European rail journeys: readers’ tips, recommendations and travel advice
This week’s winner
Such a bargain
One of the best European rail journeys we have ever been on was from Seville to Jerez. We were in Seville as part of an escorted tour and, on a day off, wanted to do some sherry-tasting on our own. We discovered that we were no more than an hour or so’s train ride from Jerez, so purchased two return fares at €30 (£25) each and, just over an hour later, we were walking from Jerez railway station to some of the best known sherry houses in the world.
We discovered that we should have booked our tastings in advance, but we did manage a bodega visit in the morning, and a tasting after lunch. On the way back from our tasting to the station, we stumbled upon one of the best wet fish markets we have ever seen.
But it was both outward and return journeys which we were raving about – the carriages were light, airy and spotless, there were plenty of laptop points (had we needed one) and the staff on the train were very helpful and polite. And the scenery outside was pretty good, too. All such a bargain.
- Michele Levitt, West Midlands, wins two return flights to Toulouse
More advice from readers
Passing the time
In the past few years, my wife and I have made four fascinating rail journeys through Europe. The first three took in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Last year we travelled by train from Stroud through France, northern Italy and Croatia.
One outstanding memory: two years ago we stayed in a pension (Casa Christian on Str. Victoriei) in Gura Humorului, a small town in northern Romania, where our host drove us to several glorious painted wooden churches as well as providing three splendid nights’ stay with meals cooked by his wife. We used rail passes from Rail Europe, which is always helpful; passes can give 10 days’ rail travel to be taken within 21 days and you may make as many journeys in a day as you like.
- Warren Knock, Glos
One trip that I make on a regular basis is from Toulouse to Nice on the Bordeaux-Nice Corail Téoz train, which runs three times a day. From Bordeaux to Sète, it follows the Canal du Midi passing through ancient towns such as Auch, Toulouse and Carcassonne, but the real pleasure comes on the stretch from Narbonne to Nice. It is very often within sight of the sea, or as it skirts the Rhône delta, the shallow lakes of the Camargue complete with flamingos.
It then passes through the Roman town of Nîmes and over the Rhône through Arles and into Provence. Treat yourself to a first-class compartment with a picnic. Vines, sunflowers (in season) and olives all the way. Plus, of course, the sunshine.
- Robin Airey, by email
Flexibility the key
Using ferries and rail with our old fogeys’ Eurail pass, my husband and I made a 22-leg journey from Meganisi, one of the Ionian Islands, back to mid-Sussex via Italy, Switzerland and France in May. Our chief advice to others thinking of doing anything similar is be prepared to be flexible.
A rail map of Europe is a great investment to help reschedule your route day by day. Landing at Bari rather than Brindisi, we had to change plans from taking a pre-booked sleeper to Rome to a national rail service to Milan.
In spite of what the adverts might say, don’t assume there will be any buffet let alone restaurant cars on most services in Italy. We always had the makings of at least one meal with us and were the objects of jealousy as we tucked into meat, bread, cheese, fruit and a bottle of wine in front of less fortunate hungry passengers.
In Switzerland or France don’t think that you will get a seat of any class for the same day on some of the TGVs. We had planned to take the TGV from Geneva to Paris, but as no seats were available for three days, we chose local rail from Nyon to Lucerne and onwards to Rouen and Dieppe via Paris.
- Paula Nicholson, East Sussex
A worthwhile “leisurely as you want to make it” day trip from Bruges is to take the train to Ostende, then the coastal tram which stops right outside the station via Blankenberge and Zeebrugge to the terminus at Knokke station, and take the train back to Bruges from there.
Alternatively, take the tram from Ostende in the opposite direction to Adinkerke (de Panne railway station), a connecting bus to/from Dunkirk in France is an added possibility. Return to Bruges from de Panne station, changing at Ghent.
Another good excursion from Bruges is to historic Tournai, the oldest city in Belgium with a vast five-towered Romanesque Cathédrale de Notre Dame.
- Roger Chappell, by email
Swiss is best
Having travelled on trains in all of Europe apart from the Balkans, I have found that Switzerland is the easiest and the most pleasurable country for rail travel. I never travelled on a train there that wasn’t clean, comfortable and, apart from one occasion, on time.
Station notices are multilingual, French, German and Italian, but I found that most staff also spoke English. The country has an extensive rail network and the Swiss Rail Pass, to be purchased beforehand, covers all the network, apart from a couple of expensive mountain railways.
It is also valid on the many cable cars, ferries, scenic boat trips, local trams and most of the bus network, so that practically anywhere can be visited with the ticket. A couple of the rail routes are rightly designated World Heritage Sites for the array of bridges and tunnels through the gorges. It is ideal for backpacking and is a rail-buff’s paradise with the variety of rolling stock and small railway companies on which it is possible to travel.
- Philip Wharmby, Manchester
Don’t assume first-class travel will be exorbitantly expensive. On a recent trip from Lille to Montpellier, first-class travel was actually cheaper than standard class and the return journey in first class was only £10 more. Well worth it for the extra comfort.
- Denise Tyas, West Yorkshire
To celebrate my 50th birthday a few years ago, my wife and I went InterRailing in Europe. We walked to our local railway station carrying a huge rucksack, and 27 trains later we walked home.
Here’s a rough idea of our route: Boulogne, Paris, Grenoble for Annecy, Chamonix and Aiguille du Midi; Digne and the narrow gauge railway to Nice, followed by Monte Carlo. To get home, north up the Gorges de l’Allier to Le Puy-en-Velay, then east to Lyon and so on.
Two years later we were at it again, when memorable highlights were escaping from Nîmes by bus after the railway was washed away by floods, crossing Le Viaduc de Garabit, then catching a sleeper from St-Flour with the lower bunks already occupied in a dark compartment!
If you decide on a venture of your own, arrange to travel a lot on some days then relax at your chosen venue; no need to pre-book hotels out of season, but take the Logis de France book with you.
- Alan Bolister, by email
Web of intrigue
One of the best tips I would give on European rail travel is to always check out a rail operator’s own website – for example, I have found amazing deals on the French railways site (voyages-sncf.co.uk) that are not necessarily available elsewhere.
An easy way to work out train times for European rail travel, particularly when travelling between countries, is to visit the German rail line’s site Deutsche Bahn (bahn.com), which has detailed listings for all the major European train companies.
- Rod Cornaby, East Sussex
Arriving at Budapest airport, I inquired at the travel information office about trains to Debrecen, the second city of Hungary.
A helpful lady explained in good English that I could buy tickets from her. “Is there any discount for a 65 year-old,” I asked. “Yes, for over-65s with an EU passport, basic rail travel is free; if you wish to travel by fast train or first-class you pay the supplement only.”
She also explained where I could catch the shuttle bus to the other terminal, in which was located the airport train station providing direct trains to many destinations.
For about £10 I travelled first-class with a reserved seat in the fastest category of train halfway across Hungary and back. The carriage was new, clean and the equal of any UK first-class. Planning your train journey from the UK is simple using the website elvira.hu.
- Mike Balfour, Dorset
If you’re in France and you want an amazing experience of both travel and comfort then you have to try the Francisco de Goya “TrenHotel” sleeper that runs between Paris and Madrid.
If you go grand class then you’ll get to enjoy the benefits of overnight travel mixed with the hospitality of a hotel. It’s worth it for the gourmet dinner. No rushing, no hours of driving, just lovely scenery and a safe environment. The best thing is when you arrive in Madrid you’re refreshed and ready to see the sights instead of sweaty and tired from travelling.
- Nicola Vaughan, by email
Travels with Tolstoy
A route not to be missed, is the one covered by the wonderful Tolstoy Train. Named after Leo himself, this overnight gem covers the 14-hour stretch from Helsinki to Moscow. As you might imagine, travelling from Finland to Russia is an experience and this glamorous train will make you feel like you’ve been transported back in time. The restaurant with its opulent red Russian decor is a great spot for a nightcap.
- Rachel Brown, Cornwall
The Bernina Express is an amazing way to traverse and see the Swiss Alps from the comfort of a luxurious panoramic carriage.
It’s also the most diverse train journey I’ve been on – starting out of Chur in a Swiss Alpine valley, the line begins to climb, along babbling Alpine streams and through fierce gorges, over jaw-dropping viaducts (Landwasser was my favourite) and clinging to the sides of the mountains, eventually emerging into the desolate wilderness on the Bernina line itself at Ospizio Bernina.
Then, you descend towards Italy, the train corkscrewing and spiralling down into another valley and going through pretty Swiss villages and over more viaducts until this magnificent journey ends at Tirano.
The Bernina Express is a must for train and breathtaking-scenery lovers and you will not be disappointed.
- Neelam Kapadia, London
Just the ticket
If you are planning a train trip across Germany and would like to do some sightseeing, visiting more than one city within one day, use the “Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket”.
It costs €44 (£37.60) for the first person and then €6 (£5.10) each for up to four additional passengers; children under 15 years old travel for free. You can take as many journeys as you like during the day, travelling second class on “regional” trains.
- Johanna Mylius, Cheshire
Send us your tips on diving or snorkelling holidays for the chance to win flights to Palma
Have you been on a memorable diving or snorkelling trip? It might be to the Maldives, the Red Sea or other diving hotspots; you may be a novice or an old hand. We want to hear from you and the best entry will win a pair of return Monarch Airlines tickets from Luton, Gatwick or Birmingham to Palma, Majorca.
TRAVEL WITH MONARCH
Monarch Airlines is a leading UK-based scheduled leisure airline operating from six bases in the UK – Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, East Midlands, Leeds/Bradford and Luton, where it has its headquarters. The airline operates flights to holiday destinations principally around the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands – including Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Italy, Madeira, Portugal, Spain and Turkey – and to ski destinations in winter.
All Monarch customers are allocated a seat at check-in but for those wishing to select where in the cabin they sit, seats can be pre-booked. For customers looking for added comfort, seats with extra legroom (up to six inches of extra space) are also available. Monarch aims to provide choice, value and superior customer care. For further information or to book Monarch flights please visit monarch.co.uk.
Majorca’s capital city is a great place to go for a weekend – or indeed longer. It is just the right size to make shopping a pleasure, with plenty of atmospheric, pavement cafés and tapas bars along the way. It has a lovely promenade and the remarkable Gothic cathedral, La Seu (best viewed from the sea).
It is easy to explore the island from Palma, too, so you can fit some of those lovely beaches – or a day’s hiking in the mountains. Culturally, Palma offers the Es Baluard contemporary art museum and the dramatic Pilar and Joan Miró Foundation just outside the centre.
Email your tips on diving holidays, with contact details for recommendations where relevant, together with your name, address and phone number by midnight on July 3, 2013, to[email protected].
Flights must be taken April 30, 2014 and the prize is subject to availability. Bank holidays are excluded. Other terms and conditions apply. For details email [email protected].