The Arch of Triumph in Paris (centre as seen from the top of the Eiffel Tower) is a stockcar racer's delight at all hours of the day and night as cars jockey for position
Train travel avoids the many frustrations of driving in unfamiliar territory
The last time I saw
Paris - from the driver's seat of a car - I almost abandoned the vehicle in mid-traffic. It was a toss-up whether it was more dangerous to keep driving or to try to make it on foot across several lanes of speeding, zigzagging Peugeots and Citroens to reach the sanctuary of the Arch of Triumph.
As a first-time visitor to Europe, I'd naively decided to pick up a rental car at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Big mistake. The drive on the chaotic, high-speed highway leading into the French capital was a white-knuckle adventure - but the worst was yet to come.
Trying to negotiate an unfamiliar vehicle around the Étoile - the multi-spoked traffic circle surrounding the Arch - is, in terms of stupid ideas, right up there with climbing into the polar bear enclosure at the zoo or taking a leisurely stroll through New York City's Central Park in the wee small hours of the morning.
Somehow I survived that game of Parisian Roulette and made it through two weeks of such unexpected hazards as the French priorité à droite traffic rule where you have to give way to any vehicle approaching from the right, negotiating the hairpin switchbacks through the Swiss Alps, and watching my travel budget disappear in ransom payments to the ubiquitous toll booths on European freeways.
What made me decide to limit future European rental car experiences to short forays to out-of-the-way places not otherwise reachable was an incident toward the end of that first continental visit. I'd managed to drive on and off the Calais to Dover ferry without ending up at the bottom of the English Channel. I'd even adjusted to driving on the other side of the road in Great Britain, quickly learning the intricacies of the highway roundabouts where cars seemed to be coming at me from every direction. But driver fatigue finally kicked in when I reached
Glasgow, Scotland at rush hour on a Friday evening.
My worst nightmare happened when I faced a phalanx of automobiles heading straight at me as I rounded a corner on a busy street. I had lapsed into my Canadian driving pattern and was barrelling along on the wrong side of the road. Swerving at the last second, I avoided a collision but my mistake had not gone unnoticed. A massive Glaswegian traffic cop waved me to a stop and asked me in rather salty language what I thought I was doing. Luckily, he was a good-natured sort who let me off with a warning that "we drive funny over here."
Before continuing my journey, I decided to ask my benefactor a question: "Can you tell me the best way to get to Edinburgh?" A big smile spread across the policeman's face as he replied: "For you? Take a train!" That worthwhile piece of advice started my lifelong love affair with the European railway system.
VIA Canada would do well to offer the equivalent of a
Eurail Pass where you pre-purchase a certain number of days of train travel in a given period. This affords you the right to hop on and off pretty well any train you choose in one or more of the 27 participating European countries.
There's an assortment of passes geared to a traveller's individual needs, including first- and second-class tariffs. Here's an overview of the types of passes available. More details, including prices in Canadian dollars, are available from your travel agent or on-line at
Eurail Global Pass: For visiting more than five countries, this pass allows almost unlimited travel during a continuous period (15 or 21 days or one, two or three months). There's another option of flexible travel for 10 or 15 days within two months.
Eurail Select Pass: The purchaser of this pass can travel between three to five adjoining countries for five to 10 days within a two-month period.
Eurail Regional Pass: This version allows unlimited travel in any two bordering countries within whatever time period is selected.
Eurail One Country Pass: This type of pass allows the purchaser time to explore one European country in depth within the paid-for time period.
There are certain rules to follow to make your Eurail experience glitch-free. For instance, the pass has to be purchased before you leave Canada. The first time you use it, you must go to a train station wicket and have an official stamp the pass to activate it. And you have to fill out, in pen, the date of travel before boarding the train. Failure to do so could result in a fine because in the eyes of the I've-Seen-It-All-Before conductor you are really travelling without a ticket.
If you are using a flexible pass with an option of travelling on non-consecutive days, make sure you fill in the correct date in the allotted space on the ticket. If you write in an incorrect date, you have just cheated yourself out of one day-s travel. And it-s bye-bye train trip if your pass is lost or stolen.
There's one major annoyance with the system. High-speed and sleeper-car trains usually require advance reservations at a fairly hefty surcharge. It seems a tad unfair to expect Eurail customers to shell out extra cash after having already paid for the pass. The Eurail folks say they're working on the problem but don't expect a quick solution since they're dealing with 27 different railways systems. One consolation is that in the overall scheme of things the Eurail Pass is still a great bargain over what it would cost to buy tickets for each leg of a trip.
An irritation with any whirlwind European junket is having to get up every morning, repack and head out to the next destination. The daily routine of lugging baggage to a new hotel and registering all over again can get to be a bit tedious.
A simple solution is to take what I've coined a "Straycation" where you plunk yourself down in one city and make day trips by train, coming back to the same hotel each evening. You unpack and repack only once during your entire stay.
This year marks the start of centenary celebrations commemorating the outbreak of World War One. On a recent fact-gathering trip to cities and towns in Northern France and Belgium that were destroyed or badly damaged in the war and rebuilt in ensuing years, the Eurail Pass proved ideal.
Using my Straycation idea, I set up headquarters in Brussels near the central railway station and "spoked" out to surrounding communities that had been rebuilt at the end of the ironically misnamed War To End All Wars.
The first day trip was to
Ypres in northwestern Belgium. Tourists who stare up at the magnificent Cloth Hall in the town square can be excused for thinking they're looking at a medieval edifice steeped in centuries of history. In fact, the original Hall was completed in 1304 but was reduced to rubble between 1914 and 1918, along with the adjacent Saint Martin's Church and other ornate buildings. They were totally rebuilt from still-existent drawings after the war. Structurally speaking, Ypres is not as old as Ottawa or Kingston or Toronto.
Another reconstructed Belgian community worth a visit is
Leuven - about 30 km east of Brussels. The downtown train station exits onto a square dominated by a massive bas relief monument to the citizens who were either killed or forced to flee the city.
Today, vibrant and colourful Leuven offers a number of must-see attractions. High on the list is the multi-spired and intricately carved town hall that was spared during the German occupation since it served as the conquering army's headquarters. Less fortunate was the nearby Catholic University Library that was deliberately burned to the ground, with the loss of irreplaceable manuscripts, books and other documents.
Dinant is another Belgian community extensively damaged during World War One. Located astride the Meuse River about 90 km southeast of Brussels, Dinant is the birthplace of saxophone inventor
Adolphe Sax . A museum to his memory features many variations of the instrument and gigantic multi-coloured saxophones line both sides of the bridge over the Meuse.
That span gives an unobstructed view of the Collegiate Church of Notre Dame, nestled against a sheer rock cliff topped by a fortress called The Citadel. A cable car ride affords a breathtaking panoramic view of the Meuse valley.
Moving on to the battle areas of France, temporary headquarters were set up in
Amiens , the capital of
the Somme Region of Picardy about 120 km north of Paris. For Canadians, the Somme conjures up horrific mind pictures of men dying in agony during one of the most fiercely fought campaigns of the war.
Today, the area is serene and picturesque. In Amiens, the Saint-Leu section of the city features colourful waterside cafés that have earned the community the nickname of "Little Venice". Diners enjoying a crêpe and cider lunch can glance up at Amiens Cathedral, a World Heritage site situated several blocks away, and plan an afternoon tour of this lofty structure.
A visit to the nearby town of
Péronne can turn into an all-day affair due to the extensive collection of World War One artifacts at the Historial de la Grande Guerre museum housed within an ancient chateau. Uniforms, weaponry, patriotic posters, newspapers, magazines and myriad other war memorabilia are informatively exhibited in glass cases throughout the building.
The German Army Is Prevented From Taking Paris
On a par with the Péronne historical display is the Musée de la Grande Guerre du pays de Meaux, located about 150 km southeast of Amiens and just 40 km east of Paris. Built near the site of the
Battle of the Marne that stopped the Germans from overrunning the French capital, the museum features a small theatre that, through newsreels and slides, simulates a time machine back through history.
The museum at Meaux (pronounced Mo) houses a number of military vehicles, including a pigeon truck that served as an avian condo for the carrier pigeons used for communication in those archaic pre-digital times. Another vehicular offering parked in the building is one of the 600 jaunty little taxis that transported emergency French troops from Paris to the Marne.
A word of caution for those intending to visit the battlefields, cemeteries and communities connected to World War One. Hotel and train reservations are already being snapped up by the millions of tourists expected to descend on the area over the next four years. An overworked sales pitch from the hospitality industry actually makes a lot of sense in these circumstances: Book early to avoid disappointment!
Tips & Tricks For Travelling On The Train In Europe
How to Travel Through Europe by Train
Train Travel Europe:
The traditional Eurail pass covers 28 countries, as of 2013: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey. Other passes, such as the Eurail Selectpass, allows one to select a series of bordering countries. For fare calculation purposes, some regions count as one country: Benelux, Slovenia-Croatia, and Serbia-Montenegro-Bulgaria.
Except for Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom is notably absent, but provides a separate set of passes known as BritRail Passes.