Taking the train and taking your time.
There’s an oft-observed dichotomy to travel: is it about the journey or the destination? Alongside that question runs an equation of cost, time, effort and sheer bloody hassle. Do you want to get where you’re going as quickly as possible, or is there more to be got out of it by taking your time?
The obvious choice for the former – the getting there – is the plane, of course, and there are plenty of journeys that can only really be made that way. Plenty of other journeys, though, offer the choice – journeys between most cities in Europe, for instance, or parts of Asia, that might be flown in an hour or two, but can likewise be made in eight to 10 hours on a train.
I chose the train. The cities I visited (Paris, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia, Bucharest, Varna and Istanbul) are sufficiently widely dispersed that flying is a perfectly sensible option, but having now done it, I’d take the train again whenever possible.
There are aspects of travel that flying simply doesn’t provide – watching the houses change from the recognisable style of one country to the equally recognisable style of another, passing through French towns with German names, seeing the border coming, passing fields of crops, then seeing the farmers who work them still getting around by horse and cart; places you could never visit but places, through a train window at least, you can see something of. You can fly over the Danube, and you might get some sense of its size and scale, but travel alongside it for hours on end and you start to realise the way rivers – like hills, mountains and great plains – define so much of the human geography as well.
There are arguments against trains, of course. They’re slow – but your freedom while travelling is that much greater than when shut up in a plane anyway. They can be crowded, but if you’re making longer journeys, you know what you’re getting: pay for a seat and you’re going to be roughing it; pay for a bed in a sleeper cabin and it’s time you wouldn’t really have used any other way. The company of your fellow passengers is often worth the time and effort in itself, even balanced against all the times it – noisily, irritatingly – isn’t. Trains can run late, but in much of Europe, connecting trains on the major routes are often held back when another service is delayed. Even if delays are longer, travelling by train leaves you other options – other routes, going partway and breaking the journey, or at least staying somewhere more interesting than an airport.
I would now even go so far as to say that if I had to get somewhere, I’d try to find the extra couple of days to get there by train, but I suspect a lot of this is more personal preference than real logical sense.