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Rob McFarland enjoys the speed and ease of Europe's rail network on a whistle-stop tour to Paris and beyond.
It sounds like a challenge from Mission: Impossible – travel more than 2500 kilometres, visiting nine cities in four countries in seven days. And all without setting foot on a plane.
In most continents such a feat would be impossible but Europe has a high-speed rail network that is the envy of the world. From Paris its tendrils reach up into Britain, Germany and the Netherlands and down into the south of Spain and Italy. Overnight trains mean you can leave London one afternoon and wake up the following morning in Venice. Or Madrid or Milan or Rome.
The advantages of rail over air travel are compelling. No more trekking to airports miles outside the city. No more liquid/gel/clear plastic bag shenanigans at customs. Trains depart from and arrive in city centres. They're rarely late. They have comfortable seats, tables and dining cars. Some even have special family areas and Wi-Fi access. And, of course, you get to see some of the country you're whizzing through at 300km/h.
On paper, there seems to be little contest. But what's it really like? Is it really that easy? Do the trains run on time? Are they clean? And, most importantly of all, does it feel like a holiday? On a whistle-stop tour of Britain, Belgium, France and Switzerland, I found out.
Day 1 — London to Brussels
Catch Eurostar from St Pancras station. One word: impressive. Travel in Business Premier Class and you can arrive 10 minutes before departure and have access to a dedicated lounge.
Half an hour later, I'm tucking into a full English breakfast with a glass of champagne while the green fields of Kent whiz by in a satisfying blur. I feel particularly smug because Eurostar is the only carbon-neutral way of crossing the English Channel (it produces 10 times less CO2 than a plane).
Arrive in Brussels and am pleasantly surprised. As the administrative centre of the European Union, the city has a reputation for being, well, dull. But it's cute, with charming squares and outdoor cafes. Like Prague but with better chocolate.
Spend the afternoon sightseeing and find evidence of an unexpectedly quirky side to the city: a man takes a picture of his partner flashing in front of one of Brussels' most famous monuments while a drag queen with a shock of green hair and knee-high leather boots walks home among a sea of grey commuters.
I'll be back.
Recommended: visit the new Magritte Museum (magrittemuseum.be) and sample some of Belgium's insanely strong beers (don't attempt this the other way round).
Day 2 — Brussels to Paris
An 8.40am departure on Thalys, one of Europe's flagship trains. Painful CountryLink memories are banished when I climb aboard this sleek red rocket that knocks off Brussels to Paris in a mere hour and 22 minutes. Services include Wi-Fi and the ability to book a taxi at your destination.
Arrive in Gare du Nord in the centre of Paris at 10am. The hotel is a short – and refreshingly inexpensive – taxi ride away and I've got the rest of the day to look around.
Recommended: a tour of Paris's covered passageways and the gob-smackingly gorgeous interior of the Opera Garnier concert hall. See purplebeam.com.
Day 3 — Paris to Strasbourg
Depart Paris by TGV. Despite the availability of in-seat power, resist the temptation to power up the laptop and instead concentrate on the scenery. An early morning haze hovers over fields bordered by poplars and dotted with clusters of farm buildings. Gazing out of the window is mesmerising and meditative.
Arrive in Strasbourg and fall in love. The World Heritage-listed city centre is a chaotic web of cobbled streets and medieval wooden houses surrounded by the river Ill. At its heart is Strasbourg Cathedral, an intricate masterpiece in pink sandstone.
Elegantly dressed locals sip wine in cafes while cyclists glide by with fresh flowers spilling out of wicker baskets – parfait.
Recommended: a romantic river cruise and a stroll around the picturesque Petite France area.
Day 4 — Strasbourg to Lucerne
Effortlessly glide from France into Switzerland without so much as a passport check. I have to change trains in Basel and make a seven-minute connection time with ease.
If Europe leads the world when it comes to train travel, Switzerland is its star pupil. Its public transport system is frighteningly efficient. A Swiss Pass can be used not only on trains but also buses and boats. Unlike in France, you don't have to reserve a seat and many stations allow you to send your luggage ahead or even check it in for your flight home.
Recommended: the sculpture Mark Twain described as the "saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world" – the Dying Lion of Lucerne.
Day 5 — Lucerne to Locarno
Switzerland has a number of scenic train journeys and the Wilhelm Tell Express proves one of the highlights of the trip. A paddle-steamer whisks me across Lake Lucerne, past imposing lakeside mansions, before I transfer to a panoramic train for a journey through plunging verdant valleys and over sparkling glacial rivers.
Recommended: break up the trip with an afternoon in Bellinzona – home to three World Heritage-listed medieval castles.
Day 6 — Locarno to Geneva
After a morning of wandering through Locarno's Italian-influenced piazzas and an enjoyable lunch in a lakeside bistro, I'm delivered to Geneva by a high-speed FART (the unfortunate acronym for the local rail company).
Recommended: take the funicular, cable car and chairlift to Cimetta (elevation 1670 metres) for outstanding views of Lake Locarno.
Day 7 — Geneva to Montpellier
A quick look around Geneva before I catch my last train of the trip: a blisteringly quick 2-hour ride to Montpellier in the south of France.
Recommended: a visit to the recently reopened Fabre Museum of Art (for more information see museefabre-en.montpellier-agglo.com).
The verdict? Well, nine cities in four countries in seven days is certainly possible but not advisable. Next time I'll be choosing fewer destinations and spending longer in each. But the trains lived up to the hype. They were clean, fast, smooth and reliable. Add to this the convenience of being able to book your tickets in Australian dollars in advance online at raileurope.com.au and it seems madness to tackle Europe any other way.
Rob McFarland travelled courtesy of Thai Airways and Rail Europe.
Thai Airways flies three times a day from Sydney to Bangkok, with connections to 13 European cities including London, Paris, Zurich and Rome. Phone 1300 651 960 or see thaiairways.com.au.
Rail Europe sells the widest range of European rail products online, in real time, with prices quoted in Australian dollars. See raileurope.com.au. Alternatively, contact your local travel agent.