The first and last time I travelled long-distance by train (and by long distance, I mean more than a hundred kilometers) was three years ago, going to Assisi from Rome, Italy. My crew and I just arrived at the Aeroporto Leonardo da Vinci di Fiumicino from Manila, sleep-deprived with body clocks six hours ahead of local time. We were in Italy to film a documentary. Still disoriented, we were whisked into a van and brought to Roma Termini, the train station where the last morning train to Assisi was about to leave. We needed desperately to get on that train, otherwise, we would waste a whole day of production.
As soon as we stepped out of the van and into the train station, everything took on a European action film-feel. Half-carrying, half-dragging our various bags and suitcases, we ran as if the Italian mafia was after us. During our sprint, I remember how I wanted to tell my crew to just “Go! Just go, dahlings. Leave me! Save yourselves!” I pictured myself as a film noir siren, net veil over my eyes, scarlet lipstick on my mouth. In reality, I was so out of breath I really just wanted to stop and sit on my suitcase. But despite my dramatics, we managed to haul ourselves on that train, saving our precious shooting day.
There’s something about trains that summons nostalgia. It just reminds me of a time so long ago, when travelling was still new; when crossing borders was somewhat exotic and adventuresome.
Philippine National Hero Jose Rizal was an avid traveller and rode the train often. In one of his letters to his parents and brothers, he painted very vivid descriptions of his train rides in Europe in 1882.
Barcelona, 23 June
“I left Marseille by express train on the afternoon of the 15th, because all the trains that go from Marseille to Barcelona are express. The ticket is very cheap — 12 pesos and 3 pesetas, first class. You travel at full speed of from five to six leagues2 per hour. By boat the trip costs almost as much and it’s more uncomfortable. We were going at such speed that when we met trains running in the opposite direction, it was physically impossible to look at it because it would turn your head around. That was infernal, it seemed like lightning, a monster, a shooting star. We went through tunnels, or rather mountains, one of which was very long that at the speed we were going I 6believed we made it in more than five minutes. At one stop I was much frightened: A stop of 30 minutes was announced. I went down for some necessity and after five minutes, I saw the train pulling out, taking along my luggage with my money in it. I ran after it; I didn’t overtake it. Fortunately, a gendarme informed me that it would return soon and that it would only change tracks. After that I didn’t go down again.”
5-6 leagues per hour? Wow! That’s about 21-26 kilometers per hour! I wonder what Rizal would say had he lived to see the day of the 334.7 km/h bullet train.
These days, there are so many ways to travel. Budget airlines have made travelling not only faster but more affordable. Yet, travelling by train still has a certain charm. And those who prefer trains have so may options to choose from.
Perhaps one of the best ways to travel by train is to go on European train holidays. This way, everything is taken care of, one’s safety is assured and the stress of travelling is significantly lessened.
Indeed, old-school travellers (or adventurers) are made up of a completely different set of DNA. I’m currently reading Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar). In the book, Theroux, who many say practically invented travel writing, recreates the journey he took almost three decades ago. Here, he expounds on why taking the train is more fulfilling:
“So many other travelers are hurrying to the airport, to be interrogated and frisked and their luggage searched for bombs. They would be better off on a national railway, probably the best way of getting a glimpse of how people actually live—the backyards, the barns, the hovels, the side roads and slums, the telling facts of village life, the misery that airplanes fly over. Yes, the train takes more time, and many trains are dirty, but so what? Delay and dirt are the realities of the most rewarding travel.”