Explore Europe the Easy Way

Physician's Money Digest, March15 2005, Volume 12, Issue 5

The American tourist, camera on tripod, washurrying around the outside of ChartresCathedral. A bemused Frenchman walkingpast raised his eyebrows. "My wife and I aredoing the cathedrals of Europe," the American said."She's doing the insides."

Ever since the end of World War II, Europeanshaven't quite known what to make of thoseAmericans who race frantically across their continentas if it were work and not a vacation, with the valuein the destination, and not the journey. "YouAmericans drive through Europe so fast it's like youhave just stolen the car," a Frenchman once told me.

Relaxing Rails

The American way really doesn't work in the OldWorld—there's too much to see and too many people seeingit. However, there is a sound alternative if you wantto go places and fulfill your long to-do list. Contact RailEurope (888-382-7245; www.raileurope.com) for itsnew two-country rail passes, available for NorthAmericans who buy before going to the continent. Youcan combine passes for two contiguous countries withothers that are similar (eg, a France/Switzerland passwith a Switzerland/Austria pass).

The Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, a commonentry for Americans, has connections by TGV trainscapable of hitting speeds of 186 miles per hour acrossmuch of France. But the advantages of leaving the drivingto a Gallic Casey Jones include views you'll neverget from a car; more restful travel for jet-laggedtourists; and a chance to ask fellow travelers for suggestionsfor restaurants, hotels, and attractions at theend of the line. Train travelers love to talk and share.The only downside to train travel is the need to travellight, since there are lots of concrete steps and fewramps at most European terminals.

Breathtaking Architecture

But it's a fast run down to Avignon, for instance,and you arrive in Provence rested and ready to findthat famous bridge in a town so ancient it's mentionedin first century BC Roman records. It was thepope's residence through much of the 14th centuryAD, and his presence still shows. A special deal forcar rentals from Rail Europe gets you to Arles (ofvan Gogh fame) in 30 minutes and to the Romantown of Nîmes in a few minutes more. Nîmes' architecturefeatures an amphitheater modeled afterRome's Colosseum that's actually in better condition(it's still used for musical concerts and bullfights).Halfway between the two towns is France's secondmost-visited provincial monument afterMont Saint Michel, the 2000-year-oldRoman aqueduct, Pont du Gard.

Historical Sites

On the Castle of Chillon

Travelers interested in history maywant to move on to Switzerland to seeits most visited attraction, ChillonCastle. The train to Montreux, a long-establishedsummer destination onLake Geneva (the so-called SwissRiviera), brings you to the GrandHotel Suisse Majestic. A 3-mile walkwest along the lakeshore or a 10-minute bus ride takes you to the castle,whose dungeons were immortalized byLord Byron in his soul-shattering narrativepoem .

Austria's capital, Vienna, will moveyour soul, too, whether you gape at thepalaces the power of the Habsburgswrought, trudge up the stone steps atBerggasse 19 as the wealthy did fortheir visits with Sigmund Freud, viewthe monument to the Jews who sufferedtheir unspeakable fate in NaziGermany, or study the Pestsäule PlagueColumn commemorating the over150,000 citizens who died in the BlackDeath Plague in 1679.

Inspiring Attractions

More uplifting attractions includethe Schönbrunn Palace, the summerresidence of the imperial family; theTreasuries of the Imperial Palace thatdisplay the imperial crown of the HolyRoman Empire created in 962; the stablesof the Lipizzaner stallions; and thechapel where the Vienna Boys' Choirsings at Sunday Mass. When did youlast have the chance to sing with thegreats on vacation?