Getting up to speed on Rail Europe

Like many Americans, I fell for rail travel thanks to a Eurail pass right after college

A bottle of wine, a notebook and a broad window were the formula for really seeing the Continent, and I swore I'd return to the trains again.

Then life intervened, with its schedules, budgets and jobs. In years since, even working in travel, I've mostly explored one destination city, squeezing in a day trip before returning home. Trains were for kids with time on their hands.

All that changed last summer, when I joined two press tours with Rail Europe, the company that introduced Americans to Eurail passes and now brokers tickets and packages for over 50 rail companies from the U.K. to Russia.

An SNCF train in France. A Paris-Barcelona run launched in December operates twice daily.Now I'm practically grabbing strangers on the street to share the news: Romantic rail travel has become cyber-smart, and the current era in train travel may be Europe's finest.

Along with the history, beauty and glamour, both trips illuminated the latest changes in European travel. Growing networks of high-speed trains are forcing airlines to minimize routes and even pull out of shorter runs like Paris-Brussels.

Rail's increasing integration with airports simplifies trips, as do new tourism-friendly, cross-border networks. The EU is spending an estimated 30 billion euros on transportation in the next decade, much of which will further expand tracks and ensure rail safety.

Finally, deregulation means cool new options, like the high-speed Paris-Barcelona run that launched in December, Eurostar's 2016 launch of a London-Amsterdam route and Anglo-German plans for a London-Frankfurt train soon after.

Rail Europe makes it simple to book these trips online, by aggregating dozens of disparate rail lines across Europe and Russia.

Our first trip, London to Amsterdam, was a "greatest hits" tour of Western civilization. In just five days, Rail Europe brought us to four major museums, including Amsterdam's grandly reopened Rijksmuseum; three Leading Hotels of the World; and a half-dozen sublime restaurants.

Eurostar will launch a London-Amsterdam route in 2016.Though that London-Amsterdam Eurostar is in the works, we were just as happy to take the 186-mph bucket-list train for a day in Brussels — no place better for a chocolate, beer and art fix — before boarding Thalys to Amsterdam.

Our Madrid-Paris run was just as gorgeous and practical. We were ferried on high-speed trains from one world capital to another, avoiding confusing and pricey airport transfers and landing in the heart of Barcelona, where we spent one night, before Paris.

The new 6.5-hour Barcelona-Paris run operates twice daily and should eventually be shortened to 5.5 hours. But our tour stopped in Languedoc at Nimes, known as the French Rome.

Being en route to Paris, we were dubious about Nimes, about which locals say there are only three things to see: two ancient ruins and a hotel. But they're being modest. Nimes offers more Roman ruins than anywhere else in France (all stunning), a new Norman Fosters museum, fabulous French shopping and a thriving bullfighting tradition that drew Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso and lives on in a 2,000-year-old amphitheater. (The town boasts an American connection, too: the word "denim" is an abbreviation of fabric de Nimes.)

As for that hotel? Centrally located Hotel Imperator, praised by Hemingway, offers a welcoming bar, a Provencal garden and a restaurant so good that it was the highlight of a day that began in Barcelona and ended with a moonlit stroll to the Champs-Elysees. We all hope for surprises when traveling — Nimes was ours.


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