There’s something magical about the first time you travel by train. At least for Americans, train travel is exotic and nostalgic, and of course brings to mind a certain magical train going to a certain magical school in the Highlands. Those were my thoughts the first time I took a train when I was a kid, going from a relative’s house in upstate New York to the Big Apple. Until I discovered the built in trash cans, the “diner” selling microwaved hot dogs, and the lavatory. It left a distinctly unpleasant feeling in my mind about traveling by train.
In Europe, they do trains a little differently. The first time I went to Europe, I decided to not take any planes. I think of planes as time machines that take time to get where you’re going. You get in a big metal tube, you wait a few hours, you get out of the tube and you’re somewhere else. It feels strange to me. I always feel very disassociated from the distance I just traveled.
But with train travel, it’s completely different. I traveled almost exclusively by train when I was backpacking. There was a ferry and a couple buses thrown in there, but mostly it was all trains. And it was perfect for me.
Train travel is the perfect alone time
When I step on a train, all of a sudden I have a couple of hours of leisurely alone time to sit and think and read and journal and put my feet up. I don’t have to talk to anyone. I can sit and watch the scenery go by and reflect on the adventures I just had in the place I was just in, or ponder the adventures I’m about to have in the place to which I’m going. Or I can think about home, or my life, or the universe and my place in it. Sometimes it can get very heavy in your mind, but it’s necessary and important to go through that processing time, to hold those ideas in your hands, turn them over and see how the feel and figure out what to do with them. Train travel offers the perfect space and time for that.
Trains can be social, too
Alternatively, train travel can also be great bonding time. When I was on the train from the coast of Scotland to Glasgow, I met a couple of German guys who were also ultimately heading to Edinburgh. We caught the train together from Glasgow to Edinburgh, talked and got to know each other, and they invited me to run around Edinburgh through the night and then watch the sun rise. (Trust me, I would not have agreed to this if I hadn’t gotten very thorough good guy vibes from them, which I did. Had there been any trace of ick, I was out). And all of a sudden, I had two new traveling companions. I ended up traveling with them for a few days, into Inverness and Loch Ness, too. And on the trains, we talked and told stories and napped and it became a unique bond of friendship from that.
You can watch the landscape evolve
Now the whole reason I started traveling by train was to be able to see the landscape as it passed me by. If you’re going to be in Europe, you don’t want to be in the air above it, right? I remember taking the train from Switzerland to Italy, and watching the architecture in the little villages and towns that we passed slowly evolve from alpine to Mediterranean. Generally, in your imagination you have a specific idea of what the architecture of a country will look like. But in real life, those clean lines don’t exist. Each place and each culture blends one into the other over space. I have no idea when I switched out of Switzerland and into Italy. The landscape and architecture naturally faded one into the other. It all seemed very metaphorical.
Travel by train offers a unique time and space in which to really do something. You can really dig into your mind and explore your thoughts. Or you can really bond with your traveling companions and get to know them. Or you can really reflect on the landscape of the place that you are in.
It’s really a way to get microscopic about the best things about travel: the places, the people, and the self. It’s not like you can get up and go to the theatre instead, or explore the market, or go to the museum. You’re forced to focus. And, if you choose to, you can see that as an opportunity, rather than a constraint.
Have you ever traveled by train? What are you favorite parts about it? Or do you have any amazing or crazy stories? I would love to hear them! Share in the comments or tell me all about it in an email!