Sleeper proved an eye-opener, Amsterdam to Vienna
I recently took the sleeper train between Amsterdam and Vienna. On the way, I had a compartment to myself until the early hours when I was woken by a couple with a 10-month-old baby, who wanted to know if I would rooms so they could have their own compartment. The guard said this wasn’t possible but I did volunteer the top bunk so that the dad could easily exit the room and look after the baby. The rest of the journey involved him going out in the corridor to walk around with the child. That’s the fun of sleeper trains – you don’t know who you’ll meet! I shared with a research engineer on the way back. Oh, and Vienna was amazing too.
Metro to a ski jump, Oslo
On a December trip to Oslo, we caught the T1 metro train from the city centre to Holmenkollen, in the north-western outskirts. While the purpose was to visit the famous ski jump, which provides panoramic views of Oslo, the journey itself was the real treat. Sleepy, snow-covered houses provided a picturesque Nordic backdrop as we ascended the hills, creating the feel of a Christmas wonderland. Ski-carrying locals joined the metro as we journeyed further out of the city, heading for a weekend on the slopes. After the packed tourist sites in the centre, this metro ride felt like a journey through our own winter wonderland.
Belgrade to Bar, Serbia to Montenegro
Last summer we travelled on Tito’s line from Serbia to the Adriatic coast of Montenegro. Started in the 1950s, the line wasn’t completed until the late 70s because of the challenges of building through rugged, mountainous terrain. You can board the train in Belgrade or Bar and travel in either direction during the day or by sleeper. We would recommend travelling by day so that you can appreciate the jaw-dropping scenery as the line snakes along the mountainsides and across river gorges. The 12-hour trip costs about €20 for a second-class single; there’s no need to book in advance. The train is comfortable but you may want to do as the locals do and bring plenty of drinks and snacks.
Zurich to Sicily
We started our train epic from Zurich, staying overnight in the picturesque town of Sargans, an hour by rail away. The next day we took a local train to Chur where we changed for the incomparable Bernina express for a spectacular four-hour journey over the Swiss Alps, reaching 2,250 metres at Ospizio Bernina station, by Lago Bianco. We had some lunch in Tirano, just over the border in Italy, before using the local train to Lecco to reach Varenna on Lake Como, where we spent the night. Over the next few days we used trains to visit Florence, Rome and the Amalfi coast. The final leg of the journey, to Catania in Sicily, involved loading the train on to the ferry. I used the website Man in Seat 61 for his amazing knowledge and cost-saving tips. This is a fabulous trip.
Genoa to La Spezia, Italy
The rail line from Genoa to La Spezia in northern Italy takes in some of the most stunning coastal scenery in Europe, passing the colourful clifftop villages of Cinque Terre. Allow yourself time for a coffee in the grand Genoa Piazza Principe station, then board the train and enjoy an hour and a half of breathtaking views across chalky slopes dotted with olive trees and jewel-like bays, as the train snakes between mountainside and glittering Mediterranean. From €8.40 one way, book at trenitalia.it.
Milan to Bergamo, Italy
The train from Milan to Bergamo, a journey of just under an hour, provides a real insight into Italy. It’s not the most beautiful of routes, but it is fascinating for its sheer range of landscapes. From the monolithic Milano Centrale through Monza you soon find yourself rolling through farmland before crossing the stunning 19th-century Ponte San Michele bridge over the Adda and, shortly after, a stop at the Calusco d’Adda. As you approach Bergamo, small parcels of land that skirt the tracks are allotments full of vegetables, with no inch of land being wasted. The pinnacle of the journey is the jewel in the hillside, Bergamo’s Città Alta, the old, walled core of the town, glimmering in the sunset, which is then reached by a funicular that carves through the streets.
North-west Spain’s slow trains
I highly recommend the Euskotren and Feve lines that run along the north coast of Spain. Starting on the French border at Hendaye, it’s possible to travel all the way to Ferrol on slow services, stopping off in some brilliant places. I stopped off in San Sebastián, Bilbao, Santander, Ribadesella, Oviedo, Praia das Catedrais and Ferrol. Travel is extremely cheap relative to the UK and doesn’t need to be booked in advance. It’s also easy to add Santiago de Compostela, Madrid or even Paris.
Stockholm to Narvik on the sleeper
Stock up for a picnic (supper and breakfast) before you catch the night train to the north. It will probably be full of convivial and incredibly fit (mostly young) people heading into the huge wilderness of the north to hike. They all leave the train at Kiruna and Abisko – before it begins its climb over the mountains into Norway and then down to the sea. This section of the journey is stunning. The track passes through tiny hill stations, and then clings to the precipitous mountainside as fjords come into sight. The route is included in the Interrail pass. Six of us got off at Narvik. A berth costs from about £90, sj.se/en.
Narrow-gauge mountain railway, Serbia
The Šargan Eight narrow-gauge railway in south-west Serbia gets its name from its figure-of-eight-shaped track. Running between Mokra Gora and Šargan Vitasi, it climbs 300 metres in only 3km and has five bridges and 22 tunnels. The five carriages have polished wooden seating and there’s commentary in Serbian and English and oompah band-style muzak. There are several short stops where you can alight and look down at the tracks below, trying to figure out where you’ve been, and where you are going! At Jatape, there’s time for a warming coffee or an ice-cream on the platform, depending on the weather.
Winning tip: Trieste to Bled, Italy to Slovenia
We travelled from Trieste to Lake Bled in half a day, including a stop-off in the border town of Gorizia. The trip gave us a lot of holiday for remarkably little money. A modern midday express took us from Trieste, zooming past sparkling waters and into forest. We arrived in Gorizia after 50 minutes or so. Then, after a stroll to the Slovenian side of town (called Nova Gorica), we boarded a clanking regional train after a quick platform refreshment at a student bar-style cafe. Into the hills this next train climbed for a couple of hours before depositing us among the mountains at a wood-beamed station: Bled Jezero. The lake twinkled below us even though it was a cloudy day. And there was still time for a dip before dinner.