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Great European rail journeys

Tom Hall

Who needs planes? Not lucky European travellers. Train travel survives from a time when the journey was as important as the destination and Europe is well-served with fast, good-value rail services linking beautiful cities. Train windows do more than let light in — they show off Europe as the incredibly varied travel playground it is. And at night, there's nothing more romantic than slipping silently out of one of the world's great cities knowing the morning brings a new one. Here are four of our picks for great European rail journeys.

Cross-country: Rome to Venice

Rail journeys throughout Italy are spectacular, from the Alpine tunnels and passes north of Milanto the train-carrying ferry leading goggle-eyed travellers across the Straits of Messina. Our favourite is the four-to-five hour journey that snakes north from Rome to Venice, passing through a roll call of classic Italian destinations: Florence, Bologna, Verona and Padua. This route can be the spine of weeks of exploration; we suggest taking at least a few days.

Roma Termini is more than Europe's largest train station; it's a wonderfully chaotic introduction to Rome and Romans, and the start of many great railway adventures. Give the Forum Termini shopping centre a wide berth and instead head into the atmospheric streets of Castro Pretorio, a short walk to the north of the station. This is just the place to pick up some provisions, jostling with the mamas as they get their daily bread and gossip.

While cheaper and slower inter-city services run this route, the fast Eurostar trains are worth the extra cost. The train leaves Rome's northern suburbs behind for the scenery of Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany. Vineyards, rolling hills and red-roofed villages pack the horizon, and then Florence comes into view.

Firenze

Florence's 1935 station is a modern masterpiece in a much older setting, and the city is only 90 minutes from Rome. If you're breaking your journey here, medieval lanes, ancient churches and the quietly snaking River Arno are just minutes away. Stretch your legs on a walk from the river up to Piazzale Michelangelo for the best view of the city. Grab a quick ice-cream from the station concourse and settle back for the remainder of the journey.

The Appenine mountain scenery gives way to the plains of the northeast, then medieval Padua and Verona before, finally, the land runs out. It was the Austrians who connected Venice with the rest of Italy via a 6.4km causeway, and while arriving by boat is often described as the only way to arrive in La Serenissima, the train's not bad either. Exiting Santa Lucia station and getting your first look at Venice in all its glory is one of the finest moments in European travel. Turn left for St Mark's Square, right for the Dorsoduro or just get hopelessly lost in the beauty of Venice.

Practical details:
Go to Italia Rail for fares, times and advance bookings. Fares from $70 one-way.

West Highland Line

Scotland's West Highland line runs up to three times a day from Glasgow's Queen Street Station to the west coast town of Mallaig. Those are the facts, but they do about as much justice to this journey as reading the timetable. The Rathad Iarainn non Eilean (Iron Road to the Isles) is a Scottish treasure: 264km of metal rails and wooden sleepers that cross mountains and moorland, passing lochs and villages. Don't expect to get anything useful done while on board as your eyes will be locked on the scenery. Food is a no-no — open-mouthed passengers should be provided with bibs.

Where the wild things are

The train leaves Glasgow via non-descript suburbs, speeding northwest to Loch Lomond, where it starts to become clear what all the fuss is about. From here the train enters the Highlands, with its looming green peaks and more than likely a storm brewing for added atmosphere. As the line climbs to Rannoch Moor the scenery grows increasingly desolate and dramatic — the station at Corrour is on an inaccessible public road and can only be reached on foot or by train.

Break the journey at Fort William — it's the perfect place to launch an assault on Ben Nevis or take a side trip to magnificent Glen Coe. The West Highland Line continues to dazzle all along its length, and the final stretch on to Mallaig offers astonishing views of islands and beaches, plus a crossing of the wonderful viaduct at Glenfinnan. On summer weekends you can sometimes catch special steam excursions from Fort William to Mallaig.

But Mallaig is not the end of this incredible journey; from here ferries flow to Skye, Rum, Eigg and on to the lost world of Knoydart.

The best way to approach this line is to take the 13-hour sleeper all the way from London — it will scarcely seem feasible that you're still on the same small strip of northern Europe you pulled out of at Euston station. Failing that, services from Glasgow are regular and don't usually require reservation.

Practical details:
Go to Scotrail for fares and times. Fares from $65 return (based on two one-ways).

Trans-Continental Railway: London to Marrakesh

North Africa may be the latest hot-spot for budget flights from northern Europe, but if you've got the time and the money, travelling there overland is a wonderful alternative. This epic journey can take as little as three days if you go non-stop, but it's better to take up to a week and enjoy the treats on the way.

The continent's finest, en route

One of the great thrills of riding the rails in Europe is pulling into Paris and roaming around the city for an afternoon. As Marrakesh is your final destination, whet your appetite at the Institute du Monde Arabe — one of the most visually stunning of the Grands Projets fostered by former president François Mitterrand in the 1980s. After taking in the fine views of Notre Dame from the roof, a long lunch in the gardens of Paris Mosque is a great way to pass the afternoon.

In the evening, make your way to Austerlitz station to catch the Trainhotel. Part sleeping car service, part rolling bar and restaurant — it'll bring out your inner Hercule Poirot as you rock off to sleep somewhere over the Pyrenees, destination Madrid. After a quick spin round the Prado and a noisy night in Sol on the tapas trail, it's off to the coast. Detour via Gibraltar rather than jumping straight on the ferry at Algeciras. Gibraltar's barbary apes are Europe's only wild primates, though watching British soldiers enjoy a night on the warm beer might make you think otherwise.

Nothing can prepare you for Tangier— the noise, clamour and fading grandeur form an unforgettable introduction to Africa. The Marrakesh Express leaves frequently for points south and takes seven hours, often with a change at Casablanca. The train passes through Meknes, Fez and Rabat before heading inland to Marrakesh in style.

Practical details:

As you'll probably be breaking your journey, this trip is best booked in stages — see The Man in Seat 61, a great resource on European train travel for details. On the Spanish Rail website, you can book trains to and within Spain from the UK. RENFE is the official site for Spanish train times, ticket booking and information. One-way fares start at around $550. If going both ways, consider getting an inter-rail or Eurail pass — see Rail Europe for pass details.

Inter-City: Sarajevo to Mostar

A superb train ride links two of Bosnia and Herzegovina's most famous names: Sarajevo and Mostar. After a decade where these two cities were synonymous with conflict, both are bouncing back with a vengeance. Today Bosnia is home to two on-the-rise cities, crammed full of the culture clash, upbeat youth and optimism of independence that makes a visit utterly fascinating. This journey is as much about the cities it connects as the stunning, little-known rail link.

Mostar was intimately entwined in the conflict of the 1990s, but to visit now is to see a city getting on with being beautiful. There's no more dramatic symbol of Bosnia's revival than the new "Old Bridge", replacing the previous Ottoman masterpiece destroyed in 1993. Mostar's Old Town, on both sides of the bridge, is crowded with mosques, museums and cafes.

When it's time to leave Mostar, the train beckons — but don't expect a huge, packed service. Two carriages are the norm. Twice daily, a near-empty train leaves Mostar early in the morning — faster buses account for the dearth of passengers, but with a compartment to stretch out in and enjoy the views, who cares? Starting alongside the Neretva River, the journey climbs slowly through tunnels, up switchbacks and across viaducts to cross the Bjelasnica Mountains en route to Sarajevo.

A wonderful place to get lost, the Bosnian capital hums with life during the day and its very-late-night cafe and bar scene changes can be hard to keep up with. Follow the beautiful crowd on a crawl or find a good spot by the Miljacka River and order another Sarajevo Beer.

Practical details:

Two daily trains run in each direction between Sarajevo and Mostar, costing about $22 one-way. Journey time is three hours.

To make bookings and get advice from expert professional trainspotters, contact Railbookers (www.railbookers.com.au). They can put your itinerary together for you, provide personalised advice and even book your hotels along the way at great rates. They're also able to work to almost any budget; bespoke train travel in Europe doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg.

User comments
The journey does not just stop there, its a gateway to the West Coast inner hebrides, where ferry services can take you to the remote islands of Eigg, Rum, Canna, Muck and the stunning Knoydart peninsula, also known as Britain's last true wilderness. Local ferries run from Mallaig www.knoydart-ferry.co.uk and www.knoydartferry.co.uk daily and accommodation to suit all budgets from wild camping hostels, Bed and Breakfast to a new luxury self catering with giant hot tub overlooking loch nevis recently featured in Conde Nast www.knoydarthouse.co.uk The train journey was made famous in "that car chase" with a well known little wizard from Hogwarts and beat off stiff competition from the Orient Express as voted by the Wanderlust magazine for best train journey.
one of the best routes in the highlands has got to be between Inverness (the capital of the Highlands) and Kyle of Lochalsh (the village where the ferry used to go "over the sea to Skye"). Scotrail operates on the line for approx £25 single. For those who have money to burn, take The Flying Scotsman which goes all the way up through the Highlands through Inverness and on up to Kyle of Lochalsh. It takes a few days, during the summer they operate once a week. They have sleeping compartments, eating compartments etc Plus a mini bus collects passengers at various points on the journey and takes them by road to places of interest e.g Eilean Donan Castle (which has featured in various Hollywood movies including Highlander, Made of Honour, James Bond)
Enjoyed your story. Thought you'd like to know that your readers can download for free a copy of the special edition of our magazine, The International Railway Traveler, on our web site, www.irtsociety.com. It's called IRT Society's Best-Loved Railway Journeys, and it features the World's Top 25 Trains. In it, we review such iconic trains as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, a glorious party running from London to Istanbul and parts between, the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian, from Moscow to Vladivostok, El Transcantabrico, which pokes along northern Spain. These are just three of the top 25. We have been publishing the magazine for 26 years, reviewing rail journeys humble and grand. Sincerely, Eleanor Flagler Hardy, President, The Society of International Railway Travelers, www.irtsociety.com

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