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The rhythm of the rails: magical Europe memories with Eurail

It was the summer of 1979. I had recently graduated from university in California and was backpacking through Europe. I had hoped to go with a friend but he couldn’t make it. I thought about backing out but a former girlfriend insisted I was nuts and that I should just go on my own. So I did. I bought an airline ticket and a Eurail pass to get me all around Europe, and headed off from San Francisco to London.

Rome is sometimes called "The Eternal City." It's one of the great places you can get to easily with Eurail.

Rome is sometimes called “The Eternal City.” It’s one of the great places you can get to easily with Eurail.

I was roughly half-way through my trip and was in Rome with a couple American girls I had met along the way. We had a good time traipsing about Rome (I recall one of the girls wasn’t allowed into the Vatican because she had a halter top on) but it wasn’t romantic or anything like that. We decided we’d travel on to Florence together, and I went on ahead to the main train station in Rome to buy some postcards.

I didn’t see the two girls out front of the station (not surprising given half the population of Italy seems to walk or roll past on a Vespa every 20 minutes) so I walked to the platform where the train to Florence was supposed to leave. I still didn’t see the girls so I filled my canteen with water (there wasn’t bottled water in those days, at least not much of it, but there were lots of public fountains) and got on the train. I found myself a comfy spot in an inside cabin and waited.

The train started to fill, but I still didn’t see the girls I had spent time with in Rome. Instead, three other young women settled down on those little fold-down seats they used to have in the narrow “hallways” of some European trains.

It was hot, as Rome tends to be in early August, and I offered the girls some of my water. Very smooth. Pretty soon we got chatting. One girl at the end was quite pretty yet a little quiet. By the time we got to Florence, however, she and I had started chatting. I was intrigued by their accent; they sounded fairly Midwestern to my untrained ear, or even Californian. They were all from Ontario and were backpacking through Europe as well.

Florence is a popular stop for folks using a Eurail pass.

Florence is a popular stop for folks using a Eurail pass.

We spent three days together, along with another chap whose name escapes me, before leaving Florence. It was fun but, again, nothing romantic. I hit it off with Barbara, the quiet girl at the end of the row on the train from Rome. We danced together at a Florence nightclub called The Red Garter and shared fabulous gelato at a place (now closed I believe) called Vivoli. We talked about how she had an aunt in Berkeley, not far from my family home in the East Bay Area of San Francisco. But that’s as far as we got. I was heading to Sweden to see a friend, they were going to, I believe, France. So we said goodbye. But not before exchanging addresses.

A few weeks after I returned to California I got a letter from Barbara saying it was nice to meet me. I wrote back to say I felt the same way. Pretty soon we were writing regularly. Then, on New Year’s Day 1980, I picked up the phone and called her. We connected instantly over the phone and talked for as long as we could, long distance in those days being prohibitively expensive unless you called on a weekend. After midnight. And dialed left-handed.

The letters became more frequent until one day when Barbara suggested I come to Toronto for a visit. “Love to,” I wrote back to her.

I arrived in Canada on June 30. The next day we attended a Canada Day celebration at Queen’s Park in Toronto. The next morning we went for a cappuccino downtown, which wasn’t so common in those days.
Nothing had happened between us except maybe some kissing at the Toronto Beaches or on a bike ride through Sunnybrook Park. But as we sat across the table each other over our fancy coffees I looked over and said, “You know what? I think we ought to get married.”

She didn’t bat an eye.

“I agree.”

Barbara and I in Rome in early May of this year.

Barbara and I in Rome in early May of this year.

It’s been 35 years now and we’ve had a great marriage. And lots of great travel, a good deal of it on trains in Europe.

In 1984, knowing we wanted to have kids soon, we did a train trip from the south of France to Florence and re-created our first dance; this time bopping to the sound of Bryan Adams and “The Summer of ’69.”

There was a respite from Europe travel while we raised our family. But we went back to Italy for our 25th anniversary and took a series of Eurail trains around the country; from Zurich to the Cinque Terre, then down to Pisa and on to Florence, Rome and Naples and then back to Rome. There were probably too many legs of the journey and too many hotels. Definitely too much baggage. But we had a fantastic time.

I love the rhythm of a train ride; the chance to stretch out and roam about the car and admire the countryside. A glass of wine is a magnificent treat when you’re safely ensconced in a train car rolling through the vineyards of France. Or anywhere, for that matter.

With a train, you can catch small glimpses of village or city life that you’d never see from 35,000 feet; a couple holding hands as they walk along the banks of a river you’ll never know the name of, a homeowner gardening in their back yard; a small country restaurant with window boxes overflowing with brilliant spring flowers.

When I was in the sports department at the Toronto Star as a reporter, I often covered International Olympic Committee meetings. I’d fly Toronto to Zurich, then catch a train from Zurich to Lausanne. The last few km’s of the trip were outstanding, as the train would slice through terraced vineyards above Lake Geneva, taking us past ancient-looking stone homes and grapevines that glowed a deep and lovely green.

A Eurail train is an ideal way to see the vineyards lining Lake Geneva in Switzerland.

A Eurail train is an ideal way to see the vineyards lining Lake Geneva in Switzerland.

A few years ago we were in Belfast when the Iceland volcano incident grounded planes around the world. After a couple of days of waiting around I suggested to my wife that we get ourselves to London, so that when the time came for a flight home we’d be in a bigger city with more options for flying to Toronto. We took a ferry to Scotland, where he hopped on a comfy train that whisked us to London in a few hours. Two days later we got our flight home.

This year we had a short but lovely trip from Munich to Passau, where we caught a Danube River cruise. We took several more trips in May in Italy, travelling from Rome to Bologna on a bright, modern train with Wi-Fi and then from Rimini to Tuscany and Tuscany back to Rome.

The seats seem wider on a train than they do on an airplane. Certainly it’s easy to get up and stretch your legs or go for a coffee. And I find it much easier to sleep on a train than on an airplane. The sound of the cars rolling over the tracks reminds me of a great lyric by Arlo Guthrie in the song “City of New Orleans,” where he sings about how “the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.”

Barb sneaks a kiss for the camera outside the main train station in Rome, where we met in 1979. This year marks our 35th wedding anniversary.

Barb sneaks a kiss for the camera outside the main train station in Rome, where we met in 1979. This year marks our 35th wedding anniversary.

I love hopping on a train and feeling it pull out of a station. It starts slowly, then picks up steam as it heads off into another adventure. You get your book out, you sleep, you get something to eat. And pretty soon you’re in an entirely new place, with that brilliant energy that only travel can provide.

Trains and Europe and Eurail have provided me with a lot of wonderful memories. I can’t promise all the lonely hearts out there that a train trip to Europe will provide them with a life-long companion, the way it did for me. But I guarantee you’ll have a great holiday.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Maarten Heilbron 17 June 2016, 12:57 pm

    Jim:

    Although I don’t have a similarly romantic story – I too remember the fun and adventure of travelling through Europe in my 20s on Eurailpasses. With the red Cook’s guide in hand, we’d hop from city to city having wonderful adventures for a few weeks.
    These days however, Eurail doesn’t seem to be a great way to travel. The pass is overly expensive, the conditions are very restrictive, bookings must generally made in advance, and the best trains cost extra. Flying with the budget airlines is a generally better way to go.
    I do still like to travel by rail, and for this summer in France, I’ve been making my train bookings directly on the SNCF web site or app (in French, which is generally less expensive, or has better offers than English). They have incredible bargains and with electronic tickets, the whole process is simple and easy.
    We’ll be going on a day trip to Bordeaux to see the new Cité du Vin and the return tickets are less 50 euros each for a three and a half hour trip on a TGV. Watch for the TGV prem offers.
    Love travelling by rail, but Eurail is no longer the way to go.
    Maarten

  • Christa 17 June 2016, 1:12 pm

    Jim – such a great piece! Happy 35th to you and Barbara.

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