You only need to hop aboard your first train in Europe, bound for somewhere you’ve only ever dreamt about traveling to, to know that this is the best way to get around the continent.
1. The freedom: Budapest to Budapest via Europe
I only discovered just how vast Europe’s rail network is when I opened up the complimentary Eurail map for the first time and spread it out on the floor of my temporary home in Budapest, the day before departure. I like to think that my face lit up with excitement when I saw the dozens of thin lines stretching out across the continent, but I imagine to outsiders it looked more like trepidation. Still, two months later, I was back on that same floor scribbling in the final line on the map, some 10 countries, 24 cities, and 6000 kilometres later.
2. The exploration: Gourmet burgers to milk bars in 9 hours
Berlin was as awesome as everyone had told me it would be. But then I learnt there was a direct train to Warsaw from the German capital, and it all seemed to make sense. While chugging through the rural Poland I may have fantasised about the gourmet burger I’d just eaten beneath the tracks in Kreuzberg, but just a few hours later I would be looking up an indecipherable Polish menu on a milk bar wall unable to contain my smile.
The same rings true for architecture, language, culture, and history. The continent is so richly diverse that it’s sometimes hard to fathom, and new worlds are never more than a train ride away.
3. The (missed) connections
I raced up the concrete steps towards daylight somewhere on the Slovenian border in blind hope that my train – the one that was supposed to leave 10 minutes ago – would still be there. The deserted single track station confirmed my fears and I slunk down on a steel bench. Just then, a clatter of footsteps and a string of “Excuse me-s!” burst up the stairs I’d just ascended. I turned to see two young backpackers launch themselves onto the platform as I had. We shared a carriage, a few beers, and a hostel room, and then they departed early one morning before I had a chance to say goodbye.
4. The adventure: The train to nowhere
As the train ground to a halt I peered through the dusty window in disbelief. The weathered sign on the empty overgrown platform outside read Óbidos, as it was supposed to. But this hardly looked like the touristy medieval Portuguese village I’d seen in Google images the night before. I gingerly stepped down onto the cracked concrete floor and watched the small regional train chug around the corner, leaving me alone at the door of a locked and shuttered station with no other sign of civilisation in the vicinity – comfortable in the knowledge that, in the very least, this would be an adventure.
5. The comfort: First class, real life IMAX films
I climbed aboard the first class carriage of the Golden Pass Express train to Lake Geneva and tried to look the part. My sneakers, jeans, and bulging backpack clashed with the soft, high-back chairs in the spotless panoramic train. But as the train sailed gently out of Interlaken station, no one – not even the conductors – could care about the goings on inside the train, because the next few hours would turn out to be what felt like a real-life IMAX film about the natural beauty of Switzerland, unfolding before my eyes.
6. The flexibility: Follow the fun
“Come to Poland then,” she said as we sipped a final cappuccino together in the early morning sunlight on the terrace of a Florence coffee shop. “You’ve got a rail pass, don’t you?”
I looked down at the rail pass resting on the table and knew she was right.
“How do you feel about Switzerland?” came the Facebook message a few weeks after we’d parted ways in Warsaw. I smiled, reached for my rail map and spread it out on the floor.
“It’s quite a ride from the Czech Republic,” I replied. “But I can make it work.”
Originally published on Eurail.com