PARADISO, Italy--I'm sitting in a comfortable seat, looking out at the foothills of the Italian Alps. High on the hilltops the houses are grand, and below them, small terraced vineyards offer the promise of a leisurely glass of wine and some terrific linguine al vongole.
Not long before, Lake Como had sparkled out the window, and though George Clooney is said to have sold his villa there, it's hard not to go by and imagine him and his Hollywood friends getting the best out of life amid one waterside mansion after another and more glamor than most people experience in a lifetime.
But this is not the view from an airplane at 30,000 feet, and everything I'm looking at is not in miniature far below me. It's right at ground level and right in front of me. This is the Milan, Italy to Zurich, Switzerland train, surely one of the most beautiful routes in Europe, a trip that provides the perfect sampling of mountains, lakes, vineyards, rivers, charming hillside houses, quaint valleys, and so much more.
I did my first serious European train travel in the early- and mid-90s, first a month, and then three months on the rails, and I've been itching to do more ever since. So when I was planning Road Trip 2011, I figured it was a perfect opportunity to return to what I have felt ever since is my favorite way to travel. While I got around on each of the five previous CNET Road Trips I did between 2006 and 2010 behind the wheel of a car, I knew this time around I needed to do at least some of what Europeans do every day: get on a train.
In the '90s, I traveled by Eurail, a pass system that lets you ride pretty much any train you want without having to buy a specific ticket. You can get unlimited ride passes for one month or more, or ones that allow a certain number of days of travel within a set period of time. I had one- and two-month passes, as well as more limited ones. Either way, it was a truly fantastic way to get around the continent.
This time around, I reached out to Eurail professionally, and they were kind enough to see the value of my proposal: I'd ride a lot of trains during Road Trip and write about the experience. Before too long, the pass arrived in the mail: 15 days of travel in two months. Perfect for a new survey of the best of the trains of Europe.
Looking out the window of European trains is, in my opinion, among the best forms of travel one can take and doing it with a Eurail pass is among the most flexible ways you can do it. Although European trains require more seat reservations than they did when I traveled in the '90s--which can be quite expensive in some countries, as much as $82 for the Amsterdam to Paris leg, for example--in addition to the Eurail pass, you still have more freedom when traveling this way than you do if you are buying your train tickets piecemeal.
Milan to Zurich
I've taken a lot of great trains in Europe over all my previous travels, but the ride from Milan to Zurich is surely one of the more beautiful. It passes through gorgeous towns like Chiasso, Paradiso, Lugano, and then snakes its way through the Swiss Alps. The countryside is green and wide open, the lakes are magical and worldly, and the mountains, at first gentle and teasing, become stark, sharp, soaring.
I wanted to write this article during the trip, but it's hard to keep focused on the words when every minute or so, some fantastic new view appears in the window.
Of course, having the opportunity to take trains for 15 different days, this hasn't been the only route I've traveled. My 2011 Eurail adventures began after about eight days of driving through Switzerland and Germany. The first trip was an all-day journey from Cologne, Germany, to Hamburg, Germany and then on to Copenhagen, Denmark. Next, I returned from Copenhagen to Hamburg, spent the day there and then took a night train to Amsterdam. After three days in the Dutch capital, I took the fast train to Paris. I then made my way to Normandy and then returned to Paris. Later, it was Paris to Venice, Italy via Basel, Switzerland, and Milan.
The diversity of destinations and vistas I've had in just these few days has been fantastic. From lakesides to clifftops, along the edge of the North Sea, at high speeds through France, Belgium, and Switzerland, and through endless miles of clean, clear fields of green. I've been in some of the biggest and most beautiful train stations in the world--and some of the smallest and plainest--and I haven't had to do the driving.
In Alsace, on the way from Paris to Basel, each new hilltop seemed to bring its own castle, the next one bigger than the last. These days, just about everything in Europe seems to be under construction, so it didn't surprise me that several of the castles were sporting big cranes--absolutely ruining the aesthetic. Then again, I saw pictures of King Ludwig's famous Neuschwanstein castle with cranes too, so what can you do?
Ferries, and Alps, and old churches, oh my
When planning my trip, it appears that I overlooked a few details. Like, for example, how exactly you can get from Germany to Denmark by train. It turns out that the train rolls right on to a large ferry. They make you get off the train and go up to the boat's main deck, but from there you get a wonderful view of the North Sea, and that's not something I was expecting.
On the other hand, having taken many trains through Europe, I had a pretty good sense about what I'd be seeing out the windows on a regular basis. Yet, I still found myself charmed by the endless succession of ancient churches that you speed by on the train. You almost never get a chance to find out which ones they are, but they add a wonderful sense of history and aesthetic to the journeys.
Then again, there's Cologne, where that city's cathedral, one of the largest in the world, is right next to the main train station. So when you arrive or depart from there, your view is dominated by it. And though my train from there to Hamburg was late enough to make me worry that I'd miss my connecting train to Copenhagen--forcing me to furiously search for an alternative--it was hard not to appreciate the cathedral's domineering visage. And thankfully, the folks in Hamburg seemed to know that there would be a lot of passengers trying to catch the Copenhagen train, and not only held it for us, but announced before arriving in Hamburg that they were doing so, immensely easing my stress.
In fact, while you often can't hear what's being announced over the trains' PA systems, the operators do try to do a decent job of keeping you informed about what's happening.
As the Milan to Zurich train made its way into Switzerland, we encountered some mechanical problems and slowed to a stop in the tiny hamlet of Goschenen. Finally, after about a 30-minute delay, one of the staffers on board emerged from the cab and personally spoke to each passenger, explaining what had happened. I tried to imagine an airplane pilot doing the same.
As much as I love taking European trains, not everything is perfect about them. And not everything is perfect about having a Eurail pass. Some trains have limited numbers of seats available to passengers with the passes, as happened to me when trying to get from Paris to Venice. As a result, rather than being able to go from Paris to Milan and then on to Venice, I had to go from Paris to Basel and then to Milan, and finally to Venice. But not to the main station there. It worked, but it was a bit more of a hassle.
A related problem is that many of the trains seem to have limited space on board for luggage. If you arrive for your train with plenty of time to spare, it's not a problem. But if you run up to it when it's about to pull out, you can often find that the car you're in doesn't have any space left. Generally, you can find space in another car, but it can be a bit unnerving to leave your bags in a different car.
That's what happened on the train to Zurich, and in this case, it was especially annoying because it couldn't have even been half full. Yet, by the time I boarded, there was no space in my car for my luggage, mainly because the overhead racks were too small. After dealing with it, I talked briefly with a group of women about how odd it was that all the available baggage space was already full, despite there being plenty of empty seats.
They shrugged and smiled. "It's Europe," they said.
Stay tuned for more from CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman's European train travels.