Sample texts from Europe by Rail

Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide

Get a flavour of Europe by Rail. Read four extracts from the new 17th edition of the guidebook, published on 12 April 2022.

We would like to give you an idea of the sort of prose you’ll find in Europe by Rail. Well chosen words, and every page in the book is packed with information. There are historical anecdotes, evocative descriptions of landscapes, tips on our favourite hotels and lots of advice on how to transform a routine journey into an adventure.

So here are four samples from the 17th edition of the guidebook, which will be published in mid-April 2022. We kick off with the introduction to Route 1 in the book, which charts a journey from London to Penzance.

Then we have an extract from Route 30 – a route which starts in Berlin and ends in Warsaw. It’s a route that features for the first time in Europe by Rail. Our third sample comes from Route 34 which describes a journey to Košice – Slovakia’s second city. Finally, we include one of the Sidetracks mini-features which you’ll find tucked away in the book. This one is a reflection on the rise and fall of the compartment coach on European railways. It is just one of 25 Sidetracks in the new edition of Europe by Rail.

The four texts which you find here were written by Nicky Gardner. All four texts are copyright and may not be reproduced without permission © 2022 Nicky Gardner.

Sample 1

Rail Route 1: Following Brunel to Cornwall

Cities: * Culture: ** History: * Scenery: **
Countries covered: England (ENG)
Journey time: 5 hrs 30 mins | Distance: 491 km

In the beginning there were the graceful classical baths of the Roman Empire. Then came fine cathedrals. But by the late 19th century, great railway termini were acclaimed as the representative buildings of the Steam Age. Stations quickly became the unashamed status symbols of any city with ambition. Some echoed the showcase buildings of earlier eras. In New York, Penn Central was inspired by the great Roman baths at Caracalla. While in London, St Pancras took a cue from Europe’s soaring Gothic cathedrals.

Whichever of the routes you follow in this book, make time for Europe’s great railway stations. While some are sadly neglected and others have been the victims of wilful architectural vandalism, such cases are the exception. Many are beautiful places which lift the spirits.

Our very first journey in Europe by Rail starts at London’s Paddington station; it is the unsung star of London’s railway termini. St Pancras is the most grandiose and architecturally ambitious. Following recent renovations, King’s Cross may now claim to be the most stately. But Paddington has a light elegance which is utterly charming. Despite its Moorish accents, there is something quintessentially English about Paddington. There are echoes of Paxton’s magnificent great glasshouse, built for the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851. Paddington is a fine London home for a railway associated with one great name in 19th-century engineering: Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He was the driving force behind the Great Western Railway, the legendary GWR. In Victorian England, it was often suggested that the initials GWR stood for God’s Wonderful Railway.

Paddington is the perfect place to embark on a journey which takes in some of the finest countryside in southern England. And this is a London station which has forever been associated with pleasure. Some  termini were always, and still are, stations for commuters. Others suggested trade and commerce. But Paddington was for holidays. So, join us as we climb aboard one of the Great Western Railway trains bound for Cornwall.

Source: from page 52 of the Routes Section in Europe by Rail (17th edition).

Sample 2

Rail Route 30: Baltic adventure

Cities: ** Culture: * History: ** Scenery: *
Countries covered: Germany (DE), Poland (PL)
Journey time: 17 hrs 50 mins | Distance: 1,178 km

Let’s go in search of the red brick trail. This completely new route for the 17th edition of Europe by Rail links a number of cities that draw on a common architectural tradition, often known by the German name Backsteingotik (brick Gothic architecture). This style was intimately associated with the Hanseatic League – a confederation of ports and other cities that in the 15th century dominated seaborne trade and commerce across the entire Baltic region and more widely. From the Dutch coast to western Russia, the Hanse lowered barriers to trade and advanced the mutual prosperity of its members. It was an enormously successful northern European trading alliance, one which established enclaves even in ports which were not nominally
Hanse affiliates. In London for example there was a tightly regulated Hanse zone, effectively a tariff-free port, on the north bank of the Thames, recalled to this day in a riverside thoroughfare called Hanseatic Walk.

Hanseatic wealth was evidenced in showpiece representational buildings such as town halls, merchants’ houses and guildhalls. In their design and construction, many cities of the Hanse drew on shared architectural principles, in much the same way that many centuries later the representational buildings of another era – Europe’s great railway termini – also drew on a shared understanding of design and aesthetics.

Many of the most celebrated examples of brick Gothic are found in towns close to Germany’s Baltic coast – and more widely across the Baltic region in places touched by the Hanseatic League.

This journey broadly follows the Baltic shore of northern Germany and northern Poland, escorting us from Hamburg to Gdańsk and Malbork, from where it’s just a short ride south to Warsaw. This route thus presents a credible alternative to the much faster option from Hamburg via Berlin to Warsaw (following Route 32 and Route 35 in this book).

The appeal of the Baltic journey described here resides not merely in the superb townscapes; there’s some fabulous beaches and wonderful green landscapes, the latter often at their most appealing during spring when the apple blossom is at its best …

Source: from page 279 of the Routes Section in Europe by Rail (17th edition).

Sample 3

Rail Route 34: Exploring Slovakia

Cities: ** Culture: ** History: * Scenery: **
Countries covered: Austria (AT), Slovakia (SK), Hungary (HU)
Journey time: 13 hrs 20 mins | Distance: 781 km

One family dominated the politics and power of central Europe until the First World War. Until the start of the 18th century, the Habsburg dynasty’s imperial power extended way beyond central Europe. It’s easy to forget that Spain was once part of the Habsburg realm. But with the assignment of Spain to the French Bourbons in 1700, Habsburg power was concentrated on two great cities on the Danube: Vienna and Budapest.

This new route for the 17th edition of Europe by Rail links those two great cities. In the final phase of Habsburg power, Budapest and Vienna were the twin centres of political influence and commercial innovation in Austria-Hungary. With an arcane web of law and privileges and a rich medley of cultures and languages, this was a disparate empire. But from about 1840, the railways assumed ever greater importance in linking the scattered Habsburg territories.

The first line, linking Vienna with Brno, opened in 1839, and before long the railways extended into the Bukovina and Banat and the remotest corners of Carniola and Carinthia. The pace of development was so fast that the state only narrowly avoided bankruptcy by hastily selling off railway assets in 1850. Even today, some key routes are still sometimes referred to by the old Habsburg names: the Rudolf Railway, the Emperor Franz Joseph Railway, the Empress Elisabeth Railway – each one name-checking a Habsburg royal.

The journey on the main line from Vienna to Budapest is unremarkable. Despite linking two Danube cities, the railway affords few glimpses of the river, though there is a pleasant short stretch around Komárom where the train to Budapest hugs the south bank of the Danube.

Our recommended route from Vienna to Budapest is much more circuitous, making a great loop to the north to skirt the southern flank of the Tatra Mountains and along the way taking in Slovakia’s two largest cities: Bratislava and Košice. This is a route that explores just one small part of Habsburg Europe, blending Habsburg style with assertive Modernism and along the way taking in some grand mountain scenery.

Itinerary and tickets

The two really obvious stops on this route are Bratislava and Košice, but there are other candidates. If you like the general antics that surround spa towns, you might consider a night in Piešt’any (though it’s a pale shadow of the West Bohemian spa towns mentioned in Route 34). This is a route which in its long central section from Bratislava right through to Košice, has consistently fine mountain scenery. If you are tempted to stop off, and this is your first encounter with the Slovakian hills, make that stop in the Tatra Mountains. Poprad is the most popular jumping-off point for Tatra excursions, but we think that Štrba is actually a better choice for connecting into the Tatra tram network.

Source: from page 314 of the Routes Section in Europe by Rail (17th edition).

Sample 4

Sidetracks: Carriage design

Rail travel is generally very safe. But that was not the perception of Parisians in 1861 after poor Monsieur Poinsot was found dead in a railway carriage compartment at the Gare de l’Est. By the time Poinsot’s mutilated body was discovered, the murderer had long fled, presumably having alighted at one of the stations where the train from Mulhouse had stopped on its journey to Paris.

The fate of Monsieur Poinsot made French travellers think twice about buying a train ticket. Before long, Gallic panic over the dangers of train travel spread to England, when a particularly gruesome compartment murder took place in London. English trains were designed on the same lines as those in France, with first-class accommodation being in separate compartments, each accessed by a door directly from the railway platform. There was in those days no connection at all between adjacent compartments.

This design was the norm across Europe for first class, in contrast to North America where the open-plan saloon car was more common. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, in his marvellous book The Railway Journey, suggests that on European trains well-to-do travellers enjoyed the privacy and style associated with travel in a horse-drawn coach on a highway. The first-class railway compartment in Europe imitated the coach, but Schivelbusch notes that the design of the American railroad car was inspired by the open saloons on the riverboats which plied the young nation’s waterways.

“That only two cases of murder,” writes Schivelbusch, “were able to trigger a collective psychosis tells us as much about the compartment’s significance for the nineteenth century European psyche as does the fact that it took so long to become conscious of the compartment’s dysfunctionality.”

That dysfunctionality lay not merely in the compartment’s appeal for assassins. There were surely many instances of lavatorial distress; no surprise perhaps that, when a train arrived at an intermediate station after a particularly long non-stop leg, there was often a communal rush for the station toilets.

The victim in the London murder was an unfortunate Mr Briggs; his assailant was a German villain named Franz Müller. The railways responded by introducing a small glazed peephole between compartments. These peepholes were called Müller Lights. Many a courting couple surely bemoaned the resulting loss of privacy. Before long, railway companies installed communication cords which passengers in distress could pull to alert the train crew to an emergency. But a German railway engineer, Edmund Heusinger von Waldegg, devised a more radical approach to mitigating the dangers of travel in compartments. He suggested an internal corridor down one side of each carriage, allowing passengers and train staff to move from compartment to compartment. It did not entirely erode the intimacy of the small compartment but now afforded a new sense of safety and security. It also paved the way for the introduction of on-board facilities such as toilets and restaurant cars.

European carriage design has moved on, with the open-plan saloon now much preferred by most travellers. Trains with individual compartments linked by a connecting corridor are now increasingly rare. Read more on carriage design in Sidetracks N (on communal carriages in Russia) on p278.

Source: from page 175 of the Routes Section in Europe by Rail (17th edition).