Sample texts from Europe by Rail

Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide

Get a flavour of Europe by Rail. Read four extracts from the new 15th edition of the guidebook, published in November 2017.

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, evocative descriptions of landscapes, 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 15th edition of the guidebook, published in November 2017. We kick off with the introduction to Route 45 in the book, which charts a journey right across the Balkans. It starts in Zagreb and ends in Thessaloniki. It is a new route researched and written for the 2017 edition of the book.

Then we have an extract from Route 20 – a route which appeared in Europe by Rail for the first time in 2016. We have updated this route for the new 15th edition of the book. Our third sample comes from Route 32 and 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 the rise and fall of the compartment coach on European railways. It appears for the first time in the 15th edition of the book. 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 texts are copyright and may not be reproduced without permission © 2017 Nicky Gardner.

Sample 1

Rail Route 45: Through Balkan byways to Greece

Cities: ** Culture: ** History: * Scenery: **
Countries covered: Croatia (HR), Serbia (RS), Bulgaria (BG), Greece (GR)
Journey time: 25 hrs | Distance: 1,166 km

Take a look around the vicinity of the station before leaving Zagreb. The north is the posh side of the railway tracks. The distinguished Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža wrote a damning essay on social (and spatial) divides in Zagreb in 1937. To the north of the station, he found “hot water, roulette, lifts, on parle français, Europe, good!” Over on the south side of the railway there were “open cesspits, malaria… Balkan, a sorry province.” To Krleža, those quarters of Zagreb beyond the railway were “the back of beyond, Asia.” That from a left-leaning writer who was keen to shock the Zagreb bourgeoisie – all by definition residing north of the railway – out of their complacency.

Nowadays, the cesspits south of the tracks are long gone and the district between the railway and the river, while not pretty, is an edgy part of town where activists protest against real estate speculators. Even Zagreb has its rebel zone. If you incline towards more sedate cityscapes, stick to the north side of the station where the Esplanade Hotel still has uniformed bellboys and the Paviljon restaurant attracts an affluent elite who like elaborate cakes and seem not to have noticed that the Habsburg Empire disappeared a while back. Both the Esplanade and the Paviljon are visible from the front of the station. It’s also impossible to miss the statue of good old King Tomislav and his horse which arrived here in 1947 and commemorates the tenth-century monarch who is credited with having created the first coherent Croatian state. Whatever you make of Tomislav, the statue was a good way of recycling old cannons which were melted down to secure the bronze needed.

Source: from page 366-367 of the Routes Section in Europe by Rail (15th edition).

Sample 2

Rail Route 20: Bohemian byways

Cities: ** Culture: ** History: *** Scenery: **
Countries covered: Germany (DE), Czech Republic (CZ)
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 187 of the Routes Section in Europe by Rail (15th edition).

Sample 3

Rail Route 32: The Semmering railway

Cities: *** Culture: ** History: ** Scenery: ***
Countries covered: Austria (AT), Italy (IT)
Journey time: 7 hrs 40 mins | 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. 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 trains from Vienna to Venice.

Source: from page 278 of the Routes Section in Europe by Rail (15th edition).

Sample 4

Sidetracks: Creature comforts

Rail travel is generally very safe. But that was not the perception of Parisians in 1861 after poor Monsieur Poinsot was found dead in a railway carriage compartment at the Gare de l’Est. By the time Poinsot’s mutilated body was discovered, the murderer had long fled, presumably having alighted at one of the stations where the train from Mulhouse had stopped on its journey to Paris.

The fate of Monsieur Poinsot made French travellers think twice about buying a train ticket. Before long, Gallic panic over the dangers of train travel spread to England, when a particularly gruesome compartment murder took place in London. English trains were designed on the same lines as those in France, with first-class accommodation being in separate compartments, each accessed by a door directly from the railway platform. There was in those days no connection at all between adjacent compartments.

This design was the norm across Europe for first class, in contrast to North America where the open-plan saloon car was more common. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, in his marvellous book The Railway Journey, suggests that on European trains well-to-do travellers enjoyed the privacy and style associated with travel in a horse-drawn coach on a highway. The first-class railway com­partment in Europe imitated the coach, but Schivelbusch notes that the design of the American railroad car was inspired by the open saloons on the riverboats which plied the young nation’s waterways.

“That only two cases of murder,” writes Schivelbusch, “were able to trigger a collective psychosis tells us as much about the compartment’s significance for the nineteenth century European psyche as does the fact that it took so long to become conscious of the compartment’s dysfunctionality.”

That dysfunctionality lay not merely in the compartment’s appeal for assassins. There were surely many instances of lavatorial distress; no surprise perhaps that, when a train arrived at an intermediate station after a particularly long non-stop leg, there was often a communal rush for the station toilets.

The victim in the London murder was an unfortunate Mr Briggs; his assail­ant was a German villain named Franz Müller. The railways responded by intro­ducing a small glazed peephole between compartments. These peepholes were called Müller Lights. Many a courting couple surely bemoaned the resulting loss of privacy. Before long, railway companies installed communication cords which passengers in distress could pull to alert the train crew to an emergency. But a German railway engineer, Edmund Heusinger von Waldegg, devised a more radical approach to mitigating the dangers of travel in compartments. He suggested an internal corridor down one side of each carriage, allowing passen­gers and train staff to move from compartment to compartment. It did not entirely erode the intimacy of the small compartment but now afforded a new sense of safety and security. It also paved the way for the introduction of on-board facilities such as toilets and restaurant cars.

European carriage design has moved on, with the open-plan saloon now much preferred by most travellers. Trains with individual compartments linked by a connecting corridor are now increasingly rare. Read more on carriage design in Sidetracks Y (on communal carriages in Russia).

Source: from page 382 of the Routes Section in Europe by Rail (15th edition).