Great title for a Hitchcock movie, and a great way to learn from travelers and locals.

My very first trip to Europe started in Frankfurt and Paris.  Found it very daunting and a real challenge to understand the ins-and-outs of train and subway travel.  In the USA we navigate by numbers (roads, trains, etc.) and compass directions.  Not so in Europe.  They use endpoints and cities, so lots of local knowledge is crucial.  For example, if I wanted to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco I simply take the I5 North.   But if this were Europe, I’d need to leave LA and “head in the direction” of San Francisco.  But wait, it’s not that simple.  There are no signs in LA that indicate where San Francisco is.  What you must do is find somewhat close towns to LA, and towns along the way, to head towards!  So to do this trip I need to look for a road going to Burbank, Santa Clarita, Frazier Park, Bakersfield, etc.

Train and metro travel is pretty much the same.  Except there probably are multiple routes, called lines, that get the trip done.  This is where the concept of endpoints comes into play.  To get on the correct line I need to know not only where the train is going, but also where it is coming from!  Suppose I am in Paris and choose the metro (subway) to get from my hotel near the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre museum. The metro routes are both numbered and color coded, so I stare at the system map to plan my route.  I am at the Gold line, which is”numbered” C (huh?).  I need to go to and get off at the Louvre on the Yellow line, number 1.  Oops, they don’t cross each other…now what?  Based on the map looks like I need to take the Gold line heading towards “endpoint” Versailles, transfer to the Purple line at Invalides and head toward Creteil, then transfer again to the Yellow line at Concorde and head toward Vincennes.  Just be sure to get off at the Louvre or I wind up at some endpoint!  Maybe a taxi is easier?

Actually, train travel is not quite so bad.  But you still need to know stops along the way, unless the train is a express between two cities.  Not very likely if I want to go from Paris to Rome.

Anyway, my wife and I decide on the TGV (fast train) to get from Paris to southern France.  Not too hard once we found the right station in Paris to leave from…Paris has a bunch of stations.  The TGV is great and we zoom along at “very great speed” to Avignon, the endpoint of the TGV line at the time.  From there we connect to a regular speed train to Monaco for the night.  It’s winter and we have no hotel reservation, but figure we don’t really need one.  Besides all train stations have information offices to help us book a room, right?  Except it’s winter, and the one in Monte Carlo is closed!

Having a smattering of intelligence, we figure there has to be a hotel near the station, and we only need a room for the night and want to catch the first train to Rome the next morning.  Sure enough a small hotel is just across the square from the station.  A basic hotel, with a basic European room.   As we were travel newbies we had no concept of room sizes and bathrooms in these foreign countries…we’re used to Holiday Inns, etc.  Well Europe is small, and the rooms are smaller.  Tiny in fact.  With 2 weeks worth of luggage we found it impossible to open both suitcases at the same time, as they took up lots of floor space.  We settle in, take a cold walk along the coast, and look for a dinner place.

Winter in Europe is a challenge.  Lots of things are closed since there are no tourists, but us.  We find a small place, attempt to understand French, and order something.  Not quite sure what it was, but we persevered.  Another cold walk gets us back to our palatial room.  Before we retire, I decide to go to the train station to check on the next day’s timing.  Being train map challenged I seemingly locate the appropriate train and departure time.  A few stops, but no changes, leaving at 9am.  Now for a good night’s sleep.

Saturday morning came quickly.  A fast visit to the “breakfast” room, pack-up, and catch the train for Rome.  Since my wife always has more coffee than I do, I decided to stroll over to the station to double check the train departure time.  With Eurail passes, no need to try and buy tickets and attempt any more French.  Just validate the date of travel (another story of itself), find the train, load the baggage (another story of itself), and enjoy the scenery for the next 8 hours.  Nobody in the station since it’s Saturday, except for a few stragglers  like us.  Then I re-read the schedule board.  The train we planned on does not run on Saturday!  But the earlier one does…leaves in 15 minutes!

A quick sprint back to the hotel, where my wife is still consuming vast quantities of caffeine.   “Quick, up to room and pack.  The train leaves in 15 minutes…and is the only one today”, I yell.  She spurts for the room, while I run past the reception desk blurting “Need to check-out fast.  Please prepare the bill.”  Up in the room we throw in haste everything into the bags, which are conveniently lying on the floor.  Remember, it’s a small room.  Got it all, had the credit card fast swiped, and made it back to the station in 14 minutes.  Wow, time to spare.  We pile in and stash the luggage…overhead.  Off we go.

So What About Those Strangers?

Traveling on a train for 8 hours can be a somber but enlightening experience.   A mid-winter trip saw my wife and me looking out the window of a 1st class compartment at the Italian countryside.  Our first such train experience, which could become quite boring after a time.

Trains in Italy typically have 6 person compartments in 1st class.  For now we are alone and it’s good to catch our breath and relax.  Our first stop is in San Remo.  A lot of people get on, and we lose our privacy.  Welcome, strangers. Three people joined us in our compartment, one an older lady that did not look Italian (she wasn’t), one a young Italian guy in a business suit, and one an older Italian gentleman.  The older guy provided us with a lot of fascinating activities during the trip.  More on that later.  The lady turned out to be a single world traveler from the USA.  We chatted with her a lot.  The young Italian turned out to be valuable source of much information, even though he spoke limited English.

Actually we got quite an education from all 3 of these strangers.  The older guy was a wonder.  He traveled light but has this smallish tote bag he kept by his feet.  At various intervals of the trip he would reach into the bag and out came various food and beverage items.  Snacks, sandwiches, pastries, candy, water, and possibly wine (it is after-all Italy).  We learn the concept of traveling provisions…an important lesson.  Dumb old us, we go the the food car and pay outrageous prices for everything this guy had.  Now we know one of the best travel secrets, and will plan accordingly next time.  The opportunity will present itself on a return trip from Rome to Venice, and then on to Frankfurt.  But that’s another story.

Written on July 21st, 2009 , Anicdotes, Transportation

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