“Stop! Our passports! Stop the train!” we shouted out the window.
The Hungarian-Romanian border is no place to lose your passport, and it had been with some reluctance that we’d turned ours over to a couple of burly men in uniform who'd come on board, headed directly for our compartment, taken our passports (and no one else's), disembarked, and disappeared into the station. We weren’t even sure which country we were in. Had their badges said bevándorlási tiszt or ofițerul de imigrare? I didn’t have a clue.
Meanwhile, the station attendant whiled away a quarter of an hour checking the brakes, slamming doors, and finally waving his paddle to indicate the train was ready to move on. Rich and I heard the engine start and felt a jolt, and that’s when we leaned out the window shrieking, “Our passports! Stop the train! Passports!”
Only then did we realize that our part of the train wasn’t, in fact, going anywhere. The OK-to-go signal was for the back half of the train, which was separating from our section and returning to Hungary. The fact that everyone on the station platform knew this, and had doubtless seen this little drama enacted countless times, didn’t seem to diminish their innocent delight in watching us make fools of ourselves. Luckily, we’ve taken so many linguistic and cultural pratfalls by now that we didn’t hesitate to join in the general merriment.
Rich and I have been jumping on and off trains since August 4; so far, we’ve logged 2416 rail miles (3688 km), and we still feel a little thrill every time we step into a railway station. It’s a civilized form of travel from a more civilized age. There are no security lines, no x-ray machines, no one demanding that you take off your shoes or stand spread eagled like a criminal while strangers run wands – or their hands – all over your body. With a pre-paid pass, you simply stroll into the station and onto your train.
If you’re thinking about strolling onto European trains any time soon, here are a few tips you might find useful.
A flat-rate train pass is great if you’re traveling more than a month and planning to visit lots of different cities and/or countries. There’s InterRail for EU residents, EurRail for everyone else. Each offers roughly similar benefits and costs, although there are various plans, and you’ll want to study the fine print. EurRail, for instance, covers much of Europe except, inexplicably, Poland, Slovenia, and Montenegro. InterRail doesn’t include travel in your home country. A few portions of the journey may require reservations, and there can be extra fees for high-speed and overnight trains. For some reason, the EurRail pass is printed on flimsy paper so a plastic case is a must.
Punctuality will vary where you least expect it; Austria’s trains proved less reliable than (gasp!) Spain’s. And even the highly efficient iRail app can’t keep up with all the sudden schedule revisions; we’ve occasionally had to re-route completely due to sudden, mysterious disappearances of scheduled trains, and it’s not uncommon that the five stops listed can become ten or twenty, contributing to a late arrival. So we check and re-check schedules on the Internet, drop by the train station the day before to confirm, then arrive early and check again. And while we have, astonishingly, made several five-minute connections, we always check to see if there’s a later train, in case we don’t.
I’ve posted on this before, but it bears repeating: never chase a missed train; get a pastry and wait for the next one. In fact, we spend a lot of time in station cafés, not so much because of missed or changed trains, but because we follow the wisdom of Wandering Earl, who always stops for coffee on arrival in a station. Taking a few minutes to have coffee (or juice, Coke, beer, or even a meal) lets you regroup, confirm the route to the hotel, and absorb the atmosphere of this new place before you go charging out into it.
Right now, Rich and I are absorbing the atmosphere in the charming Rumanian city of Oradea, one of Europe's hidden gems. Tomorrow we’ll be heading deep into the Transylvanian mountains, on smaller and smaller trains, with less and less certainty that there will be electricity, let alone WiFi, for the next couple of weeks. We’ll be back in touch when we can, with stories about taking a slow train through Transylvania...
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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