Heading out to the edges of Berlin: an S-Bahn train arriving at Wannsee station in the city's leafy south-western suburbs (photo © hidden europe).
Railways helped transform our cities. Whether the Metropolitan Line in London – and the Metroland of the new residential communities along it – or Berlin’s S-Bahn, driving the expansion of the German capital into the surrounding countryside, commuter lines have been bringing people in and out of our great urban centres for more than a century.
But while these railways changed our very notions of space and time, and how far one might reasonably live from work, the average traveller to one of Europe’s great cities might be forgiven for thinking that such suburban services are not really for them. That they are local lines for local people. But if you want to discover a different side of a place, to see it from a different perspective and away from the classic tourist trail, then these railway lines can be real journeys of discovery.
In Berlin we use these trains to explore corners of our home city we’ve never visited before, giving us an experience of something new while not straying very far from home. We head north to Bernau, to search out UNESCO-listed Bauhaus architecture, or south to Friedrichshagen and a walk between the woods and the water without leaving the city limits. In the west we climb a hill to an old American Cold War listening station and a view back across the city, while to the east we follow a river between high-rise housing estates until we reach the Gardens of the World and a cable car dangling above them. It reminds us that there is more to this city of ours than its famous centre, and it’s a lesson we take with us on journeys further afield.
In Copenhagen, it is a short walk from the station at Ishøj until we reach the ARKEN Museum of modern art, a wonderful windswept beach and, if we look hard enough, one of Thomas Dambo’s wooden ‘Forgotten Giants’, sculptures very deliberately placed half-hidden in public spaces beyond the city centre to encourage locals and visitors alike to explore overlooked nature spots in the suburbs.
From the centre of Stockholm, the train to Ängbyplan leads us to quiet footpaths along the water and through the peaceful woods of the Judarskogen nature reserve. In Dublin, the DART delivers us to Howth for fish and chips by the harbour, while in Zürich the S-Bahn takes us along the Limmat to the spa town of Baden and a walk to the top of a nearby hill where, on a clear day, it is possible to see the peaks of the Bernese Oberland in the distance, a line-up that includes the Eiger, the Jungfrau and the Mönch.
Some memories are hazy. After a long night out in Barcelona we catch one of the first trains of the day to where some friends are staying by the beach. We don’t want to wake them so we doze on the cool sands as the sun comes up over the sea in front of us. In Bilbao we’re camping near the end of the line, so we have to drag ourselves away from a tiny stand-up bar in the old town to catch the last train, itself something of a party with all the revellers heading home after a night on the town.
In cities we know well and those we are visiting for the first time, we look at transit maps and wonder what might be found if we simply travel to the end of the line. What will we find if we take the S1 from the centre of Warsaw to Otwock? If we leave Budapest on the H5, does the wine really taste better in Szentendre? If we take the S2 from Salzburg to Freilassing, do we need to take our passport?
The beauty of trains, the beauty of the rails, is the sense of possibility they offer. Of the discoveries to be made and the stories to be written. At the time of writing, even Warsaw, Budapest and Salzburg feel a long way away. Once more we are staying close to home. But even after all these years, there are still discoveries and stories to be found all along Berlin’s S-Bahn lines. We don’t need an expensive ticket or even a lot of time. We just need to catch the next train out to an unfamiliar neighbourhood of our familiar city, in search of yet more adventures in Metroland.