Take a map of Europe, locate Paris, and draw a line headed east. How far can you get given a full day and night? With the right mix of trains and lots of patience, it is possible to cross France and Germany, then Austria, Hungary and into Romania. That country’s second-biggest city, Cluj-Napoca, lies 1,597km (992 miles) as the crow flies from Paris, or 2,100km as the track meanders. The view from the trains—some darting, others dawdling along—offers scope for contemplation. A journey of similar length to Paris-Cluj in America, from New York City to Topeka, Kansas, would take 32 hours; in China, the 1,651km trip from Shanghai to Chengdu takes under 12 hours. Here is what you discover about Europe in 23 hours and 59 minutes staring out of a train window.
Visiting places helps dispel stereotypes about them. As the train leaves the Gare de l’Est at 7:20am, Parisians are queuing for Starbucks: so much for the lazy French wary of American imports.
Zooming through eastern France on a TGV is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, you feel the full modernising force of the République, which first installed high-speed rail over four decades ago. But in the Champagne region—which the train swooshes through at over 300km/h—the same overbearing state codifies 17th-century processes for making sparkling wines. The French demand both progress and for time to stand still.
When it comes to rail travel, it’s all downspeed from France: the farther east in Europe you go, the slower the trains. It takes just shy of two hours to whizz 395km from Paris to Strasbourg. The onward trip to Frankfurt takes just as long to cover half the distance. Head farther east and things get slower still.
Given passport-free travel across most of the EU these days, it is hard to tell where one country ends and the other begins. At train station platforms, French acute accents are replaced by Germanic umlauts (down the track more exotic accents will appear: Tápiószecső, Măgeşti). The most noticeable sign of a frontier being crossed is everyone in the train carriage receiving a text message from their mobile phone carrier welcoming them to Germany.
If you need to change trains, do so in small towns: a walk across the platform usually suffices. Places like Frankfurt have stations on opposite ends of the city. The walk between them offers little of note besides a giant euro-sign (€) sculpture outside the offices of the European Central Bank—hardly a world-beating attraction.
The west flank of Germany is part of what French geographers once termed the “Blue Banana”, a discontinuous megalopolis stretching from Liverpool to Milan by way of Amsterdam. Given the choice, eat on German trains. Their restaurant cars feature plush red-leather banquettes, where uniformed staff bring the food on real china. The Linseneintopf, a tasty lentil-and-sausage stew, is hearty travellers’ fare. A local Bitburger beer comes poured into its proper branded glass, not some plastic cup.
In other regards, Germany is the Achilles’ heel of long-distance travel in Europe. Few pan-continental journeys can avoid it. Yet its obsession with fiscal rectitude has left it with dilapidated infrastructure, including its rail lines. Last year a third of Deutsche Bahn trains ran late—another punctured stereotype. Booking connecting rail journeys is an act of faith. The shoddiness of the track system comes to life when dodgy signalling forces the driver to periodically slam on the brakes. This wreaks havoc in the restaurant car. “HOLD ON TO YOUR FOOD!” the waiter screams, “HOLD ON TO YOUR GLASS!”
Long-distance flights make up lost time; long-distance trains accumulate it. A plane that leaves 30 minutes late may land on schedule; on a train, you end up an hour off, and thus likely to miss what should have been a comfortable connection in Vienna.
As you near the border with Austria, the Danube comes into view. The track runs alongside it for 600km. Luckily, Deutsche Bahn’s tardiness is matched by other operators. Having pulled into Vienna an hour late—and a minute after the train to Cluj was meant to leave—it is a relief to discover Romania’s national rail outfit cannot run its trains on time, either.
There is a resurgence of night trains in Europe, motivated by concerns over carbon-spewing planes. For now Vienna is the continent’s only major hub: the Dubai of couchettes. Every evening, trains leave landlocked Austria for coastlines across Europe, from the Baltic to the North Sea and the Mediterranean.
In the plains south-east of Vienna, wind turbines are packed so densely they resemble a hairbrush with its bristles sticking up. Red lights atop their masts flash against the sunset. Fewer turbines can be seen when the train ambles into Hungary, where the government dismisses green concerns as Utopian wokery.
The fare from Vienna to Cluj is about 227 lei ($50) for the ticket, plus double that for a one-bed cabin. This features an en-suite bathroom, but…no food. It turns out there is no restaurant car on night trains from Vienna to Cluj these days. Deutsche Bahn: all is forgiven. A stop in Budapest is too short to find a goulash.
Off the rails
You can find one of Europe’s last genuine borders between Hungary and Romania, which has yet to be allowed into the Schengen zone. Bad luck: the train reaches the frontier in the dead of night. If you think Hungarian border guards are cheerless at 3:15am, wait until you meet their Romanian counterparts at 3:30am.
Central Europe is converging with its richer western peers. But the process feels slow in Transylvania. A 4G phone functions perfectly, but you can see horses working the land, a throwback to another century. Train stations are plastered with EU flags, evidence of “structural funds” past and present.
If you have a crumpled shirt in your luggage, hang it up when you depart. The vibrations of the journey will eliminate creases better than any iron. As the train arrives, adjust your watch one hour forward, to 8:19. Welcome to Cluj.
Read more from Charlemagne, our columnist on European politics: Spain shows that some voters still want centrism (Jul 26th) A spat in Brussels pits an open vision of Europe against an insular one (Jul 19th) Farewell, Mark Rutte, the Tiggerish Dutch prime minister (Jul 13th)
Also: How the Charlemagne column got its name
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