Train travel connects the destination dots in Europe

An eight-train odyssey crossing three countries over nine days featured leisurely stopovers and fine scenery

My wife, Laurel, and I had laid out an idiosyncratic European itinerary for our trip last fall: to London for theater, to Paris to scout Ernest Hemingway's long-ago haunts, to Friedrichshafen, Germany, for the Zeppelin Museum, and finally to Hamburg to sail home on the Queen Mary 2.

We had no question about how to connect these disparate map points — by rail, because for us one of the joys of traveling in Europe is that trains can take us almost anywhere. Besides that, we find train travel relaxing and just plain fun.

We pieced together an eight-train (and one boat) odyssey, a three-country journey that would be spread over nine days, feature leisurely stopovers and fine scenery and include three premier high-speed rail services: the Eurostar, the French TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) and the German ICE (InterCity Express).


It would be hard to find a more auspicious place to begin than London's gloriously Victorian St. Pancras station, built in 1868 and rebuilt in 2007 to house the Eurostar service though the Channel Tunnel to Paris and Brussels.

It was here, in this magnificent brick pile, that we had our first taste of European rail efficiency. Our seats on the Eurostar were in car nine, and there was the numeral, painted in blue and yellow on the platform, at the vestibule door: "Coach/Voiture 9."

At 12:25 p.m. — right on time — we began rolling on our two-hour, 22-minute journey to Paris' Gare du Nord at speeds up to 186 mph. All this was impressive, but our train's grimy exterior was not.

We were traveling in standard premier class, which struck us as an oxymoron, but, in fact, there is a more rarefied level of service: business premier, with three-course meals designed by Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc and dedicated lounges at the terminals.

Our lunch, which the car attendant brought to our table for two, was credible: turkey roulade with black-eyed peas and red peppers vinaigrette, red wine and chocolate-glazed carrot cake.

The traverse of the 31-mile-long Chunnel is a pitch-dark nonevent, but there was something pleasantly mind-bending about being in another country when we re-emerged.

As houses with orange-tiled roofs, churches, their spires exclamation points in villages, and farms passed in a blur, we remembered that Europe's high-speed trains are not the best for viewing scenery — but who would want to travel between London and Paris any other way?


After six days in Paris it was time to enjoy both the tortoise and the hare — the hare first.

At the Gare de l'Est, the TGV whisked us off to Karlsruhe, in southwest Germany, the first leg of a three-train journey that day to Friedrichshafen, a picturesque city on the shores of Lake Constance where we would spend two nights.

This double-deck train was trim and comfortable, its dark blue upholstery fresh, with Moderne lamps on each table. We were traveling international first class under the banner of Alleo, a joint venture of SNCF, the French national railway, and Deutsche Bahn, the German equivalent, appropriate because the train crossed their border.

I'd wondered why our seat reservations cost $43, $30 more than usual, until I looked carefully and read repas inclus, or meal included. This turned out to be a color-themed "meal box," odd but tasty. Our Menu Rouge, or Red Menu, featured a starter of red cabbage, chives and sliced cherry tomatoes; a main dish of lamb fillet with tomato sauce and a quiche with chorizo, goat cheese and sweet pepper; and a dessert of red berries and shortbread. The wine was rosé. We assumed other colors were featured on other days.

It was hard not to be mesmerized by the digital readout on our car's bulkhead, which I saw top out at 320 kilometers per hour (nearly 200 mph), with sustained running at 300-plus, which had us racing past speeding cars on the highway as if they were standing still.

We switched trains at Karlsruhe for the tortoise, which I liked even better. The Schwarzwald, or Black Forest train, would take us to Radolfzell over the corkscrewing Black Forest Railway, one of Germany's most scenic mountain routes. Our seats were in a traditional European six-passenger compartment, our only companion a middle-age backpacking Australian.

We were glued to the window throughout this 93-mile journey, where stretches of straight track were rare and there were tunnels by the dozen. The landscape was by turns bucolic, with grassy fields, and mysterious, with views through the dense, dark foliage as our train gained altitude and swung across viaducts.

We were sorry when the long tunnel into St. Georgen signaled the end of the mountain run. At Radolfzell, where we changed to our third train of the day, the local to Friedrichshafen, the platform was awash in young men in lederhosen and women in dirndls, well into the celebration of the next day's national holiday commemorating Germany's 1990 reunification.


The next morning we left Friedrichshafen in a plain-vanilla regional train — the fifth of our journey — and settled comfortably in facing single seats on the upper level of a double-deck car. The train sped along at a pace that by U.S. standards would be considered brisk but was just right for watching the countryside.

We were more than ready for lunch by the time we reached Stuttgart, where we would transfer to a better train (we thought), the InterCity Allgau, which would have a dining car.

We boarded, but where was the diner?

"Today we had a problem," the conductor said as he examined our passes. "You can get ordinary drinks; no tea or coffee," sold from a second-class compartment in the next car. We found only water, cola and apple juice in the near-empty rack. So much for lunch.

Our dinner that evening would make up for it. After a transfer at Mainz for a short trip on a local train to Bingen, we climbed the stairs from the station and found ourselves at Vinothek Bingen am Rhein, a wine shop and café with riverside tables where we sampled crisp local Rieslings while waiting for the Goethe. The century-old (though diesel-ized) paddle steamer would take us on a 31/2 -hour voyage on the Rhine to Koblenz, past some of the river's most eye-popping scenery.

Clouds covered the sun and, in what we'd learned was the custom of the country, the server appeared with lap robes.

Aboard the Goethe, we first sat on the forward deck, taking in the vine-covered hillsides, the successions of small villages, the castles, the river traffic, the passenger and freight trains that sped by on tracks flanking the river. When the evening chill drove us inside, we found a window table in the forward saloon and ordered a bottle of Jubilee Riesling, labeled to commemorate the boat's 100th birthday, and fried sausage with onions and apples. I calculated that we made voyage at roughly 11 mph; the TGV had sped us along about 18 times faster, exhilarating to be sure, but we wouldn't want to have missed the Goethe.


The next day, after an overnight in Koblenz, we boarded an InterCity Express for the eighth — and final — train ride of our trip.

Early in our five-hour journey to Hamburg, we'd have glimpses of the Rhine. Later, we'd have lunch — in a genuine dining car, with tables at which you can sit down, an extensive menu and a waiter to bring your food.

Amid the glories of European rail travel, especially high speed, true diners are a relative rarity. This one was bright and airy, with skylights. I ordered veal and pork meatballs in caper sauce, a family favorite, and Laurel, chanterelle with dumplings. We drank beer. We couldn't have been happier.

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