As we prepare the next edition of Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for Independent Travellers, we have been thinking carefully about how to better represent routes through the Low Countries. Over the last day or two we have been looking at creative ways of moving on from Amsterdam. We hope to incorporate some of what follows in that next edition of the book.
Amsterdam certainly pulls the crowds and for travellers using InterRail (and Eurail passes) a stop in Amsterdam has become almost a rite of passage. For young travellers from Britain in particular, Amsterdam ranks as an almost compulsory early stop on any round-Europe rail tour.
No surprise perhaps, for Amsterdam is an easy place to take stock, get a first taste of laid-back continental ways and prepare to strike out into less-familiar territory. The very fact that English is pretty well universally understood in Amsterdam and that the city is safe makes it an easy staging post on many itineraries.
The rituals of InterRail are well understood, and we wrote about them at length last year in hidden europe magazine. Most travellers take well-trodden routes, and from Amsterdam the standard itineraries move east — most commonly to Berlin, and only slightly less often to Copenhagen, sometimes with a stop in Hamburg along the way.
Amsterdam is a very easy place to move on from by train. There are for example overnight sleeper services direct to Copenhagen, Dresden, Prague, Minsk, Munich, Warsaw and Zürich. Sadly, the regular evening departure from Amsterdam to Moscow was axed in December 2012, though that was surely well beyond the horizons of the InterRail crowd.
By day, too, the departure boards at Amsterdam Centraal station are pretty lively. There are regular departures eastbound to Berlin and south to Köln (Cologne) and Frankfurt. There is even a direct day train to Basel in Switzerland (leaving Amsterdam about eight each morning) — though it is in truth less interesting than one might presume as the train uses the high-speed line beyond Köln. Travellers intent on seeing some scenery would be well advised to change in Köln and then take one of the slower services that hug the banks of the River Rhine, following the classic old line south upstream through the Rhine Gorge to Mainz and beyond.
But there are slower options out of Amsterdam and we think these offer much more chance to see the rural landscapes of the Netherlands and nearby parts of Germany. The most interesting route south towards Cologne, for example, is that via Roermond and Maastricht. Trains run every 30 minutes on this line with times shown in Table 470 of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable (ERT). Both Roermond and Maastricht warrant a stop, then from Maastricht it is an easy hop over the border to Aachen in Germany (changing at Heerlen along the way).
For travellers bound for northern Germany, a good option is to follow the new Hanzelijn route north-east from Amsterdam. This rail route just opened in December 2012 and it affords fine views of Dutch polder landscapes in the province of Flevoland. Tables 460 and 482 in the ERT show the schedules.
Groningen is the natural first stop, but those with an interest in cultural issues might be tempted to detour via Leeuwarden, the capital of the Dutch province of Friesland. Even if you have no particular interest in the Frisian language and culture, Leeuwarden is a good base for exploring this beautiful corner of the Netherlands. The lively port of Harlingen (just 25 minutes by local train from Leeuwarden; times in Table 498) gives a feel for small-town Friesland.
If you do stop off in Leeuwarden, three trains an hour will speed you over to Groningen to rejoin the main route east into Germany. Trains generally run hourly from Groningen across the border to Leer in Germany (although less frequently on Sundays). The schedules are shown in ERT Table 495. From Leer there are hourly direct trains to Bremen and Hannover.
If you travel straight through from Amsterdam to Bremen via Groningen and Leer, then the full journey from Amsterdam to Bremen takes just under five hours. The one-way fare is €48. That fare does not need to be booked in advance. You can just buy that ticket on departure at Amsterdam Centraal station, but allow plenty of time as you’ll need to queue at the international ticket counter.
We think this route via Groningen knocks spots off the main route east from Amsterdam followed by the direct trains from Amsterdam to Berlin. True, our recommended itinerary is a little slower, but in good weather our recommended route is a wonderful way of appreciating that even two-dimensional landscapes have their own intrinsic beauty. Flat does not always mean boring. From Bremen one can continue east to Hamburg (for onward connections to Copenhagen or Berlin).