When I was a teenager, InterRail (Eurail for Europeans) was for 14 – 18 year-olds. Flying was expensive then; budget airlines didn’t exist (really, young’uns!), and InterRail was the cheapest way to get to southern Europe, sleeping on the floor all the way.
Well, things have changed. And to prove that, the good folks at InterRail invited me to try their service from north to south, from Scandinavia to Italy. So a few weeks ago, I hit the rails, along with two Dutch and three Swedish travel journalists and bloggers. We quickly discovered that InterRail in 2014 means much more than sleeping on hard train floors from Oslo to Athens. There’s even 1st class!
My three-day journey began in Copenhagen, onwards to Hamburg and then along the length of Germany to Munich, in time for a bit of early Oktoberfest celebrations. The others continued to la bella Venezia, whereas I, alas, had somewhere else to be, and had to forfeit the most stunning stretch of all, across the Alps… *mustn’t grumble*
Did I enjoy it? Most emphatically yes. I adore travelling by train. Listening to the clickity-clack of the wheels rumbling across the tracks, taking in the landscape as it drifts past my window, thinking of nothing in particular. It’s rhythmic, peaceful – and dreamily, deliciously nostalgic.
I feel I’m travelling again. Flying has lost that.
Todays trains are a world away from those of days gone by. Rarely is there a razor-sharp Belgian detective on board. The trains are not powered by steam (which, let’s face it, means you can open the windows and not risk various lung ailments and having your clothes covered in soot). And let’s not forget toilets. Despite the modern comforts, there’s still something inherently romantic about train travel, isn’t there? Best of all, I feel I’m traveling again. Flying has lost that.
…but let’s be pragmatic for a minute
I live in a long, thin country where distances are great, especially in the north. Driving 5 hours to go to the cinema doesn’t raise eyebrows. But even in Norway, train travel can sometimes be almost as quick as flying; it certainly is between my hometown Drammen and Bergen. In mainland Europe, the train is frequently quicker. Paris to Brussels takes about 3 hours by train. How would you rather spend 3 hours?
- travel from city centre to airport
- check-in and queue at security
- wait at gate
- get up in the air and then back down
- wait for luggage
- travel from airport to city centre
- relax on the train all the way
Should be an easy choice, really; even before you consider the environmental impact of your journey.
Copenhagen – Hamburg
Back to our journey: after a pleasant stay at a little family-operated hotel near the railway station, we leave Copenhagen at about 9.30am. DSB, the Danish State Railways, take us all the way to Hamburg, a 4.5-hour jaunt, broken up by… a ferry crossing!
That’s right, our particular stretch of rail includes crossing the Fehmarn Belt. At Rødby in southern Denmark, the train rolls onto the ferry, then rolls off again about 45 minutes later, in Germany. During the crossing, we cannot remain on board the train (for security reasons). We opt for a quick lunch at the buffet restaurant, an even quicker peek in the ever-present duty free shops, and a spot of fresh air at the open-air top deck. All in all, a pleasant little break.
(A fixed link crossing is in the works, with tunnels replacing the ferry link. Opening is scheduled for 2020, so if you want the train-on-the-ferry experience, you still have time).
We arrive mid-afternoon and spend the rest of the day wandering about Hamburg.
Hamburg – Munich
Next morning, I’m up bright and early for the long stretch across Germany, this time travelling with Deutsche Bahn, the German national train service. In a competition between DSB and Deutsche Bahn, Germany wins. Especially for service. Waiters bring you coffee and hand out opera mints, and there’s a proper restaurant car, with starched white table clothes and an a la carte menu: I had smoked salmon: delicious!
As we move south, the scenery changes. We’re leaving the flat expanses of the North European Plain behind, and enter rugged hill country, then comes Munich.
Not really. The two trains I travelled on had no wifi, and only sporadic mobile coverage. Wifi is normally right up there with food and shelter, but once you accept there isn’t any, it feels oddly liberating. No pressure to communicate with the outside world; just me and my fellow passengers inside a bubble in motion.
InterRail has a flexible ticketing system. There are global passes and one-country passes; continuous passes, and days-within-days passes. I had a 5-day global pass, to be used within a 10-day period. Other options include 10 days to be used within 22 days. The idea is that you might not want to travel every day. Makes sense. Have a look at the InterRail webpage for up-to-date prices. My journey, Copenhagen – Hamburg – Munich, took about 11 hours. Here are a few other route examples with total travelling time:
- Vienna – Budapest – Ljubljana, about 7 hours
- Paris – Geneva – Milan – Venice, about 11 hours
- Amsterdam – Nürnberg – Prague, about 11 hours
How about you? Have you travelled around in Europe by train?
Disclosure: Along the tracks of Northern Europe, I was a guest of InterRail. All opinions are entirely my own, as ever.