There is an undeniable air of romance about train stations that cannot be found in airports. I suspect it has to do with the fact that train travel is a much older form of transport than air travel. Train stations are steeped in history; echoing with the memories of tearful goodbyes and joyful reunions; resounding with a million moments of journeys being embarked upon or drawing to a close; haunted by the ghosts of lovers planning secret trysts, soldiers kissing farewell to their sweethearts and families welcoming loved ones from far away.
Some of my favourite train stations are in Europe. Just to the west of Cologne in Germany lies the beautiful little town of Aachen, otherwise known as Aix-la-Chapelle. The Aachen Hauptbahnhof is perhaps my favourite railway station of them all. I have begun and ended countless journeys at that tiny station and hold it near and dear to my heart. What it lacks in stature it makes up for in history; it opened in 1841 with a train connection to Cologne, and by 1843 it became part of the world’s very first international trainline with trains running from Liège in Belgium though Aachen to Cologne.
The capital of the Czech Republic is home to one of the most stunning railway stations I have ever seen. Praha hlavní nádraží is a mere 5 minutes from Wenceslas Square and it is into this railway station that international trains arrive. I cannot imagine a more impressive way to arrive in Prague. The original station opened in 1871, but the incredible building that exists today was built between 1901 and 1909 and is the work of Czech architect Josef Fanta. The interior is spectacular, but what is even more impressive is that the design extends right out to the tracks, boasting the most glorious stained glass and wrought iron features.
Budapest in Hungary also has a lovely railway station. I’ve only been there once, but I cherish the memory of waking up in my sleeper car as my train from Munich pulled into Keleti station on the bleakest of midwinter days. It is a crazy, reckless mix of design features and elements which somehow combine to make the most delightful end result, and when it was being built, between 1881 and 1884, it was hailed as the most modern railway station of its time.
So yes, I must admit I am a little bit in love with the romance of railway stations. At the moment, I’m having a dalliance with Grand Central Terminal. This splendid Beaux Art structure is filled with marble and brass, majestic staircases and opulent chandeliers, arched windows and soaring ceilings. It is a bastion of romance in New York City. First and foremost, there is the clock. Not just any clock – THE clock. It is situated right in the middle of the main concourse atop a circular brass pagoda which serves as an information booth. The iconic clock has four sides, crafted out of pure opal, so the time can be seen from any point of the concourse. It is a hugely popular meeting place and a prime location for marriage proposals. It doesn’t get any more romantic than this.
Grand Central Terminal is also home to the evocatively named Kissing Room. It is officially named The Biltmore Room, but during the golden age of train travel in the 30s and 40s, this was where the 20th Century Limited train would arrive from the West Coast, and impassioned passengers would rush to kiss their loved ones in the centre of the ‘Kissing Room’.
Another deliciously naughty area of Grand Central is the Whispering Gallery. Thanks to the vaulted ceilings, someone can whisper on one side and the noise will travel across the ceiling and be heard perfectly on the other side. An ideal place to whisper sweet nothings from afar.
Two things invariably happen when I wander through the main concourse of Grand Central. First, my mind flies to that wonderful scene from Terry Gilliam’s film The Fisher King and I have to fight the urge to break out into a waltz.
Second, I reach instinctively for my camera/camcorder/cellphone to try to capture some small part of its breathtaking beauty. Every time I pass through Grand Central, I have to allow myself at least an extra half hour to soak in the atmosphere and take photographs. It has proven an elusive place to capture in its entirety, so I have to settle for little glimpses of something far too grand to express in a single photograph.
There is one final ingredient that adds mystique, and that is the knowledge that Grand Central has a myriad of secret passageways and stairwells. None of them are accessible to the public, but one that is known about is a hidden spiral staircase underneath the pagoda in the main concourse that leads down to the lower levels. And if that weren’t enough, there is also a secret train platform with its own dedicated railway track. Yes, the mysterious Platform 61, which does not appear on any maps or plans, is located somewhere deep underneath the terminal. If you don’t believe me, watch as the BBC takes a journey down to this closely-guarded secret location.
And so my love affair with Grand Central Terminal continues.