The Bundesbahn: cheese, phones, and dictation

Not many American tourists hear about this historic town with its vast mountain park, its Hessian Castles, and an art museum featuring Rubens and Rembrandt, no less. And only few overseas travelers realize that Kassel -- in fact, Germany's every medieval nook and cranny -- is accessible by one of Europe's most innovative railroads, the Bundesbahn.

The German version of Amtrak boasts some truly unique features. Consider, for instance, the Bundesbahn's thoughtfulness in recently raising the platform levels all over Germany by about one meter. Reason: to save you the discomfort of climbing several stairs to your compartment. Or consider the intriguing idea of a blue-uniformed multilingual typist-secretary on every train between major cities. At $10 an hour they take dictation, type flawlessly, translate documents, and make hotel reservations by phones conveniently located at their desks. (They can actually connect you with New York City, if you ask them to and can afford it.)

The American traveler will also be surprised by the cleanliness ob both first- and second- class compartments. (A Eurailpass entitles you to travel in first class, which is plusher.) What's more, the Bundesbahn serves an extraordinary range of meals at prices that will make any Amtrak customer blink: A large cheese tray with an assortment of breads and kase costs all of $2 (4 deutsche marks). A complete pork steak dinner with noodles and an excellent salad now costs about $6 per person. These dining-car offerings apply to any train in any part of Germany.

Unlike the hotels near many US Amtrak stations, the German railway hotels are tidy and often reasonably priced. (Always ask for rates at the local tourist office in the Bahnhof.) It is also easy enough to sleep on the train itself; the seats flip back and can be swiveled; more affluent travelers prefer to reserve a "couchette," again at lower than US prices.

The German railroads try to please older travelers. "Seniors" and handicapped people pay one-third less for their ticket and get special reductions in dining cars. (A "senior" is any man over 65 and any woman over the age of 60). Again for convenience's sake, your baggage can be picked up at any address (including your hotel) and sent with you on the train. (It makes sense to check baggage at least one day ahead of your trip). In the same sense, the Bundesbahn delivers your suitcase anywhere for a small fee. One excellent feature, which happens to be much needed on US airlines, too, is the German railway station's "Gepackaufbewahrung" (baggage storage). If you visit Hamburg for just a few hours or days, for instance and don't want to lug your heavy cases around, you can just leave them at the Bahnhof storage. (Cost: about $1 per day).

Ticket windows can't help you with short trips; for those, you buy your ticket at a vending machine. The latter may be a little complex for non-Germans , though, with maps showing 100 destinations, various color schemes for distances and the need for correct change. Keep in mind that the Germans long ago gave up the coal-fueled locomotives; all the trains are electrical now. Stops are brief enough. The joke has it that the Bundesbahn is the most punctual in the world. "The train arrives at noon and leaves at noon," say the Germans. On a more serious side, a passenger may ship an automobile while traveling on certain trains.

The Budesbahn dates back to 1835. Now there are speeds of about 200 kilometers per hour, about 250,000 kilometers of rail, some 5,000 "Bahnhofe," and unique possibilities such as bike rentals, youth passes, train trips to castle hotels, and romantic names like the "Rheinpfeil" (Rhine arrow). To be sure, the German train gives you a chance to see more scenery than you could by car, to read a book instead of doing battle with highway curves, to absorb the architecture of timbered houses with robust red tiles, faraway castles, and the green, green heart of the land itself.

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