I love traveling by train. To me, the trip is an adventure unto itself. In contrast, travel by plane or bus is just a means to an end (and usually a rather unpleasant one at that). My enthusiasm for train travel has been recently energized by the chapter in Paul Theroux’s book, “The Tao of Travel” dedicated to “The Pleasures of Railways.”
I think what makes train travel so different is the fact that you can freely move around and there is usually cool scenery. The entire atmosphere seems so much more stress-free than other types of travel, AND there’s usually a dining car! Something else I noticed about trains (and is oft repeated in Theroux’s book) is the fact that the people on-board seem to be happy, relaxed and talkative. I remember the conversation about Michelangelo’s David with the guys from San Fransisco on our train ride in Italy (as discussed in a previous post), as well as the spontaneous gift of beautiful boxed sweets from a Japanese gentleman we spoke with on a bullet train in Japan.
When we traveled in ’08 we traveled by train. We got a Eurail pass for two, which, for the most part, was super convenient and relatively economical (it doesn’t work perfectly for all trips, but can with proper planning). The interesting thing about Eurail passes is that, unless you are a student, they only come in first class (we always have/do travel in second class when we don’t have a pass, as do most people). There really is no need to travel in first class by train (and many trains don’t even have first class), as most train seats have more leg room than planes and there really aren’t very special amenities. (One exception is Thalys trains in Northwest Europe, in which there was free wifi and we were given a wine list and varieties of smoked salmon and other fine foods.) The small niceties of first class really can’t offset the sacrifices. When you are in first class, other than some well-to-do business types, most of the other people in first class are other tourists on Eurail passes! While I actually love meeting other tourists (and they usually speak English), you get a much better sense of a place and hear the native tongue in second class in a way you never do in first class (and you still get to meet other tourists). So, while I recommend Eurail passes for people traveling frequently and for long distances over a compact period of time, I suggest just buying second class tickets as you need them for everyone else.
This is another one of those occasions where I think “if I had known I was going to start a blog I would have taken pictures at a train station [grocery store] [market] [etc.].” I promise once I get to Italy I will routinely walk around with my camera (as much as I don’t want to look like a tourist). For now we must suffice with a couple of pictures I took out the window of trains in Switzerland and Croatia (when the trains slowed or stopped in the middle of nowhere for a minute) and a picture of a Trenitalia train and train ticket (this one is for a reserved ticket [the fast trains] with my car (“carrozza”) number and seat (“posti”)). Notice the Euro way to write the date: day first, then month (so this ticket was from April 7). And, yes, you are correct if you are asking “aren’t trains in Italy often late?” ( “in ritardo”) and “aren’t there sometimes random strikes that leave you in a lurch?”… but I’m still in my “We’re Moving to Italy!!!!” buzz and will deal with those realities at a later date…