As Stevenson almost acknowledged: to imbibe is better than to arrive. Look at any image of the Oldham-era Stones, Andrew Loog, Jagger and Keith in shades in a train bar car, inventing some momentous banging tune of three minutes dead over a cup of PG and a sneaky rum ‘n’ Coke. In their 1971 pomp, the band toured the UK by bar car. The Beatles never got better than their on-board “I Should Have Known Better” in 1964, the moment when George met Pattie.
Today’s potential Jaggers and Lennons are subjected to swaying in a space the size of a Glastonbury Porta Loo, attempting to look cosmopolitan while sipping on warm, elusive beer ominously slopping around at shirt-front height.
Where’s the glamour in that? Continental Europe, as ever, has the answer.
Just as the good Lord didn’t give us bars just because we’re thirsty, he didn’t give us trains to get us from A to B. The train, and its bar, are there for you to bang out the perfect three-minute pop tune, to write that novel, to launch yourself into a life-changing love affair. And fueling the fire, stoking the system, is booze. Caning on rails offers automatic membership to the eighty-meters-long club, allowing you to create perfect plot lines while engaging with your fellow traveller à table.
Below are five European destinations whose bar-blessed trains provide you with the liberty to sip, sup and shape your destiny:
Back when half of post-1989 Europe was referred to as the “Wild East,” and intrepid backpackers were gassed to sleep and robbed blind on Polish night trains, the bar car was the last refuge of safety. The traveler clung on to his ?ywiec for dear life, making his Polish beer and zlotys last until the border.
Image: Courtesy of PKP Intercity
Not for nothing were these carriages branded, in a pioneering example of kitsch commerce, “Bar Wars.” They still are. And they still sell ?ywiec, its bottles brightened by colorful dancing Poles on the label. These days there’s even a wheat version, bia?e, “with a hint of coriander.” ?urek soup with white sausage is still the most palatable cheapie on the menu. Next best pierogi dumplings should no longer be waterlogged nor proffered by a blonde-from-a-bottle wench in teal eyeshadow. Rather, in keeping with today’s light, sit-down surroundings, a student-age Pole provides beer and sausage soup with a smile and the smarts to speak English.
Finland, “so near to Russia, so far away from Japan” as Monty Python sang it, distinguishes itself from its Scandinavian neighbours by its language and its location. Here, you will get no thanks for the Scando-wide tak, only a tired grimace that you’ve shown your appreciation in Swedish.
Lenin secreted himself by Finnish rail into St Petersburg in 1917 to start a revolution. His destination: the Finlyandsky Station of later legend.
Centenary celebrations are shortly in order. In the smart bar of today’s 125mph Allegro train introduced in 2010, this means raising a strong Karhu (Bear) beer or its Russian counterpart, Baltika 3, the best-selling of the varieties produced in St. Petersburg.
And it means raising it in silence. Finland reveres silence. Spaniards yak, Italians blather, Finns say nothing. Ever. Occasionally two men may arm-wrestle for the silent right to buy the next Bear. For strength, these men devour a bowl of Russian pel’meni or Finnish meatballs, Suomalaiset lihapullat.
For that honeymoon-starts-here, take-that-credit-card experience, it has to be Switzerland. Switzerland isn’t for slummers, no sir. The cheapest item on the current SBB four-language bar-car menu is coffee and croissant at SF5.90 ($6). A pat of butter is … well, you’re not here to count the cents or calories. You’re here for that view streaming in through the ceiling windows of the Glacier Express from St Moritz to Zermatt, while being served small SF10 bottles of Merlot from Ticino.
Switzerland’s little Italy also provides the prosciutto, pancetta and salami that comprise the stand-out platter on said menu. Bar seats are invariably ranged in a half-moon shape around a communal table so conversation comes easy with your inevitably urbane, polyglot, newly met fellow traveller who’ll round up the bill as they tip.
Hungary understands the magic of the bar car.
State rail company MÁV has re-introduced the étkezökocsi on trains between Budapest and the nation’s naughty-weekend destination of Lake Balaton. Better yet, you can now get mashed, MÁV-style, between Budapest and the Black Sea, a journey of one entire day that spews you out halfway to Georgia. Twenty-four hours from Varna, your train sets off from Budapest Keleti with the signature Hungarian station jingle, a heartfelt whistle and the fussssshhh of beer-bottle opening, the holy trinity of rail travel.
For two teetotal years, MÁV had lost its moxy, unhitching its bar cars on all domestic and many international routes for piffling reasons such as revenue and demand. No action, no glamour, no aura.
Image: Peterjon Cresswell
Hungarian train hospitality began with stuffed peppers served on Herend china, cakes freshly created by pâtissiers and entire Gypsy orchestras serenading passengers at Keleti Station. Nationalised, it was typified by drop-dead gorgeous Magyar chicks (Pattie Boyd, pah!) of the Soyuz era flirting with equally alluring guys, smoking MÁV-brand ciggies and sipping on MÁV-brand beer.
Today sees a happy, revived medium. Brought by a morose guy putting in another 14-hour shift in an ill-fitting waistcoat, your goulash arrives on a MÁV-branded plate, atop a maroon tablecloth embellished by artificial flowers. Plonked alongside should be the red Egri Bikavér wine you’ve chosen over dishwater Hungarian beer and, in a couple of cities’ time, a coffee as black as the history of this godforsaken nation.
Deutsche Bahn runs on bier. As your seemingly endless ICE inter-city train snakes round to your platform, you will have already calculated the exacting landing point of its Bordbistro coach. Your bar on wheels awaits, Sir! And though clanking bottles do ring within earshot as you enter the intimate bar area, you will observe your DB employee pouring golden Bitburger, Germany’s number one draught choice, into an expertly tipped glass from a tap. As its slogan once said, “Abends Bit, morgens fit!” Drink this fine brew and you’ll still be fit as a butcher’s dog come sun-up.
Beyond your bar stretch facing booths designed for dining, though drinking alone is not discouraged. Actually, drinking alone may be difficult. Invariably, as a €3 Bit becomes another €3 Bit, you’ll be drawn into the fraternity of fellows on a fishing expedition or football fans able to name every member of England’s 1966 World Cup squad. Food, as if it matters, comes in the boil-in-the-bag currywurst variety.
Top image: Simon Pielow, CC-BY
Budapest-based Peterjon Cresswell is responsible for Libero, a global travel guide for soccer fans.