Eurail Selectpass, the last eight days have been very eventful: I saw a 360-degree view of Dublin, Ireland and hung upside-down atop an ancient castle. I visited the cultural capital of Europe and got acquainted with nine popes.
I gambled away a few Euros while traversing the Atlantic ocean. I drank a gin fizz in an open air café in Paris and ate my first black pudding, at 7 a.m., while speeding past herds of sheep and cattle on a high-speed train.
And those are just a few of the activities I indulged in while deviating from the predetermined schedule.
All too often, a trip to Europe is planned and plotted down to the last footstep by a traveler, to ensure that every attraction is seen and every moment goes as planned … the ultimate exploration of a continent steeped in color, culture, history, and life.
But those careful itineraries can subtract some of the joie de vivre that attracts most people to the continent in the first place. Hidden nooks are missed, little is left to chance, and the thrill of not knowing what is around the next corner is bypassed.
Travel by rail, though, and Europe can become your veritable oyster. Gone are those stuffy, detailed schedules, replaced by one ticket and countless possibilities, all accessible at any time by hopping a train and watching the world whiz by. Where it stops, nobody knows.
The Rail Trail
The Eurail system of Europe (Eurail Group G.I.E.) was established in 2001, replacing the former Eurail system that had been in place since 1959.
The Eurail Group is owned by a number of train- and ship-operating companies, referred to as the Eurail members. Member companies offer a number of travel discounts and special offers when used in conjunction with a Eurail pass. Other travel-related companies such as car rental outfits, hotels, or city-wide transit systems that are not members, but are referred to as Bonus Partners, also offer special rates and discounts to Eurail travelers.
Rail travel is also simplified by purchasing Eurail tickets, as the passes link the various rail systems of Europe together through one pass. Travelers can buy point-to-point tickets (Eurailtickets), or passes valid for an extended period of time in a number of countries (Eurailpasses and Eurail Selectpasses); the latter vary based on the pass purchased.
A traveler could buy 15-day Eurailpass, good for travel within any three-month period, for instance, and use the same pass in 17 different European countries including most of the western European countries, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and some countries in the eastern part of the continent, including newly-added Romania, for about $588 U.S. dollars. Passes for longer travel periods are also available.
For a more economical trip, travelers can choose a Eurail Selectpass, which allows for travel within three, four, or five bordering countries, depending on the pass purchased. This option ranges in cost from $370 to $826 U.S. dollars, and even the three-country option is not so restrictive as one might think – there are over 400 different country combinations to choose from.
Riding the rails allows for more exploration of a country than a car or bus tour can offer, and can also abbreviate the space between towns and cities, creating day trips out of visits that otherwise would require an overnight stay and plenty of driving.
“And Sang a Song for Ireland…”
I began and ended my trip in Dublin with a three-country, 15-day Selectpass in hand, but was able to traverse thousands of miles in just over a week by using the Eurail system and partnering transportation.
Starting out small after arriving in Dublin via an Aer Lingus flight from the states, I took a short jaunt on the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit, a 34-mile system serving the east coast of Ireland) to the seaside community of Howth.
My journey across Ireland and France began at sunset overlooking the ocean adjacent to Ireland’s Eye, a small island that also serves as a bird sanctuary.
Then it was on to the King Sitric for dinner, where servers were kind enough to not only make recommendations based on the freshest Irish seafood available in the early Autumn months (crab, lobster, and monkfish topped the list) but to also detail some of the items we were sure to see on our tables for the next three days in Ireland. One was brown bread which, like apple pie, never follows exactly the same recipe and therefore is slightly different every time you taste it.
Using Dublin as the hub of a wheel with many spokes, the next day began bright and early at Heuston station, where my Selectpass began its transcontinental workout. Carefully penning the date into the first box on the 15-day pass, I boarded an Irish Rail train to Cork, just under three hours away from Dublin by rail.
The option of eating breakfast, lunch, or dinner on the train (in first class), affords more time for exploration once a destination is reached. The journey becomes part of the experience, as Dublin’s busy streets gradually give way to herds of cattle and sheep grazing in the sun and brightly painted homes and businesses.
Another part of the experience was the introduction of black pudding to my diet. It’s a beef product also known as blood sausage or blood pudding, and it’s much better than its name suggests.
Cork, famous for its international food, jazz, and film festivals as well as its rich nautical heritage, has been named the European Capital of Culture for 2005. Under the auspices of that distinction, the city is charged with producing and promoting an all-inclusive program of cultural activity throughout the year, including projects in architecture, festivals, literature, music, sport, and other disciplines.
The city announces the honor of serving as the continent’s cultural capital at every corner, festooning buildings with bright, orange flags and posters that point to the crown jewels of Cork’s rich cultural canvas.
These include the post office that was once a theater, the sights and sounds of the city’s two major streets: St. Patrick’s and Grand Parade, and the city’s English Market, which bustles with activity as shoppers sample fresh olives from massive barrels, eye bins of oysters and prawns, or purchase famous Cork-churned Irish butter.
Several smaller towns and attractions are just a short drive away from the center of Cork, including the famous Blarney Castle and Blarney Stone, set at the top-most point of the castle and reachable only after an arduous climb up steep, stone steps and by precariously stretching backwards to plant a smooch on the stone in hopes of reaping the fabled benefits of eloquent speech – a.k.a the Gift of Gab.
Also moments away are Cobh (pronounced cove), where the Titanic made its last stop before meeting its tragic end, and Fota Island, home to the Fota House and unusually hearty soil, which allows everything from fuschia plants to banana trees to grow right in the heart of Ireland.
In fact, color like that of the unlikely lime and lemon trees of Fota Island touches everything in this region. The striking stained glass windows of Cobh’s St. Colman’s Cathedral, for instance, are offset by the pastel-painted homes built into a hill across the street, dubbed ‘the Deck of Cards’ by locals.
Peppering the pedestals of Cobh’s monuments to those who perished in the sinking of the Titanic, as well as the Lusitania and those emigrants who died while traversing the sea on famine ships, are tiny, vibrant paper stars and moons, thrown from ships of vacationers departing the port for new destinations.
On the train back to Dublin, that color only fades with the sun, and is soon replaced by city lights and the raucous nightlife on the banks of the River Liffey and Temple Bar, where Irish music filters out of every doorway.
Ireland’s capital undoubtedly has a festive nightlife, but it’s not only a city for wining and dining. Grafton Street offers a leisurely stroll punctuated by street performers, and simple public transportation offers access to a number of sights, including historical spots such as the National Library, Trinity College and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Dublin’s most popular tourist attraction, the Guinness Storehouse, offers seven floors of the history of the company and its famous dark beer for 14 Euro, but perhaps the most impressive part of the entire museum tour is its final exhibit: The Gravity Bar, which offers a 360-degree view of Dublin, completed with a free pint of Guinness to sip while enjoying the panorama.
There are several cultural highlights within Dublin that can fuel an entire day of sightseeing for those who wish to steer clear of the more famous tourist attractions. Its literary aspects alone can be explored through guided tours that are a far cry from the usual staid walking tours of other vacations. The Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, for instance, allows for two hours of guided exploration of the city jam packed with historical and literary information surrounding the city’s famous writers.
The twist is that the pub crawl, led by one of a handful of actors who started the company in 1988, not only features interactive songs, skits, and a quiz at the end of the tour (note: it’s not easy, but there are prizes), also weaves through four different pubs with their own colorful history. Participants in the pub crawl can enjoy a beverage or two while they listen to their guide regale tales of the lives of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, or Samuel Becket, as well as make recommendations on some of the works of new and emerging Irish writers.
All literary information is offered up to pub crawlers while present-day Dublinites cheer a football match in the next room, or maybe, Bono, lead singer of U2, enjoys a pint (The Duke, also the starting point for the crawl and just a few moments from the studio where U2 recorded their first album, is a favorite haunt).
Exploration of any country can’t begin and end within its capital city, however, lest travelers miss some of the subtle nuances of a country’s culture. Thus, after imbibing a little fermented knowledge on the Literary Pub Crawl it was on to the region of Wexford and to the town of the same name, in the southeast of Ireland, by taking a two-hour train ride to one of Ireland’s cobble-stoned towns overlooking the ocean.
Wexford epitomizes some of the things many of us associate with Ireland … green, open spaces, small pubs on every corner, and inside those pubs, groups of men singing the traditional songs of Ireland, huddled closely around an oak table, crooning in perfect Irish tenors with a pint in one hand.
Wexford Town is only moments away from the Irish National Heritage Park, which offers a leisurely stroll through nature trails made unique by the occasional exhibit of one of several different periods in Irish history, from the stone age to the Viking age, and concluding in the modern era with lunch in the Fulacht Fiadh Restaurant.
Wexford Town is also only moments away by cab or bus from New Ross, the area from which the American Kennedy dynasty originated, and where a replica of the Dunbrody famine ship of the 1800s stands. The ship is fully authentic, save for the small room at the bow of the ship that allows visitors to trace their familial origins and pinpoint which ships their relatives might have sailed on, and at what time.
My Kingdom for a Crepe!
After a trip back in time, however, modern tourists can move on to Rosslare, another busy port in the south of Ireland that abuts Wexford. It’s here that a traveler bid adieu to Ireland forever, or for just a few days, without setting foot on an airplane.
Railpass holders can easily hop on an Irish ferry (receiving a 50% discount with a Eurail Selectpass, thanks to the partnership between Eurail and Irish Ferries), and embark on an overnight trip to France, docking at Cherbourg on the Northwest coast.
Irish Ferries allow passengers to travel without a cabin, enjoying the many amenities of the ship without much shut-eye on the 19-hour trip, but also include guaranteed seats or cabins with small bunk beds, bathrooms and showers for more comfort. Fares are low, and start at around 11 Euro, rising all the way up to 174 Euro depending on the size of the cabin reserved. The ferries also offer restaurants, casinos, bars, entertainment and shows nightly, a duty-free shop featuring both Irish and French goods, movie theaters, game rooms, and a salon.
After an overnight stay on the ferry, we arrived in Cherbourg and quickly boarded a train waiting to whisk us off to Paris, a three-hour ride.
Trains from Cherbourg stop St. Lazare with a short metro hook-up to Gare de Lyon, where a small snack could be grabbed for a walking or metro-tour of the city.
But unlike most train stations, Gare de Lyon has a hidden gem adjacent to the TGV (high-speed train) tracks: Le Train Bleu, a five-star restaurant with frescoed, cathedral ceilings and a flair for fine dining.
Sipping champagne and sampling authentic French foie gras and profiteroles drenched in steaming, melted chocolate, dining at Le Train Bleu is oddly relaxing and decadent, given its bustling surroundings; and after dinner, it’s only a short walk downstairs to the metro to reach further destinations and enjoy the evening in Paris; perhaps strolling down the Seine and tossing coins to street performers from all over the world, grabbing a crepe from a vendor, or quietly walking the streets of Montmartre, where panoramic view of the entire city can be seen just by turning a corner and cresting a hill.
Although constantly crowded, the metro system of Paris is easily navigable. All stops lead back to Gare de Lyon, where further exploration of France can begin. Thanks to the TGV system in France, starting the day in Paris and ending in the sunny, moderate climate of Provence amounts to just a three-hour trip.
The city of Avignon, famous for its wine, olive, and lavender production, but more famous for its vibrant arts and culture scene, is divided by the Rhone river, thus representing both the Provence and Cote du Rhone wine-producing regions. A city largely encased within high stone walls constructed to protect the city during the 14th century, when Avignon replaced Rome as the papal city, Avignon’s streets wind upward from the bridge Saint Bénezet and end at the Pope’s Palace, which overlooks the city from atop the highest hill.
Built in a staggeringly quick 20 years, the Pope’s Palace offers room after room of preserved elegance for the history buff interested in learning more of the nine popes that served from Avignon, as well as a few surprises – the Pope’s Palace cathedral, for instance, known across Europe for its amazing acoustics, often attracts musicians who visit in hopes of hearing their own voice or instrument augmented by the cathedral’s high stone ceilings.
Adjacent to the cathedral is an addition to the palace that serves as a showcase for many of the wines of the Cote du Rhone region, which stretches from Avignon north to the town of Lyon. Here, in “The Pope’s Wine Cellar,” visitors can sit for a tasting or purchase a bottle of one of the more famous wines (at prices that would never be found state-side), including Muscat (a sweet dessert wine), several hearty reds, and some light whites, including Chateau-neuf-de-Pape.
Another three hour train trip, departing from Avignon by TGV, is the equally stunning city of Dijon in the central eastern part of the country. Famous for its mustards and other delicacies, Dijon is also noted for its well-preserved medieval streets, sprawling public markets, and an easy, relaxed way of life.
Dijon is also one of the most progressive cities in Europe when it comes to tourism, taking pains to maintain the sanctity of its historic streets while still offering visitors some cutting-edge tools with which to explore.
A quick stop at L’office de Tourisme in Dijon could result in a handful of pamphlets and a bike rental to see the city, for instance, or representatives could hand you a small PDA with a four-color screen, which points out the major attractions of the city and allows for a self-guided tour complete with maps, descriptions of each stop, and suggestions for activities across the city, all offered in several different languages.
MP3 players offer the same helpful hints without the visual component. In addition, for those hoping to zoom around town on something more unique than a 10-speed bike, the tourism office in Dijon also rents Segways – upright, mobile units with two wheels and push button controls – that allow for easy navigation and guard against sore walking feet.
Visitors can find attractions by looking for small carvings of owls – Dijon’s ‘mascot’ – set into the sidewalks. The owl symbol is derived from a small stone owl carved into the side of a building within the city’s medieval section, which promises to grant three wishes within one year to anyone who quietly wishes, then taps the owl three times.
Rounding out a whirlwind tour of Ireland and France, once more on the TGV whizzing back to Paris to enjoy one last evening in the city of lights before flying from Beauvais Airport back to Dublin, then home, the distance traveled – and moreover the distance made shorter – by rail travel is abundantly clear.
As the pastoral scenes of France’s countryside give way to the hustle of one of the world’s busiest cities, not unlike a mirror image of the trip from Dublin to Cork that began our trek, it seems both amazing and amazingly simple how rail travel can allow any type of traveler to tailor a European trip with just one rail pass and little ingenuity.
And conversely, as I sat later that evening in an open air café in Paris, enjoying a gin fizz and the scenes of a world forever in motion, I reflected on how with that same rail pass, my trip could have taken me to entirely different destinations and showed me a completely different set of sights. It’s that acceptance of the unknown that made the trip — and will make the next – most worthwhile.
Jaclyn C. Stevenson is a full-time writer and photographer based in Massachusetts. Hailing from a long line of adventure-seekers, she specializes in travel, business, pop culture, the arts, and other slices of life. www.writerjax.com.
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