Facebook Twitter

TRAVEL THROUGH EUROPE BY TRAIN

SHARE TRAVEL THROUGH EUROPE BY TRAIN

From the little engine that could to the Chattanooga choo-choo, from the Lionel set I had as a boy to the sleek, evil-looking Diesel that pulls the 180-mph French TGV, I've always loved trains - playing with them, looking at them, riding on them.

A parallel fixation has been the trains of Europe, a fantasy built from countless movies, many of them spy stories. Two shots are in constant focus - one of the English cars whose doors open directly from seats to platform and that always seemed to be the site of a sad farewell, and the other of a European car, with a uniformed official opening a compartment door from the car-long aisle, looking for papers, or for fugitives.Unfortunately, given the Europe of today, no one asks for papers anymore. Border guards or customs inspectors peer in, smile, wave and vanish.

I've ridden trains in many European countries, but a recent trip, covering seven countries in as many days and a journey of several thousand miles, brought a wonderful, paradoxical blend of calm and excitement. Calm because European trains these days are smooth and fast and relaxing. Excitement because I was on the move, from country to country, at high speed, and the view that swept past my window was glorious.

I traveled from Madrid to Barcelona, Barcelona to Geneva, Geneva to Bologna, Bologna to Zurich, Zurich to Paris and Paris to London all on a Eurail pass, a nice gadget if you do a lot of train travel. No funds to change, no tickets to buy, no unnecessary standing in line.

There are a number of different passes, covering different time periods, and they have to be purchased in the United States before you leave, so talk to the travel agent.

For the inexperienced train traveler, I'd also recommend a book, "Adventuring on the Eurail Express," by Jay Brunhouse (Pelican Publishing Co., Gretna, La.). What Brunhouse, who is based in San Francisco, doesn't know about European trains is not worth knowing.

This is not to say that European train travel is the perfect method. There is no perfect method of long-distance travel.

On the debit side is the fact that European trains make brief stops; you have only a short time between trains, there's no time to dawdle.

And food service is spotty; some trains had elegant dining cars with linen, china and silver, plus cooks who were amazingly helpful and cooperative. Others had bar-and-sandwich cars, and still others were in airline style, with service from carts pushed through the train. The meals themselves were variable, though usually at least satisfactory, and more expensive than comparable meals in bistros or cafes.

But from a train window, and most of them are clean, the world passes by; farms and villages, people waving and people working, all come and go.

And a stroll to the bar car for morning coffee is a delight; one can stop between cars and open a window for fresh air and the aroma of the countryside. Walking through the cars provides plenty of people-watching, and joining a multinational group for coffee can be fun. American accents are spotted immediately, even if you have enough French or Spanish to order in those languages, and conversation is almost spontaneous.

Try that on an airplane.

At stops, even if they're brief, it's also nice to step off the car, look up and down the platform, get a glimpse of the town.

One of the nicest things about train travel in Europe is the fact that the countries are small. A rider can zip through several, and several different climatic zones as well, in an easy day.

I had lots of good days on my trip, and the ride on the TGV was a highlight, but I think my favorite day began on the Mediterranean shore in Barcelona, Spain, and ended in the Alps at Geneva, Switzerland, a journey of some 550 miles, 1,200 feet in altitude and 9 hours, 51 minutes.

We left Barcelona at 9:55 a.m. on a EuroCity Express, a fast train. The chug-chug-chug of a steam engine is a wonderful sound, but European trains are Diesel or electric powered, and they come out of the station so smoothly that it takes a few minutes to realize you're moving. It was a bright, crystal-clear, sun-splashed morning, and we turned slightly inland, away from the ocean.

In the distance, across the brown plains, the Pyrenees loomed. For miles, we rode through orchards, oranges and grapefruit flashing their colors through the dark green leaves. Grapes were in evidence, and so were garden crops, with everything in rich abundance. We turned south again, the ocean gleaming ahead, and slowed for the towns of Port-Bou, Cerbere and Port-Vendres, side by side by side at the border between Spain and France.

Until a few years ago, the border would have meant a change of trains because Spanish tracks are set wider apart that those in other European countries, and the trains have a different gauge. Now, through the miracles of modern engineering, European trains have axles that expand and contract so that the wheels become farther apart or closer together, depending on the border that is being crossed.

Soon we were in France, alongside the azure blue of the Mediterranean, sparkling in the sunshine.

Lunch is served in the dining car, properly outfitted with crisp linen, gleaming silver and crystal. It being a Spanish train, paella is on the menu.

Perpignan, Narbonne, Beziers are brief stops as the coastline's geography takes us more northerly. We move away from the ocean and enter swamplands with small trees and tall grasses.

The Camargue, one of the most mysterious areas of France, has bullfights in which the object is to take a garland from a horn. It has cowboys who ride small horses and herd small cows but whose reputation for toughness matches any from the Old West. It has medieval cities and narrow bridges that cross narrow rivers.

We turn north from Montpellier toward the Roman-built town of Nimes. Soon we are in Provence, where the hot sun beats down and where Van Gogh and Cezanne lived and painted, and M.F.K. Fisher lived and wrote. A brief stop at Tarascon and another at Avignon, where the nursery rhyme "Sur le pont d'Avignon," unsung for many years, pops into mind.

Crossing the Rhone River at Avignon, we speed north along the east side. Livron, Valence. Miles of the grapes that make Hermitage and Chateauneuf de Pape and the other powerful, rugged wines of the Rhone Valley.

We turn east and begin to climb from Valence; the sun is fading in the west and the clouds glower and boil over the Alps. A stroll to the bar car for a Cruzcampo beer that has made the trip with us from Spain, and the climb continues. At Annecy, on the lake of the same name, hotels and pensions are everywhere, waiting for snow and the ski season.

Bellegarde is the France-Switzerland border. We change engines here, from Diesel to electric, for the last lap of the journey, to Geneva and its beautiful lake.

Swiss trains are all electric, all mighty efficient. Geneva-Milan, Milan-Zurich, Zurich-Lausanne trips show the picture-book qualities of Switzerland against the might and raw beauty of the Alps.

At Lausanne we make a connection to the 180-mph TGV, or Train Grande Vitesse, for the trip into Paris.

The TGV is an evil-looking beast. Its orange-and-white engine seems to glare down the track from low-slung, wide-apart headlight eyes, and the sharply angled nose adds to the threatening appearance.

The 180-mph figure is a higher speed than the train usually runs - about 120 or so is a better figure, but it's still fast. The Lausanne-Paris run covers just over 300 miles and the TGV makes the journey in 222 minutes, but it makes a couple of stops along the way.

Lunch was served at the seats, but there is a beer-and-coffee-and-sandwich car. The meal was expensive; the fare was fair. Lunch was slightly over $20 and included a good smoked salmon appetizer, passable grilled loup de mer (similar to an ocean-going catfish) with excellent vegetables, fruit, cheese and coffee.

Southeastern France is reminiscent of the American plains, up to and including the herds of cattle and fields of corn. Once the Alps are behind, it's mostly flat. We race through towns at a fearful speed. The grayness of Paris is ahead.

My timing was perfect. I left Zurich at 9:03 a.m., arriving Lausanne at 11:25. I could have made a closer connection for the 12:46 TGV, but I thought I'd have a brief stroll in Lausanne, maybe a sandwich, between trains. The TGV was on the minute for a 4:28 p.m. arrival in Paris - just in time to meet the evening rush hour.

The Paris-London leg is less impressive to the eye, except for the Hovercraft, which looks for all the world like an upside down football stadium as it flies the channel about 12-15 feet above the waves, cruising at some 60 miles an hour.

On the French side, the train stops at a terminal - the last stop - and when you step off the train, the Hovercraft is sitting on an asphalt pad some 50 yards from the water, a great, bloated, beached, rubber skirt-wearing animal with four propellers on as many poles sticking out of its top.

Luggage is checked through, tickets bought if necessary (you can buy a Paris-London train ticket that includes the Hovercraft), and you wait in the terminal while trucks and cars drive across the asphalt and onto the Hovercraft. It's that big.

Someone opens the doors of the terminal. The crowd mills across the asphalt and climbs aboard. First-timers gawk at the craft itself, or at the World War II German gun emplacements - now empty - facing the channel, or at the ventilation towers for the Cross-Channel Tunnel, under construction and scheduled - with crossed fingers - to be completed in 1993.

The Hovercraft carries several hundred people, in seats that are much like those in the coach section of large airplanes. They're cramped, but comfortable.

There are loud rumbling noises. The craft shakes and shivers. Suddenly it is rising, straight up, like a helicopter. It turns around, almost on its own axis, and moves forward, grumbling and vibrating. Jets of air keep it up, the propellers provide direction.

But it moves, and France is gone and you're over open water, still grumbling. The driver reports that the winds are strong and the water rough, and the crossing will take about an hour instead of the usual 40 minutes.

Spray splashes against the windows. The Hovercraft bumps and yaws, and rocks a little, and you can hear the waves splash lightly against the bottom.

The white cliffs of Dover gleam in the distance; the landing area, just like the one in France, looms up. The Hovercraft settles softly into position, lands. The doors open.