About the book

Europe by Rail: the definitive guide for independent travellers

A brand new edition of Europe by Rail is currently being printed. It will be published on 8 June 2016.

A word of welcome

Two hundred years ago, the English poet Lord Byron travelled up the River Rhine on his way to Switzerland. Byron’s 1816 journey found poetic expression in Childe Harold, where mention of the Drachenfels (or Dragon’s Rock) brought international attention to the landscapes of the Rhine. Just a few weeks after sailing by the Drachenfels, Byron was on the shore of Lake Geneva where he visited the castle at Chillon. By the end of 1816, Byron’s poem The Prisoner of Chillon had been published. It immediately pushed the Château de Chillon into the limelight, and 200 years later the tourist crowds have not stopped queuing at the castle gate.

19th-century travellers were guided in some measure by poetry, but also by art. That JMW Turner followed the Byron trail and painted many scenes from the Rhine and Lake Geneva served only to impress these landscapes on the public imagination. By the late 1830s, a developing railway network was fostering international tourism on a scale which had hitherto never existed.

The journey or the destination?

The continent was on the move, with the restless English often leading the way. The guidebook market blossomed, as travellers packed a Baedeker or a Murray before each new journey. In 1873 Thomas Cook published his first railway timetable for continental Europe. And he recognised that there was a conspicuous gap in the guidebook market. The established series (like those published by Murray and Baedeker) gave much space to descriptions of places, but said very little about the journey. So Thomas Cook created a new kind of guide, one that focused on the actual rail routes for which his travel company sold tickets. The first of these guides, covering the Low Countries, the Rhine and Switzerland, was published in 1873.

The present title cannot claim such antiquity. The first edition of Europe by Rail appeared on the Thomas Cook list in the 1990s, building on that company’s illustrious record in promoting and supporting rail travel across Europe and beyond. Europe by Rail has outlived its parent, for the publishing division of Thomas Cook closed in 2013. But the title now has a new publisher. In this 14th edition of the book, we have paid heed to Thomas Cook’s observation over 140 years ago, and our emphasis is very much on the journeys.

Europe by Rail thus very much reflects the authority and insight which Thomas Cook brought to his own explorations of Europe by train. When Thomas Cook escorted his first tours through continental Europe, train travel was slow and uncertain. Today, the railway has become the most consistently reliable means of transport across large parts of Europe.

If the mid-19th century was the heyday of railway development, this second decade of the 21st century is a new Golden Age for leisure travel by train. Across much of Europe, the train is back in vogue. Rail travel is often modestly priced, generally very comfortable and appeals to the pieties of a new generation of travellers worried about environmental issues. It was surely not by chance that the very first public Eurostar train to leave London’s magnificently refurbished St Pancras International station in November 2007 was powered by two engines with the names Tread Lightly and Voyage Vert. The train comes with impeccable green credentials.

Exploring Europe by train

Over the past few years, we have criss-crossed Europe by train, from fast journeys on sleek expresses (such as TGV and AVE services in France and Spain respectively) to memorably slow meanderings on remote branch lines. We have written about slow trains through Bosnia, even slower trains through Bohemia and about the humdrum cream-and-red local trains that shuttle through our home city of Berlin.

We have swapped stories with strangers on trains in Russia, we have been on trains marooned in deep midwinter snow in Scandinavia and we have slept soundly on trains that crept by dead of night around the back of silent factories in unnamed towns.

The train is fun – even when things do not always go utterly to plan. But planning is important on any journey and in this book we present 50 rail routes that between them cover the full gamut of European rail travel. There are routes where trains speed across great plains, routes where slow trains dawdle from one village to another and there are routes where trains traverse harsh tundra and great mountain ranges. In addition to our 50 routes, we offer 26 mini-features (called Sidetracks); these are bite-size teasers which invite you to reflect on rail-related themes or venture into regions not covered by our 50 routes.

Travel by train across Europe and you will inevitably be struck by the sheer variety of our continent. Our 50 routes reflect that mix. We include some high-speed hops, where you can cover a lot of ground fast. Wherever we can, we highlight slow trains that follow less-frequented rail routes. It is on such journeys that the texture and detail of European life is most easily appreciated, whether it be in the changing landscapes beyond the carriage window, the architecture of villages you pass through along the way or in the faces and the accents of folk with whom you find yourself sharing a railway carriage.

The opening of new rail routes has slashed journey times. Today’s traveller can take a morning Eurostar from London and by mid afternoon be standing on the shores of the Mediterranean. A judicious combination of daytime high-speed services and overnight trains allows longer journeys across the continent to be undertaken very comfortably by train. And don’t forget night trains. Few experiences compare with opening the blinds of the night sleeper in the morning to find a fragile blanket of morning mist over a foreign city.

The imaginations of travellers today are unfettered. Classic destinations like the Rhine, Switzerland and the northern shores of the Mediterranean no longer command attention to the exclusion of other parts of Europe. The routes in this book will take you far beyond the Arctic Circle and on mountain railways across the Pyrenees and the Alps. We shall lead you to great cities in eastern Europe and from Balkan byways to the Baltic and the Bay of Biscay. Some readers might try and undertake a dozen or more of these routes within a month. We would just sound a note of caution. That way madness lies. Better to focus a little, and take time to stop off here and there along the way.

Slow travel has come of age. You can read our Manifesto for Slow Travel which was first published in 2009 at www.slowtraveleurope.eu. Savvy travellers nowadays realise that the journey is something to be savoured in its own right. Exploring Europe by rail is a great way to put slow travel principles into practice. The pleasure of the journey need not be eclipsed by the anticipation of arrival. A lot has to do with choosing slower trains on at least some parts of your journey.

Practicalities

Travel light if you possibly can. Heavy luggage and trains do not make good partners. Take this book along of course, and do not forget to take a train timetable. We noted above that Thomas Cook published the first European timetable way back in 1873. The European Rail Timetable (frequently referred to as ‘ERT’ in this book), a veritable masterpiece of compression, is still published monthly, nowadays not by Thomas Cook, but by the publisher of this book. An up-to-date copy of that timetable, and the same company’s Rail Map Europe, are natural companions to this volume. Guidebook, map, timetable: the three indispensable assets in the traveller’s armamentarium have not changed since Thomas Cook first started encouraging folk to explore Europe by rail.

So are you game to join us on this journey? What not climb aboard? If you’d like to purchase Europe by Rail, you can place an order either via the publisher’s website or on the Amazon UK website. The book is 496 pages long and printed on lightweight paper. So despite its length, it is easily tucked away in a small bag. Our aim has been to create a volume which is practical and useful but still makes space for some first-class narratives.

Enjoy the ride.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
June 2016