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Travelling Through Europe By Train

Rail Europe Paris to Barcelona 4


Travelling through Europe by train – it’s how it all started for me. The feeling of freedom, the joy of independence, the ability to see the world out the window, just there, right there. I was 22 when I took my first solo adventure, a summer backpacking trip that would forever alter the course of my life. That summer made me grow into the person I am today, ten years later. And when I think of that trip, I think of trains.

From May until August of 2006, I took trains across Europe. I remember the face of the man who validated my train pass that would last me for the entire summer, a flimsy ticket that, if I lost, could not be replaced. I still have it; it’s stamped May 14th, starting in Amsterdam. From the Netherlands I travelled to Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, Czechia, Poland, and Denmark. After ferrying to Norway, I then took the train to Sweden, where other ferries and flights would eventually get me to Finland, Estonia, Ireland, Spain, and Morocco. It was a busy, frazzled trip, but one filled with endless highs; I remember those months with such fondness and nostalgia, a reflection of my own naiveté and wonder. And I remember the sound of the trains, the chugs and the whistles and the rattles of the wheels on the tracks, a steady beat of a soundtrack for those heady summer months.

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I often travelled alone by train, unless I had happened to meet another backpacker going the same way. I liked being left alone with my own thoughts, though. I remember passing a castle in Slovenia and thinking it was the most beautiful country I’d ever seen. I remember pulling into Venice for the first time, my heart racing. I remember unexpectedly running into a childhood friend in a train station in Krakow, laughing at the coincidence. I remember looking out the windows, always looking out, always overwhelmed by the vastness of it all, and by the beauty I felt so lucky to see.

Over the years, I didn’t travel by train as much, mainly because I travelled across continents where trains weren’t used as often; it was mostly buses through Asia, Central, and South America, save the incredible six week journey I spent on the Trans-Siberian in 2010. The trains I did take in those years still stand out, though: the night train to Sapa from Hanoi in Vietnam, the Marrakesh Express from Tangiers in Morocco, the sleek Shinkansen trains in Japan, the slow, rambling train round the city of Yangon. And even when I moved back to Europe, in 2013, my train journeys were often short, perhaps an hour train in Italy or a couple of hours to visit the north of England.

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And so when Rail Europe invited me to travel by train through France and Spain in December, I jumped at the chance. If you follow me on social media, you probably saw my updates as I was there; I spent just over 24 hours in Paris, followed by a couple of days in Lyon, followed by two blissful days in Barcelona. And while the visits in each city were fantastic – more on each of those another day – it was those train journeys that took me right back to being 22 again, feeling the wonder and excitement of it all. With airplanes, if you’re in the window seat, there’s very little interaction with the land you’re flying over; it’s just big swathes of terrain and endless oceans. It’s still unbelievably beautiful, but you don’t see the cities, the houses, the people. With buses, you’re stuck on a freeway, bumping along, looking out of tinted windows at other cars. But trains… I really do love travelling by train. There’s something romantic about them, about being in train stations and hearing the click-clack of the destination board switch over, of feeling those first moments of movement when you’re onboard, of staring out at the countryside as it rolls by, nothing else needed to entertain you. Watching France and Spain unfold before me, I was transported back to those early days of travelling, when everything seemed possible, when the world seemed right there at my fingertips.

If you’ve ever thought of travelling through Europe by train, I highly recommend it.

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Rail Europe has a new way to travel between France and Spain; SNCF and RENFE have combined their experience to offer the first high speed trains between France and Spain. This new SNCF-RENFE cooperation offers service between 17 cities in France and Spain, and it connects them at record speeds, making it easy and comfortable to travel around Europe. Paris to Barcelona is only six and a half hours (compared to a possible 17 hours without the fast trains) whereas Barcelona to Lyon takes just under 5 hours. I was lucky enough to travel from Paris to Lyon and then Lyon to Barcelona with these trains, and I definitely recommend them; the trains themselves were very clean and comfortable, including outlets to charge my electronics. It also blows my mind that you can travel across France and Spain that quickly and that cheaply. I highly recommend using this service if you are in either country. For more information, and to book your own tickets, click here

My many thanks to Rail Europe for inviting me on this trip – as always, all opinions are my own. 

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Have you ever travelled by train through Europe, or elsewhere? If not, would you like to?

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24 Responses to Travelling Through Europe By Train

  1. Linda February 2, 2017 at 1:02 am #

    I’m aboard the Canadian Via Rail between Montreal and Toronto as I read this post – very cool and coincidental! Like you, I love the memories trains provide, whether the surprises aboard the Trans-Siberian or that mind-blowing Marrakech express…you are so absolutely right about the feel of train travel: it affords views and peaceful time for thinking that other forms of travel can lack. The word “romance” is so often associated with train travel – and i love that you have so clearly experienced that romance. Thanks for another great post, Brenna!

    • Brenna Holeman February 2, 2017 at 3:27 pm #

      Aw, that is so cool that you’re reading this while on the train! I love all of our memories together – so many incredible train journeys. I will never forget those long days on the Trans-Siberian, and how amazing it was to spend them with you. xoxo

  2. LC February 2, 2017 at 4:53 am #

    Long-haul flights make me cry, but I agree – there’s something wonderfully pleasant about train travel. I recently (well, 7 months ago) spent 8 hours on a train from Zürich to Vienna and had the most wonderfully relaxing time. I was always hoping for my own “Before Sunrise” moment on a train when I was younger, but alas – Ethan Hawke never deigned to make an appearance!

    • Brenna Holeman February 2, 2017 at 3:36 pm #

      Ha ha – I have thought the same! And what about all those people who meet on airplanes? Why doesn’t that ever happen to me?! I do love the long train journeys, though, even if I’m totally alone…

  3. Nina February 2, 2017 at 10:07 am #

    I love this! I’ve often thought about inter railing and this has made me want to even more!

    • Brenna Holeman February 2, 2017 at 3:35 pm #

      It’s so amazing – you really get to see so much 🙂

  4. Katie February 2, 2017 at 1:18 pm #

    I haven’t been on many European trains, but my favorite was the Frecciarossa in Italy — what luxury! Whenever I get on the Amtrak to go to D.C. here in the U.S., I remember the Frecciarossa and hang my head in shame. 😉

    • Brenna Holeman February 2, 2017 at 3:35 pm #

      I love trains in Italy! So easy and so cheap. And yes, I wish that Canada had an easier/cheaper rail service, too…

  5. Victoria February 2, 2017 at 4:12 pm #

    Honestly it’s like you’re reading my mind. Just last night my friends and I were discussing what type of rail card to get for spring break in April! I was stressing over the decision because the money upfront for a rail card feels so expensive, but this post has convinced me!

    • Brenna Holeman February 2, 2017 at 4:35 pm #

      Aw, I’m so glad, Victoria! The fast trains through France and Spain are really great, I hope you get the chance to try one. It’s so easy to move through the countries that way. 🙂

  6. Jill February 2, 2017 at 6:59 pm #

    On my first trip to London I took the train to Paris. Not so much to see Paris but for the train itself! lol. I really wanted to go through the chunnel…..It was a lot of fun and I want to do more of it. I took Amtrak from Portland OR to Seattle WA last year and it was stunning!!! So yeah. I agree, trains are awesome lol

    • Jill February 2, 2017 at 7:00 pm #

      Oh… And I would LOVE to take the train from Toronto to Vancouver but it’s soooooo expensive!

      • Brenna Holeman February 4, 2017 at 10:07 pm #

        I know! So damn expensive to travel by train in Canada! 🙁

    • Brenna Holeman February 4, 2017 at 10:07 pm #

      Yes, there’s something so magical about taking the train from London to Paris. I love it, too! I’d like to take the Amtrak one day… 🙂

  7. Danny February 3, 2017 at 12:22 am #

    One of my most memorable train experiences was a trip I took from Frankfurt to Ljubljana last March. While it lasted around ten hours (one way!), there really was something magical about sitting alone with a good book and watching the Alpine landscape blur by. Although, to be honest, I have to admit that flying has always been my favorite mode of transportation. 😉

    • Brenna Holeman February 4, 2017 at 10:08 pm #

      Aw, isn’t it just the best? That European landscape will never get old…

  8. Suneé February 3, 2017 at 7:13 am #

    A continental train journey is one of my ultimate bucket list items! I am so jealous to see you’ve done the Trans-Siberian. I would love to do that too, along with the classic route of the Oriental Express and the one that crosses Australia from one end to the other. Ah, maybe one day…

    • Brenna Holeman February 4, 2017 at 10:09 pm #

      The Trans-Siberian was so incredible, I definitely recommend it! I’d like to do the Oriental Express one day, too. I’ve always thought about driving across Australia but maybe the train is the way to do it! 🙂

  9. Paige February 3, 2017 at 3:01 pm #

    I love trains so much. I even use Amtrak regularly to hop around the Northeast U.S.–it doesn’t have the comfort of European trains but it does the job and it’s spacious and I can curl up with a book. I did Venice to Rome with my dad when I was fifteen, Paris to Nice via TGV with my senior class trip at seventeen, and last summer London to Edinburgh! Lyon to Barcelona sounds like a dream.

    • Brenna Holeman February 4, 2017 at 10:09 pm #

      Wow, some cool train journeys! I definitely need to try the Amtrak at some point in my life… it sounds great!

  10. Francesca February 8, 2017 at 10:45 pm #

    It still blows my Kiwi husband’s mind that you can take a train from the UK to Paris! One day I’d love to take the train from Darwin to Adelaide, what a way to see the outback.

    • Brenna Holeman February 9, 2017 at 12:53 am #

      I know. I mean… isn’t there, like, WATER between them? 😀 It blows my mind every single time…

      And yes, I’d love to do a train ride through Australia, too!

  11. Anne February 20, 2017 at 9:13 am #

    My first two ‘big’ trips were inter-railing in Europe. Even though it was 30 years ago I still remember the trips so clearly. I travelled with a friend so wasn’t solo like you, but these trips are the ones that, as well as being so much fun, opened up a whole new world to me. I met so many ‘real’ travellers and for the first time realised it was possible to travel solo and that it was possible to travel anywhere in the world and to travel long term. After that there was no stopping me. I still travel by train when I’m in mainland Europe today. It’s so much easier and cheaper than in the UK.

  12. Zalie Holeman February 28, 2017 at 4:55 pm #

    I always think of travelling by train as such a romantic idea. Although I haven’t done a lot of train travels( me and sister), I would jump at the chance in the future!

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