It's a mystery--Americans' infatuation with rental cars for touring Europe. Trains have always been and will continue to be, barring a plunge in quality, the preferred form of transportation in Europe for my wife and me.
Cars add too much tension--what road to take, where to park safely overnight, how to survive race track conditions on Europe's high-speed expressways? Also, while contained within a car, you are isolated from the people you've gone 3,500 miles to see, talk to and learn about.
The car is even worse when it comes to scenery. The driver, usually me, cannot relax and watch. While on the rails, everyone is free to enjoy the view gliding by. Some of these views, such as the Alps in fall and France in May, have developed into fond European memories.
What's more, a train has a gastronomic potential that is difficult or unsafe (due to alcohol) in an auto. Consider a bit of charcuterie, bread, cheese and wine as you watch the countryside go by. We have a name for this delight, "train picnicking," and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that a few of these rolling repasts have left us every bit as pleased as a meal from certain Michelin three-star restaurants.
And because Europe has more than its share of the world's best food and wine shops, packing your picnic is more entertainment than labor.
We carry a train picnic kit. Besides the obvious Swiss army knife (with corkscrew), this includes forks, spoons, wine glasses and large linen napkins that can double for small tablecloths.
The glasses are a touch added last fall. They are small and solid to avoid breakage along the way. Just about any train's mobile snack car or bar car will supply you with plastic cups. But there is nothing like drinking your wine out of real glass instead of plastic.
Following are four favored train picnic routes, with some suggestions for where to buy provisions. The distances are given in the volume of delicacies you can eat over the route, rather than time or kilometers traveled. If the food is fine and the scenery grand, the hours and kilometers have no meaning.
A Poilane country loaf, a round of Reblochon cheese, celery root salad and a bottle of Guigal '82 Cote Rotie: This is a TGV (trains a grande vitesse) route. These are the famous bullet trains and they do indeed shoot along, making the trip between Paris and Lyon in about two hours.
The pace is fine for the first half of the trip because the scenery isn't all that pretty near Paris. This is the perfect time to get your picnic laid out.
A plus for this picnic is that you can gather your provisions in Paris from Europe's most complete charcuteries, fromageries and wine shops. We like to do our buying around the Place de la Madeleine. There, you may walk from Steven Spurrier's renowned wine shop, Caves de la Madeleine (25 Rue Royale), over to the equally renowned Fauchon for your prepared foods.
The Ferme St. Hubert, at 21 Vignon, is around the corner from Fauchon. Though lacking the fame of the preceding shops, it is one of the best fromageries in Paris, offering several hundred cheeses, most ripened in their cellar.
Beside Reblochon, I have a special liking for their Maroilles, a cheese sprinkled daily with beer. With your goodies selected from these stores, you will have a very good feeling when you pull into Lyon's Perrache station. Trains run this route hourly from the Gare de Lyon in Paris. The 11:55 a.m. departure is the perfect lunch run.
Two hundred grams of Tete de Moine cheese, Valais Mountain Bread and a bottle of '83 Dezaley Pinot Noir: Martigny to Chamonix is one of the more stupendous visual train rides in Europe. You rise from the floor of the Rhone Valley of Switzerland, hump over the mountains and end up under the blue ice glaciers of Mont Blanc in Chamonix.
The train is a small-gauge, mountain model that chugs slowly uphill and squeals its brakes when going downhill. The scenery is so beautiful that it's hard to concentrate on your picnic.
The Swiss-owned train stops at Chamonix, where regular SCNF trains tie in to the rest of France. But don't rush off. Chamonix is quite a place.
An old mountain spa, it has a warm, seasoned feel. Of course, it offers great skiing in the winter, hiking and climbing in the summer and cable car rides all year. Make sure to check out the charcuteries on Rue Dr. Paccard for the mountain sausages and cheeses. They can form the nucleus for your outgoing picnic.
Two rolls, two kiwis and a bottle of '85 Giacosa Moscato: Call Cuneo to Nice the brunch run. The international train lurches out of Cuneo, Italy, at 9:10 a.m. and pulls into Nice, France, a bit before noon. If you're an early riser, you can pick up your brunch materials before the train leaves.