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Europe's New Grand Tour

That evening I strolled over to Prague's main square. Rounding the corner I heard the chanting of a crowd. My heart leaped. Student demonstrations?No—a hockey game. The world championships were being held in Prague that week. Forty-foot TV screens had been erected around the square, and a thousand inebriated fans were cheering every outsized play. Is sports the new politics?

For all the gloss of downtown, some things hadn't changed. Holesovice Station was still a urine-stained concrete shed. At 7 a.m., when I arrived to catch a train to Berlin, the terminal was so empty that an old guy in a tracksuit was jogging through it, smoking a cigarette. Years ago, Holesovice had served as my bleak introduction to Eastern Europe. I was half-relieved to find its lack of charm intact.

Then the train pulled in, and I was thrust into another world. In the plush dining car were linen-covered tables and vases of tulips. A steward in a bow tie fixed me a frothy cappuccino and some chive scrambled eggs. This was infinitely better than flying. Who cared if it took an extra four hours?I gazed out at van Gogh-yellow fields, swirling in the breeze like lakes of butter. During the five-hour ride to Berlin I rarely spotted a highway, let alone a tour bus. We were cutting through Europe's in-between zones—past quarries, sheep farms, riverbank shipyards, rail stations, Soviet-era golf courses.

When we crossed the border a text message suddenly appeared on my cell phone: WELCOME TO GERMANY! HAVE A NICE STAY! Now that's service.

BERLIN

When I last visited Berlin, it was a strange time: the wall had come down the year before, but East and West remained night and day. In East Berlin, riot police with water cannons stared down squatters. My journal described Potsdamer Platz as "a hole, a muddy swamp of backhoes and idle cranes. Everything is abandoned, broken, or under renovation."

Flash forward 14 years, and Potsdamer Platz has bloomed. A Ritz-Carlton opened in 2004, and Sony, Toshiba, and Citibank are firmly entrenched. In my absence, Berlin's entire geography has shifted. What once was East is now Mitte, or "middle"; what used to be the center is now the far west side.

Meanwhile, a new generation is recasting Cold War iconography as "cool." A local company now offers "Trabi Safaris"—driving tours of East Berlin in puny, Soviet-era Trabant cars. I tried one that afternoon, and I can report that riding in a Trabi is like being pummeled by a water cannon. But the "Wild East" tour was terrific. We took in the former hinterlands of Prenzl'berg, which previously might as well have been Ukraine. Today it's one of Berlin's trendiest neighborhoods. We drove down Unter den Linden, the famous "Boulevard Under the Trees," lined with glittering cafés and galleries. And we visited Alexanderplatz, where I'd encountered the riot cops. The surrounding streets now recalled New York's Lower East Side; skrunky shops sold used vinyl and vintage Russian-made sneakers. That night I dined at a Parisian-style brasserie near the train station. I liked the idea of ordering poulet rôti in Berlin; it seemed appropriate on a whirlwind tour.

While waiting at Zoo Station for my overnight to Interlaken, I was approached by a ponytailed Australian who struggled under the weight of a five-foot-tall backpack. But his mood was amiable. "Hey there!" he called to me, a fellow solo traveler. Greg was simply following the backpacker rule of etiquette: Talk to anyone you see. And I was eager for conversation. So we chatted about his travels—trekking in Nepal, ashram stay in Goa, three months on the Continent, the usual Aussie route. Tonight he was off to Switzerland to go paragliding. Greg was 22, and not unlike me at his age; in another time we might have become fast friends. Now, as the conductor whistled us on, we parted on the platform—Greg to the back of the train, me to the front.

The Swiss-German City Night Line trains are among the best in Europe. My deluxe sleeper cabin had a twin bed and a surprisingly hot shower. There was also a telephone to summon Thomas, the cheerful attendant, who delivered champagne to my door as we glided out of the station. My God, what a change. Remember sleeping six to a cabin on vinyl couchettes?Remember knotting your bags to the luggage rack to ensure that they wouldn't be stolen?Now I had a mattress swathed in soft linens, a safe, an electronic key card for my cabin door—and, in the next car, a bar open to all passengers. There, I ran into Greg again, sharing a pilsner with some Swiss girl he'd just met.

INTERLAKEN / GIMMELWALD

Why Switzerland?For a Eurailer, the answer is obvious. When you've spent weeks mainlining museums and historic sites, Switzerland's appeal is its utter lack of them. Midway through my first grand tour, I'd stayed for two weeks in the Berner Oberland, still the loveliest mountain landscape I've ever seen.

Back then I stayed at a hostel with coin-op showers and a snoring Yugoslavian bunkmate. This time I checked into the Victoria-Jungfrau, Interlaken's grandest resort. It was a sort of homecoming: one evening in 1990, the Yugoslavian and I had crashed the Victoria's candlelit bar, where a single whiskey cost more than a night at the hostel. I seem to remember emptying bowls of cashews into my rucksack. Now I was back, perusing the spa brochure.

It was a damp, muted, Proustian day, rotten for hiking but ideal for waxing nostalgic. I pulled on a sweater and took a walk through town. As ever, Interlaken was as shiny as a new car—but more grown-up than the hokey village I'd known. I'd never noticed the Prada and Ferragamo outlets. Still, lilacs bloom on every corner, and the center is still a broad, unkempt meadow complete with grazing sheep.

But it wasn't Interlaken I was here for. I'd come back for Gimmelwald.

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