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Words: Brian Johnston
Picture the scene: you recline in a comfortable seat with your legs outstretched, sipping on a glass of Alsace white as you watch the French countryside flow past in a blur of yellow rapeseed fields, church steeples and fluffy skies. It’s like a slide show of Monet paintings run in fast time, and when you’re finally wafted into Gard du Nord station in Paris, you’ll feel mighty satisfied at your choice of train over plane for the journey.
Rail travel is a natural companion of cruising, offering a less harried pace and more style than journeys by air. Don’t for a moment imagine trains are those rickety old things you enjoyed so much in your misspent backpacking days. These days, European trains are convenient and punctual, while comfort and good value have improved enormously in response to the budget airline challenge.
This is a very civilised way to travel, nowhere better showcased than on Eurostar, one of Europe’s most advanced trains, operating London-Paris and London-Brussels via the Channel Tunnel. If you’re adding a few days of land-based holiday onto a French river cruise, for example, Eurostar will propel you from downtown Paris to central London while the unenlightened are still loitering in an airport lounge. It’s that convenience that has lost the Paris-London air route, once the world’s busiest, some 87% of business to Eurostar.
One of the most impressive aspects of European trains is their speed: Madrid to Barcelona in 2 hours 40 minutes, Venice to Florence in 2 hours 5 minutes and, in the case of Eurostar, London to either Paris or Brussels in 2 hours 15 minutes. As a rule of thumb, any train journey under four hours is faster than flying, taking into account journeys to and from airports, check-in times and security queues.
Frequent travellers reckon the Eurostar journey between Paris and London takes twice the time by air. The time will eventually be reduced to under two hours with the launch of Eurostar’ new-generation trains that will travel at 350 kilometres per hour.
Not only is the journey more scenic, but train stations are a lot nicer than airports. Many are marvellous Victorian-era palaces complete with ornate ironwork and statues. Eurostar’s London terminus is St Pancras, a nineteenth-century gem that just received a stylish 21st century makeover. Sit among blue leather and brass at the elegant mezzanine-level Oyster Bar and enjoy a champagne in anticipation of the journey. Cheers!
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