The Greatest European Rail Journeys

Posted on: 30 June 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Europe offers a diverse range of scenery, from the spectacular fjords of Norway, to the wild countryside of the Cevennes in France. And what better way is there to see it all than by train?

We've teamed up with travel journalist and rail expert Anthony Lambert to come up with the ten most scenic rail routes of Europe.

So sit back and enjoy the ride while the train carries you through the stunning countryside.

Note: All fares shown are one way per person, subject to availability and correct at the time of going to print (June 2009).

Oslo (Norway) – Bergen (Norway)

If a winter journey over this extraordinary line arouses a feeling of déjà vu, that could be because one of its remotest sections was used for the battle scenes on Ice Planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. It is one of Europe’s most difficult lines to operate in winter, since almost a quarter of its 489km length is above Norway’s average snowline. To protect the line, the builders constructed snow shelters and tunnelled through the incredibly hard gneiss, granite and crystalline schists that make up the desolate mountain terrain. The splendidly comfortable trains that operate services between the capital and the west-coast port are the perfect grandstand for some of Norway’s most spectacular landscapes.

In winter the train carries skiers to resorts such as Finse and Haugastøl. Finse is the highest station on the line and cannot be reached except by train, so sleds hauled by huskies sometimes meet the trains. Many leave or join the train at Myrdal, junction for a short journey down to a fjord at Flåm. It is such a steep descent that trains have five braking systems and drop down through a spiral tunnel, with breathtaking views from the ledge of rock. During the spring snowmelt some passengers stop off at Kyosfossen to wonder at the power and noise of a colossal waterfall that thunders beside the line.

Don’t Miss

  • Viking Ships and Kon-Tiki museums in Oslo
  • The Akershus Fortress in Oslo, which sprawls along the cliffs overlooking the harbour
  • The National Gallery in Oslo, which includes Edvard Munch’s famous The Scream
  • The cablecar up Mount Ulriken for a panoramic view of Bergen
  • The Bryggen Museum and the old quarter of Bergen, a World Heritage Site

Journey Time: from 6 hours 41 minutes

Fares: from £93.50

Direct service with stops including: Asker, Honefoss, Gol, Geilo, Finse and Voss.

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Nîmes (France) – Clermont-Ferrand (France) 

Easily reached by TGV from Paris, Nîmes is the starting point of this leisurely journey through the remote, wild country of the Cevennes. Though only 303km long, the line burrows through 106 tunnels and crosses almost 1,300 bridges, including some of the most impressive viaducts on French railways, such as the 28-arch edifice at Chapeauroux and the 41-arch near-semicircle of Chamborigaud Viaduct.

The southern plain of vineyards, Lombardy poplars and Aleppo pines gives way to a few miles of hilly post-industrial landscape with occasional traces of mining activity gradually being reclaimed by nature. The long climb into the Cevennes and the summit at La Bastide (1,023m above sea level) is flanked by woods and the occasional agricultural terrace etched into the hillside. Running across a plateau, the train offers panoramic views across hills stretching to the horizon. Lonely stations in the middle of nowhere make one wonder at the optimism of the railway’s builders. But perhaps the finest stretch is the long section of track built on a masonry ledge above the River Allier with glorious views along the sinuous valley.

Don’t Miss

  • The Roman amphitheatre in Nîmes
  • Maison Carrée, Nîmes, the only fully preserved Roman temple
  • Carré d’Art, Nîmes, designed by Norman Foster
  • Clermont-Ferrand’s cathedral, built of black volcanic rock
  • Villefort, an intermediate stop, is a walking and hotel centre from which radiate the walking trails Grandes Randonnés 44, 66 and 68. Nearby is the 16th-century Château de Castanet and the Chassezac Gorge.

Journey Time: from 5 hours 36 minutes

Fares: from £34

Direct service with stops including: Ales, Chamborigaud, Villefort, Chapeauroux, Langogne, Langeac, Brioude and Issoire. 

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Cologne (Germany) – Frankfurt (Germany) 

Railway lines along both banks of the Rhine parallel one of Europe’s most famous and scenic stretches of river. The steep wooded and vine-clad hills that flank the river are punctuated by a series of castles in wildly different architectural styles. Many of the villages along the river are full of picturesque timber-framed houses and inns. The journey along the east bank entails a change of train in Koblenz, but this attractive town is worth a visit in its own right. The main reason for making a circular journey, apart from the different perspective, is to see the castles that crown the hills on the opposite bank, usually invisible when travelling the same side.

The entire riverside stretch is a series of picture-postcard landscapes, but the best-known section is the bend at Loreley overlooked by a towering mass of basalt 132 metres high. The region is a paradise for walkers, with hikes from almost every station, but notably Boppard at the confluence of six valleys. The castle of Stolzenfels was stayed in by Queen Victoria and is now a museum, reached from Koblenz.

Don’t Miss

  • The colossal Gothic cathedral in Cologne, which took over 600 years to complete and is a World Heritage Site
  • The Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud in Cologne, one of the foremost art collections in Germany
  • A walk in the riverside park at Koblenz, dominated by the gigantic equestrian statue of Wilhelm I
  • The 1816 Prussian citadel across the Pfaffendorfer Bridge in Koblenz

East Bank Route

Journey Time: from 3 hours 20 minutes

Fares: from £45

Indirect route: changing at Koblenz with stops including Bonn, Königswinter, Linz am Rhein, Bad Honningen, Koblenz, Braubach, Kaub, Lorch, Rudesheim and Wiesbaden.  

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Glacier Express (Switzerland) – Zermatt-St Moritz (Switzerland)

Linking two of Switzerland’s most famous resorts, Zermatt and St Moritz, the Glacier Express is the finest way to marvel at the incredible beauty of the Alps. Seven and a half hours may sound a long time to spend on a train but the new carriages with panoramic windows in the roof as well as the sides are wonderfully comfortable and the scenery is so varied that you never tire of gazing out of the window. An English headphone commentary alerts you to places and features of interest, you can enjoy a freshly cooked meal, served at your seat, and there is a bar car for drinks at any time.

Mountains are always in view, and the railway follows various river valleys including the infant Rhine. The differences in vertical height along the line are so great that the railway uses spiral tunnels and horseshoe curves to overcome the gradient, sometimes making it impossible to guess the direction of travel without a map. Among the many scenic highlights are the wild country around the Oberalp Pass, the tightly clustered chalet villages of the Goms Valley and the Flims Gorge with its towering cliffs of milky white limestone. Much of the railway between Chur and St Moritz is a World Heritage Site.

Don’t Miss

  • For a break of journey, take the old route from Realp by the steam Dampfbahn Furka Bergstrecke to Gletsch
  • In winter, toboggan down the road from Preda station
  • The new Alpine Museum in Zermatt, a lively history of climbing the nearby Matterhorn
  • The Gornergratbahn which takes you to one of the best views of the Matterhorn
  • The Segantini Museum in St Moritz for his Graubünden landscapes

Journey Time: from 7 hours 30 minutes

Fares: from £92

Direct service with stops including: Visp, Brig, Andermatt, Chur and Tiefencastel.

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Geneva (Switzerland) – Milan (Italy) 

This international journey is full of contrast. At one end is the canter along the northern shore of sickle-shaped Lake Geneva, passing among the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces which are a World Heritage Site for their lovely position and antiquity, dating from the 11th century. On a clear day there are views over the French Alps towards Mont Blanc before the train drops down to the lakeshore to run beside the water and pass Chillon Castle, immortalised by Byron in his poem about an unfortunate prisoner.

At the end of the lake there is a sudden transition into the western end of the deep Rhone Valley, which the railway follows all the way to Brig. Under mountains whose summits are often out of sight, above even higher side-valleys, the railway passes castles, wineries and one of the finest pine forests in Europe. After connecting with the railway to Zermatt at Visp, the train turns south from Brig through the Simplon Tunnel into Italy. Near journey’s end is another lakeside stretch beside Lake Maggiore.

Connoisseurs of secondary, scenic railway journeys have lots of choice along the way: Montreux for the rack railway up Rochers-de-Naye and the MoB to Gstaad and Lenk; Martigny for the line to Chamonix and St Gervais; Aigle for three narrow gauge lines, to Les Diablerets, Leysin and Champéry; Bex for Villars; and Visp for Zermatt.

Don’t Miss

  • Geneva’s old town straddling the hill around the cathedral
  • The International Red Cross Museum in Geneva
  • Italy’s largest Gothic building, Milan Cathedral
  • For a break in the journey, Lausanne and Montreux are the best bet 

Journey Time: from 4 hours 28 minutes

Fares: from £17.50

Direct service with stops including: Lausanne, Montreux, Sion, Domodossola, Verbania, Stresa and Arona. 

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Le Petit Train Jaune (France) – Villefranche-Latour de Carol (France)

The name of this incredible railway comes from the unusual canary yellow colour of its trains, lined out in red. No railway winds through the Pyrenees like this 63km narrow-gauge rollercoaster journey on metre-gauge tracks between two remote junctions on French railways. From snowmelt to autumn, trains include open carriages from which to enjoy the impressive gorges, forested mountains and rolling lush pasture of the Cerdagne. (Take suncream and hat in summer.) Villefranche is reached by a pleasant railway journey from Perpignan at the southern end of the Pyrenees – where the station was whimsically dubbed ‘centre of the universe’ by the Catalan surrealist Salvador Dalí – and Latour de Carol is served by French trains from Toulouse and Spanish trains from Barcelona Sants.

The yellow trains rattle across two spectacular viaducts: the two-tiered stone Sejourne viaduct across the River Tet which occupied 1,500 workmen for three years; and the astonishing suspension Pont Gisclard, situated in a great bowl of densely wooded hills. Trains slow across the bridge so that passengers can appreciate its construction and the precipitous view into the river valley. The best place to interrupt the journey and have lunch is Mont-Louis-la-Cabanasse, France’s highest fortress at 1,600 metres / 5,250ft, designed by the great military engineer Vauban.

Don’t Miss

  • The fortifications at Villefranche, also built by Vauban
  • France’s highest station, Bolquère-Eyne, at 1,593m (5,226ft)
  • The huge solar oven powered by a bank of mirrors near Font-Romeu-Odeillo-Via station
  •  The gorge at Thues Caranca, served by a request stop, where an exhilarating trail negotiates ladders, catwalks and wobbly bridges

Journey Time: from 2 hours 41 minutes

Fares: from £17

Direct service with stops including: Bourg Madame, Saillagouse, Mont Luis and Fontpedrouse. 

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Jesenice (Slovenia) – Sezana (Slovenia)

This journey through the Julian Alps is one of eastern Europe’s finest railway journeys. Known as the Bohinj Railway, the line between Jesenice and Sezana was likened to the feat of building the Suez Canal when it opened in 1906, on account of the engineering challenges in building its numerous tunnels, viaducts and bridges.

It skirts a mountainous national park, passes the famous resort of Lake Bled with its island chapel, and crosses the wild stony Kras plateau. Attractive towns and villages surround the stations, many of them built from local limestone. The line frequently crosses rivers such as the emerald-green Soca, sometimes on spectacular bridges, including the world’s longest span for an all-masonry structure, the 85m of the Solkan Bridge.

From Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, electric trains reach Jesenice at the northern end of the Bohinj Railway and Sezana at the southern end. The Bohinj Railway is operated by diesel railcars, but there is also the option of taking a summer steam-hauled excursion over part of the line between Gorizia and Bled.

Don’t Miss

  • The splendid railway museum in Ljubljana, at Parmova 35 in Kurilniska 3
  • Joze Plecnik’s Secessionist buildings in Ljubljana along the Ljubljanica River, which featured in the 2006 Bond film Casino Royale.
  • A worthwhile excursion from Sezana is the short descent to the Adriatic Sea at Trieste, with stupendous views.
  • Bled Castle, first mentioned in 1004
  • The Old Sava neighbourhood of Jesenice and Ruard Manor (now a museum) 

Journey Time: from 3 hours 55 minutes:

Fares: from £20 

Indirect service changing at: Nova Gorica with stops including  Bled Jezero, Most na Soci, Branik and Kopriva. 

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Verona (Italy) – Innsbruck (Austria) 

One of the principal south/north railway arteries through the Alps, the railway climbs through the valleys to the west of the Dolomites to reach the Brenner Pass. As the line climbs into the foothills, the landscapes are dominated by the viticulture of the Trentino, whose wines are among the best in Italy. From Bolzano/Bozen, station names are given in both German and Italian, reflecting the region’s fluid borders over recent centuries. Orchards and chestnut trees as well as vines at the limit of cultivation fill the valley of the fast-flowing Isarco River.

The area surrounding Castle Troburg on its craggy peak is still renowned for its woodcarving. Limestone pinnacles rear out of forests of pine and conifers around Fortezza, interspersed with lush bowls of grass. Tyrolean villages dot the landscape, with their characteristic white houses of red-tiled roofs and windowboxes ablaze with geraniums. Trees crowd the line as it nears the Pass, the only main-line crossing of the Alps in the open rather than a lengthy summit tunnel. It is only a short distance to the Tyrolean capital, Innsbruck bursting into view as the train leaves a tunnel.

Don’t Miss

  • The World Heritage Site of Verona with its Roman Arena and wealth of historic buildings
  • Medieval Juliet’s House at 23 Via Cappello, Verona
  • Three life-size dinosaurs near the line at Rovereto, recalling the 1991 discovery of 200-million-year-old Jurassic footprints in the area
  • Innsbruck’s oval-shaped Old Town with its palaces, towers and medieval houses
  • A good side excursion is the branch line from Bolzano/Bozen to the spa of Merano or one of three cablecars stretching into the surrounding mountains

Journey Time: from 3 hours 33 minutes

Fares: from £17.50

Direct service with stops including: Trento, Bressanone Brixen and Brennero Brenner.

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Marseille (France) – Rome (Italy)

Few railway routes are as close to the sea for as long as this journey of over 900km; though it has to be done in stages, there are frequent trains over all sections. Once Marseille has been left behind, it begins with the Aubagne countryside celebrated in the poignant stories of Marcel Pagnol, whose Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources were turned into popular films. Limestone coves line the coast on the approach to La Ciotat, where the Lumière brothers first filmed a moving train. After the naval base of Toulon, the line swings inland through olive groves, vineyards and orchards before a range of dry and dusty hills. After the train swings back to the Corniche, it hugs the coast with delightful views along it, passing through Cannes and Antibes to Nice.

Across the border into Italy coastal views across the Ligurian Sea continue, only becoming sporadic along the Cinque Terre as the train burrows through the cliffs behind the colourful villages. Leaving Cecina, passengers have a glimpse of Elba where Napoleon was exiled and the promontory of Populonia before the line heads inland through the vast area of the Maremma, once the centre of the Etruscan empire and still covered in huge pine forests.

Don’t Miss

  • Marseille’s Old Port and History Museum
  • Nice is a good stopping-off place with its lovely old town and Matisse museum
  • A fine day excursion from Nice is the narrow-gauge line to Digne
  • Pisa for its extraordinary ensemble of leaning tower, baptistry and cathedral
  • Rome’s innumerable sights, especially the Pantheon, Colosseum and the Baths of Caracalla

Journey Time: from 12 hours 50 minutes

Fares: from £83

Indirect route changing in: Nice and Genoa and with stops including  Cannes, Antibes, Menton, San Remo, Diano Marina, Albenga, Savona, La Spezia, Pisa and Livorno.

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Ronda (Spain) – Algeciras (Spain)

Ronda is one of southern Spain’s most popular tourist cities, whereas Algeciras is indisputably ugly, but the journey between them is spectacular, threading a sinuous path through the hills and mountains of Andalucia down to the port for Tangier and Ceuta. Tunnels and viaducts abound, and the line follows four rivers in its 106km. In midsummer heat, the attractive stations with their frilly bargeboards and the tiny white-walled villages they serve sizzle under a baking sun; a hat and copious suncream are needed to indulge the impulse to explore them and catch the next train.

Growing on the steep hills are astonishingly vertiginous fields of wheat and sugar cane interspersed with forests of dwarf oak and cork, which is a major source of income in the region. The martial past is recalled by the remnants of the once imposing fortress of Castellar de la Frontera, one of the stations that beckon the curious traveller. If staying overnight at the southern end of the line, the enchanting old town of San Roque would be preferable to Algeciras, though a taxi would be needed to reach its hilltop location.

Don’t Miss

  • Tajo Ravine in Ronda, spanned by a bridge with a former prison in the central arch
  • Ronda’s art gallery in a 16th-century cloistered gallery
  • The Moorish baths in Ronda
  • The fantastic setting of the Cueva del Gato (Cave of the Cat), reached from Benaoján station
  • The Chapel of Our Lady of Europe constructed in 1769, one of the Continent’s smallest churches

Journey Time: from 1 hour 31 minutes

Fares: from £16.50

Direct service with stops including: San Roque, Jimena de la Frontera and Benaoján. 

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About Anthony Lambert

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Anthony Lambert has written fifteen books about railways and railway travel, including Switzerland Without A Car, The Insight Guide To Great Railway Journeys Of Europe and The Insight Guide To Pakistan.

He has also written on railway journeys and travel for such newspapers and magazines as the Independent, New York Times, Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, Wanderlust and Orient-Express Magazine. He was consultant editor to the 9-volume partwork The World Of Trains, and has travelled on the railways of over 45 countries.

He has talked to a wide range of audiences on railways and travel, including the Royal Geographical Society, of which he is a Fellow.

For more information about rail travel in Europe, visit www.raileurope.co.uk.

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