TABLE 300 – Paris – Bordeaux

PART 1

This time we are heading to western France travelling from Paris to Bordeaux, exploring some of the towns of the pretty Loir-et-Cher region and Loire Valley, famous for its vineyards and fairytale castles. The original high-speed route between Paris and St Pierre des Corps was extended to Bordeaux in 2017 meaning you can now travel between the French capital and Bordeaux non-stop in just over two hours, a considerable improvement on the previous 3½ hours.

We begin our journey at Paris-Montparnasse located in the southwestern part of Paris, a station well known for a major rail accident in 1895 when a train crashed through the buffers ending up nose-down in the street below. It is the Paris terminus for TGV trains to the west and south-west of France and it also has a metro station, Montparnasse-Bienvenüe. Reaching and navigating Montparnasse can be difficult and the metro station is a very long underground walk from the mainline station platforms. Also, many of the TGV services can be 20 carriages long, so it can be a long walk to your seat! Therefore, please make sure you allow plenty of time to arrive before your scheduled departure time.

The first stop, just 50 minutes from Paris is Vendôme-Villiers, a transport hub allowing easy access to the Loir-et-Cher region. Nearby is the picturesque town of Vendome which has various monuments, a historical abbey, and several parks. The town is overlooked by the remains of a ruined 12th-century castle which gives lovely panoramic views over the town below which is divided by the river Loir into islands connected by waterways. Not far from Vendome there is a tourist train which takes a leisurely return route through the Loir Valley from Thoré la Rochette to Trôo aboard a 1950s railcar.

PART 2

From Vendôme-Villiers it’s a short hop to St Pierre des Corps, a major station on the outskirts of Tours from where frequent shuttle services operate to the city’s central station. Often referred to as the capital of the Loire Valley, Tours has a lovely historical quarter which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are narrow cobbled streets, half-timbered houses and the grand medieval Saint-Gatien Cathedral to explore as well as attractive parks and gardens. The city is famous for its chocolate production and the wonderful indoor market offers a variety of other tempting delicacies from around the Loire region including cheeses and wines. Flat-bottomed sailboats, known as “toues”, ferry passengers along the Loire and Cher for sightseeing trips and even dinner cruises, or you could hire bikes and follow the well-marked Loire à Vélo cycle trail.

The Loire is famous for its many beautiful Châteaux and there are many to visit in the surrounding area which can be reached with a short bus or train ride. From Tours, it is a short journey to Blois (Table 296) with its magnificent former Royal Château towering over the town and the nearby Maison de la Magie which is a museum dedicated to magic and the art of illusion. Below the castle is a lively old town with narrow streets, traditional restaurants, and ancient buildings. The largest castle in the Loire region and one of the most recognisable is Château de Chambord not far from Blois. Bus services are available from the railway station during the summer months or excursions can be arranged in the town.

Further along the same line is Orléans, which can be reached from Tours in just over an hour. The city is one of the oldest in France having been liberated by Joan of Arc. Scenes from her life are depicted in the windows of the Gothic Cathedral and statues of her can be found around the city’s main squares.

Other worthwhile day trips from Tours include Le Mans (Table 271), most famous for its 24-hour racing spectacle every June but also boasts a fantastic old town. Angers is another easy day trip (Table 289), an attractive wine-producing town dominated by the massive and ancient Château d’Angers with its 500 metres of ramparts and 17 towers.

PART 3

The next stop is the quiet market town of Châtellerault on the River Vienne followed by a station for the popular futuristic theme park: Parc du Futuroscope, which is based on multimedia and virtual-reality. The next major stop is the historic city of Poitiers. The station is in a valley to the west of the old town which is built on a hill, with narrow roads winding down into the valley. The city centre is quite small and very easy to navigate thanks to the red, blue and yellow lines painted on the pavement for visitors and the signposts along the way. The lines all start outside the Romanesque Notre Dame church and guide you around the city’s historical sites and museums as well as to Blossac Park with its pretty gardens and a small zoo. Regular rail services run from Poitiers to Limoges (Table 309) arriving in the city’s grand art deco Gare des Bénédictins which is worth a visit in itself. The city is famous for its production of excellent porcelain which is displayed in the many museums in its historic centre and makes an ideal day trip from Poitiers.

Table 300 shows services from Poitiers to picturesque La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast which can be reached in around 1 hour 20 minutes. Once one of France’s foremost seaports, the historic port has been beautifully preserved and is dominated by three 14th and 15th-century towers, whilst the old town has arcaded walkways, half-timbered houses, and boutique shops. There are some interesting maritime museums as well as one of the largest aquariums in Europe. Just off the coast of La Rochelle are three picturesque islands: Ile de Ré is connected to the mainland by a toll bridge whilst Ile d’Oléron and Ile d’Aix can both be reached by boat. All three have lovely sandy beaches and pretty scenery to explore as well as some impressive lighthouses.

PART 4

We depart Poitiers for the final leg of the journey and the first stop is Angoulême, a fortified hilltop city on a plateau overlooking a meander of the Charente River. Around the beautiful historic centre, many of the city’s ramparts remain intact and once a year are used as the circuit for a classic car race. The International Comic Strip Festival is also held here every January and the city has murals of comics and illustrations on buildings in almost every neighborhood around the city, as well as decorated buses and post boxes.

The next stop is the small winemaking town of Libourne, a medieval bastide town on the Dordogne which has several Château and wine estates to explore in the area as well as a huge open-air market in the town square. Then it’s on to our final destination, vibrant and elegant Bordeaux, the world’s largest urban World Heritage Site. The city’s top attractions are La Cité du Vin, a futuristic cultural centre dedicated to the living heritage of wine and the spectacular
‘water mirror’ at La Place de la Bourse. It is the largest reflecting pool in the world and alternates between the effects of fog, mirror, and pool which reflects the beautiful buildings that surround it. Most of the main sites are within walking distance from the station but there is also a high-tech tram network. If you want to explore some of the great wineries in the area, bus tours are available as well as a local rail service to Le Verdon (Table 307) which stops at some of the main vineyards.

There are plenty of beautiful locations around Bordeaux that can be explored by train. The seaside resort town of Arcachon is one of the most popular summer destinations in the southwest of France and is just 55 minutes by local train
(Table 306). Further afield the elegant seaside resort of Biarritz can be reached in around 2 hours (Table 305). Located along France’s Basque coast, Biarritz is famous for its long, sandy beaches, surf, casinos, glitzy atmosphere, and its cuisine.

TABLE 505 – Genéve – Lausanne – Bern – Zürich

PART 1

Switzerland is one of Europe’s most beautiful and train-accessible countries with excellent international links and breathtaking scenery around almost every corner. In Switzerland, the journey is definitely as great an experience as the destination.

The national railway company is SBB (Schweizerische BundesBahn), there are over a dozen other operators, but one ticketing system covers the entire country. The Swiss have one of the top-rated rail systems in the world, known for their punctuality and frequency they are also very eco-friendly (most trains use ultra-clean hydroelectricity, and some even generate energy-saving electricity when travelling downhill). Swiss Travel Passes are a money saving option as they not only provide access to the SBB railway mainline network but also dozens of local, private companies that operate mountain trains, cable cars and buses as well as providing free entrance to some Swiss museums.

The train journey between the great cities of Genève and Zürich offers visitors the opportunity to experience a little bit of everything that Switzerland has to offer. Although it’s feasible to enjoy this journey in one day, we would argue that it is more beneficial to split the journey over several days as there are plenty of places along the way that are worth exploring.

Switzerland’s second largest city Genève is located between the Alps and the hilly terrain of the Jura and alongside the largest lake in Western Europe, making it perfect for scenic treks into the mountains as well as gentle lake-side promenades. The city centre boasts extravagant shopping, hotels and restaurants but there is also plenty of cultural activities and a thriving art scene. The Cathédrale St-Pierre twin towers can be climbed for a small fee which is worthwhile for the great view over the city and its iconic water fountain Jet d’Eau. Nearby there is also the Palais des Nations where some of the many international organisations that shape our world have their headquarters.

PART 2

We begin our journey departing from Genève-Cornavin, the city’s main railway station. The train skirts the edge of Lake Geneva before reaching the pretty little town of Nyon on the banks of the lake, set amongst the La Côte vineyards. The town has an array of Roman ruins to explore as well as a striking castle which is now a local history museum and includes an interesting display of porcelain. From the castle terrace, visitors can enjoy a magnificent view over Lake Geneva and the Alps.

The next stop is picturesque Morges, the “City of Flowers”. The town has an elegant lakeside promenade and a car-free old town with numerous boutiques and cafes as well as the historic Morges Castle which houses four museums. Morges is also the starting point of the 30-kilometre narrow gauge railway to the villages of Bière and L’Isle Mont la Ville in foothills of the Jura mountains (ERT Table 502). This short picturesque route passes through one of the main wine-growing regions of Switzerland and there are various marked hiking and bicycle trails to help visitors explore this corner of Switzerland, as well as the opportunity to sample some of the local delicacies.

Continuing around the shores of the lake, the train now arrives in the city of Lausanne, renowned as the Olympic Capital. Built on three hills, surrounded by UNESCO-listed vineyard terraces and with a wonderful lakeside setting, Lausanne is a popular holiday destination with plenty to offer. The useful metro system connects the various parts of the hilly town to the main railway station. Dominated by the cathedral, which is often regarded as Switzerland’s most impressive piece of early Gothic architecture, the attractive old town is small enough to explore on foot. As you might expect, there are also plenty of boat cruises on offer which will give you an alternative view of the beautiful surroundings.

PART 3

Last week we reached the city of Lausanne with its spectacular setting overlooking Lake Geneva. From here there are a variety of options for rail travellers wishing to explore this region. A popular choice is to continue along the shoreline of Lake Geneva to Montreux (Table 570) from where you can join the scenic Golden Pass route through the Simmen valley to Interlaken (Tables 566, 563, 560).

Table 505 presents us with two choices of route from Lausanne to Olten and beyond. The first option is the direct route via Palézieux and Romont to the Swiss capital, Bern, from where there is a high-speed link to Olten. The other route via Yverdon is definitely the more scenic option traversing the Jura foothills and also closely following the shorelines of both Lake Neuchâtel and Lake Biel. The choice is therefore some wonderful lakeside scenery or the chance to visit Switzerland’s charming capital city. On our journey today we are taking the scenic option.

Yverdon-les-Bains is located in the Jura mountain region at the southern tip of Lake Neuchâtel. The town is famous for its thermal springs as well as its rich history, with ruins of the Roman town and a 13th-century castle to explore. The town also boasts Europe’s only science fiction museum, Maison d’Ailleurs! Continuing to take in the lovely scenery along the lake shore, we reach the small town of Neuchâtel located at the northern end of the lake. In the historic Old Town, there is a medieval castle and a gothic church as well as a colourful market and lakefront promenade.

From Neuchâtel, it’s a short hop to the city of Biel / Bienne located at the north-eastern tip of Lake Biel. The city is officially bilingual with German and French equally spoken and is renowned as the hub of Swiss watchmaking with Swatch, Rolex and Omega all located here. There are boat trips along the Aare river as well as lake cruises, locations for swimming and multiple mountain hiking trails. From Biel / Bienne there is a direct rail route to the city of Bern (Table 513) from where you can continue your journey via the high-speed route.

TABLES 1030, 1065 – Gdańsk – Warszawa – Kraków

PART 1

Polish cities are becoming increasingly popular as holiday destinations thanks in part to considerable urban renovation in recent years. Add to that reduced journey times and sleek modern commuter trains and there has never been a better time to travel around Poland by train. In this month’s journey, we travel from Gdańsk in the north to Kraków in the south, which now takes just over five hours (it used to take more than eight). We will also mention some of the detours and side-tracks along the way.

Most travellers arriving by train will use the city’s main railway station, Gdańsk Główny, a beautiful brick 19th-century structure located just a few minutes east of the city centre. Long-distance intercity trains are operated by the national rail company PKP. Shorter trips are managed by rail companies from each region so the type of train you travel on can vary from ultra-modern to older traditional carriages. If you are travelling with a Eurail or Interrail pass it may not be valid with certain operators so it is worth checking in advance.

Poland’s largest port, Gdańsk has a unique feel that sets it apart from other cities in the country due to its interesting history and switched allegiances between Germany and Poland. The Old Town has been smartened up in recent years and is full of characterful restaurants, cafes and amber shops (the surrounding area is the rich source of this semi-precious stone) set amidst the picturesque Burgher houses that line its streets. Although substantial parts of the city were reconstructed following mass devastation during the Second World War, the Main Town still looks much as it did 300 years ago and one of its primary attractions is St Mary’s Basilica, one of the three largest churches in the world. Head to the top for breathtaking views over the candy-coloured houses and cobbled lanes below​

The city has several interesting museums detailing the city’s varied history as well as pleasure-boat cruises and expansive beaches spread along the coast of the Gulf of Gdańsk, making it a popular summer destination for Poles and foreign visitors alike.

PART 2

Departing from Gdańsk Główny the first stop is Tczew on the Vistula River, known for its attractive old town and impressive 19th-century bridges. The city is a major river port and railway junction with links to Warszawa, Bydgoszcz, Poznań and onwards to Berlin. The next section is particularly scenic as you pass the turreted road bridge of Tczew and the equally breath-taking bridge across the River Nogat at Malbork. The quiet, rural town of Malbork boasts the largest Gothic castle in Europe, listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is well worth a visit. Malbork’s railway station is also a sight in itself having been beautifully renovated and has wonderful wood panelling, embossed ceilings and pseudo-medieval decor.

From Malbork there is a side-track to the historic city of Olsztyn (Table 1035) with its imposing 14th-century cathedral and red-brick castle. The city is situated on the banks of the Lyna River and is surrounded by a network of forests and lakes making it a popular leisure location.

Continuing on our route south from Malbork it’s a short 2-3 hour journey through the towns of Iława and Działdowo to the capital, Warszawa the hub of Poland’s rail network. International trains run direct to Praha, Wien, Budapest, Hrodna, Berlin, Moskva and many other cities. The main station for tourist purposes is Warszawa Centralna Station which is located next to Centrum Metro Station and a number of tram and bus stops for easy transport around the city. Other large stations in the city are Warszawa Wschodnia in the east and Warszawa Zachodnia in the west.

PART 3

Last week we reached the capital Warszawa. Having been almost completely destroyed during World War II, the city has been rebuilt and is now an interesting mix of diverse architecture with modern skyscrapers, royal palaces and the charming narrow streets of the reconstructed Old Town which is a UNESCO world heritage site.

There are two options for trains from Warszawa to Kraków: the modern high-speed line with a journey time of just 2-3 hours (Table 1065) or you could take the slower route via Radom and Kieice which takes just over 4½ hours (Table 1067). The fastest trains are branded Express Intercity Premium (EIP) on which seat reservation is compulsory. The scenery is not that inspiring on either line so we recommend enjoying the comfort and speed of the sleek pendolino trains as you travel towards Poland’s second largest city

The historic city of Kraków offers plenty to see and do including some appealing day trip options beyond the city boundaries. Its main sights are concentrated on the north bank of the Vistula River where historic buildings and monuments abound. The main draws for tourists are the hilltop Wawel Castle and Cathedral as well as the Old Town which contains soaring churches, impressive museums and the vast Rynek Główny, Europe’s largest market square. Local tour companies offer an eclectic mix of day-long excursions where you can explore the high Tatra peaks, lakes with inland beaches and national parks in this beautiful corner of Europe. Two of the most popular day trips from Kraków are visiting the sombre remains of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp located in the town of Oświęcim and the remarkable underground Wieliczka Salt Mines (see Table 1099). Trains depart frequently but some visitors may find the organised bus tours more convenient as the price usually includes travel, entry and a guide.

PART 4

Following last week’s journey to the historic city of Kraków, we now head south on the scenic route through the Tatra mountain range to Zakopane.

Just three daytime services run from Kraków to Zakopane’s small railway station, together with one overnight train (Table 1066). Readers should note, however, that engineering work means buses are replacing trains until June 28. Trains take a leisurely route through the hills and valleys with some spectacular mountain scenery, stopping at many small towns on the way. Frequent buses are also available and offer a faster option if you are short on time.

Zakopane is Poland’s best-known mountain resort, famed for its hiking and winter sports. Well-marked hiking trails criss-cross the land in all directions with some extending into Slovakia, although they can become crowded in the summer months. For the less energetic there is a funicular railway from the centre of the town up to the Gubałówka Hill summit from where there are spectacular views over the town and the surrounding Tatra mountains. Just outside the town, there is also a cable car to Mount Kasprowy. At the summit there is a restaurant and, in good weather, it is well worth the climb to the meteorological observatory, the building with the highest altitude in Poland.

Zakopane’s pedestrianised centre is one of its main features and the main street is lined with a variety of shops and restaurants. Street performers, portrait artists and horse-drawn carriages all compete for space and attention. River rafting is also popular with tourists and you can be gently ferried in boats guided by raftsmen decked out in the traditional embroidered folk costumes of the local population, known as the Gorals.

TABLES 780, 785 and 787 – Norway

(PART 4)
In this final part of the journey, we travel along Norway’s longest rail route, the spectacular Nordlandsbanen from Trondheim to Bodø. From the comfort of your carriage seat, you are treated to a variety of landscapes including forests, spectacular fjords and majestic mountain scenery. If you are very lucky you may also be able to experience the beautiful Northern Lights (from September to March).
Two hours from Trondheim is the town of Steinkjer, a good jumping off point to explore The Golden Road – a dedicated route through beautiful scenery in the municipality of Inderøy where participating businesses along the route offer culinary, cultural and artistic experiences.
After Mo i Rana, the railway skirts Saltfjellet-Svartisen National Park which has some of the finest scenery along the route. Then the green trees begin to give way to more rocky terrain and barren peaks. One of the main highlights of the journey is the Saltfjellet mountain range where you cross the Arctic Circle. The train does not make a stop here but the passing point is marked by two pyramidal cairns on the side of the track (summer services on the Swedish Inlandsbanan do actually stop at the Arctic Circle – see ERT Table 766). Certain rituals often occur to mark the crossing such as a hoot of the train’s horn and there is often a party spirit on board with passengers charging a glass or sharing a kiss as though it were New Year’s Eve!
The train now drops down past Skjerstad Fjord to the small town of Fauske where you can join a connecting bus to Narvik from where there are onward bus links to the far north. The terminus of the Nordlandsbanen is the coastal city of Bodø which has a lively cultural centre and offers a variety of outdoor activities. It is a great base to explore other parts of Northern Norway including taking a ferry to the idyllic Lofoten Islands (ERT Table 2239) known for their distinctive scenery with dramatic mountains, sheltered bays, beaches and untouched landscapes.
(PART 3)

Last week we reached Dombås, the junction for the branch line to Åndalsnes. Continuing North beyond Dombås on the main line towards Trondheim (known as the Dovre Railway), the train cuts through the wild terrain of Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park, home of wild reindeer, musk oxen, golden eagles and arctic fox. The whole trip from Oslo takes up to 7 hours, but there is the opportunity to break your journey at Oppdal to explore the local landscape on foot.Trondheim is Norway’s third largest city and its historic capital. This vibrant city is modest in size and fairly flat so it’s easy to explore on foot. Trondheim station is the region’s transport hub, the starting point for journeys on the electrified Dovre line described above (ERT Table 785) and also the diesel operated Nordland route heading north to Bodø (ERT Table 787) which will be described in next week’s Friday Flyer. There are also two daily services in each direction on the Meråker line which links Trondheim with the Swedish border town of Storlien (ERT Table 761). It is also possible to purchase a ‘ticket to Hell’ and take a local train to Hell station where many tourists like to be photographed under the famous sign “Hell Station – God Expedition”. Note that the station is a request stop meaning you must inform the guard if you wish to disembark or clearly indicate to the driver if you want the train to pick you up.

The city’s most famous site is the impressive Nidarosdomen cathedral but there are also plenty of museums, galleries, independent shops and quality restaurants serving local food. You may wish to take a ride on the world’s northernmost tram, Gråkallbanen, which transports you to Bymarka, a popular recreation area ideal for walking and viewpoints of the city and surrounding fjords.

From Trondheim, we join the Nordlandsbanen for the 10-hour journey across the Arctic Circle to Bodø. This journey is an experience not to be missed and is just as beautiful in winter as in summer. There are two daily departures, one by day and an overnight journey with seats and sleeping cars.

(PART 2)
This week we begin again in the capital, Oslo. A modern, laid-back city surrounded by mountains, forests and sea, it is fairly compact and easily walkable with plenty of green areas and parks to explore. There are a number of world-class museums with displays including famous artworks and preserved Viking ships. However, visitors need to bear in mind that it has been voted the most expensive city in the world on three occasions, so if you are stopping to explore it may be worth investing in an Oslo Pass which offers discounts at various attractions together with access to all forms of public transport.
Oslo Sentral is at the centre of Norway’s railway network. All routes, including the airport express train and the city metro lines, pass through here and the local buses and trams stop outside. Heading north-east out of the city we begin the journey to Trondheim (ERT Table 785) along the eastern shore of Mjøsa, Norway’s largest lake which extends all the way to Lillehammer. The lake area is best explored on one of the heritage paddle-steamers which run throughout the summer. Lillehammer is a major winter sports resort having once hosted the Winter Olympics but is also a picturesque town surrounded by mountains with a rich offering of museums and cultural attractions and national parks all within easy reach of the town centre.
Continuing north the train stops at Dombås, the junction for the branch line to Åndalsnes. Known as the Rauma Railway, it is undoubtedly one of Norway’s wildest and most beautiful train journeys. Regular departures are available throughout the year and, from May to August, there is a tour guide on board and passengers receive a helpful brochure describing the journey. During the 1 hour and 40-minute trip the train will cross 32 bridges, among them the famous Kylling Bridge, and will also pass the vertical Trollveggen cliff face, the highest in Northern Europe. From Åndalsnes there are several buses to Ålesund (also shown in ERT) famous for its fairy-tale Art Nouveau architecture.

 

(PART 1)

For the next 4 instalments of the newsletter, we will be looking at the stunning rail routes of Norway all beginning in it’s vibrant capital, Oslo. Norwegian State Railways (NSB) operates most passenger train services in Norway and offers modern, comfortable trains from which you can enjoy the changing panoramic views of pretty towns, mountains, lakes, and fjords.

The most famous of Norway’s railway journeys is the Bergen Railway (ERT Table 780) which has been voted one of the world’s best and connects its two largest cities, Oslo and Bergen.  There are four daily departures from Oslo for the 7-hour journey across the mountain plateau Hardangervidda on the highest mainline railway line in Northern Europe. The season in which you take this journey will have a major impact on the scenery, but it is equally beautiful in summer & winter. If travelling in winter, take an early train as the hours of daylight are much shorter.

Departing from Oslo Central through a long tunnel under the city, the train emerges to views over the Dramsfjord and its islands. After Hønefoss the line skirts a shelf of rock high above Lake Krøderen. Then onto Finse, the highest station on the route where the view of the glacier is breathtaking. More active travellers can stop to cycle, ski or hike.  Next is the junction at Myrdal, where you can board the incredible Flåm Railway branch line (Flåmsbana), the world’s steepest standard-gauge railway line (ERT Table 781). Only 20 kilometres long and taking around an hour, tourists from all over the world visit Norway to experience this train ride with its superb views over Norway’s deepest and longest fjord and the spectacular Kjofossen waterfall.

Continuing from Myrdal the rail line descends towards the large town and ski resort of Voss where the landscape opens out then passes through numerous tunnels hewn out of the solid rock before we finally arrive in Bergen. One of Norway’s prettiest cities, Bergen is encircled by seven mountains and seven fjords. The city is famed for its waterfront, fish markets and coloured waterboard houses. For a panoramic view of the city from above take the “Fløibanen funicular” up Mount Fløyen, where there are pleasant walks and picnic spots.

Rail routes of Wales

This week, in celebration of St David’s Day we are taking a look at some of the very fine rail journeys to be found in Wales. Full of beautiful rivers, lakes, rolling hills and scenic mountains it is easy to explore this great country by rail. Here are some of our favourites:

Firstly there is the historic ‘Heart of Wales’ line which celebrated its 150th-anniversary last year. Said to be one of the most picturesque journeys in Britain, the track travels from Swansea cutting diagonally across the rolling hills of mid-Wales to Shrewsbury, passing sights such as the viaducts at Cynghordy and Knucklas, Sugar Loaf Mountain and Llanwrtyd Wells, the smallest town in Britain. (Table 146)

Our second choice is the short ‘Conwy Valley Line’ which runs from Llandudno on the North Wales Coast to the Heart of Snowdonia at Blaenau Ffestiniog. The journey provides views of historic castles, wildlife-rich estuaries and crosses the dramatic Gethin’s viaduct as well as great views of the rugged peaks of Snowdonia national park. (Table 160). The line also allows you to connect to the heritage Ffestiniog Railway to continue your travel south.

For a view of the country from south to north, you can travel in style from the capital city Cardiff all the way to Holyhead aboard the ‘Gerald of Wales’ which features a restaurant car (one of only two trains in the UK that still has an onboard chef cooking full breakfasts and three-course dinners), so you relax and dine as you are treated to the stunning country and coastal views. (Table 149)

Finally, the picturesque Cambrian Railway which is made up of two lines, one running west from Shrewsbury through rugged mountain terrain, quaint market towns, and castles to Aberystwyth on the western coast. At Machynlleth, the line connects into the Cambrian Coastal route which runs north to Pwllelli offering spectacular views, coastal walks and places to visit along the length of the Gwynedd coast.

TABLE 690 Porto – Lisboa

(Part 4)

For our final leg, we depart Entroncamento and our first station is Santarém. The town overlooks the winding Tagus River from its ridge-top position affording magnificent views of the district’s plains and river. The best view is from the popular Jardim das Portas do Sol – a garden encircled by the city’s medieval walls.

Our final stop is one of the oldest cities in the world, the capital, Lisbon. Full of diverse architecture with superb food and a fascinating history. There are two main railway stations; all services pass through the ultra-modernist Gare do Oriente which links to the city’s efficient metro, trams and buses and then it’s on to the more central and older Santa Apolónia.

Lisbon extends over seven hills so there are many wonderful panoramic views to be found from a steep hill walk through the narrow cobbled streets or on a gravity-defying tram ride.  There are plenty of attractions and activities here to fill several days and as the city is close to a stunning coastline, beautiful sandy beaches in resorts such as Cascais can be easily reached with a short bus or train ride. The delightful town of Sintra is also a 40-minute train journey away (Table 699) and makes a worthwhile day trip. Nestled in the hills above Lisbon, the town was the summer residence of Portugal’s royal family. The charming pastel-coloured buildings, extravagant palaces, opulent mansions and castle ruins can be easily explored in a day using a circular bus route running from the train station.

To extend your journey further, there are regular fast services to Faro on the Algarve (Table 697) or an overnight service across the border to Madrid (Table 45)

(Part 3)

Continuing from last week, we depart Aveiro, southbound to Coimbra, Portugal’s medieval capital and home to the country’s oldest and most prestigious university. The city is the halfway point between Porto and Lisbon so it’s a good stopping off point if you are breaking your journey. The city’s upper old town’s narrow streets are packed with impressive academic buildings, libraries and museums as well as the interesting 12th Century Old Cathedral. Coimbra also boasts the largest botanical gardens in Portugal with beautiful terraced formal gardens and many exotic trees.

From Coimbra, we follow the more scenic main line through the towns of Alfarelos and Pombal, dominated by its medieval castle. Next is the world famous city of Fátima, visited by millions of religious pilgrims each year particularly in May and October on the anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Even if you are not Catholic, there are some beautiful things to see in Fátima such as the shrine and basilica. However, the station is around 12 miles away from the city centre so a taxi ride would likely be required.

The next stop is Entroncamento, an important railway town whose name translates to ”junction’ owing to its development at the junction of the Northern and Eastern railway lines. The town is now home to the modern national railway museum. From Entrocamento there is the option of branching off to another scenic line, into the stunning mountain scenery to Covilhã (Table 691), ideal for those fond of hiking or skiing.

(Part 2)

A worthwhile side-track from Porto is the wonderful journey aboard the Linha do Douro Railway which runs through the Douro Valley to Pocinho (timings are shown in table 694). This journey is an ERT favourite, with the later section of the route between Pinhão and Pocinho considered to be one of the most scenic in Europe. There are regular daily departures from Porto (São Bento and Campanhã) with the entire journey taking around 3hr 30min, so it’s possible to make the return trip in a day if you take a morning train. During the summer months, there is also the option of a steam-hauled tourist train between Régua and Tua or you can combine your trip with a boat cruise.  Make sure you sit on the right-hand side of the train as you travel towards Pinhão and have your camera at the ready!
NB – There are currently engineering works on this line until the end of February 2019
Back to our main route and leaving Porto we depart south, passing the port lodges in the district of Vila Nova de Gaia and stopping at the seaside resorts of Espinho and Aveiro, dubbed the ‘Venice of Portugal thanks to its small network of picturesque canals and lagoons. The city offers a nice mix of historical attractions and attractive beaches making it popular with visitors. The canals are lined with a mixture of brightly painted art nouveau houses and are best explored by one of the ornate fishing boats or ‘moliceiros’. From the train, you may catch glimpses of the beautiful old station building, ornamented with blue and white tiles of regional scenes. It is currently fenced off and requires some much-needed renovation, but worth a visit by foot if you are exploring the city.
(Part 1)

This month we are focusing on a very scenic route from north to south along the coast of Portugal. This route takes in the country’s two largest cities and offers a number of interesting, worthwhile sidetracks to explore some of the country’s beautiful and dramatic scenery.

CP offers two standards of train service on this route; the cheaper Intercidades (Intercity) which takes around 3hrs 15 to complete the direct journey, and the faster, high-quality Alfa Pendular. Both require advance seat reservations.

Porto is a historic and varied city, famed for the production of Port, which is still matured in the vast cellars that stretch along the banks of the Douro River and with most of its old centre designated a world heritage site there is plenty to explore. Most high-speed trains depart from Campanhã station but its worth a visit to the more central São Bento station to admire its interior lined with elaborate blue and white tiles. Another icon of the city is the impressive arched Dom Luís I Bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel. You can cross the highest section of the bridge either on the metro or as a pedestrian if you have a head for heights! To get a unique view of the bridge, ride the funicular down the steep cliff from Batalha to the quayside at Ribeira.

TABLE 640 : Napoli – Reggio di Calabria

(Part 3)

From Maratea, the railway sticks to the coast as we head to the busy transport hub of Lamezia Terme. Here there is an international airport as well as rail connections to the eastern Ionian coast at Catanzaro and Crotone (Table 634).

Further along the line at Villa San Giovanni, there is the opportunity to indulge in an unusual train journey. The train ferry to Messina in Sicily is one of only three passenger train ferries still operating in Europe. It’s a fascinating experience as the entire train is shunted onto the tracks onboard deck. Passengers have the option to stay in their carriage for the 30-minute crossing or head up to the deck to enjoy the view across to Scilly and Mount Etna. At Messina, the train is split into two parts, one heading south to Siracusa and the other west to Palermo (Table 641). For a video showing the train being loaded see this link from the Man in Seat 61 https://youtu.be/9grLtdPWYhg

If you don’t head for Sicily, the next and final stop on this journey is to the “toe” of Italy at Reggio di Calabria. Its national museum is the region’s most important tourist destination, and many travellers visit purely to see the museum which houses the world famous Riace Bronzes, Greek statues of heroic warriors. The city also has a long panoramic seafront, a pleasant place to stroll while admiring the view over to Sicily.

(Part 2)

Travelling south from Salerno the train makes its scenic run towards Villa San Giovanni in around four hours, make sure to sit on the right-hand side to make the most of the fine coastal views. There are several intermediate stops which are worth exploring if you have the time. The first being Battipaglia, famous for its production of mozzarella di bufala which can be sampled in many stores and restaurants around the city. Next is the pretty seaside town of Agropoli which has quiet beaches, a tourist marina as well as ancient ruins and a Byzantine castle on the top of the promontory. Agropoli is a central point for exploring the Cilento coast and National park. It’s just a few minutes from the splendid ruins of Paestum and the delightful town of Castellabate.

Continuing south, the train winds through the national park into the province of Basilicata and its only town on the Tyrrhenian Sea, Maratea. Here a huge statue of Christ the Redeemer, which can be easily seen from the train, towers over the town from the top of Monte San Biagio. Maratea is a chic coastal town, known as the ‘Cannes of Southern Italy’, with a historic centre, elegant harbour and pebbled coves and caves which can be explored by boat.

(Part 1)

This large table shows timings for a very pretty coastal route to the southern tip of Italy.

There are many high-speed connections to our starting point of Napoli from the major cities of Torino, Milano, Venezia and Bologna and Roma (shown in table 640) and it is possible to complete the entire journey from Roma in just under five hours. However, as usual, we suggest breaking the journey to appreciate some of the sights along this glorious coastline.

Between the glittering Mediterranean and soaring Vesuvius, Napoli has Europe’s largest UNESCO-listed historic centre and a wealth of cultural and artistic sites to explore. Highlights include two royal palaces, three castles, and ancient ruins that include some of Christianity’s oldest frescoes, whilst the city’s museums exhibit works from the great Italian masters, not to mention the famous ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum a little way out of town.

Napoli Centrale is located in Piazza Garibaldi which is the main terminal of the city’s transport network. From here you can reach anywhere in the city and the entire province, through the railways, buses and underground network. Many of the city’s metro stations are noted for their modern decorative architecture and public art.

Travelling south, trains skirt the towering Vesuvius and head to the port city of Salerno with its beautiful architecture, gorgeous gardens and sun-kissed promenade and where the best views along this route really start.

TABLE 1500 : Sofia – Ruse, Burgas – Varna

(Part 3)

This complex table shows timings for three possible routes across the breadth of Bulgaria. These routes offer travellers a variety of pretty mountain scenery and some of the oldest history in Europe, before arrival into the beach resorts of the Black Sea coast.

Following the most scenic route, last week we reached the town of Sliven. We now arrive into the large port city of Burgas. The city is well-kept with a neat, pedestrianised centre, a long, uncrowded beach and some interesting museums and provides a good base for exploring the southern Bulgarian Black Sea resorts such as Sunny Beach. One of the prettiest parts of the city is the 600-acre Seaside park, one of the most beautiful parks in Bulgaria. The gardens display exotic plants from all over the world and a walk through the park provides lovely views of the sea, the pier and the port. Besides a nice walk, there are numerous little relaxation areas, restaurants and a theatre and cultural centre where the city hosts multiple literature, musical and folklore festivals. The city is surrounded by Burgas Lakes, protected wetland areas that are inhabited by many locally or globally endangered species of birds, fish and mammals which attract birdwatchers and nature lovers from all over the world.

The alternative endpoint on the routes from Sofia in Table 1500 is Varna, Bulgaria’s second largest city and maritime capital. There is a connecting train service between Burgas and Varna or a faster bus link. The impressive Art Nouveau style station is one of Bulgaria’s oldest and has previously been a stop for the Orient Express. Varna is an interesting combination of a port, naval base and seaside resort. It’s an exciting city, packed with history yet thoroughly modern and has a lengthy beach.  In the city center, you’ll find Bulgaria’s largest Roman baths complex, a naval museum, and an archaeological museum which exhibits the impressive Gold of Varna – some of the oldest gold treasure in the world.

(Part 2)

This complex table shows timings for three possible routes across the breadth of Bulgaria. These routes offer travellers a variety of pretty mountain scenery and some of the oldest history in Europe, before arrival into the beach resorts of the Black Sea coast.

Travelling on the most scenic of the three routes, we depart Sofia towards the picturesque and historic town of Karlovo. The town is famous as the birthplace of Vasil Levski, leader of the revolution against the Turks, an important time in the history of the country which is detailed in his museum here. The town has a traditional charm with narrow cobbled streets with local crafts on display. Karlovo and the next stop Kazanlak form part of the ‘Valley of the Roses’ as they are major producers of rose oil for the cosmetics industry. When the roses bloom each May and June, visitors flock to this area to see the huge fields and experience the aromas. Kazanlak is an attractive town and amongst its attractions boasts the world’s only museum dedicated to the production of rose oil and water. The region around Kazanlak is chequered with important ​archaeological monuments. A short walk from the centre stands a 4th-century-BC tomb of a Thracian ruler, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tomb is situated near the ancient Thracian capital of Seuthopolis and the Valley of the Thracian Kings where more than a thousand tombs of kings and members of the Thracian aristocracy can be found

The next major stop is the town of Sliven, situated at the foot of a unique rock formation that now forms Blue Rocks Nature Park. Despite the name, you’d have to look hard to see more than a bluish haze here (thought to originate from a concentration of quartz). The hills have an interesting history, they were once a place of refuge for the hajduks (foot soldiers) fighting against the Ottomans. Visitors can take the chairlift to the top for spectacular views of the valley and access to the many paths and caves. There are also opportunities to practice various sports such as mountain climbing, paragliding and skiing.

(Part 1)

This month we are looking at a complex table, offering timings for three possible routes across the breadth of Bulgaria. These routes offer travellers a variety of pretty mountain scenery, a view of stark industrial towns and some of the oldest history in Europe, before arrival into the beach resorts of the Black Sea coast. Bulgaria is one of the most budget-friendly countries to travel around and there is plenty to offer the more adventurous traveller. Exploring Bulgaria by train can be rewarding but don’t expect modern railway comforts like air conditioning or fully stocked restaurant cars; most passenger accommodation is generally very dated with a post-communist feel and services are often slower than buses, but this can add to the unique experience!

Trains are operated by Bulgarian State Railways (BDZ) and are classified as either ekspresen vlak (express trains), bârz vlak (fast trains), or pâtnicheski vlak (slow trains) with most long-distance services offering first and second class seating. Reservations are compulsory on the express services (marked with ‘R’ in our tables) and there are also a small number of overnight services offering couchette or sleeping cars.

From the capital Sofia, there are three options for travel shown in Table 1500, ending at the coastal resorts of Burgas in around 6 hours 30 minutes or Varna in around 7 hours 30 minutes.

1. Through Mezdra and Pleven to Varna, with an optional sidetrack connection to Ruse
2. Our recommended route via Karlovo and Tulovo to Burgas (the scenic area is shown in green on the map extract below)
3. An alternative route to Burgas via Plovdiv and Stara Zagora

Christmas Markets by train

This week we are taking a look at a small selection of the wonderful markets worth visiting around Europe this December to stock up on Christmas presents and festive food and drink! All of these cities can be easily reached by train on major routes from all over Europe.

  1. Vienna, Austria.

This beautiful and atmospheric city is perfect for a Christmas visit. Christkindlmärkte is the name for the many markets that pop up all over the city in the cobbled streets adorned with hundreds of fairy lights. Rathauspark in front of City Hall is the largest market with its giant tree, ice rink and fairground rides. You can also listen to international choirs singing carols to get you in the spirit.

  1. Brussels, Belgium

At the largest Christmas market in Belgium, Winter Wonders’ 240 stalls sell a wide variety of Christmas items, from traditional gifts to delicious Belgian delicacies against the backdrop of a giant Ferris wheel. When the sun goes down, make your way to the Grand-Place for a dazzling sound and lights show.

  1. Berlin, Germany

The German capital boasts 60 Christmas markets, so there’s something for everyone! You can expect everything from elaborate illuminations to live entertainment such as a nativity with real animals, crafting demonstrations, magical attractions for children or even medieval processions.

  1. Strasbourg, France

France’s oldest Christmas market sells a variety of traditional items, sweets and mulled wine from around 300 wooden chalets dotted around different areas of the picturesque Alsatian town. The markets each have an individual feel and showcase different products or themes including one from a guest country, with a different one invited every year to display its Christmas wares.

  1. Stockholm, Sweden

For a guaranteed snowy Christmas, head north to Stockholm’s Skansen’s Market which has been held annually since 1903. Pretty red huts sell traditional sausages, cheeses, spices and other homemade delights. The markets also sell an array of Swedish crafts alongside traditional Christmas ornaments and hand-dipped candles.

TABLE 60: Hamburg – Praha – Budapest

(Part 4)

This month we are looking at Table 60 which crosses Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Table 60 provides a summary of the principal trains with more detailed services in the country sections. The entire route can be completed in one day by using the single direct EuroCity service, named Hungaria. But, with four capital cities and some beautiful scenery to explore, it is worth breaking the journey at one or more of the stops.

For the last part of this journey, we depart Bratislava hlavná stanica and head towards our final border crossing at Štúrovo. The section of the journey leaving Slovakia offers some lovely views across the Danube towards Hungary. The train passes through some pretty little villages and hillside vineyards as we make our way towards our final destination, Budapest.

The grand capital city of Budapest is a popular destination for millions of tourists every year keen to enjoy its indulgent spas, fairy tale architectural sites and cultural attractions. The Danube divides the city into its two parts; the photogenic old district of Buda on the west bank and the more modern and commercial Pest on the east bank. Exploring the city is easy on foot, but those with limited time should consider the Budapest Card (€22,00 for 24 hours) which grants unlimited travel on public transport and discounted or free admission to museums and baths. There are also plenty of sightseeing tours available by bus or, for some unique views of the city from the river, opt for a boat tour. Other highlights in the city include a trip on the Castle Hill funicular (dating back to 1870) which climbs slowly to the pedestrianised district of Old Buda for some spectacular views from Fishermen’s Bastion or why not simply relax in one of the many grand thermal spas? It’s also worthwhile taking a walk along the famous Chain Bridge, the first permanent link between Buda and Pest, for picture perfect views of the enormous, iconic parliament buildings.

(Part 3)

This month we are looking at a large Table from the International section of the timetable which crosses Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Table 60 provides a summary of the principal trains on this route but more detailed tables for each section can be found in Tables 840, 1100, 1150 and 1175. The 1291 kilometre route can be completed in one day by using the single direct EuroCity service, named Hungaria, which leaves Hamburg Altona at 06.36 and arrives at Budapest Nyugati at a reasonable 20.19. However, with four capital cities and some beautiful scenery to explore, it is worth breaking the journey at one or more of the stops.

Last week we were in Brno in the Czech Republic from where we now depart, travelling south-east towards Břeclav, located at the border with Lower Austria on the Dyje River. From Břeclav there is an easy connection over the border into Austria to Vienna (Wien) and Graz. Those that have travelled directly from Hamburg on the 06:36 EC service will have just under an hour to wait for the 17:55 RJ service into Austria meaning you can squeeze yet another capital city into your journey (on top of the four on the main route) and arrive in Vienna in time for an evening stroll and dinner.

Travellers choosing to continue on the Hungaria service, now head towards the Slovakian border at Kúty before arriving into capital city number three, Bratislava. Fans of the Slovakian capital will argue that this is a better stopping off point than Prague, having just as many highlights but without the crowds. The pretty historical city centre is very compact and cosy, and it is easy to walk from one side to another in a few minutes, so it is a perfect location for exploring in just a day or two. The cobbled streets are packed with lovely cafés and traditional restaurants, whilst in December be sure to indulge in the aromas and flavours of the traditional Christmas market in the hlavné námestie (main square). The market is much more traditional and less overtly commercialized than others in the region. There are many baroque palaces and notable churches to explore as well as the prominent Bratislava Castle on the hilltop where there are some great views over the city and the Danube river.

(Part 2)

This month we are looking at a large Table from the International section of the timetable which crosses Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Table 60 provides a summary of the principal trains on this route but more detailed tables for each section can be found in Tables 840, 1100, 1150 and 1175. The 1291 kilometre route can be completed in one day by using the single direct EuroCity service, named Hungaria, which leaves Hamburg Altona at 06.36 and arrives at Budapest Nyugati at a reasonable 20.19. However, with four capital cities and some beautiful scenery to explore, it is worth breaking the journey at one or more of the stops.

After a change to a Czech locomotive we leave Dresden and head towards the border. This part of the journey through the hills of the Elbe Valley to Děčín has some of the finest scenery on this route. Walkers and climbers keen to explore the area can stop at the frontier station of Bad Schandau to gain access to Saxon Switzerland national park which straddles the German/Czech border. The two countries work together to manage and protect the entire region of sandstone cliffs, steep canyons, and heavily forested slopes.

We now arrive in our second capital city, beautiful Praha. First stop is Praha Holešovice in the north of the city which is connected to the centre by the metro, however most passengers disembark at the art nouveau station of Praha hlavní nádraží which is just a short walk from the main attractions in Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. This city attracts thousands of visitors every year to its maze of cobbled lanes and hidden courtyards, keen to experience its famous beers, art and fairy-tale architecture. The city is served by an efficient, fast and clean public transport system including metro lines and trams to transport you easily around the main attractions.

The next stop is the second largest city of Czech Republic, Brno. Home to experimental architecture, such as the Unesco-protected Vila Tugendhat, the city also has several more ghoulish attractions such as the fascinating crypt in the Capuchin Monastery or the notorious prison inside the spooky hilltop Špilberk Castle. Brno also has its fair share of vibrant cafes and bars, many picturesque buildings, churches, squares, sculptures and fountains making it a worthwhile alternative to avoid the tourist hordes in Praha.

(Part 1)

This month we are looking at a large Table from the International section of the timetable which crosses Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Table 60 provides a summary of the principal trains on this route but more detailed tables for each section can be found in Tables 840, 1100, 1150 and 1175. The 1291 kilometre route can be completed in one day by using the single direct EuroCity service, named Hungaria, which leaves Hamburg Altona at 0636 and arrives at Budapest Nyugati at a reasonable 2019. However, with four capital cities and some beautiful scenery to explore, it is worth breaking the journey at one or more of the stops.

The Hungaria is one of the oldest express trains still in operation, but today uses Hungarian Railways’ latest air-conditioned coaches, including a restaurant car and seats with power sockets and free Wi-Fi. The train departs from Altona, a smaller terminus station, 10 minutes west of Hamburg Hauptbahnhof. The short hop affords some interesting views of this fine city before the train heads out into pretty countryside and forests of eastern Germany. The train arrives in Berlin Hauptbahnhof in under 3 hours, leaving plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast and sightseeing in this bustling capital city where there is always something going on. It’s possible to walk between the main sights, or if you have a Eurail Pass valid in Germany, you can use the S-Bahn metro lines around Berlin for free.

You can re-join the train at either Berlin Hauptbahnhof or the smaller Südkreuz station where we depart for Dresden. The historic Dresden Hauptbahnhof was built in 1898 but like much of the city, it has been extensively redeveloped in recent years to rectify wartime damage and neglect. The station has a unique layout on two levels. The main station building and terminal platforms are located centrally on the lower level, flanked by through tracks on either side raised on viaducts. The classic view of the city’s baroque spires, towers and domes, is from the banks of the river Elbe but there are equally stunning vistas from the spire of the cathedral or the Residenzchloss (Royal Palace) which now houses five museums.