Dean Clough

September 28, 2022

Portico Darwin: The One Where I Actually Complain About European Trains


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WARNING:  TODAY'S RAMBLINGS are nothing but a first-world whine.  I hope you like it!

As I referenced in a recent Travel Guide, there are few things about which I am more passionate than trains.  Passenger trains.  Especially, big, beautiful high-speed passenger trains, like the kind we're building all over the US as we speak. 

Oh, sorry, I was looking through some of our recent photos from Italy and I got confused.   

Because no, America has nothing remotely like Italy's Frecciarossa 1000 (pictured above), which we rode recently between Milan and Verona.  Nor anything like the British Eurostar.  The French TGV.  Or the Belgian Thalys.  Or the German ICE.  Or the Spanish AVE.  Or the OG, the Japanese Shinkansen.  I know, I know, you've heard this all before from me.  Guilty as charged. 

But today, I will shock and amaze, and actually do something new:  bitch about a type of train in Europe, or to be more precise, a particular type of first class accommodation on a type of train.   

I do it as a public service so you don't make the same mistake that I've now made at least 6 times (seriously), the most recent, on our ride from Bolzano, Italy, to Innsbruck, Austria.

Note that all of the trains I've listed above are of the high-speed variety.  They are modern and have seating configurations in first class that make sense for premium accommodations, typically 2 x 1, meaning 2 seats, the aisle, and then 1 seat.  Some of the rows face each other, and have tables, making them ideal for couples or groups of 4 traveling together.   

For the record, I like first class on trains on vacation - shocker.

Let's start with a fine example of a typical, nice experience in first class (that's from 2016 and it's not a dining car, despite appearances - they were serving us breakfast at our seats), and then the floor plan for a typical first class car on Eurostar; the tables are shown in magenta. 


And some of the swankest are 1 x 1, although I've personally yet to enjoy anything like this, at least not on a train.

(Way back in the day, George Valiant Walker and I flew back from LHR to SFO in a similar configuration at the front of a Virgin Atlantic 747 - but that's ancient history.  So I'll likely write about it soon . . .)

In all cases, and the point being:  a modern first class car has an aisle, with seats flanking it.  And plenty of room for luggage.

But do you know what European trains have first class seating that isn't modern?  Or nice?  And definitely not swank?

Or to be blunt:  first class seating that blows?

EuroCity trains.  These are the non-high-speed passenger trains that run between the countries of Europe.  So while Eurostar and Thalys, as examples, also run between several countries, it is the EuroCity trains that do the  heavy lifting in most cases.  For example, on our recent trip, there simply is no single high-speed train that runs between Verona - Bolzano - Innsbruck - Munich.

That is where the EuroCity experience comes in, and they often look something like this.

The outside appearance of the EuroCity fleet is not the problem.  The problem is inside.  Because here are what first class seats can and do look like on EuroCity trains:
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Yep, that's six seats, all in one compartment.  Or "jail cell", as I call it.  Entire, supposedly first class, cars are like this, with multiple cells in each first class car.  With the added bonus that the aisle or hallway outside the compartments is extremely narrow.

Now, it can be OK - even better than OK.  Obviously if it's just you and your traveling companion(s) in one compartment for the duration of your trip, it's wonderful - you can close the door, and it's a nice, private room, with plenty of space for everything, people and gear.  I think we had that for about half of a trip one single time, forever ago.

But what happens nearly always instead is Grandma Uttenbaum soon boards with her steamship trunk, followed by THREE more people, and their own bags.  Maybe a couple of spoiled college kids, needing showers, with their backpacks.  Then a rich Austrian or German business person with trick glasses and even tricker luggage.  Yep, all of that goes into that compartment above.  It is the definition of Bogus.

Or, picture this, the reverse.  What happens if a pampered, privileged, and spoiled white man and his better half board in Bolzano for a trip to Innsbruck, and arrive at their compartment, to find it jammed already with 4 people and their copious amounts of luggage?  And, you've got this, yourself?

What happens is:  you're fucked

There are no vestibules for luggage storage in these cars.  If, as we did, you arrive to find your compartment's luggage racks filled already, well, you're just gonna kinda have to deal with it.

Our seats were the two against the window, so we wedged Julie's roller between us, stacked my big duffle bag on top of it, and then held our carry-ons in our laps.  First class it was not.  By any definition.

All the while, jammed in the compartment with 4 total strangers.  The guy next to me, a wonky geek-looking thing, started picking a scab on his arm, in dangerous proximity to my own.  Let's just say it was as nice as it sounds.

But it got even better, and this really has nothing to do with the first class compartment problem. 

Yet . . . it contributed.  Their enclosed nature - even with the compartment's door open - apparently gives some people . . . a license.  To ill.

We hadn't wedged ourselves onboard and into our compartment for even a minute before we heard the special bonus, which we got to enjoy - along with our cozy seating - for the entire 2 hour journey.  If you're guessing a screaming baby or three, you're wrong and that would have been a major upgrade.

Because in the compartment next to us were 3 drunken, later-middle-aged American women, hailing from Atlanta and somewhere in South Carolina.  They had just come from Florence and Venice (there's a big shocker), and were on their way to Octoberfest in Munich.  They were drinking wine and doing Jager shots.  

I've seen my share of Ugly American behavior in both Europe and Asia, yet this group easily makes my Mount Rushmore.  They were loud.  I mean loud like I get.  Maybe even loud like Gunther Strobel gets.  But in fact, I think even Julie will confirm they were louder than the two of us combined.  It's true.

Because not even the esteemed Mr. Strobel nor I quite cackle nor "scream-laugh" like this bunch.  And EVERYTHING was a scream-laugh, because, you know, it's hilarious when you're drunk to try to speak Italian (which you can't) and speak shitty Spanish instead - to the Brazilian in your compartment who is speaking Portuguese.

I could go on.  They did.  At jet-engine volumes.  It double-apexed, first with their reassuring pronouncement that "COVID is over, at least in Atlanta!", shouted, mask-less, on trains requiring them.  And then - wait for it - their complete and full-throated (if a tad off-key) rendition of "Happy Birthday" to a stranger in their compartment.  This was all mid-afternoon.  On a Sunday.  

They were total and complete heels and embarrassed us as Americans, in a cosmopolitan environment.  Travelers, they weren't.  They might have been tossed out of Perry's on Union.  At night.  On a Friday.  

A half-hour outside of Innsbruck, I could take it no longer.  I apologized to our compartment mates, contorted myself and all of our luggage back into the hallway, and spent the rest of the trip in between cars, with our bags.  

We jumped off at Innsbruck Hauptbahnhof and washed our hands of the entire sordid mess:  the shitty first class compartments on EuroCity trains, as well as the yahoo Americans that might have been better off staying in their subdivision's Applebee's.  

And, we finally learned from our (really, my) oft-repeated mistake.  Because we took one last train on the trip, from Innsbruck to Munich.  Same EuroCity train.  Same route from Bologna, through Verona and Bolzano, and on to Innsbruck and Munich.  Same everything.  Except, I booked second class.  

All of the second class cars on EuroCity trains have aisles.  With two seats on either side of the aisle.  With dedicated space for luggage in the vestibules, and on the racks above the seats.  What concepts!

It was just fine, and I will never take first class again.  

On EuroCity trains, that is.  Let's not get crazy.


Major congrats to a faithful reader of this blog, my first cousin and family titan Lally Darwin Heinz Esq., and her superhuman hubby, Harrison Heinz.  They just married off their youngest daughter, and the nuptials looked just about perfect:  set in the alpenglow of the central Adirondacks, and at a very special location for everyone involved.

"Danna", indeed - and that's not a fake Portico Darwin name.  Congrats all around!

Thank you to any one that is reading this newsletter.


Let's numb the pain of my first-world passenger train problems with some Morphine.  Here is my take on their best songs - there are 19, in this man's opinion. 

I really miss this Killer band - they had a sound unlike any other.

About Dean Clough