There is plenty to discover in Europe. And one of the most exhilirating ways to do it is by train, especially regional trains. With regional trains you can discover villages and cities that are not strewn across the major tourist paths. The expression that half the journey is getting there really holds true for train travel. With those hours spent on a train you have every possibility to strike up conversations with other people or to just admire the landscape that flicker by (slowlier with a regional train compared to a high speed train).
To enjoy the journey was exactly what I had in mind as I boarded a Renfe train in Barcelona that would head north towards the French border. After a weekend of fun in Barcelona the time had come to explore other parts of Europe.
Immediately as I boarded the train in Barcelona Sants a street musician rushed onboard as well. He performed with his pan flute for a while and the South American melodies bouncing between the walls of the train car helped to create a fun and jovial atmosphere. That is, provided you do not observe your fellow Spanish daily commuters who seemed more bored than interested. As the musician left the train a few stops from Barcelona Sants I was immediately reminded of the daily life in Barcelona, with unfinished roadworks, plenty of graffiti and of course, commuters looking dreadfully bored. It was a Monday after all, but for me a Monday with a week full of fun to come. So I shrugged my shoulders at the boredom of others as the train closed in on the border with only a few passengers left in my train car.
The ride from Barcelona to the border village Cerbere is a 2,5 hour long pleasant excursion through flat landscape before approaching the border where hills take over from the flat landscape and encircle the train track. On my way to the border village I was introduced to the suburbs of Barcelona with many small villages rushing past the train as it worked its way northward. The scenery was not that glossy at all as the suburbs of Barcelona are a stark contrast to the photos of beaches and fun that is so well associated with central Barcelona. I was greeted by many rundown train stations covered in graffiti greet the train in the smaller rundown train stations that exist around Barcelona. Yet, this is part of the enjoyment with riding in regional trains, because you are exposed to realities of other people living in other cultures. You may think that Europe is all the same, but I say the opposite, it is really the small differences in people’s behaviour and mindsets that are even moreso visible when looking at, say, graffiti.
The landscape improved with lush rolling hills that crowded closer to one another as I approached the border. The hills became especially noticeable after Girona. After Girona a vast expanse of flat land takes over and the Pyrenees hover over the horizon, as nature’s own way of drawing a border between France and Spain.
As I entered Cerbere and had to change trains, the train station was as deserted as a single guy in a cosmetics shop. Not many people seemed to be heading the same way as I was that day in early May. The change to a French SNCF train went swiftly and I could only see three other people changing between the Renfe train and the SNCF train. The journey then continued with riding into the south of France, with my mind set on reaching Montpellier by early afternoon.
There are several small French villages along the coast, many with day travellers chasing the sun and water fun. As I passed by places such as Port-Vendres, Angeles-sur-Mer, and Perpignan, it became obvious that many younger people travel with train a few kilometers to hit the beach. I could see why. The weather was perfect, not one cloud in the sky and a blazing sun urging one to wear sunglasses to avoid the constant squinting. The couple of hours to Montpellier by train proved to be rewarding with a lush landscape and the constant change of fellow travellers, all who were carrying small backpacks and obviously heading from the beach back to their own hometowns. This was very noticeable when passing through Narbonnes and Beziers.
When getting off at Montpellier the first observation was the air which was tinted by the scent of sea. The city is close to the sea, a realization which the humid air reinforces so well. The gentle warm wafts of air would greet me everywhere around the city and I could discern the smell of the Mediterranean sea not far off. The city itself has a fairly small center, with the long street Rue de Maguelone leaving the train station and sloping upward to Place de la Comedie.
After a couple of days of merriment in Montpellier it was time to move on. The ride from Montpellier to Strasbourg is long, slightly too long. Five hours of rolling through the south of France before entering the Alsace region and the castles of Colmar region are visible against the skyline.
This stretch of railroad is very scenic and I highly recommend it for someone who wants to get a taste of French scenery. I remained in Strasbourg longer than in Montpellier, as it is a smaller city but has a very rustic feeling to it.
When finally packing my backpack in preparation for moving on I checked out the possibilities to reach Amsterdam. I was off to a flying start as the train journey from Strasbourg to Offenburg only takes about 20 minutes. You cross the river Rhine and all of a sudden the speaker announcements are in German and French. Welcome to Germany. The distance between Strasbourg and Offenburg is that short.
The stop in Offenburg was a short one. Eight precious minutes between getting of one train before getting on the next train that will take me to Frankfurt. In the ICE train the train experience changed its nature, from that of a quieter haul across the border to a long drawn journey at a high speed. With German efficiency the ICE train rushed through Karlsruhe and onward.
The experience was heightened by the large size coffee a service lady sold me soon after embarking. It did seem as we were going faster for each sip! Hersclisher schön!!
Before I knew it, I was surrounded by a group of old ladies, chatting away merrily in German. I suppose I stood out with my backpack huddled next to my legs and my laptop unfolded with me tapping away at the keyboard. The lady next to me gave me a curious look before asking in broken English where I’m from. Minutes later we were sharing travel observations from Strasbourg where she travelled many times before and is very keen to ask me which restaurants I went to there (none, as it happens) or if I did see the cathedral (yes, but briefly, and I had the photos in my mobile phone to prove it).
This lady’s demeanour and jolly inquisitive nature brought to mind the travel quote from Stephen Birnbaum, “The next best thing to being rich is travelling as though you were.” I can’t but agree more as I was getting a quick lesson in German and exchanged some phrases in Swedish with this lady. Travelling by train is a social thing, or at least can be. The conversation came to an abrupt end when we arrived at Karlsruhe and her travel mates shouted and laughed as they jostled to get off the train. Their excitement certainly rubbed off and when the train sped on towards Frankfurt the lingering jolly atmosphere remained in the train car with me and my cappuccino.
Frankfurt and a Final Leg
Frankfurt is one of the major railway hubs in western Europe. From here you can reach destinations such as Cologne and Düsseldorf. The city also serves as an excellent stepping stone to Amsterdam. After an additional few hours on a train rushing through northern Germany I entered little Netherlands and sped through towards the coast and Amsterdam, also known as the Venice of the north.
A Few Comments
Some prefer to travel alone while others want to travel with a partner or friends. Whatever your fancy is, you can find people to chat up during the longer passages along European railways.
Let’s face it, there are hundreds of small towns in Europe where you can admire architecture, picturesque environments that are windows into interesting history, as well as restaurants that have withstood the march of fast food and instead serve local culinary delights. One of my aims was therefore to avoid larger well known cities. This was also easily achieved after a few days in Barcelona heading north through France.
Trains in France, Germany, and Spain
The InterRail pass covers all regional trains so you do not need seat reservations. If you want to travel with high speed trains you need to reserve seats in advance and this can be expensive. The regional trains are much easier to get around with although they take considerably more time. Regional trains are handled by national train services and you will therefore switch between train companies as you travel between countries.
In this article I passed through areas of Spain, France, Germany and Netherlands, all within three days of actual travel time. The possibilities for train routes are many and you can combine your train journey to a unique experience every time you decide it is time to explore Europe by rail.