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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.
This is one big leap across Germany, west to east. A sleek ICE train leaves Cologne Hauptbahnhof (Hbf) hourly for the German capital and the journey takes about five hours.
You can cut off to the south of the main railways which link Hannover with Berlin to discover the glorious landscapes of the Harz Mountains, a region which boasts Europe’s finest network of narrow-gauge steam railways.
This long journey from Berlin to Bavaria and on across the Austrian border to Salzburg takes in some very fine German cities (including Leipzig, Weimar and Munich) and some decent countryside. It is one of two routes in this book which lead travellers from northern Germany to the Alps.
In this rail 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 rail journey from Hamburg to Budapest can be completed in a long day. The sole direct service between the two cities takes just under 14 hours for a journey of about 1,300 km.
The journey from Budapest to the Ukrainian city of Lviv (Львів) takes in Habsburg lands not often visited by travellers from western Europe. This is a route which traverses religious, linguistic and cultural borderlands.
This route starts with a train journey along the coast to Trieste, from where we zigzag up into the hills to reach the dry karst. After that we travel east to the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, then follow a scenic rail route down the Sava Valley towards the Croatian capital, Zagreb.
This journey in Europe by Rail takes us right across southern Scandinavia – from Danish Jutland (a long peninsula attached to the European mainland) over a medley of Danish islands and on to Sweden.
On Route 29 in Europe by Rail, we visit ports shaped by the Hanseatic League and feel the sea breeze on this journey through four countries. It’s a route which wouldn’t be complete without a short sea journey, so we include a hop by boat across the Skagerrak from Denmark to Norway.
Route 30 in Europe by Rail is a trip from Copenhagen to Bergen via Oslo. It is a journey of extremely varied character. Along the way we pass Göteborg from where there's a wonderful rural rail route around Lake Vänern.
The appeal of this journey from Oslo to the Lofoten in Europe by Rail is undoubtedly the scenery and the real sense of remoteness that you encounter along the way - especially once you have moved beyond the Arctic Circle.
The overnight journey to Swedish Lapland we describe in Route 32 of Europe by Rail is worth doing in one long hop. Most places of real interest lie beyond Kiruna – in the final three hours of the journey.
This journey starts in northern Sweden and tracks around the northern edge of the Gulf of Bothnia to reach Finnish territory. On the long journey south, we take in Finland’s three largest provincial cities (Tampere, Oulu and Turku).
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”. Enjoy Route 34 in Europe by Rail, which starts in Vienna and ends in Venice.
The very mention of the word Arlberg evokes memories of a belle époque of continental rail travel. On this route for Europe by Rail, we travel from Zürich to Vienna and on to Bratislava. The Arlberg Railway was opened in 1884.
The Bernina Railway which links the Engadine area of eastern Switzerland with the Valtellina region in Lombardy is in our view far and away the finest of the three north-south rail routes connecting Switzerland with Italy. In 2008 it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Route 37 in Europe by Rail highlights the famous Glacier Express. The route from St Moritz to Zermatt runs through high mountain scenery from the Engadine to the Valais takin in such Swiss staples as glaciers and brooding mountain valleys.
This route nicely explores the Switzerland of the imagination – a place full of Alpine meadows, cow bells and snow-capped peaks. With some of Europe’s most efficient rail services running even into remote Alpine valleys, there is plenty of scope for really getting off the beaten track.
Route 39 in Europe by Rail is a very useful fast hop south over the Alps from southern Germany to Italian sunshine. And it packs in an astonishing variety of scenery.
It was the railway which created the Riviera and by 1874 it was possible to travel by train all the way from Nice to Pisa. Just grab a seat on the seaward side of the train and sit back as we cruise along the coast from France into Italy.
In this route we offer a slow saunter through central Italy, a quiet and gentle journey which approaches Rome with the reverence she deserves. We start in Pisa, meander east through Tuscany and Umbria, then follow the Tiber Valley down to Rome.
Route 43 in Europe by Rail takes in several glorious north Italian cities from Genoa in the west to Venice in the east – a veritable feast of art and architecture, along the way swapping the Mediterranean for the Adriatic.
This is a journey which ventures past the point where most rail travellers visiting Italy turn round and head back home. It gives a taste of the fiery harsh lands of Basilicata and it takes in a great sweep of the Calabrian coast.
Trotsky travelled south from Budapest in 1912 in order to report on the Balkan Wars for the newspaper 'Kievskaya Mysl'. He nicely captured the essence of the journey with the observation in his diary that “although the railway line from Budapest to Belgrade proceeds mainly in a southerly direction, from the cultural standpoint one moves eastward.”
We set out by train from Budapest to Split and then take the ferry to Dubrovnik on Croatia's Adriatic coast. This journey for Europe by Rail retraces a pilgrimage of yesteryear – but one which remains enduringly popular with residents of Budapest today.
This route in Europe by Rail repays time and effort on a journey that takes in three capitals (Zagreb, Belgrade and Sofia) and concludes with a ride through the fine hill country of south-west Bulgaria to reach northern Greece
In this journey for Europe by Rail, we travel east through the shatterzones of history, through territories where tyranny and violence shaped lives and landscapes. We start in Dresden and make our way through Wroclaw and Kraków to Zakopane.
Our journey from Warsaw to St Petersburg recalls one of the most important rail links of Imperial Russia. It tracks east rather from Warsaw, crossing the River Bug to reach Belarusian territory and then leads from Orsha north to St Petersburg.
Route 51 in Europe by Rail takes readers on an adventurous journey through recent European history, one that along the way takes in some serenely beautiful landscapes. This combined train and ferry route starts in Finland and end up in Norway.