. Let's go with the flow.
The sensible option would be to take the plush Salvador Dali Trenhotel from nearby Milan. It runs through the night, so I could have a bed - and a compartment with a shower, if I wished - and wake up in Barcelona the next morning. Being in a more adventurous (or foolhardy) mood and convinced that there would be some tremendous scenery along the way, I opted to go by day.
An internet check revealed it would take five changes of train and 14 hours of travel - the longest journey of my month-long trip spanning 10 countries and about 8000 kilometres of track.
Having recently ventured through China and Japan on their impressive rail networks I'd been keen to rail it across Europe, the so-called cradle of the railways.
Following Britain's lead - the world's first locomotive-hauled public railway opened in the north-east of England in 1825 - Belgium launched mainland Europe's maiden service in the 1830s, with steam engines replacing horse-drawn coaches between Brussels and Mechelen.
Despite increases in personal car ownership and, latterly, the rise of the budget airlines, rail travel in Europe has gone from strength to strength. The network - used, annually, by tens of millions - is remarkably dense, covering everywhere from the sprawling metropolises to far-flung alpine villages, and every year it seems a new high-speed line is unveiled.
"It's so different to the States," says Mike Vera, a loquacious Californian travelling through Europe with his girlfriend and a pair of Eurail Global Passes (which allow for rail travel in 22 countries, stretching from the Nordic to the Mediterranean).
"I'm 31 years old and, back home, I think I've been on a train twice. People would rather drive or fly. They kind of look down on the trains but over here they're a huge part of the culture. I love the fact that within a few hours you can be somewhere with a different language, architecture and food but the same currency - and you usually arrive in the city centres, too, unlike when you fly in."
At one point in our conversation, Mike excuses himself and returns five minutes later with beers he's bought from the restaurant car. "They're on me," he says. As we raise a toast, the Cote d'Azur comes into view. It's a reminder of the two things I love most about rail travel: the window views and chatting to, or observing, other people.
Yet rail travel isn't always idyllic and plain sailing. Ups and downs characterised my epic journey from Genoa to Barcelona.
From the Italian city's once-grand but now-tatty Stazione Brignole, we creak and whistle past a sprawl of industrial and residential neighbourhoods, stopping at a clutch of stations where men idle on shaded platforms, soothing themselves with espresso, beer, cigarettes, newspapers and chit-chat. Ignoring the signs that say "Vietato attraversare i binari" (do not cross the tracks), people traverse the tracks with typical Mediterranean insouciance. This kind of thing, I note, didn't happen in play-by-the-rules Germany or Switzerland.
One leathery-skinned passenger curses and frets at the length of time we stop at these stations and seems to channel all his staring powers at the door in the vain hope that it will shut double-quick. Another lady has a map in her hand and charts our progress with a pen.
What has been a fairly dull, sluggish journey transforms as we edge the Mediterranean. Sparkling and, at points, turquoise, it is a mesmeric sight. But, cooped up in the train, I begin to feel envious towards the fishermen, windsurfers and people emerging from ornate villas with towels and sunglasses.
At the Italian border town of Ventimiglia, I have just enough time for a quick cappuccino, served at the station bar by a bronzed fortysomething charmer who is flirting enthusiastically with the waitress half his age. Then I board a crammed Nice-bound double-decker train in which the air is hot and steamy and the vibe potentially combustible.
Two French strangers - one who bears a slight resemblance to Napoleon and another, all plastic breasts and peroxide blonde hair - begin bickering after he refuses to budge up. She ends the row by sticking her tongue out at him.
At Monte Carlo, Monaco, a beret-wearing intellectual boards and begins mumbling, in a mix of French and English, at a shaven-headed northern Brit manning a pram carrying his son, who is kitted out in a Wigan Warriors rugby league shirt.
When the Frenchman suggests that he could perhaps fold the pram and carry his child, the Brit glares. At the sublimely photogenic French Riviera seaside resort town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, a Canadian desperate to disembark screams at everyone to get out of his way, sending a shudder of panic through the carriage.
I can glimpse the sea through crowded bodies. Oh to be on one of those yachts.
The later legs are comfier. On the train to Montpellier, a beautiful, raven-haired woman in a pink dress, who looks like a Bond girl and wears the most seductive perfume, sits next to me. A few minutes later, her sharply dressed hubby - a spitting image of President Sarkozy - appears, jolting my daydreams.
Despite the enervation of getting there, Barcelona - busy and buzzing in August - is worth the bother. It is also the launch pad for a much more straightforward trip. Last time I visited Spain, it took almost five hours to train it from Barcelona to Madrid. This time - on a super-fast AVE service, with a top speed of 300km/h - we are there in two hours, 42 minutes.
As fellow passengers watch the film Twilight on the carriage monitors, I move to the train bar where I browse the day's newspapers, tuck into a spicy ham and cheese bocadillo and watch the scorched, blurred, desert-like scenery outside the window. I wonder whether I am on the fastest train in Europe.
Not quite, as it happens. Technological boundaries are being pushed all the time and the record speed is 575km/h for a TGV test train in France. At present, however, high-speed passenger trains, such as the one between Florence and Bologna, "only" go up to 360km/h. Spain has Europe's most comprehensive high-speed network, its latest addition being the service from Madrid to Valencia. Journey times have been chopped by four hours to 90 minutes.
France - where high-speed rail was born in 1981, on a route between Paris and Lyon - is up there with Spain in its commitment to faster travel. In Nice, I speak to a woman from Oregon, who, accompanied by her teenage daughter, is retracing the steps of an old adventure. She marvels at how a TGV whisked them from Paris to Marseille in just three hours. "It was a little different when I first backpacked around Europe in the 1970s," she chuckles.
Paris to Brussels (one hour, 20 minutes), Brussels to Amsterdam (two hours) and Rome to Naples (one hour, 10 minutes) are other examples of how, once you take into account the hassles of checking in, security and getting to and from airports, taking the train is faster, and much more convenient, than flying.
As fabulous and comfortable as the quick trains are - and on the best Spanish ones, meals, with wine, are delivered to your seat - I also develop a soft spot for the clunkier, regional and frequently more scenic slower trains.
It is a treat entering Luxembourg from Germany and seeing, in slow motion, its stunning viaducts and fairytale buildings poking through the forests.
Snailing it along Lake Geneva, where on one side there are picturesque vine terraces and on the other moody, snow-speckled green mountains, will long stay in the memory.
The "regional" trains also tend to attract more locals than tourists. Listening - and watching the mannerisms - of an Italian conductor fining an apologetic non-ticket-carrying student near Rimini is poetry in motion.
A day before my rail pass expires, I realise I haven't done something that I really ought to. Take a night train. Popular European twilight routes include Madrid-Lisbon, Paris-Venice and Paris-Munich. I go from Milan to Vienna - and sleep right through. Back in the olden days, with all its border formalities, I wouldn't have been able to.
Not once since I entered the 25-country Schengen zone (in the Netherlands) have I shown my passport. Even Switzerland, that fiercely independent non-European Union nation, has signed the Schengen agreement, virtually eroding its borders.
After a decent night's kip - disturbed only briefly by the only other passenger in my compartment - a man with a cough and by the sound of it, lots of Velcro bags - we pass through the pretty villagey outskirts of Vienna and, before long, I'm on my connecting train to Budapest.
Like almost every train I've taken, the sleek Railjet is on time. It takes slightly more than 2½ hours to reach the Hungarian capital and, on board, I chat to a semi-retired couple from Western Australia.
They're on a seven-month sabbatical in Europe and are using trains to get almost everywhere. "Only way to go," they say and, after the month I've had, in which the longest delay I faced was 10 minutes, I really can't argue.
The writer was a guest of Rail Europe Australia.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
1 Passes Rail Europe offers from one-country passes to the "Global" variety. Validity dates range from a few days to a few months. A Eurail pass enables you to hop on most trains when you like, though faster and night services often require mandatory reservations and supplementary booking charges. It pays to sketch out a rough itinerary and work out whether a pass would be worth it financially (all European rail operators have their own websites with fare details; see below). My Eurail Global Pass (one month continuous travel) is priced at €921 ($1235) — and I paid about €100 in additional fees — but I did about €1400 worth of travel. See Rail Europe (raileurope.com.au) for pass details.
2 Reservations If travelling during peak times — particularly Easter or Christmas, or in August — it pays to reserve or buy tickets a day or two in advance, especially for night train couchettes on popular routes. Sometimes this can be done online and at other times you must do it at the railway stations where queues can be long, so allow plenty of time. English is spoken at major stations (by at least one staff member) and signs are nearly always in the host language and English. A good pan-European journey planner site is OBB (fahrplan.oebb.at) and The Man in Seat Sixty-One ... (seat61.com) is arguably the world's biggest knowledge box on train travel.
3 Snacks Most trains have some form of refreshments, whether they come around on trolleys or have their own restaurant cars and bars. Onboard food and drinks tend to be expensive and are often — though not always — nothing to write home about. I find bringing snacks a good idea, especially as most European countries have bakeries on almost every corner. As well as crushing hunger pangs, having a spare croissant or two can be a great way to start a conversation with fellow passengers.
Useful rail company sites
France sncf.com, Belgium www.b-rail.com, Netherlands ns.nl, Germany bahn.com, Italy trenitalia.com, Switzerland swisstravelsystem.com, Spain renfe.com.