The barman on the train from Madrid to Bilbao, on Spain's north coast, had far more information than my guide book. He told me tapas were known as pinxtos in Bilbao and gave me a list of the best bars to sample the tasty morsels. He also told me about a great little hotel near the celebrated Guggenheim Museum, and where to find the best views in the city. And he was right on all counts.
Days later I took a sleeper back to Madrid from Spain's north-west pilgrim town of Santiago de Compostela and was rocked gently to sleep by the rhythmic movement of the fast train.
Once again I was reminded of the fun of taking Europe's rail trail where the train takes the strain off the traveller. Besides, overnight train travel saves money that would otherwise be spent on a hotel room, and the journey finishes in another city early in the day with plenty of time for sightseeing.
Australians, long-time road warriors, are fast turning to Europe's vast rail network to avoid traffic jams, navigation confusion, and the ever- increasing parking problems.
The trains give regular fast connections to every corner of Europe with clean, modern carriages, and bars, cafes, and first-class sleepers for longer journeys, and aircraft-style seats in second class.
Tickets bought in Australia rather than on arrival in Europe usually carry considerable savings with inter-country Eurail passes, high-speed trains, night trains, scenic trains, multiple journeys and point-to-point tickets all available. Seat reservations should also be made when booking online in Australia with Rail Plus or Europe Rail.
Latest figures show European rail ticket sales have increased by 63 per cent in Australia compared with a global increase of 41 per cent.
Luxury trains are in demand with big ticket items being the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) with sectors through Europe from London to Istanbul, and The Royal Scotsman from Edinburgh through the Scottish highlands.
Rail Plus' national sales manager Greg McCallum says these luxury train journeys are among the most romantic in the world with a strong sense of indulgence and bragging rights attached to them. He says the ride is akin to a luxury cruise but by land.
The fabled Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express is one of the most famous trains in the world with gleaming carriages, sumptuous cuisine and high levels of personal service on six-day journeys from Paris to Istanbul (or Istanbul to Venice), with sightseeing in centuries- old castles en route and in the cities of Budapest and Bucharest. Shorter journeys are also available.
Royalty, celebrities, even spies, have travelled on this legendary train which has been a rich source of inspiration for books and films, such as Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient-Express where legendary detective Hercule Poirot solves the mystery.
In the same way, the Royal Scotsman takes its passengers into the heart of Scotland passing through glens, lochs and mountains steeped in the lore of characters such as Rob Roy and Bonnie Prince Charlie.
En route guests visit romantic castles and whisky distilleries. After dinner on board guests relax over rare malt whisky as a Highlander regales them with stories of life in Scotland in past centuries.
Travel on these luxury trains is expensive. Those on board travel in style with dressy nights when there is a sense of occasion at dinner and while mingling with other guests in the piano bar. Longer journeys usually include a black-tie dinner.
Recently the Australian travel company APT introduced a 15-day rail journey along the Trans-Siberian Express route on the luxury Golden Eagle train, between Vladivostok and Moscow that takes in a range of landscapes and eight time zones covering over 10,000km.
During the journey, passengers explore nine cities, towns and villages, and take part in experiences such as a traditional Mongolian meal and a picnic barbecue on the shores of Lake Baikal.
According to Debra Fox, general manager of marketing for APT, the Golden Eagle meets demand from river cruising customers looking for "the next big thing" on the European travel front.
WHY TRAVEL BY TRAIN?
It is a fast means of transport.
The train departs and arrives in the heart of the city, close to hotels.
The scenery paint a picture of the country you are travelling through.
There is no hanging around airports.
There is no stressful driving along unfamiliar roads, so enjoyment increases.
France is the country travellers are most likely to explore using a rail pass, followed by Italy and Spain, Germany and Switzerland.
Paris is the most popular city for train departures to other European countries, with Rome the most popular destination, followed by Florence, Zurich, Barcelona, London, Munich, Madrid, Geneva and Frankfurt.
SOURCE: RAIL EUROPE
TIPS FOR TRAIN TRAVEL
Keep luggage to a minimum and if returning to the departure station within a week, pack an overnight bag and store the bigger case at the hotel you have been staying in.
An overnight bag makes a great footrest.
To save money, pack sandwiches or snacks and buy a hot or cold drink on board.
Bring books and iPod or similar to while away the hours. when the scenery is less than stunning.
www.aptouring.com.au, www.raileurope.com.au, www.railplus.com.au.
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