VIENNA, Austria — Remember when just getting where you wanted to go was part of the pleasure of travel? When you didn’t have to take off half your clothes, throw away your liquids, unpack your electronics, and go through multiple ID checks all just for a two-hour journey in space inadequate for a battery chicken?
Europe remembers, and if anything has in recent years made travel through its many pocket-sized member states easier rather than harder. Trains have become an ever-faster, more frequent and more comfortable alternative to flights, bringing travellers from city-centre to city-centre. There’s no need to check-in two hours early and borders between many European states are now invisible.
On board a banquet of changing scenery is brought to comfortable seats next to large windows. The last thing needed is a seat-back TV, but free wi-fi is common.
Simply wave a Eurail pass at the conductor and you have freedom of the tracks in up to 24 countries. For more than 50 years Eurail’s single and multiple-country passes have given visitors from outside the region discounted access to Europe’s rail system. But choosing the right pass takes a little thought.
Running this cooperative venture of rail services must be something like running the European Union as the 24 member railways opt into some of Eurail’s collection of passes but not to others. The Eurail Global Pass offers access to all lines and you can in theory travel from the top of Sweden to the sun-drenched tip of Mediterranean Italy, and in 2013 even to the far corners of Turkey.
But despite the excellence of French TGV and other high-speed services, it’s not the distance that counts. There’s perhaps even greater pleasure in taking it slowly, travelling on branch lines and visiting backwaters.
Railways still stitch together fragments of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a forgotten 19th-century superpower atomized by World War One. They make possible a loop of short journeys through dramatic scenery between both its former capitals and pretty, castle-topped medieval towns as yet little known to mass tourism.
For more than 50 years the Emperor of Austria and the King of Hungary were one man who from twin capitals with twin parliaments also ruled much territory now forming all or part of a dozen surrounding countries.
His Austrian capital of Vienna offers a gentle introduction to Europe, with its broad boulevards, art nouveau architecture and distinguished art museums. Innumerable elegant coffee houses, many little changed in a century, offer strudel and recovery time for the feet.
Salzburg — the birthplace of Mozart and the setting for The Sound of Music — lies two hours’ west on a line that winds through green valleys, but on which trains still effortlessly reach 200 km/h. The city is drenched in charm and chocolate shops. To either side of the Salzach River ancient housing forms canyons that echo with church bells, all dominated by 12th-century Hohensalzburg Fortess, which though never successfully stormed can today be easily reached by funicular.
Back through Vienna it’s about the same distance Budapest, capital of Hungary. The conjoined cities of Buda and Pest face across the Danube, the one residential with ancient fortifications and churches, the other business-like, but also home to theatres, pubs and museums.
Even before regaining independence in 1989, Hungary was the more relaxed of the Soviet satellite regimes and now there’s little visible trace of the communist era. The National Hotel, dour but once the pride of the city, has been transformed into the stylish Hotel Nemzeti.
The ornate parliament partly apes yet surpasses London’s Palace of Westminster, its interior all stained glass, gilding and statuary. Goose-stepping guards protect the jewel-studded 800-year-old crown of St. Stephen, which even in these republican days is a symbol of Hungarian independence.
The Fisherman’s Rampart of Buda Castle gives views across the Danube to Pest’s tidy grid, with its a Victorian market, and magnificent cafes and restaurants such as Elso Pesti Reteshaz, the First Strudel House of Pest. Here you may try your hand at making Hungarian strudel.
Another comfortable train journey brings you to Kosice, once part of the Empire, but now across an invisible border and in Slovakia, which celebrates merely its 20th birthday in 2013. The town still shows hints of its Soviet-influenced past but its ancient town centre is attracting world attention as a European City of Culture 2013.
The slow line through the Tatra mountains west to Trencin is one of Europe’s prettiest, the train snaking over passes between pointed peaks and lakeside chalets. Trencin is a little jewel whose smartly modernized Elizabeth Hotel sits under a castle-topped cliff and provides views from its rear of the oldest Roman inscription still in situ north of the Danube. On the market square, baroque St. Francis Xavier church offers an astounding trompe-l’oeil ceiling, conjuring a vast dome out of an flat surface. It’s a steep climb to a castle, where stone steps spiral to the top of a tower. The reward is views across the Vah valley to three mountain ranges.
It’s a short trip southwest to the capital Bratislava, a mini-Vienna with a ancient centre, a brief curl of Danube, and copies of Hungary’s coronation jewels kept in the cathedral to remind visitors that well before the Austro-Hungarian Empire 18 Habsburg emperors were crowned here.
Bratislava and Vienna are less than 50 km apart, and Europe’s closest capitals, but between them lies forest through which many tried but failed to escape to Austria.
Now there’s a choice of two rail lines and a train at least every hour. The border is invisible, and the journey couldn’t be more convenient.