Europe by train: why the magic never dies

There’s something magical about travelling by train. Perhaps those who witnessed the demise of steam engines some 40 years ago would have predicted that the romance of rail would been blown away by the hard uncompromising diesel and electric monsters that followed. Yet the last few decades have shown that there is clearly more to the excitement of a railway journey than the mere sight of the puffing steam train.

In a few weeks we will fly to Lisbon and then make our way back home overland. We’ll have two weeks to do it and will use a mix of trains and buses, although I expect 90% of the distance will be covered by rail. The plan is to break the journey in a few of the lesser known towns and cities of Spain and France, but much will be left to the whim of the moment. This is my kind of trip.

There’s a lot to love about Europe and my greatest memories on the continent are inextricably linked to rail travel. The three solo Inter-rail journeys I took as a 1980s teenager were epic adventures, covering tens of thousands of miles from above the Arctic Circle to Istanbul, the Bosphorus and my first taste of Asia. New friends, lucky escapes, mishaps and severe discomfort that became an honourable rite of passage by virtue of nostalgia; a lifetime of travel was by then inevitable.

Waiting to boardTravelling to visit family in Poland always involved crossing the country by train. Eastern European stations in the early 1990s had an eerie magic that few could forget. Traders from east and west would meet at 2am, exchanging cigarettes, leather jackets and deutschmarks under a cloud of smoke; part diesel but mainly the product of cheap local cigarettes. The stations were often the most ornate and spacious constructions in town, and were perfect for a curious backpacker who was happy to sit on the floor in a dark corner and just watch the world go by.

Three years ago on the spur of the moment I bought us a flight for the next day to Gibraltar and a Eurostar home from Paris four days later. We had a wonderful time visiting Gibraltar, Ronda, Granada and Barcelona, even managing a whole day in Paris thanks to the excellent Spanish overnight trains.

These days it is easy to check train times on the various rail websites, although it is always dangerous to rely too much on them. I travel enough by train in the UK to know how quickly the timetable can become a work of meaningless fiction. Yet despite the planning that I can and will do before we set off, I will arrive in Lisbon with the same sense of excitement at the journey in front of us that I experienced 25 years ago when I first experienced the joys of travelling by train across Europe.


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16 Responses to “Europe by train: why the magic never dies”

  1. Are you also going on Eurotrip during the Easter-time bank holidays fiesta? :)

    March 25, 2011 at 11:26 am
  2. We will do – the timing of four public holidays in such a short space of time was too good to pass up!

    March 25, 2011 at 12:51 pm
  3. Omar #

    totally agree….rail travels have something magic about them. Great posts Andy! Keep them up!

    March 25, 2011 at 7:14 pm
  4. Nice! Notice the careful use of the word ‘also’ in my comment.. :D
    It’s my first trip to Europe! :)

    March 28, 2011 at 7:30 pm
  5. Well, I think I have little to add other than that I’m very jealous Andy! Not done it myself but heard the Trainhotel from Lisbon is pretty special.

    March 29, 2011 at 4:23 am
  6. I’ll look out for you Abhijit! I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful trip. Any places you’re particularly keen to visit?

    Jools, not going to take the Trenhotel from Lisbon, but did use it on the Spanish trips mentioned above. We even pushed the boat out and went in the first class section one night (it was Sam’s birthday) – very nice. Posh dinner, big breakfast, private cabin, even our own shower. And it cost less than a standard fare from London to Manchester.

    March 29, 2011 at 9:58 am
  7. I am insanely jealous. I adore trains, and I was, indeed, one of those who thought that they would lose their romance once steam had died out, but ate my words too!

    Spanish trains have a terrific reputation – shame that RENFE don’t run the country in general!

    In my former incarnation, as kind of corporate wife, I was lucky enough to take the Orient Express from London to Venice – absolutely unforgettable!!!

    April 3, 2011 at 10:45 am
  8. I absolutely love Europe by train. My first major trip (ie multi-country) to Europe we trained from Prague to Vienna to Venice and then down through Italy. Was fantastic – especially the portion where we passed through/by the Alps. I travel by train through Europe (as opposed to flying) whenever possible.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:32 pm
  9. Orient Express is something I’d like to experience on these days too – so don’t be too jealous islandmomma!

    Maya, I’m with you on the train over plane preference – if only the prices were comparable it would make it an easier decision to make.

    April 13, 2011 at 6:24 am
  10. Eduardo #

    Next time ,,,get off at estacion de francia train station in barcelona and stay at sant jordi hostels barcelona……….best hostel soo far!!!
    Good stuff Andy!!! keep in touch

    April 29, 2011 at 10:30 am
  11. Ooh, I remember teenage Inter-Rail. Vaguely…

    July 4, 2011 at 9:11 am
  12. Fan #

    I just love europe by rail..its soo romantic..

    July 4, 2011 at 4:27 pm
  13. Europe really has it down with the train system. It’s a shame the American system can’t hold a candle to it. It’s such an enjoyable way to travel.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:07 am
  14. I enjoyed this post because I really like train travel. It puts you in with “the locals” and allows you to see local life in a way that air travel can never do. And with a rail pass in hand, there are many times I’ve pulled into a station and thought “this place looks interesting” and jumped off. I could stay there as long as I wanted, or just be on my way again on the next train through. Try that flying from Madrid to Paris.

    February 9, 2012 at 11:43 am
  15. flux #

    My husband and I would love to travel Europe by train, however we have found that Eurail doesn’t sell those tickets to the British. I am American and my husband English. Do you know anything about this?

    February 12, 2012 at 3:20 am
    • Hi there – for Europeans the Interrail is available as a rail pass (similar terms to the Eurail). But check your planned route before deciding whether a rail pass is the best way to proceed. In many countries and many journeys you can save money by booking individual journeys online, particularly if you are happy to fix your itinerary a few weeks in advance.

      February 12, 2012 at 10:37 am