Is there anything more European to do than travel by train? In America, passenger trains are few and far between. There is, of course, the ubiquitous Amtrak and in Flint, it serves as a jaunty way to visit Chicago. But other than that, riding the rails is a pastime that much of the U.S. has largely left behind.
Trains in Europe are fast, inexpensive and comfortable. You can upgrade a trip for just 20-50 euros more and have a completely different class of experience. In Spain, the AVE high-speed train will get you from Madrid to Barcelona in about three hours, with gorgeous countryside to view out of both windows, and in first class, a chef-prepared meal complete with Spanish Rioja. In England, you can get to Manchester from London in the same amount of time, in very plush seating with a nice serving of tea and sweet pastries as you watch dales and meadows, cities and farms fly by.
In the Netherlands, passenger trains are a dime a dozen. You can hop on one that travels from Amsterdam to The Hague, hang around for an hour and hop on another to Rotterdam. You can catch a train from Rotterdam and head over to Haarlem or Delft, or anywhere else. They are running constantly, inexpensive and much more convenient than traveling by car. Buy a ticket, take a seat, connect with the free Wi-Fi and watch an episode or two of something on your phone, or just stare out the window at cows and canal houses.
Often on our travels, we will find a day when we simply don’t have anything to do – nothing planned, the city we are in lacks appeal for whatever reason and so, we find ourselves at the train station, looking at the schedule, checking our watches and then catching a quick train to Milan, or from Amsterdam to Paris, Brussels to Antwerp, Copenhagen to Helsingör. The trains run so often and so reliably, one can be as spontaneous as they please.
Once, we decided to board a train simply because we happened to be walking past the station. We were in Edinburgh and thought a quick detour to Stirling Castle sounded like just the thing. We boarded and less than an hour later, we were hoofing it up to the castle gates. Another time, we were excited to take a ride of over six hours to get from London down to the tip of Penzance in Cornwall. It was an incredible way to see England, without having the stress of driving on the opposite side of the car on the opposite side of the road. Just the train and the tracks, our bags and regular beverage service.
There’s something uniquely charming about a trip aboard a train. Something old-worldly and historical and yet, modern and efficient. Something both thrilling and at the same time, tranquil. Something akin to being a child in the backseat of your parent’s car when heading out on holiday, nothing to do but pay attention to your stop and wait to get there. You can read a book or watch a show, talk to your companions or get to know the other travelers on the train. There is something equalizing about a train, too. Even though there are separate classes, everyone is heading in the same direction and will reach the destination at the same time.
Trains may not be the preferred mode of transport here in the States, but perhaps we should take a page out of Europe’s book and learn how to sit back, relax and watch the scenery pass us by. The journey itself is part of the holiday, after all … and drinks at 200mph are always a good idea.