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 16th edition of the guidebook, which was published in mid-October 2019.

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 16th edition of the guidebook, which was published in mid-October 2019. We kick off with the introduction to Route 1 in the book, which charts a journey from London to Penzance. It is one of the new British and Irish routes, which were researched and written for the upcoming 16th edition of the book.

Then we have an extract from Route 45 – a route which starts in Budapest and ends in the port city of Bar on the coast of Montenegro. The latter country features for the first time in the 16th edition of Europe by Rail. Our third sample comes from Route 34 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 is just one of 25 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 © 2019 Nicky Gardner.

Sample 1

Rail Route 1: Following Brunel to Cornwall

Cities: * Culture: ** History: * Scenery: **
Countries covered: England (ENG)
Journey time: 5 hrs 30 mins | Distance: 491 km

In the beginning there were the graceful classical baths of the Roman Empire. Then came fine cathedrals. But by the late 19th century, great railway termini were acclaimed as the representative buildings of the Steam Age. Stations quickly became the unashamed status symbols of any city with ambition. Some echoed the showcase buildings of earlier eras. In New York, Penn Central was inspired by the great Roman baths at Caracalla. While in London, St Pancras took a cue from Europe’s soaring Gothic cathedrals.

Whichever of the routes you follow in this book, make time for Europe’s great railway stations. While some are sadly neglected and others have been the victims of wilful architectural vandalism, such cases are the exception. Many are beautiful places which lift the spirits.

Our very first journey in Europe by Rail starts at London’s Paddington station; it is the unsung star of London’s railway termini. St Pancras is the most grandiose and architecturally ambitious. Following recent renovations, King’s Cross may now claim to be the most stately. But Paddington has a light elegance which is utterly charming. Despite its Moorish accents, there is something quintessentially English about Paddington. There are echoes of Paxton’s magnificent great glasshouse, built for the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851. Paddington is a fine London home for a railway associated with one great name in 19th-century engineering: Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He was the driving force behind the Great Western Railway, the legendary GWR. In Victorian England, it was often suggested that the initials GWR stood for God’s Wonderful Railway.

Paddington is the perfect place to embark on a journey which takes in some of the finest countryside in southern England. And this is a London station which has forever been associated with pleasure. Some  termini were always, and still are, stations for commuters. Others suggested trade and commerce. But Paddington was for holidays. So, join us as we climb aboard one of the Great Western Railway trains bound for Cornwall.

Source: from page 52 of the Routes Section in Europe by Rail (16th edition).

Sample 2

Rail Route 45: The long haul south

Cities: * Culture: * History: ** Scenery: **
Countries covered: Hungary (HU), Serbia (RS), Bosnia & Herzegovina (BA), Montenegro (ME)
Journey time: 21 hrs | Distance: 874 km

Leon Trotsky travelled south from Budapest in 1912 in order to report on the Balkan Wars for the newspaper Kievskaya Mysl. Trotsky 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.” Trotsky went on to remark on the kaleidoscope of cultures and languages that he saw as his train paused at wayside stations along the route. More than a century later, the ride south from Budapest to Belgrade and beyond is still remarkable for the same reasons.

The first part of the journey wins no prizes for dramatic scenery. It traverses landscapes that are often pancake flat. The Pannonian Plain is the dried-up bed of a vast inland sea that once lay between the Carpathian Mountains and the uplands of southern Serbia. Although the route as far as Belgrade has Danubian landscapes aplenty, you will not see a lot of the river itself, but there is a dramatic crossing of the Danube at Novi Sad. Beyond Belgrade, which is most definitely worth a stop, the scenery picks up as we travel through the hill country of western Serbia, slipping by stealth (and only briefly) into Bosnia & Herzegovina, then continuing through rugged terrain to reach the coast of Montenegro at the port of Bar. There are good bus connections up and down the Adriatic coast from Bar, as well as a regular ferry link over to Bari in Italy.

A cautionary note

Note that there’s an ongoing programme of track renewal affecting trains in Serbia in 2020. Route 45 will be interrupted between Novi Sad and Belgrade. Passengers must travel by bus for this stretch. Normal services should be reinstated by late 2020. Other major Serbian rail infrastructure projects, funded in part by China or Russia, are planned for 2021 and beyond. These may affect services running south from Belgrade to Bulgaria,
North Macedonia and the route to Montenegro described here. Check the European Rail Timetable or for details (click on the flag for English-language pages).

Leaving Budapest

Our journey starts at Keleti station in Budapest, which has a touch of old-style grandeur about it. Statues of James Watt and George Stephenson adorn the neoclassical facade, inviting travellers into this great cathedral
of transport. Well… most passengers. The world saw another rendering of Hungarian hospitality in summer 2015, when thousands of Syrian refugees were denied access to Keleti station …

Source: from page 383 of the Routes Section in Europe by Rail (16th edition).

Sample 3

Rail Route 34: 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. Route 36, 37 & 38) 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 308 of the Routes Section in Europe by Rail (16th edition).

Sample 4

Sidetracks: Carriage design

Rail travel is generally very safe. 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 X (on communal carriages in Russia) on p431.

Source: from page 414 of the Routes Section in Europe by Rail (16th edition).