Friday, April 24, 2015

Travel Tip: European railway stations can be your BFF

Atocha railway station in Madrid, Spain features a botanical garden in the main lobby   (wikipedia)
CHARLOTTE When traveling abroad, many inexperienced travelers have two primary common fears: language barriers and getting lost.  Here’s a tip that may surprise you. In Europe, one place in almost every city where help is available is the train station.

Cafes and shops in Stockholm's railway terminal  (wikipedia)
With Europe’s vast rail network keep in mind that rail terminals can readily alleviate fears and become a major refuge and ally.

A railway station located in an airport is a usual convenience in many European hub cities. Arriving and departing passengers can frequently begin their travels by validating rail passes or purchasing point-to-point tickets without making bus or taxi transfers into the city. It is not only a time saver but an easy way to get your bearings after a long overnight journey.

Electronic departure board at Gare du Nord in Paris  (wikipedia)
In most major and medium-sized cities throughout the continent, train stations are located in the heart of town.  That means visitors are immediately centrally located before attempting to conquer new worlds.  But that’s only the beginning.

Information is always available in English at a railway station. Just look for a sign with a lower case letter “i” or one that says “Tourist Information.”  There you can get city maps, transportation schedules, hotel information (sometimes you can even make reservations), directions, restaurant suggestions or answers to almost any question.
Note that tourist information is not the same as “Rail Information” which is limited to details about rail schedules, prices, track numbers and the like.
Milan's central railway station is a massive structure that was built by Mussolini  (wikipedia)
Railway terminals usually have currency exchange and/or ATMs plus a variety of food services.  Many feature gift shops, newsstands and sundries. Some even have drug stores, pharmacies or fine dining restaurants.

 In fact, Le Train Bleu, in the Gare de Lyon in Paris, has been serving elegant cuisine to travelers and locals alike in Belle Epoque surroundings since 1901.
Le Train Bleu restaurant in Gare de Lyon in Paris hearkens to the Golden Age of travel  (wikipedia)
When French president Emile Loubet inaugurated Le Train Bleu its vast rooms were filled with sculptures and paintings depicting rail travel and events at the turn of the twentieth century, a stunning display of the styles of the era. While Le Train Bleu is certainly an anomaly, even by today’s standards, it represents a superb example of how versatile and practical a European railway station can be. For instance, in many villages throughout Switzerland there are Bahnhof Buffets where the food is so good that locals frequently dine at the train station instead of more traditional restaurants.

Switzerland's Jungfrau is the highest station in Europe  (wikipedia)
For travelers in transit, lockers are available, especially in larger cities.  If you don’t have a lot of luggage, a locker can provide a place to store your bags for several hours or a day so you can easily immerse yourself in sightseeing, shopping or other activities before traveling onward. Some railway stations even have shower facilities.

In many European cities, underground passageways offering safe, efficient transfers between the congested streets above have been cleverly adapted into lively subterranean malls where locals and visitors alike will find a diversity of shopping and dining resources. The Haupbahnhof, the main railway station in Zurich, has such a large entry hall that it is able to accommodate its own Christmas market during the winter holiday season. At other times throughout the year, there are a variety of exhibitions and displays to tantalize visitors in Switzerland’s largest city.
A Eurail Global Pass is great value  (wikipedia)

Obviously not all railway stations provide a complete selection of all services, but the point is that a European train terminal can become a traveler’s best friend. At the very least visitors will find information, food and currency exchange.

Regardless of how you say it, be it bahnhof, gare, or statzione, a railway station always translates to an oasis. Travelers making the transition from the familiarities of home through the learning curves of new environments will quickly discover that railway stations can be an island of consolation in a vast uncharted sea of uncertainty. For novice travelers a train station can become a vital comfort zone just knowing that help is readily available. A railway terminal is a one-stop bonanza where numerous small tasks can be accomplished, ultimately saving time and energy, allowing more opportunities for exploration.
A railway station like the Gare du Nord in Paris has a magic all its own at night  (wikipedia)
Best of all, European rail stations are also the ideal place to catch a train.