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Aug 22, 2014
Eurailing Around Europe-As an Adult - The Wall Street Journal

For many teenagers it was (and still is) a rite of passage. While Eurailing, I smoked my first cigarette. I learned to play ABBA's "Voulez-Vous" on guitar (still my entire repertoire), to swear in Spanish, Italian and Greek, and to silence snoring neighbors by loudly clicking my tongue as though riding a horse (try it). I visited a dozen countries and fell in love with a continent that 15 years later became my home, where I courted my wife while commuting between London and Paris.

But I was feeling pretty awkward by the time I boarded the first train in Paris. Conspicuous. The only one over 30 without an itinerary. An old guy with a rollaboard and a slacker's ticket full of blank boxes—you scribble in your destination before boarding—except for the line where I had written "Amsterdam." Was I like one of those clinging-to-youth grey-haired guys you see skateboarding? But when the conductor passed through the car, he hardly gave me a second glance. He stamped the ticket and returned it with a simple "Merci."Last year, when I turned 50, I went online and bought myself a little present—a 10-day Eurail ticket, to remind me that I was still young enough for spontaneous travel. Tracing the black lines of the rail map that came with my ticket, I felt that familiar tingle from 35 years ago. Freedom! Adventure! Noisy toilets!

This time around I wasn't roughing it—no sleeping on train seats or in shared hostel rooms. I spent the nights to come stretched out on crisp linens in bunk compartments, being rocked to sleep beneath the Alps or passing vineyards—or staying in friends' homes (most have guest rooms now).

In Amsterdam, I had a swanky room at the 19th-century De L'Europe hotel, perched right on the Amstel River. From that cushy setting, I watched out the window as backpackers scurried along the narrow Kloveniersburgwal canal to the spired train station. Then I swept some of the hotel's fancy toiletries into my bag and set out after them.

I'd called a former schoolmate who, it turns out, had just bought a 500-foot by 12-foot island in the middle of a canal an hour's train ride away. His narrow kingdom was near the medieval trading town of Hoorn, famous because a local armed with more than a Eurail ticket named South America's Cape Horn after his hometown. Could I come by? "I'll pick you up at the station," he replied.

Tracing the lines of the rail map that came with my ticket, I felt that familiar tingle. Freedom! Adventure!

After a weekend of grazing on barbecued steak and resting in a small plank cabin—about the same size as a train car—on my pal's eccentric island, I decided to head to Berlin. I had visited back when it was a divided city and wanted to see it now that it was the capital of cool.

The continent was experiencing torrential rains, and the low plains of western Germany were flooded, rerouting my train. As a six-hour ride turned into a nine-hour slog, disgruntled men in suits tapped away nervously on their iPhones. "Should we have taken a plane?" I asked a businesswoman next to me, who looked especially put out. "They're less predictable," she scowled, then suddenly lit up. "At least we end up in the center of town without the airport cab ride in this damned traffic." And she was right—whatever delays we were experiencing were surely worse for those traveling by car or plane. And so we stared with a certain smugness out at the pools gathering on the roundabouts.

In the old days, a tedious part of the Eurail experience was filling out forms and showing passports to wandering customs officials at the borders. On my first trip,Berlin had been particularly aggravating, with East German soldiers marching through the trains in a real Cold War routine, barking out orders a la "Stalag 17." Now our smooth ride passed unmanned watchtowers, reminders of the Iron Curtain, and rolled right into the megamall-like setting of Berlin's glass Central Train Station, a few yards from where the Berlin Wall stood.

That night, relatives joined me for the opera and a dinner of Mosel Riesling and suckling pig knuckles on the bohemian Kollwitzplatz, in a still dimly lit corner of former East Berlin. After a good night's sleep on Disney princess sheets in their daughter's room, I awoke refreshed and ready for the next day's adventure.

But where to go? There were direct trains to Munich and Prague. Prague had the earlier departure, so I hopped aboard and watched the sun set behind the Erzgebirge Mountains, where wheat fields seemed to compete with fir forests and half-timbered Saxon battlements to occupy the summits of hills.

In Prague, I drank too many mugs of beer with a former colleague, then took a midnight stroll, crossing the Vltava River on floodlit stone bridges. I texted an old friend (another upside of the new Europe: texting is cheap no matter what phone network you're on) and found out he was sharing a summer house outside of Zurich. Within 13 hours I had rolled my suitcase into a train compartment in downtown Prague and rolled it out again in Zurich. The sheets of my plush bunk hadn't gotten much use, though; three boisterous young Norwegian guys on a bicycle vacation were also occupying the compartment. They shared their bottle of aquavit and my long-suppressed urge to discuss the inexplicably ignored-in-the-U.S. movie "Cloud Atlas" (apparently a big hit in Norway). We chatted about that and other dorm-room topics until the sun lit up the top of the Alps as we chugged into Switzerland.

From Zurich, many destinations tempted me, but Fontainebleau, where a friend was having a birthday party, won out. Another train ride and I was celebrating in the forest surrounding the royal château where kings once hunted and Napoleon liked to hang out. My traveling uniform, a Mao-ish jacket, stood out in the sea of black ties, but became the essence of chic when I explained my high-end hoboing.

With a quick ride to Paris and a transfer to the Eurostar, my Eurail adventure was over. Twenty years ago, most Friday nights I would take the same train from Paris and four hours later be at my wife-to-be's doorstep in London, flowers in hand. It seemed like a miracle then. Now it's even better: In just over two hours I was rolling into London, well-fed from the food cart. The compartmentalized, tobacco-scented trains of my youth have become plush airplanes on rails. Less socializing but better grub.

On that final ride, an hour north of Paris I watched out the left-side window for a small World War I cemetery in the middle of fields that are still gently indented by the trenches of the front line that divided Europe so deeply. The little white tombstones peeking above the crops seemed to chide the Europe that had been. But one thing that likely hasn't changed since then is the supremacy of the European train system for getting around. Despite the continent's slew of super toll roads and cheap airlines, the Eurail pass is still the best way of bringing out one's inner vagabond—at any age.

Ten-day adult Eurail Flexipasses start around $930 and are available only to non-European residents. Additional charges apply for overnight beds.

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