by Janie Robinson
Courtesy of Vogel SP/iStock - Crossing Switzerland's Lanswasser Viaduct
The train whistle calls, and Eurail pass in hand I climb aboard, ready for the romance and frisson – that shivery tingle of rail travel. I snuggle in for wonderful window views of breath-taking scenery, intimate glimpses of everyday European life and whistle-stops in the heart of the continent’s famed cities. From cuddling in romantic Paris to discovering Rome’s ancient secrets, then savoring the sensory splendor of Barcelona– let the journey begin!
We whisk our way to romance aboard the Thalys international high-speed train enroute to Paris.
Traveling at incredible speeds of 180 miles per hour (300 km/hr) through northern France, I miss that gentle sway and clickety-clack of the good old days. But the traditional romance of the rail is still obviously alive and well onboard these luxurious trains bulleting through Europe.
Courtesy of Dennis Van De Water/iStock - Thalys high speed trainA sixty-something couple across the aisle hold hands as they watch the world whizz by. A texting twenty-something couple stop for kisses between tweets.
Not surprisingly, a recent study in the U.K. has found train travel to be the most romantic form of transportation. In fact, one in 10 people surveyed said they’d fallen in love while riding the rails. And where better to find romance than enroute to the ‘City of Love’.
From starry-eyed lovers in elegant restaurants to Eiffel Tower-inspired marriage proposals, Paris has long been considered the most romantic city in the world.
Courtesy of Jan Kranendonk/iStock - Le Train Bleu Restaurant, Gare de Lyon, Paris
“Paris still lives in the romantic age of 19th century,” says tour guide and author of A Passion for Paris, David Downey. “One of the wonderful things about Paris is that you have this magic of the past that is always present. The city spirals out like a snail shell and each neighborhood is different and unpredictable with a cozy, inviting, intimate feel to it.”
We wave “au revoir” to Paris from beautiful Gare de Lyon, a classic train station that conjures up dreamy images of countless greetings and farewells past and present. Built for the World Exposition in 1900, Gare de Lyon is known for its beautiful clock-tower that resembles Big Ben, and its own famous gilded queen of romantic railway station restaurants, Le Train Bleu.
ItaliaRail’s Frecciargento high-speed trains (or “arrows” as they are known by the locals), zip us through Northern Italy to Rome to unlock the mysteries of Italy’s Eternal City.
Enroute, I unlock the modern day mystery of Eurail’s free Rail Planner app, with a little help from a lovely young Canadian. “You just download the app on your phone and it works even if you don't have WiFi!” says Courtney McFadden, traveling with a Eurail Global Pass on a 5-week European backpacking trip with her three girlfriends. “You simply type in where you are traveling to and from, and what date, then the app tells you all of the times the train is departing.”
Courtesy of Giorgio Magini/iStock
According to my newly discovered app, our train arrives right on time in the heart of Ancient Rome and we step off the platform into the Eternal City.
“Rome has many hidden oases, so if you see a door that’s open, be sure to look in,” encourages guide Stuart Harvey leading us into the Basilica of Saint Clement. “Come through a doorway and you get this wonderful surprise.”
Ancient Rome comes alive as we explore the almost 2800 year old “incredibly walkable city” with Harvey, discovering many of these hidden surprises and ancient secrets of Rome’s world-famous sites up close.
“This 12th century church is absolutely beautiful but it’s what’s underneath that’s so important,” says Harvey, leading us past the Basilica of Saint Clement’s spectacular mosaics and frescoes to descend 2000 years into the world of first century Rome. “These lower levels were discovered in the late 1800’s when they started digging to repair sagging floors of the current church,” our guide’s voice echoes eerily off vaulted brick ceilings, columns and original frescoes of a 4th century church. Lower still, we climb down to what would have been street level in ancient Rome, walking through someone’s late first century home. “If this is under this church, then it’s under everything,” says Harvey of Rome’s ancient underground city of pagan temples, baths, imperial villas, apartments and theaters.
Take a ‘mini-Mediterranean cruise’ using your Eurail pass for great deals on fares aboard Grimaldi Lines ferries, from Rome’s port of Civitavecchia to beautiful Barcelona. Our crossing is packed with excited students on spring break, so my suite is a welcome oasis amid the youthful mayhem on this overnight cruise.
Accommodations on board the M/V Roma range from comfortable suites to bunk bed-lined cabins and reclining seats. “We’re happy with our Junior Suite and figured out it was good value when compared to air fares and a night’s accommodation for three people,” say a couple onboard with their young child.
I figure out that being in a suite means you don’t have to vacate the room as early as those in the regular cabins, so disembarking in Barcelona is a breeze too.
Courtesy of Inigofotografia/iStock - Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
This quirky, cosmopolitan capital of Spain’s Catalonia region is a fun and friendly feast for the senses - the tantalizing smells from a tiny tapas bar, the feel of sun-kissed sand on my winter- white toes, gazing up in wonder at Gaudí’s fantastical Sagrada Familia church, the music and majesty of The Magic Fountain of Montjuïc, all topped with a tasty seafood paella dish created in a Barcelona cooking class.
With one last day left on my Eurail pass, I’m off to explore more of charming Catalonia. There’s the lofty Monastery of Montserrat, Salvador Dalí's Theater-Museum in Figueres and a whistle stop at Girona’s romantic medieval city.
Or maybe I’ll just snuggle in onboard and watch the world go by, perfectly framed through my train window.
- Eurail Pass in hand,you can travel from the top of Sweden to the tip of Turkey these days, covering 155,000 miles (250,000 kilometers) across 28 countries, with great discounts on European ferry crossings too.
- North American travelers must purchase their Eurail passes before arriving in Europe, with four types of passes to choose from: One Country, Select, Regional, Global. For more information visit www.eurailgroup.org
Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Spring/Summer 2016 issue.