The best train journeys through Europe

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  • The best train journeys through Europe

    1. Scotland

    The West Highland Line from Glasgow to Mallaig

    Departing Glasgow Queen Street, this train journey follows the River Clyde northwest before swinging off-piste and plunging passengers into a Scottish wilderness free from roads, cars – and often other people. Surrounded by nothing but valleys and slopes shadowed by low grey cloud and patched with the purple of wild heather, this train soon swings up and around lochs as silver as mirrors, clinging to steep hillsides lined with birch trees. Not long after Tyndrum the train performs a spellbinding curve around the horseshoe bend at the foot of Ben Doran before heading for Fort William. Towards the end of the journey it runs along one of the most recognisable sections of track in the world: the Glenfinnan Viaduct at the top of Loch Shiel – where Harry Potter and his friends ride the Hogwarts Express.

  • The best train journeys through Europe

    2. Portugal

    The Douro Valley railway

    One for oenophiles, this three-hour journey around the Douro Valley takes passengers into Portuguese wine country to see exactly where their grapes are harvested – and taste a few along the way. Fitted with polished wooden benches, the windows wide open, this historical steam locomotive hisses and puffs its way along the wide Douro River from Régua through Pinhão to Tua and back again. Throughout the journey local musicians bang tambourines, strum guitars and squeeze accordions as the train trundles and hoots through stepped hillsides furrowed with vineyards, and passengers sip sweet port in the sunshine.

  • The best train journeys through Europe

    3. Italy

    Venice to London on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

    The world’s most famous train service, the Orient Express, has now been reimagined by Belmond to emulate the golden age of travel. Watching the Venetian waters drift from sight, passengers travel overnight in private compartments where Art Deco lampshades quiver by the windows and stewards turn down beds with damask sheets. Dressed in pink chiffon and pearls, you can lunch on sweet lobster tail and Prosecco while curling around the Italian Dolomites, and after dark sit with your nose to the glass watching the almost-blue snow of the Austrian Alps sweep down into a valley where chalets glow like a cluster of golden orbs. Following a digestif at the bar, retire for the night, rocking into slumber before waking in Paris to a breakfast of hot coffee and croissants freshly baked at 5am.

  • The best train journeys through Europe

    4. France

    Cannes to Monaco

    Usually crammed with high-school students, shoppers and sandal-wearing grandpas carrying baguettes, this commuter service runs along the French Riviera, connecting the palm-fringed, Ferrari-filled resort of Cannes with the lovely Italian market town of Ventimiglia. Speeding along the edge of the twinkling Ligurian sea, the double-decker train indulges voyeurs who can spy on sunbathers, teens playing volleyball and vendors selling ice cream and hot waffles. Stopping at stations where pink bougainvillea tumble down the walls, the train runs through Nice and Monaco, the ocean winking between apartment blocks, before approaching roughly stacked hillsides and slowing into the old Italian station.

  • The best train journeys through Europe

    5. Switzerland

    The Glacier Express from Zermatt to St Moritz

    Glacier by name and glacial by nature, this route is for train lovers for who the journey is the destination. Departing the ski resort of Zermatt after breakfast, the string of red carriages sails past the ice-slicked Matterhorn before embarking on an eight-hour meander through the three cantons of Valais, Uri and Graubünden, the Rhine gorge and along the wizened Rhône Glacier to St Moritz. Fitted with floor-to-ceiling windows, the train provides panoramic views of Alpine meadows, clusters of wooden chalets and bell-wearing cows grazing on the slopes. Although lovely year-round, the best time to travel is in spring when the fields are carpeted with lilac Alpine asters, the skies are bright and the snow gleams from the peaks.

  • The best train journeys through Europe

    6. Norway

    The Rauma Railway, from Åndalsnes to Dombås

    Few train journeys can capture the wild and wilful spirit of a country in under 100 minutes, but the Rauma railway exceeds all expectation as it pulls passengers into the depths of Norway’s forests and fjords, mountains and lakes. In summer the train runs by meadows brimming with buttercups, snow-capped peaks looming all around. It curls around cliffs and thuds along bridges as the green Rauma River tumbles and gurgles below. But the best time to travel is in winter when the firs are fringed with snow, waterfalls wind like silver wire down the mountains and low sunshine turns their peaks a soft peach.

  • The best train journeys through Europe

    7. Italy

    The Cinque Terre railway

    Best known for their hiking trails, the string of five Ligurian villages can best be viewed from the window of the train that runs from Levanto to La Spezia with four-minute bursts between each one: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Disappearing in and out of hillside tunnels, the train rides the precipice of this gelato-coloured jumble of villages. While passing terraced vineyards you can hear the sea sloshing against the rocks below, and at dusk the smell of surrounding lemon groves blows in on the still-warm air. On a clear evening the setting sun throws a romantic light across the sky.

  • The best train journeys through Europe

    8. Spain

    Barcelona to Montserrat

    Once you’ve exhausted Barcelona’s tapas, museums, beaches and boutiques, one of the best day trips out of the city involves a short journey by train to the Montserrat mountain range. In a matter of minutes the train shakes loose the city, breaks free of the suburbs and winds up a soaring mass of intriguing rock formations that look like enormous pieces of ginger mottled with green. From dizzying heights passengers can look down on a sea of fields and treetops dotted with red rooftops glowing in the Spanish sun. Within an hour the train arrives at the foot of the mountains from where you can take either a cable car or a funicular up to the monastery and hiking trails.

  • The best train journeys through Europe

    9. UK

    London to Inverness on the Caledonian Sleeper

    A favourite of journalists, musicians and politicians looking to save time, the lounge car of the Caledonian Sleeper is a fun place to spot familiar faces having a wee dram before bed. Fitted with a foldaway sink and twin bunks, each standard compartment is just big enough to turn around in and hang up your clothes before squeezing into an extraordinarily comfy bed laden with ear plugs and an eye mask – neither of which you will need as the train is so quiet, swaying north with few creaks and brakes through the night. Bed down in the clamour of London Euston and pull up the blind at dawn as the Scottish Highlands roll past your window.

  • The best train journeys through Europe

    10. Serbia to Montenegro

    From Belgrade to Bar

    As the president of the former Yugoslavia, Tito’s pet project was the railway connecting the Serbian capital to the Adriatic coast. Today it is one of the most understated train journeys in Europe, with few tourists making it on board the raucous, shambling old train that takes ten hours to traverse 254 tunnels and 435 bridges. Book a sleeper berth, pull on some warm socks and sit by the window with a cup of hot tea as the train sweeps down the country, straying briefly into Bosnia and its patchwork quilt of fields and forests. Stay awake through Montenegro as the scenery goes up a gear and snow laces jagged peaks threaded with rivers. And on the approach to Bar the train thrillingly skims the edge of the Adriatic.

    Monisha Rajesh is the author of Around the World in 80 Trains, published by Bloomsbury at £20.

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