There is a wonderful moment at the start of every train journey when you arrive at the station to discover what the next short chapter of your life is going to look like. Will it be this?
As regular readers of this blog know, in 2013 I traveled 6000 miles, mostly by rail through Eastern Europe, and after the “stolen” passports at the Hungarian border, the Gypsy train in rural Transylvania, and the ferocious Bulgarian immigration official (if that’s really what he was), I know that anything can happen. And to me, that’s the delight of train travel. You never know what’s going to show up on the platform, in your compartment, or upon arrival at your destination. As Evelyn Waugh put it in Black Mischief, “One learnt to expect anything, but was always surprised.”
I recently had the opportunity to discuss the unexpected delights of railway journeys with one of the most famous train travelers of our era, Mark Smith, better known as The Man in Seat 61. During a management career with British Rail, he was much struck by A) the advantages of going places by train, and B) the frustration of dealing with a travel industry that, as he put it, “only wants to sell you flights, flights, car hire, and more flights.” He launched a personal crusade via a website designed to inspire and assist railway travelers, and the hobby grew into a career that’s made him a household name among train buffs around the world.
What is it, I asked Mark, that so many people just don’t get about rail travel?
“People don't understand that by train (and for that matter, ship) the journey itself can be interesting, fun, romantic, adventurous, and an integral part of your experience,” he replied. “It's not just about 'getting there'! For those who have only experienced watching the hands on their watch go round on a long-haul flight, or droning down an eyesore motorway, that can be hard to grasp!”
The richer experience of a train journey can teach us a lot more than we’d learn from hours of in-flight movies. “Travel," he pointed out, "broadens the mind — at least it does by train and other local transport, as they reflect the country and culture through which you pass, and there's both the time and space to interact with other people.”
Sometimes those interactions take surprising turns. “I got engaged on a train,” he told me. “To my girlfriend of just 6 months, without anything pre-planned. It was the Venice Simplon Orient Express, somewhere in the Brenner Pass, and I don't even remember who said what exactly to whom. But it was a very special train and it weaved its special magic and here I am ten years later with a wife, two kids, a cat, and a mortgage.”
When asked for his most valuable travel tip, Mark advised, “Never travel without a good book and a corkscrew...” Words to live by!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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