What you will learn on a 24-hour train journey through Europe
Tpick up a map of Europe, find Paris, and draw a line to the east. How long can you get a full day and night? With the right combination of trains and a lot of patience, it is possible to cross France and Germany, then Austria, Hungary and into Romania. That country’s second largest city, Cluj-Napoca, lies 1,597km (992 miles) as the crow flies from Paris, or 2,100km as the road bends. The view from the trains – some screeching, others splashing along – provides an opportunity for reflection. A trip of the same length to Paris-Cluj in America, from New York City to Topeka, Kansas, would take 32 hours; in China, the 1,651km journey from Shanghai to Chengdu takes less than 12 hours. Here’s what you can find out about Europe in 23 hours and 59 minutes looking out of a train window.
Visiting places helps dispel stereotypes about them. As the train leaves the Gare de l’Est at 7:20 am, Parisians are queuing for Starbucks: so much for the lazy French eyeing American imports.
Moving through the east of France on a TGV it is a study in comparison. On the one hand you feel the full strength of the renewal Public, which first installed high-speed rail four decades ago. But in the Champagne region – through which the train passes at more than 300km/h – the same heavy state governs processes from the 17th century to make sparkling wines. The French want both progress and time to stand.
When it comes to rail travel, everything is faster from France: the further east in Europe you go, the slower the trains. It takes just shy of two hours to travel 395km from Paris to Strasbourg. The onward journey to Frankfurt takes just as long to cover half the distance. Go further east and things slow down even more.
Due to travel without a passport over most of the EU these days, it’s hard to tell where one country ends and the other begins. At train station platforms, harsh French accents are replaced by German umlauts (down the track more unusual accents appear: Tápiószecső, Măgeşti). The most obvious sign that a border has been crossed is everyone in the train carriage receiving a text message from their mobile phone carrier welcoming them to Germany.
If you need to change trains, do so in small towns: walking across the platform is usually enough. Places like Frankfurt have stations at either end of the city. The walk between them does not attract much attention other than a large sculpture with a euro sign (€) outside the offices of the European Central Bank – it hardly attracts the world.
West Germany is part of what French geographers call the “Blue Banana”, an unstoppable megalopolis stretching from Liverpool to Milan via Amsterdam. With the option, eat on German trains. Their restaurant cars have red leather banquettes, where uniformed staff serve the food on real china. The LinneintopfA tasty lentil-and-sausage stew is a popular traveler’s fare. Bitburger’s local beer comes poured into a properly branded glass, not a plastic cup.
In other words, Germany is the Achilles heel of long distance travel in Europe. Few pan-continental journeys can be avoided. But his preoccupation with fiscal justice has left him with broken infrastructure, including his rail lines. Last year a third of Deutsche Bahn trains ran late – another punctured stereotype. Booking connecting rail journeys is an act of faith. The seriousness of the road system comes to life when false signals force the driver to slam on the brakes from time to time. This causes damage to the restaurant car. “Keep eating!” the waiter screams, “PUT YOUR GLASS!”
Long-haul flights make up lost time; long distance trains collect it. A plane that leaves 30 minutes late may land on schedule; by train you will be an hour off, so likely to miss what should be a comfortable connection in Vienna.
As you approach the border with Austria, the Danube comes into view. The line runs alongside it for 600km. Fortunately, Deutsche Bahn’s tardiness is matched by other operators. After pulling into Vienna an hour late – and a minute after the train to Cluj was due to depart – it’s a relief to learn that Romania’s national railway outfit cannot run its trains in time, more.
There is a resurgence of night trains in Europe, fueled by concerns about carbon-spewing aircraft. For now Vienna is the only center on the continent: the Dubai of couchettes. Every evening, trains leave Austria with open ground for coasts across Europe, from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.
In the areas southeast of Vienna, wind turbines are packed so densely that they look like hairbrushes with their bristles sticking up. Red lights atop their masts glow against the setting sun. Fewer turbines can be seen when the train arrives in Hungary, where the government dismisses green concerns as a Utopian awakening.
The fare from Vienna to Cluj is about 227 lei ($50) for the ticket, plus double that for a one-bed cabin. This features an en-suite bathroom, but… no food. There seems to be no restaurant car on overnight trains from Vienna to Cluj these days. Deutsche Bahn: everything is forgiven. A stop in Budapest is too short to find goulash.
Off the rails
You will find one of the last real borders in Europe between Hungary and Romania, which has not yet been approved in the Schengen zone. Bad luck: the train reaches its destination in the dead of night. If you think the Hungarian border guards are in no mood at 3:15 am, wait until you meet their Romanian counterparts at 3:30 am.
Central Europe is catching up with its more affluent western counterparts. But the process feels slow in Transylvania. A 4G a phone works perfectly, but you see horses working on the land, a throwback to another era. Railway stations are plastered with EU flags, evidence of “structural funds” past and present.
If you have a wrinkled shirt in your luggage, hang it up when you leave. The vibrations of the ride will kill your hips better than any iron. As the train arrives, change your watch one hour forward, to 8:19. Welcome to Cluj. ■
Read more from Charlemagne, our European politics columnist:
Spain shows some voters still want centrism (July 26)
Spat in Brussels exposes Europe to insularity (July 19)
Farewell to Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of Tiggerish Netherlands (July 13)
Also: How Charlemagne’s column got its name