Sample texts from Europe by Rail

Europe by Rail: the definitive guide for independent travellers

Get a flavour of Europe by Rail. Read four extracts from the 14th edition of the guidebook.

We would like to give you an idea of the sort of prose you’ll find in Europe by Rail. Well chosen words, and every page in the book is packed with information. There are historical anecdotes, descriptions of scenery, tips on our favourite hotels and lots of advice on how to transform a routine journey into an adventure.

So here are four samples from the 14h edition of the guidebook, published in June 2016. We kick off with the introduction to Route 8 in the book, which charts a journey right across France. It starts in Geneva and ends in Barcelona. It is a new route researched and written for the 2016 edition of the book.

Then we have an extract from Route 20 – also a route which appears in Europe by Rail for the first time in 2016. Our third sample gives a feel for one of Europe's classic rail journeys, namely the Semmering Railway through the Austrian Alps. Finally, we include one of the Sidetracks mini-features which you’ll find tucked away in the book. This one is a reflection on how on-board dining and sleeping cars helped shape some of Europe's most prestigious trains. It is just one of 26 Sidetracks in the new edition of Europe by Rail.

The four texts which you find here were written by Nicky Gardner. All four are copyright and may not be reproduced without permission © 2016 Nicky Gardner.

Sample 1

Rail Route 8: From the Alps to Catalonia

Cities: *** Culture: ** History: ** Scenery: ***
Countries covered: Switzerland, France, Spain
Journey time: 12 hrs | Distance: 856 km

The train journey from Geneva to Barcelona is one of the finest excursions in this volume. It is a good practical way of covering a lot of ground, but it also takes in a wonderful medley of landscapes. This journey could reasonably form the basis for a multi-day trip, stopping off here and there along the way. It relies entirely on local or regional trains.

If time is of the essence, you can dash from Geneva to Barcelona by high-speed train in under eight hours, with just one change of train along the way (the fastest connection each day requires a change at Valence TGV). That high-speed alternative follows the route described here only between Nîmes and Perpignan, so although you’ll still get good views of the Languedoc coast, you’ll miss out on most of the scenery which makes this journey so interesting.

The cities at either end of the route are, at first sight, as different as chalk and cheese. The lakeshore city of Geneva is Switzerland’s most liberal and cosmopolitan city; when it comes to culture and design, Barcelona would always claim to be more cutting-edge. But there are similarities between the two cities; neither is a capital, yet both punch well above their weight on the world stage.

Both Geneva and Barcelona are semi-detached from the countries to which they belong. Geneva only became part of Switzerland in 1815; almost entirely surrounded by French territory, the République et Canton de Genève is still proudly independent, and the disposition of political power in Switzerland tolerates (or humours) Geneva’s free-spirited approach to the Swiss national project. In Barcelona, notions of secession are altogether more serious. The Spanish region of Catalonia (Calalunya in the local Catalan language) has spawned its own energetic brand of nationalism and Barcelona leads the rallying cry for complete independence from Spain. That may come sooner rather than later.

Source: from page 93 of the Routes Section in Europe by Rail (14th edition).

Sample 2

Rail Route 20: Bohemian byways

Cities: ** Culture: ** History: *** Scenery: **
Countries covered: Germany, Czech Republic
Journey time: 9 hrs 30 mins | Distance: 560 km

This route represents our first serious encounter with Central Europe, a geographical notion which has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. When Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain, during those decades when the continent was so markedly fractured into East and West, there was no space in our imagination for Central Europe. But ’twas not always so: from the mediaeval period until shortly after the demise of the Habsburg Empire in the last century, there was always a region with distinctive geography, culture and traditions which was unmistakably Mitteleuropa.

In this journey from Nuremberg to Prague we take in spa towns and synagogues, make time for coffee and cake, and explore some deeply rural areas of Bohemia – the latter another of those cartographic entities which have always played both real and imaginary roles in the lives of Europeans. Nuremberg is a good spot to embark on our journey, as it is a city which for centuries strongly played the Mitteleuropa card (although American occupation after 1945 very firmly ‘pulled’ Nuremberg westwards). The city has always taken geography seriously; it was here in Nuremberg in the 15th century that Martin Behaim created the first globe (his Erdapfel, literally ‘earth apple’). Early modern cartographers from the city always placed Nuremburg in the very middle of Central Europe, much to the annoyance of their rivals in Prague and Budapest. This route is your chance to take the pulse of one of Europe’s most elusive regions.

Source: from page 181 of the Routes Section in Europe by Rail (14th edition).

Sample 3

Rail Route 32: The Semmering railway

Cities: *** Culture: ** History: ** Scenery: ***
Countries covered: Austria, Italy
Journey time: 7 hrs | Distance: 620 km

This is a tremendous journey over one of Europe’s first mountain rail routes and links two very fine cities: Vienna and Venice. The railway between the two was fostered by imperial ambition, with the Austrian authorities keen to see a rail link between the capital and the country’s only major port at Trieste. (For more on Trieste as an important Adriatic outpost of Austrian life and culture see p211). But the notion of building a main-line railway over the rugged Alpine terrain south-west of Vienna was daunting. In 1844 Carlo Ghega stepped up to the challenge. Ghega was born in Venice of Albanian parents; as a young engineer he has worked on several early rail­way projects in Moravia.

The Semmering Railway opened in 1854. In 1998, it was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The citation commends the route as “one of the greatest feats of civil engineering during the pioneering phase of railway building. Set against a spectacular mountain landscape, the railway line remains in use today thanks to the quality of its tunnels, viaducts, and other works, and has led to the construction of many recreational buildings along its tracks.”

A number of other Alpine excursions in this book (eg. Routes 34, 35 & 36) follow routes which are wholly or partly narrow-gauge. The Semmering is different: it was designed from the outset as a main-line route carrying heavy passenger trains and lots of goods traffic. It is the best route in this book for capturing that sense of cruising gently through the Alps on a comfortable long-distance train.

Fifty years ago, the Semmering Railway was used by the twice-weekly Moscow to Rome service. As recently as 2013, the Moscow to Nice train ran over the Semmering, although it’s now routed via the Brenner route (ERT 25). Today, the Semmering Railway is well used by regular Railjet trains from Vienna to Graz and Klagenfurt, respectively the provincial capitals of Styria and Carinthia. It carries night trains from Vienna to over a dozen cities in Italy. And it’s used by the daytime train from Vienna to Venice.

Source: from page 269 of the Routes Section in Europe by Rail (14th edition).

Sample 4

Sidetracks: Creature comforts

We never pass through Liège without thinking of Georges Nagelmackers – a name which for devotees of comfortable rail travel immediately evokes a dose of nostalgia. Georges Nagelmackers was born in Liège in 1845 into an affluent banking family with interests in the then flourishing Ardennes iron industry. The young Nagelmackers, deciding banking was not for him, trained as an engineer. As a young man he travelled to America, returning to Liège in 1868 to run the family ironworks. But he was distracted by trains, possibly a result of growing up just outside Liège where the main railway line from Brussels to Cologne and Berlin cuts across the corner of the family estate at Angleur.

While in America, Nagelmackers had travelled in George Pullman’s saloons, which offered greater comfort than that provided in the regular carriages of the railway companies. Nagelmackers built upon the Pullman principle, but took it a stage further. In his purpose-built carriages Nagelmackers offered not just a Pullman-style open saloon, but separate compartments with proper beds. And thus it was that on 1 October 1872, at an office in Liège, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits was founded. Among the very first services to use Nagelmackers’ new Wagons-Lits carriages was that from Ostend through Brussels and Liège to Cologne and Berlin. Within ten years the Wagons-Lits Company had a fleet of over a hundred carriages, providing sleeping cars for many of the continent’s premier railway companies.

Despite competition from George Pullman, who attempted to emulate in Europe his successes across the Atlantic, Nagelmackers’ concern flourished through successive waves of innovation. It may seem extraordinary nowadays, but in the late 1870s, fully a half century after train travel had been invented, no one had thought of providing hot food to passengers on the trains.

Nagelmackers sensed a market opportunity, and before long Wagons-Lits passengers were being served both luncheon and dinner on board his trains. With plush upholstery, even an occasional Gobelin tapestry, polished mahogany and crystal glasses, Nagelmackers ensured that his clients had all the very best en route. His most stylish carriages were reserved for the premium routes: Paris to the French Riviera, the Nord Express to Berlin and Riga and the Rome Express. In 1883, Wagons-Lits pioneered what became the most famous named train of them all: the Orient Express.

Nagelmackers’ concern for comfort was not restricted just to the rails. The company also opened fine hotels at spots served by its trains; the first two were the Avenida Palace in Lisbon and the Riviera Palace in Nice. By the time Nagelmackers died in 1905 the midnight blue and gold carriages of his company reached as far afield as Siberia, Iberia and the Bosphorus.

Today, one will scan the departure boards at Liège in vain for trains to distant lands. Long gone are the through sleeping cars to Copenhagen, Vienna and Moscow. Indeed, nowadays, there are simply no overnight trains with sleeping cars from Liège to anywhere. Belgium has pretty well scrapped all night trains. The sole survivor is a weekly seasonal ski train from Brussels to the Austrian Tyrol. And that doesn’t even have proper sleeping cars, merely humble couchettes. Georges Nagelmackers is probably turning in his grave.

Source: from page 143 of the Routes Section in Europe by Rail (14th edition).