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Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide
Our very first journey in Europe by Rail starts at London’s Paddington station; it is the unsung star of London’s railway termini. The station has a light elegance which is utterly charming - and it is the perfect place to embark on a journey which takes in some of the finest countryside in southern England.
If there is one rail journey which has consistently fired the English imagination, it is the train ride from London to the Scottish Highlands. We’ll cover over a thousand kilometres by train, travelling via York, Edinburgh and Inverness to reach Kyle of Lochalsh on the west coast of Scotland.
The highlights of this journey from Rotterdam to the West Highlands of Scotland are two railways which are both in the premier league of Europe’s most celebrated lines: the Settle and Carlisle railway and the West Highland Line.
Beurs metro station in the busy heart of Rotterdam is the improbable starting point for this journey which takes in four countries and ends in south-west Ireland on the edge of the country’s first national park.
Route 5 in Europe by Rail takes you from London to Galway. On the way you'll see some of the finest scenery in England, Wales and Ireland. It’s a chance to savour a journey for its own sake.
This first journey to France in Europe by Rail starts at London’s St Pancras station, as inspiring a space as any cathedral. After a fast dash to Paris on Eurostar we continue south to the Mediterranean.
The journey we describe in Route 7 is the classic line south from Paris (via Sens and Dijon), which is dubbed the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée (PLM) route.
The train journey east from Marseille towards the Italian border is superb. The route has a grand, almost cinematic appeal when seen from the comfort of a TGV, but suddenly becomes more intimate when you experience it from one of the slower TER services.
Route 9 takes in some of the finest townscapes and countryside in Normandy. It is one of the shorter adventures in Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide, but one that lends itself to those who prefer to travel spontaneously.
Route 10 in Europe by Rail is for those less inclined to hurry. It is a leisurely amble through some of Atlantic Europe’s most striking cultural landscapes: the Loire Valley, Aquitaine and the Basque region.
The route we follow here from Paris to Barcelona is a more traditional approach to the Pyrenees and northern Spain, one much favoured by travellers of yesteryear. It criss-crosses France's Route Nationale 20 more than a dozen times.
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.
If you have a few hours to spare you get get to southern Spain by taking the old rail route that runs through the gorge at Despeñaperros. Route 13 is truly one of Europe’s finest rail journeys, and it’s a creative way of linking Barcelona with southern Spain..
Our journey as presented here in Route 14 was made possible with the completion of the new fast line from Barcelona to Madrid in 2008. While our natural inclination is to avoid high-speed lines, this route for Europe by Rail really plugs a gap – and it’s an enjoyable run.
If it were ever possible to make a pilgrimage by rail, this is it. Santiago de Compostela has been the goal for millions of pilgrims over many centuries, walking the various routes from France and across northern Spain that have come to be collectively known as the Camino de Santiago or the Route of St James.
The railway is a fine way to take the pulse of Portugal and this route is designed to do just that. Route 16 is the sole journey in this book which crosses the Spanish-Portuguese border.
Route 17 in Europe by Rail is short and sweet, taking in a feast of fine cities as well as, especially in the early stages, some engaging rustic landscapes. It’s not a route where you need ever bother about advance booking and for holders of Interrail or Eurail passes, there are no supplements to pay.
Lille and Cologne are two cities with very strong regional identities within their respective countries, but they could scarcely be more different. Lille is altogether more downbeat - and is radical while Cologne is conformist.
Fifty years ago, the direct train to Basel stayed entirely west of the Rhine, traversing Belgium, Luxembourg and France along the way. The through trains have gone, but the railways are still there. Regular regional trains – all offering a high level of comfort – still ply the entire route.
This is one of Europe’s classic rail journeys, as the route south from Cologne hugs the River Rhine and then, once past Koblenz, follows the dramatic Rhine Gorge upstream.