Train travel in Europe is a wonderful way to get from city to city or even country to country.  The train system is old but upgrades to tracks, plus high speed trains, keep it a great way to travel. Even with the advent of very cheap regional airlines, some of which are more akin to traveling by Greyhound bus with wings, we prefer trains.  Most trains, even the old ones, have a charm that no bus could offer.  Being such an old system means it’s an extensive system; you can get just about anywhere albeit you may have to change trains more than a couple times for long distances between countries. But the convenience of traveling by train far outweighs any downsides; no TSA-type security (you just hop on board); dining cars with decent food and great conversation; most stations are located in the city center so unlike airports it’s easy and quick getting to your hotel; there’s always a TA (travel assistance) office, plenty of ATM’s, shops and restaurants.  It’s just a fun way to travel.

We here at home could benefit from a national train system but, since long distance travel started over a hundred years ago, we’ve focused on traveling by car and our rail system just never developed.  Too bad; train travel can be convenient, can cut down on excessive emissions and encourage more people to explore their country.

Madrid train station

Trains and train stations in Europe run from the classic to the run down.  We’ve been to huge, beautiful train stations in major cities such as Paris, Madrid and Milan, to stations that have a small old building and a couple tracks.  Some of these small stations can be quite beautiful such as the one in Toledo, Spain whose interior walls and floor were made of elaborate tile work.  The train station in Madrid, huge and classic, had a man made pond in its center that is home to hundreds of turtles, perhaps at first a good idea but who knew turtles multiply like rabbits.  The Amsterdam train station is hectic and used by so many commuters that attached is a massive three story bicycle parking lot that was jammed with bikes when we visited.  The train station in Milan was absolutely gorgeous; beautiful, classic architecture befitting a museum or opera house.  The train stations we visited in Vienna were more like shopping malls with train tracks running through the center.

Gare du Nord, Paris

041314_7810There can be some kinks in this form of transportation, most often when traveling from country to country because each has their own system.  We’ve had some interesting experiences while traveling by train.  Recently we were traveling from Budapest to Vienna and found that those on our train traveling within Hungary had a reserved seat and those on the same train traveling international (as we were) were not assigned seats.  We found ourselves in a coach that was about half and half so international travelers had to keep moving from seat to seat.  And then there was the time in Le Spezia, Italy outside of Cinque Terra; they kept changing the track number for our train which had us running up and down stairs and through corridors, schlepping too many pounds of luggage….think Keystone Cops.  Italy also has train strikes every so often, but you know when they’re coming so you just need to plan accordingly.  And then there was the time traveling between villages in Cinque Terra where we were almost crushed by the mobs of tourists; the train was only an hour late (Italy is the only country we’ve traveled by train that isn’t punctual; all other countries have departure and arrival times down to the minute).

On our recent trip to Eastern Europe we had a most interesting train related experience.  We were traveling between Prague and Warsaw, quite a long distance.  I decided to splurge  purchasing first class tickets for the long journey.  In hind sight we should have taken a commuter airline, but who knew the events that would transpire.  Our train departed Prague about 2:30 in the afternoon and was scheduled to arrive in Warsaw about eight hours later.  We had already contacted our Warsaw hotel with our travel plans so they’d know we would be checking in late in the evening.

We were on the first class coach in a six-seat room all to ourselves; comfortable, new leather seats, climate control…it was nice.  All was going well.  About two and a half hours after leaving Warsaw the train stopped in the middle of no where.  We waited and waited for word from train staff about the delay.  No one seemed to know what was going on.  After a half hour or so we were told that there was a mechanical problem with the train.  Another half hour and we’re still sitting with the Polish countryside as a backdrop from our coach window.  Finally we’re told that the problem was actually with the track, not the train itself.  Apparently the cold temps had done something to the tracks….seemed quite suspicious to us as it wasn’t that cold.  After a few more minutes the engineer appeared telling us the train was going to split apart, half continuing its route within the Czech Republic and our half continuing on to Warsaw.  That was fine, but (this was a big BUT) we were on the wrong end of the train and would need to change coaches to continue our journey.  So we bundled up, retrieved our luggage and were escorted to the very rear of the train into a first class coach which was nowhere near as new and comfy.  Oh well, at least we’d be on our way.

Soon the train was moving.  It was a bit strange, almost creepy, that it appeared we were the only passengers in this coach….it was empty.  Of course one starts to have sinister thoughts of kidnap and intrigue; here we are on an empty train, it’s night, we really had no way of knowing where we were, no train employees….it was eerie.  We had no choice but to stay the course and, after what seemed like an eternity, to our great relief we finally arrive at the Central Warsaw train station.

Here it is midnight in a strange city and a deserted train station.  We knew we would have to take a taxi to our hotel but had read about unscrupulous taxi drivers who took advantage of travelers just like us.  But luck would have it there was actually one other passenger on our coach.  As we exited the train our fellow passenger, a middle aged man very nicely dressed, asked in perfect English but with an obvious Polish accent where we were staying .  I pulled up a street map on my phone with our hotel location highlighted.  He studied the map for several seconds and then asked how we intended to get there.  He had a very skeptical expression when I told him by taxi and he immediately said ‘follow me’, and we promptly followed his command.  We walked through the empty train station, out to the taxi stand where our new friend had a brief conversation with a taxi driver.  I thought he was merely instructing the driver where to take us and not to rip us off. At that point I remembered we had no Polish currency to pay for the taxi (planned on hitting the ATM at the train station) and asked our friend if the driver would take euros….he said not to worry….OK?!?  Like two obedient sheep we loaded our luggage, got in the back seat while to our surprise our friend got in the front.  Now I understood what was happening; it was a well planned plot by these two Poles to kidnap a couple Americans hoping for a big ransom… could I have been so blind as to not figure this out hours ago when our train was first delayed.  These people were sneaky!

But alas, it was nothing like that.  Our well dressed Polish friend was actually escorting us to our hotel making sure nothing sinister happened.  On the short drive there he mentioned something about his being a member of the Polish Parliament.  A few minutes later we’re standing in front of our hotel, our friend refusing to take any money for the cab ride and wishing us happy stay in Warsaw….what a kind act.  Although the temperatures were in the low twenties we were warm from such generosity.  Once we finally woke someone in our hotel to let us in we settled into our room not believing how such a long drudge of a day ended on such a positive note.

Next morning we finally pulled ourselves out of bed not knowing if the events of the night before actually happened or could we both have had the same dream.  To confirm that it wasn’t a dream we got on our iPads and did a Google search for the Polish Parliament and, lo and behold, there was our friend, a full fledged member of that institution.  All we could say is “wow, what are the chances”?!?

I’ll end with this poem, perhaps a bit sappy, but appropriate;                                                     “My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing,
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Selected Poetry

Want to read more about the art of train travel check out Paul Theroux, an author who has written extensively on this subject.

Paris '09_0121
Waiting for train to Versailles in Paris



2 thoughts on “The Kindness of Strangers

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