Train travel in Europe is fun, efficient, and inexpensive with spectacular views. You may even encounter English speaking travelers sitting across from you. The ride is so smooth that when traveling through the dark tunnels you feel that the train has stopped. But if you never bought train tickets in Europe before, this is where the real adventure begins. We forgot to buy a Eurail pass before we left the US and found that a premium is paid if you buy one in Europe. It is further complicated because not all the combination options are available such as the France/Italy pass we wanted. Some of the 2 weeks in Barcelona were spent planning our 3 week trip to Paris from Barcelona, in time for Roland Garros. We weighed renting a car or buying the Eurail pass or individual train tickets. With the help of the website seat61, we went with the tickets. It would seem with the internet all we would need do is purchase and print, not true. The train station is best. The train stations are busy and long waiting lines for tickets are not uncommon. Be wary of the queue-hoppers that hover in the crowd around the queue looking for weak links to saunter into pretending to be rejoining a group in the queue. Also, be sure to know the train number you want. Buying tickets in Spain for France and Italy is impossible, but a ticket from Barcelona into France is not. We got a ticket as far into France as we could and ended up in Montpellier. There we could buy our tickets to Nice and then to Genova Italy. In Italy we could buy our tickets from Genova to Rome, Rome to Florence, Florence to Venice, and the Venice to Paris. The Montipellier, Genova, and Venice stayovers were decided because of train scheduling difficulties with other cities. We wanted to get the Italy to Paris overnight couchette, but they sold out before we could get into Italy. The French train website could only be used in French. If you used the English version, you had to pick up the tickets in the UK. The Italian train website has major problems accepting credit card payments, so it was useless.
We stayed 2 nights in Montipellier. The town is divided into an old section and a newer section. The older section looked much like Barcelona and the new part was large cement buildings with false columns and balconies. The weather was rainy while we were there so we did not do much except wander around. Montpellier has such a fantastic modern tram system that we wondered why the Capital District does not have one like it. Population Montpellier 250,000. Capital District 1,000,000. My point-and-shoot camera broke here, so no photos.
Getting to the train station on the tram was simple and we were off to Nice. The train seats are two seats facing each other around a table. Most French people know at least a little English. Our apartment in Nice was unique in that all the apartments in the building had a different country decorating theme. Ours was Kyoto Japan. Since the weather was still early spring in May, it was not beach weather and all the beaches in Nice are stones. We did a couple museums, shopping for a camera, hiking, and getting in the sun whenever the sun did shine.
Next stop was Genova Italy for two days, mainly to get our Italian train tickets and the 8 hour train trip ticket to Paris. We stayed by the rail station, a few steps from the statue of Christopher Columbus, who was born in Genova. This city is also divided into the old section and new section. We stayed in the old and were surprised by the museum visits we could do there. The city has developed the old section and the harbor section of the town into an attractive tourist destination.
Our much anticipated trip to Rome was next. Getting from the train station to our place was our first introduction to the Italian lively way of speaking. Leaving the train station is exclusively by taxi and there is bustle of excitement with drivers meeting travelers. We were about to leave in the taxi when a policemen calmly approached the driver’s window and said something to the driver that provoked the driver into a loud, shouting conversation that escalated to an in-your-face street argument. People from the busy train station were soon gathered around watching and participating in the flailing of arms and shouting in what looked like the beginning of a riot. As more police cars arrived, it became apparent that our driver was occupied with business other than driving. As we were leaving the cab, we watched men holding our driver and pulling him away from the police as he was screaming and waving at them. We were surprised how calm and unprotected the police were! We stayed a week in a top floor apartment off a cobbled street a half block from the Pantheon. The plaza of the Pantheon is surrounded by outdoor restaurants with a fountain in the middle. It was always filled with people either being serenaded at the restaurants, with people lounging on the fountain wall, drinking, eating, singing or people-watching, and people coming and going from the Pantheon. It was a great place to spend a week.
We took the bus to the train station for the trip to Florence with what is called a Roma Pass that can be used to get into museums and for using the bus system. Unfortunately we were unaware that our pass had expired the previous day. We became aware of our expired passes with the help of the transit authority control agents that roam the buses asking riders for their tickets. They were so kind to inform us about our expired tickets and were more than helpful in letting with us continue on the bus to the train terminal. They wouldn’t let us purchase tickets and charged us 50 Euros each for their help. Needless to say. this left us with a such a bad feeling about Rome’s bus system that even after having such a great time in Rome, we felt that we should advise everyone to avoid the Roman buses like the Plague.
Although the train is roomy you must bring all your luggage on board with you and store it overhead, between your legs or in the aisles. On the Venice train the overhead was smaller than usual, so we put our carry-ons on the seats across from us hoping no one would show up. Across the aisle from us 4 big senior Italians showed up with 4 big suitcases. They maneuvered around and around trying to get their suitcases and themselves situated comfortably. They chattered and waved their arms at each other while trying to solve their suitcase puzzle. After about 15 minutes of their commotion I suggested for them to put some of their cases on the seat across from us. Together we maneuvered their suitcases onto the two seats until a comfortable arrangement was found. Luckily no one showed up for those two seats and the ride was enjoyable. The six of us laughed together as we talked about what went on and the Italians passed around Italian candies for all to share. Its amazing how people can get things can get done when they don’t speak the same language.
Next stop, Paris.