22 Hours to cross Europe
Last week I had two things scheduled – a Monday afternoon meeting in Vienna and a workshop in Barcelona from Wednesday afternoon through Friday. With about 40 hours in between, it didn’t make sense to fly home and then back out again to Barcelona, so I made the perfectly logical conclusion that a train trip across Europe would be a great way to get there! Sure, there are relatively cheap non-stop flights from Vienna to Barcelona, but where’s the fun in that? While I’ve taken some trains here and there, I hadn’t yet made a real long-distance train trip in Europe yet – so this was my chance.
In total, the journey was right around a thousand miles – Google tells me that it would take 343 hours to walk it and more than 16 hours to drive it (with over 20 construction zones). So, 22 hours by train where I slept, ate, and got a fair amount of work done was a good option.
I started at the Wien Westbahnhof on EN 466, the EuroNight train Wiener Walzer from Budapest to Zurich. My train had started out at 7:10pm in Budapest and got into Vienna about 10pm for a 10:40pm departure. EuroNight is a brand for night sleeper trains in Europe – they are operated in a joint fashion by 17 different national railways. These are a modern (and, dare I say, far less romantic!) version of the classic sleeper trains of yore, like the Orient Express (in fact, some of the services follow a fair bit of that famous route). The longest routes are those to/from Moscow (separate trains to Amsterdam, Paris, and Basel via Minsk, Warsaw, and Berlin); other notable routes are Paris-Venice, Rome-Vienna, and Zurich-Prague. (Not to be outdone, the Germans also have their own brand, called City Night Line, which is another set of night trains that go to and through Germany).
My ticket was just under US$200 for the scheduled journey of just a bit over 9 hours and included a single sleeping compartment with a sink and a simple breakfast (but actually not too bad with fresh bread). Unfortunately, as often happens, the temperature was tough; it was about 1000 degrees when I boarded, but about 30 minutes after leaving it started to cool down a bit. I tried but didn’t sleep too well, finally waking up about 6:30. I gave in to the urge to check Google Maps on my phone and was surprised to found that we were still in Austria! The timetable that they helpfully provided told me that we had stopped in a bunch of cities throughout the night, including Salzburg and Innsbruck.
The phone also showed me that we were passing right through Liechtenstein – who knew! Of course, it didn’t take long; the whole country is only 62 square miles, making it only slightly larger than the 54 square miles of land which comprise Denver International Airport. (But DIA doesn’t have 35,000 of the richest people on earth in it). We quickly moved onto stunning Swiss lakes with a perfect Alpine background.
The bad news was the time – the attendant told me we were an hour late when he delivered breakfast, and my connection time in Zurich was only 65 min! I was sweating bullets as we passed station after station with Swiss commuters waiting for their trains along the southern edge of Lake Zurich. We arrived at 8:55, leaving me just 9 minutes to make my 9:04 train. But luckily it is easy in the German-speaking world; there are no gates/barriers and I went quickly over to my new platform. My train wasn’t even there yet, but it still departed on time.
The next part of my journey was a Swiss domestic InterCity trip to Geneva, with a timed connection a bit less than half-way in Biel/Bienne. My first class coach was mostly empty leaving Zurich at 9am despite having two 7-car Intercity Tilting Train sets. Each of the 44 train sets are named after famous Swiss people, and I was pleased to see that mine (set 000) was named after Le Corbusier, the famous (Swiss-born) French architect.
Now, the Swiss Federal Railways, always referred to jointly as SBB/CFF/FFS in German/French/Italian, is famous for punctuality, and my trip was no different; when my first train got to Biel/Bienne my next train was already waiting, and after just a minute we continued on to Geneva. You really get the feeling in Switzerland that the place is whatever comes above first world – the continued mountains and lakes are stunning and everything just looks very perfect.
The last two legs of the journey were on TGVs – Trains a Grande Vitesse or high-speed trains. The joint Swiss/French TGV Lyria service took me from Geneva (where there were oddly French customs facilities, but they were not in use – perhaps a holdover from pre-EU/pre-Schengen times?) quickly into France and through Lyon to Valence TGV.
I had another wait of more than an hour at Valence TGV, a station several miles from the the city of Valence. The station basically serves as an interchange, allowing high-speed trains to maintain very high speeds and connections to the surrounding areas by old-fashioned (“classic”) trains. My last train was a joint French/Spanish TGV that had originated in Paris through to Barcelona.
The last part of the journey was the hardest – I felt a jet-lagged from the short overnight in transit and the train was very warm, especially as I was seated on the sunny side – and it was full. There was a group of two 50-something American couples from San Antonio on a European tour that kept me amused, listening to their pronunciations of intermediate stops in France as well as their complaints about the lack of available ice! Finally, 22 hours after leaving Vienna, I arrived in Barcelona – only to need one more train a few stops to my hotel.
The next time I might try a daytime train through the Alps coupled with a flight, but I’m glad I tried it and it is incredible how much train travel there is on the Continent.