They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. That step, for me, comes at 5am on a Tuesday morning in central London. As first light breaks over Bloomsbury’s Cartwright Gardens, a blackbird starts singing from the treetops. The sound echoes off the Georgian townhouses and flows down to the pavement, where the only person around to hear it is me. I have a backpack on and a train to catch. The blackbird keeps singing as I walk through the urban dawn to Euston Road.
Within 15 minutes, I’m passing through check-in at St Pancras International, listening to grumbles in various languages about the ticket-reading machines. Less than three hours later, I’m stepping into Café les Deux Gares, a little chequered-tiled espresso joint in the 10th arrondissement. “Monsieur,” says the waiter in greeting. Jazz is tootling from the speakers, someone’s reading Le Figaro and a moped is parking up outside the window. Paris is very much awake.
Trains are adept at whisking you from the middle of one scene to the middle of another, and the joy of this particular journey is that there’s more of the same to come. From Paris, the European rail network spools out to all corners of the continent, practically begging for onward adventure. My final destination lies some 1,100 miles and two days away to the east, in Romania’s Southern Carpathian mountains. I have just two hours here in the French capital – where the Café des Deux Gares, as its name suggests, sits between Gare du Nord and nearby Gare de l’Est – but there are riches ahead.
Western Europe takes its high-speed trains seriously. From Gare de l’Est, I board an Inter-City Express (ICE) which hurtles me across the map to Stuttgart in under four hours, crossing the Rhine at Strasbourg and – according to the in-carriage information screen – at times topping 185mph. France passes by in a whoosh of open farmland and wooded hills. Stuttgart Central Station doesn’t ooze glamour but does sell good stuffed pretzels, and after a concourse lunch I continue east, this time bound for Munich.
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