Slow Travel through Europe – An Ode to Rail Travel

"It's time for a vacation," Bjorn said to me at the end of 2018. "Vacation? Sure, always. I want to show you all my favorite places in Spain. I want to go to Spain again. Strolling through small streets, enjoying delicious food, dancing and drinking wine in the sunset." At the time, we both had a stressful 2017 and 18 behind us, with changes of location, country and job, combined with many projects and tight deadlines. We were just ready for a vacation. The longing of my body for rest and recovery was especially evident in my face. Only now when looking through the old photos, I realize how bad my skin looked due to all the stress. In addition to the blemishes, I was also struggling with rosacea all of a sudden. I could have easily gone through as a fourteen year old model for Clearasil, but only for the before shots. But since this is not a beauty blog, I will rather spare you from the photos of my skin at that time and instead transition to the topic of traveling by train.

How do we want to go on vacation?

The questions of where and when were quickly answered, but the how still needed to be discussed at length. I had made up my mind that I never wanted to fly again – except in emergencies and hopeless situations. I have been flying from A to C via B since I was seven years old and now I just don't feel like it anymore. I just don't want it anymore. I'm sure the greens are celebrating this phrase hard right now, but for me it has less to do with environmental reasons or any trends, and more to do with my personal attitude towards travel. Flying is pure stress for me. Over the course of my life, I've developed a certain fear or anxiety about flying – yes, statistically it's irrational, you live more dangerously as a pedestrian than as an airline passenger – plus all that suitcase packing and weighing, paying attention to dimensions and then being at check-in hours before, the security checks, the overpriced airport food and drink, the lottery ticket sellers on the plane. You know what I mean, you've probably flown before. I want to go on vacation, but not stressed and for that I gladly accept longer trips.

I like the journey itself. The process of traveling. The movement. I watch from the window how the landscape slowly changes, how the light changes its color and luminosity. I like the feeling of fluent travel that makes me feel the way and the distance. I like to stop in between and watch who's getting on and off. Moreover, Europe is not as big as it looks on the map. Many places can be reached and left within a few hours, provided it's not an island during the off-season.

Alternative means of travel to the plane were the car, which we didn't own, a van, which we didn't have and didn't want to convert, the ferry, maybe another time and the train. I like to take the train. I love to spend hours just looking out the window and watching the houses go by, the trees jumping by like funny shadows, the passengers getting on and off, and the slight sway of the train lulling me to sleep. For me, traveling by train is both an adventure and a way to relax. I convinced Bjorn pretty fast to go somewhere by train, no actually not somewhere, but to a very specific place. It was going to be a place we both wanted to return to every year.

By train to Sitges

During my time in Barcelona, I started to escape the big city hustle and bustle, especially during the touristy summer season, by visiting small coastal towns and villages in Catalonia. A city enchanted me directly. One early afternoon I drove to Sitges. I don't remember exactly how I came across this city. It wasn't a recommendation and I didn't do much research either. I guess I was just looking to see how far I could get on the regional train. I already knew the beach of Castelldefels quite well and lying next to the Seat managers didn't excite me very much. So I guess I just got off at the next station. The first impression of the station forecourt and the surrounding streets was not very impressive. There was a Mercadona and a few bakers, organic supermarkets like Veritas and Ametller Origen, but other than that it was not worth mentioning. So I walked the street towards the beach and then I was flashed by the city. The day was Gay Pride in Sitges and sure, this is a big holiday in Barcelona, with fiesta and parade, but in Sitges, it is the event of the year. The glitter, the rainbow colors, the many people who celebrated themselves for being who they are. That was just impressive. Music all around from all the windows and streets, glitter and confetti falling from the balconies, people spinning in circles and drinking and singing and dancing. The whole town was one big party during that day. That was one thing and then I strolled along the promenade at the beach until I reached a big wall. A staircase led me up to the church of San Bartolome y Santa Tecla. A staircase that rises by the sea. Once at the top of the church square, I look up at the steeple and slowly gaze at the lightly rose colored facade shining in the sunlight and around me the rich blue sea and waves crashing their foamy peaks against the wall. That was the moment when Sitges, this little partying town, burned itself into my heart. I wanted to share this special place with Bjorn. I really wanted to show him this city, which is so different from anything I've seen before.

Looking up to the church of San Bartolome y Santa Tecla

Stopover in Paris – for a beer and a baguette between two train stations

We didn't want to go by car and flying was out of the question, so I researched train connections. Actually this was quite easy. We just had to see to it that we get as south as possible by train. I also knew that Barcelona has an excellent connection to Paris. So at first we only had to go from Hannover to Paris. That should not be a problem. Some people have already traveled by train to Paris, but who dared to go further?? We tried it out. After two nights in Paris we left for Barcelona and once in Barcelona we only had to take the regional train to Sitges.

Notre Dame of Paris

On a bridge over the Seine

Toasting with French beer to the arrival in Paris

A little snack in Paris

From Hannover to Paris we were on the road for a total of six and a half hours. There is no direct connection, so we had to change to the TGV in Mannheim. The TGV crosses the french border at 320 km/h. From Paris it takes another six and a half hours to get to Barcelona by the Spanish train Renfe. Arriving at the train station in Barcelona Sants, you take the line R2, which runs along the southern coast of Barcelona. Traveling by train through Europe sounds easy and it is, but for such a trip you have to bring time and leisure and patience as well as a little indulgence and sometimes a plan B.

With 320 km/h in the TGV to Paris east station

This train trip was so much fun and time flew by. Bjorn worked on a customer project in the ICE, in the TGV and the day after next in the Renfe and I looked out of the window, read, photographed and wrote. I have noticed that train travelers who are prepared to be on the road for several hours and cross several countries travel differently. They have a different attitude to travel and you can see it in their faces. Their facial features are relaxed, even almost wrinkle-free. There is happy laughing and whispering or just dozing or eating away. Even children are more relaxed. They romp in the corridors or on the stairs, look for niches as retreats or let their parents explain to them what they can just observe out of the window.

A suburb of Paris

Paris, Nimes, Montpellier, Sete, Narbonne, Perpignan

Passing cities: first the metropolis of Paris with its glitz and glamor, then the run-down banlieues. The trip gives children and parents at the same time an impulse to think about the conditions in society and parents can be taught by their children what can be done against the rich and the poor. In pedagogy, this is called discovery learning.

The sky clears up, the sun breaks in. First Montpellier, then Narbonne, and Perpignan is the border town to Catalonia. We are in the south of France and the road leads us along the sea. Birds are hopping in the nature reserve on our left and right, salt fields, old wooden huts that seem to be standing in the water and a cyclist with a fishing rod sticking out over the luggage rack is riding along the small gravel path next to us. After Perpignan only the Pyrenees and 200 more kilometers separating us from Barcelona.

Driving past Nimes

Passing MontpellierWe pass Narbonne

Figueres, Girona, Barcelona

The fellow travelers leave us one by one. Girona, Figueres and then we are just isolated groups of travelers, some hard-headed tourists and daily commuters on their way to or from the meeting. I can not look at them. In the afternoon we are in Barcelona. Here in Barcelona Estacion Sants the trains to the Spanish world were ready for us. But let's stay close for now. We set on recovery and a beautiful time at the sea. Without an overnight stay, we continued to Sitges on one of the regional trains. Here in the metropolitan region, they travel every ten, fifteen or twenty minutes. We are standing on platform 11 waiting for the train to arrive. She is not long in coming. It is during the week. People are heading for their end of work and want to leave the big city to return to their home villages, suburbs and relax. The platform gradually fills up. The train arrives and is already full. We stand in one of the aisles, I with my 70 liter suitcase and backpack. Traveling with light luggage has to be learned first. After a little more than half an hour we are there, at our destination station in Sitges.

Salt fields of Villeroy (Sete)

View from the window to the salt fields of Villeroy (Sete)

Driving past a salt field in Sete

Arriving in Sitges

And the next vacation?

This train ride went so smoothly that in 2020 we thought, let's bring train travel through Europe to the next level. No sooner said than done! The first challenge was to get from Hannover to Cadiz by train and the second challenge was to get from Paris to Barcelona without an overnight stay in Paris, i.e. with a change of trains on the same day. Challenges accepted! How the 2020 trip actually went for us and whether we mastered the challenges, you can read in the next article. I'll just reveal that not everything went according to plan and it was exciting, very, very exciting.