Only four years ago, the train trip from London to Paris was an all-day ordeal, with a ferry ride in the middle -- brightened only by the sight of Dover's white cliffs. Today you can hop a train at Waterloo Station in London, arrive at Paris's Gare du Nord in time for lunch, and be back in London that evening for a West End play.
Europe is getting smaller by the minute. Unlike the United States, European countries have made a huge investment in their rail systems. Thanks to new high-speed trains such as the Paris-London Eurostar, the Paris-Brussels Thalys, and the Rome-Milan Pendolino, jet travel between many cities has become the preserve of only the severest type-A's, who hold to the illusion that it's the fastest way to go. But why fly from Paris to Amsterdam when the train now takes 4 1/2 hours and there are no lengthy check-in procedures, weather delays, or restrictions on the use of mobile phones or laptops?If you're in a major city, you can visit many other destinations in just a day. To prove the point, we've picked five classic day trips by train from five cities: Paris, London, Madrid, Frankfurt, and Zürich. Most make use of the new trains, with speeds up to 186 mph; when they slow down for a curve, you may even be able to see some of the countryside.
France's swift TGV's (Trains de Grande Vitesse) are making the Loire Valley and its châteaux a reasonable trip from Gare Montparnasse in Paris. It's a 55-minute blur to the St.-Pierre-des-Corps station, just outside Tours, where you can rent a car to maximize your visit. Start at Chenonceau, about 20 miles from Tours. The château, completed in 1521, is known as the Castle of the Six Ladies because of the half-dozen aristocratic women who once lived here (including Catherine de Médicis). Its graceful five-arch bridge across the Cher River is only one reason this beautifully proportioned building is among the region's most frequently photographed castles. You can also reach Chenonceau on the tour buses that run from Tours to the village of Chenonceaux, or take a train from Tours and walk to the château from the station. Next, head north to Amboise, where Charles VIII was born and Louis XI lived, or to stately Chambord, famous for its mass of spires, cupolas, chimneys, and gables; or drive west to Azay-le-Rideau, with its sharp turrets, French tapestries, and period furnishings. If you're looking for a more intimate experience that's off the beaten path, visit the Château de Gué-Péan, not far from Chenonceau but without the crowds.
England's most elegant city lies 80 minutes by train from Paddington Station in London. Great Western Trains Co. has taken over the route from BritRail, but the trains are the same sleek machines as those used before privatization. On arrival in Bath, cross the street to the bus station and take a tour in an open-top double-decker or sign up for a free guided walk (offered twice a day from the Abbey churchyard, just north of the train station). Stroll past the celebrated Georgian terrace houses carved from sandstone, the most impressive of which is the Royal Crescent. Number One Royal Crescent, open to the public, has been restored to its original 18th-century splendor. Stop for lunch at the Pimpernel, one of two restaurants in the recently refurbished Royal Crescent Hotel. Every day, the Roman baths that give the city its name receive more than 300 million gallons of water from a natural warm spring (though it's no longer possible to "take the waters," you can tour the Bath Museum). The Pump Room overlooking the baths remains a symbol of the city's golden age in the 1700's, when royalty and notables would hobnob while enjoying the mineral-rich waters; it houses a restaurant and is open to visitors year-round. For a modern cure of a different sort, retreat to the bookshops, jewelry stores, and galleries of Milsom Street, the strand designed as the main thoroughfare to the Georgian-era baths, or to the shops on Pulteney Bridge.
Since the introduction in 1992 of hourly high-speed AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) service between Madrid's Atocha rail station and Seville's Santa Justa Station, this trip now takes just 2 1/2 hours rather than six. Although a splurge, the AVE's superluxe Club class offers onboard boutiques, fax machines, video programs, even secretarial services; the $230 round-trip fare also includes a meal. You could settle for first class, but even tourist isn't too shabby. (Whichever you choose, reservations are required, and you'll pay a supplement, even with a Eurail Pass.) Once you arrive, a brisk 20-minute walk gets you to the old city. Go directly to the impressive cathedral -- begun in 1401, it's bigger than St. Paul's in London or St. Peter's in Rome and is the setting for the famous Holy Week processions. After gazing at the 135-foot-high vaulted ceilings and the world's largest carved-wood altarpiece, see the tomb of Christopher Columbus; then climb the Giralda, the cathedral's bell tower, and check out where you'd like to go next. Leave time for the Alcázar Palace, plus plenty of tapas and sherry, but be forewarned: A tapas crawl to Seville's famous bars can extend through the night into the next day.
If Frankfurt's modern office towers leave you cold, head 55 miles south to medieval Heidelberg, one of the few German cities spared from World War II bombing. Like Oxford and Cambridge, Heidelberg is a university town teeming with student energy and enthusiasm. The trip on high-speed ICE (InterCity Express) trains, with stereo headphone jacks and airline-like seating, takes just an hour. From the station, head east for the funicular, which climbs from the Kornmarkt in the town center to the 13th-century Heidelberg Schloss. Or, if you have the energy, take the 15-minute walk and be rewarded with a more gradual unveiling of the city's vistas. Plan to visit the castle in the morning, when lines for the guided tour are shortest. After lunch in a student tavern,explore the pedestrian-only Altstadt and its Marktplatz, an open-air market; pick up a bottle of Heidelberger Mannaberg (a white wine, "manna" from heaven).
At 11,333 feet, the Jungfraujoch, in the Swiss Alps, is home to Europe's highest railway station. The round-trip takes 10 hours, and you'll need to get up early (plan on leaving Zürich at 8 a.m.). But this is Switzerland, and the views from the train provide some of the world's most riveting scenery. The route requires you to change railway companies, but the trains are timed to meet each other. In Zürich, take Swiss Rail to Interlaken via Bern; at Interlaken change to the Wengernalp Railway, which brings you to Lauterbrunnen. From there the railway climbs to the Kleine Scheidegg station at 6,762 feet, then to the final link, the Jungfraubahn. (Four of the Jungfraubahn's six miles of narrow-gauge track wind through a tunnel carved into the mountain.) Once you've made it to the top, the panoramas extend north to the Black Forest and south to the Valais Alps. Just remember: Even if it's sunny in Interlaken, it could be snowing any time of year at the peak, so be prepared.
Pick Up and Go!
This list gives sample first- and second-class round-trip fares. For information about schedules, tickets, and passes, contact Rail Europe (877/257-2887; www.raileurope.com) or BritRail (866/274-8724; www.britrail.com).
Paris-Loire Valley $182 first class/$146 second class
If you're planning more than one trip in a particular country, you can save by buying a pass. Options from Rail Europe include three-day Flexipasses with unlimited travel, available for France ($263/229; $225/195 each for two adults traveling together), Switzerland ($258/172 or $219/146), and Spain ($225/175).