Of all the great Continental pastimes - cafe-sitting, museum-haunting, boulevard-strolling - none does quite so much for my spirit as train-hopping. And Germany, with its dense and well-run rail system, is the ideal place to practice the art.
This is particularly true if you are carrying a German Rail Tourist Card as I was on a recent Sunday morning when I decided to spend the day train hopping to my heart's content. As I boarded a little local whistler in Offenburg near the Black Forest, I was reminded of just how expeditiously holders of the tourist card, cousin to the Eurailpass, can get about.
As we picked up speed, the conductor peeked into the compartment I was sharing with an American backpacker and a German woman in a gray suit, spied my proferred green plastic card, and merely smiled, not even bothering to read the small print.
Armed with a rail pass in Germany, you never have to line up to buy a ticket. All you need to know is that gleis means track or platform and that most schedules, contrary to expectations, are not posted on a huge ARRIVALS and DEPARTURES board, but are listed on small easily deciphered signs at eye level in the waiting lounge.
Eurailpass, which costs $260 this year for 15 days of first-class travel, is the right ticket to purchase if you plan to cross a lot of borders. There are 16 member countries, from Ireland down to Greece. A friend who made an early summer swing with the pass said the smartest, sleekest addition is the Dovre Express from Oslo to Trondheim in Norway, right on par with France and Germany's finest.
Great Britain, not a Eurailpass member, has its own BritRail Pass for 7, 14, 21 days, or a month in both first-class and economy. For $162, the 14-day economy pass comes out to just $12 a day, the BritRail people point out. Its Intercity 125s flash all over the land, and in fact can get you from London to York in 2 hours and 20 minutes, so the old walled city can be done, if necessary , as a day trip out of the capital.
Germany's tourist card makes sense for those who plan to stay in the country but move around repeatedly, as was my routine one fine week in May. As we headed north through flowering orchards toward my first stop in Baden-Baden, I began to accept the fact that mystery does not necessarily lurk in every European railway compartment. Trying to draw out the backpacking student across the aisle who was carrying a Eurailpass, I asked him, ''How do German trains compare with the others in Europe?''
''All the trains are good,'' he said, and went back to reading ''The World According to Garp.''
In minutes I was at Baden-Baden, which proved an exception to the European rule that railway stations are always located in the heart of cities. With time somewhat limited, I stowed my suitcase at the station and caught a cab into the center, where I strolled beside the River Oos, breathing the warm spring air with other softly spoken spa visitors.
By early afternoon I was back at the station, boarding the crack Trans-Europ-Express (TEE) Rheingold for Mannheim and points north. Those old reliable inter-European specials, the TEEs, are being phased out in Germany in favor of sleek Intercity trains that connect with similar equipment at various border points. The Rheingold, one of two surviving TEE trains that pass through Germany, runs from Basel up along the Black Forest and the Rhine to Amsterdam. This summer, a branch has been extended to Munich, following the Neckar in and out of Heidelberg. In the club car, a multilingual stewardess will describe the passing scenery, the local customs, and culture.
I was a few days early to sample all this fun, but was impressed enough with the Rheingold's fashionable appointments - its velour and corduroy upholstery, the posters advertising festivals in Frankfurt and Berlin, and, most of all, the slippery-smooth almost vibration-free ride.
At 2:35 I got off at Mannheim and passed an hour waiting for a Frankfurt train, sitting and snacking on a stone bench in front of the nondescript station. Right on time at 3:33, one of Germany's proud new Intercity trains pulled up to a breathy halt. Germany has nothing as swift as France's 165 m.p.h. TGV train, but its Intercity fleet, connecting 50 cities and as many border points, is one of the world's higher rail achievements in recent years.
Actually the Intercity didn't look much different from the TEE I had exited an hour earlier - separate compartments and open-aisle seating, velour and corduroy chairs, a busy and plush diner, and a stand-up cafe.
If I gained a special affection for German trains during the week I blithely cruised about with my green plastic tourist card, one small reason was the DB sign I encountered all along the way, plastered on the sides of every car and hovering over each station. DB stands for Deutsche Bundesbahn (German Federal Railways), but they are also my initials, and so at times I felt I was riding on my own private railroad.