Around Mount Etna 🌋 and Vesuvius 🌋 by train 🇮🇹

Italy has twelve volcanoes. Two of them, which are some of the most active in the country, also have railways operating local passenger services around them. There is the Circumvesuviana circulating Mount Vesuvius on the Gulf of Naples and the Circumetnea around Mount Etna on Sicily. So why did Italy build them?

Both railways were built at the end of the 19th century, and their purpose is mutual – they exist to serve local villages situated around the volcanoes, connecting them to each other and to the nearby cities of Naples and Catania. These railways are a lifeline for the communities they serve, which is evident from the high numbers of locals who use these services every day.

The routes are not so much of a tourist attraction, with their fragmented timetables for completing the full circle and at least one change of train required on both routes. However, travelling around them does not just offer fantastic views, but it also constitutes a unique insight into local life. A truly unique experience.

Circumvesuviana – Naples

Route map of the Circumvesuviana
Route map of the Circumvesuviana.
Source – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Circumvesuviana_maps.png
Journey LegBest Views
Barra to Barra (clockwise)Right Hand Side – views of Mount Vesuvius
Recommendations based on a clockwise journey from Napoli Porta Nolana to Barra

Firstly, around Vesuvius. I started my journey at the terminus of the Circumvesuviana at the station of Napoli Porta Nolana, opting to travel clockwise. I recommend to start here to avoid the crowds boarding at Napoli Garibaldi, the next station. As you can see on the map (above), there are two trains required to complete the full circle, with a change at Poggiomarino and a total travelling time of two hours (excluding the connection time at Poggiomarino).

The Circumvesuviana offers two types of rolling stock – the FE220 and the newer ETR221. The latter is far more comfortable, as you can probably tell from the photos (below), while the FE220 seats gave me past vibes of the chairs in my classroom at school.

It was certainly an experience travelling on these trains – one of the drivers activated the emergency brake at least twice en-route, resulting in passengers standing performing an impromptu run backwards down the carriage. Later on in the trip, the train happened to pass one of the ETR221s involved in an accident over 10 years ago in the sidings, looking worse for wear, which certainly serves as a stark reminder of the incident. Nevertheless, do not let this put you off this highly agreeable ride.

Circumetnea – Sicily

Journey LegViews
Catania Borgo to Riposto (clockwise)Left Hand Side – views from a-height (recommended)
Right Hand Side – views of Mount Etna
Giarre Riposto to Catania (southbound, clockwise)Left Hand Side – Ionian Sea
Right Hand Side – views of Mount Etna
Recommendations based on a clockwise journey from Catania to Giarre Riposto on the Circumetnea and a mainline journey from Giarre Riposto to Catania.

Mount Etna is the highest and largest active volcano in Europe, so it will not come as a surprise that this route takes all day to travel around. The varied landscapes and great view of the volcano make the journey worthwhile.

Starting at the beautiful terracotta Catania Borgo station, there are two departures per day to enable you to travel the full circle in a clockwise direction. Early birds can take the 08:05 departure, or for those who like a leisurely morning, the later 12:20 – both departures go through to Randazzo, where you must change trains. I opted for the lunch time departure, which also has the shortest connection time at Randazzo of 47 minutes between trains compared to 2 hours and 7 minutes for the 08:05 departure.

The next train departs from Randazzo at 12:10 or 15:06 respectively to Riposto, where you must change one final time to the nearby Giarre-Riposto station onto a Trenitalia ‘Intercity’ or ‘Regionale’ train back to Catania.

Logistics out of the way, what about the experience? Similarly to the Circumvesuviana, the route serves local communities, even though the experience itself is different. Firstly, the Circumetnea climbs up the volcano unlike its counterpart, so it is best to sit on the side away from the volcano for the best views this time.

The train ascends shortly after departure from Catania through the lava rocks and then fields with Bronte pistachios growing in abundance. This journey to Randazzo serves the most populated communities on the route, and has highly loaded trains to match especially between Paterno and S. M. Licodia Centrale stations, where we were accompanied by a large group of school children onboard. The crowding was only for a couple of stops thankfully.

Arriving at the medieval village of Randazzo, you have to alight and wait for the next train arriving on the same platform later. Two trains then arrived at the depot, one going back to Catania and the other onto Riposto. There did not seem to be an indication of which train was going where, so I checked with the staff, but the busiest one by far was the one going back to Catania. Surprisingly I was the only passenger for Riposto – the northern part of the route has the most picturesque scenery.

Fares

Circumvesuviana

Ticketing is priced according to scheduled journey duration. If you wish to travel the full circumference in one go, you can use a €4,90 ticket valid for 180 minutes, the journey time being 51 minutes from Napoli PN to Poggiomarino on the red-coloured route, and 59 minutes from Poggiomarino to Napoli PN on the green-coloured route. If you decide to break your journey to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum (both are highly recommended), you need to purchase additional tickets at stations en route; there is no ‘day’ or ‘network’ ticket (perhaps a missed opportunity!).

Journey LegFull Public Cost
Napoli Porta Nolana to Napoli Porta Nolanafrom €4,90 on the day (according to journey duration)
Cost based on a clockwise journey from Napoli Porta Nolana

Circumetnea

Pricing is by distance for the Circumetnea and tickets available on the day of travel. If you wish to travel the full circumference you can use a ticket covering 70km+. Another ticket is required for the Trenitalia leg that can also be purchased on the day.

Journey LegFull Public Cost
Catania Borgo to Riposto (Circumetnea)€6,80 on the day
Giarre Riposto to Catania (Trenitalia)€3,40 (Regionale) on the day
€8,50 (Intercity) on the day
Cost based on a clockwise journey from Catania Borgo to Catania via Randazzo and Riposto

This article was first published in July 2022 based on journeys in Autumn 2020.

Corona InterCity – Budapest 🇭🇺 to Brașov 🇷🇴 by Hungarian sleeper train

The concept of naming trains is somewhat rare in Western Europe nowadays – in the Eastern parts, however, there are plenty. As part of a trip from the UK to Romania by train, I had booked on the, unfortunately named (at least for 2020 onwards), “Corona” InterCity for its full journey from the Hungarian capital of Budapest to Brașov, in the heart of Transylvania.

There are a multitude of sleeper trains between Hungary and Romania each day, departing at different times, all with their own names to match. The best known ones are the “Ister” and “Dacia”, which connect the capitals of Budapest and Bucharest. These trains are exclusively formed of carriages by the Romanian State Railways (CFR Călători) for the end-to-end journey.

On the contrary, the Corona is unique as it is formed of carriages from the Hungarian State Railways (MÁV-START), with its own dining car to match – a rarity in the world of continental European sleeper trains. The train also takes a different route within Romania to serve towns, where Hungarian is widely spoken – for example Gheorgheni, Miercurea Ciuc and Brașov.

After enjoying a highly appropriate Kürtőskalác, or Chimney Cake, in Budapest (originally popular in the Hungarian-speaking regions of Romania) and the view from the Fisherman’s Bastion of the river Danube, we head to the station at what feels far too early in the day for a sleeper train in April – with no sign of the sun setting just yet.

One good reason for the 17:40 departure is the time that the train arrives at the Hungary-Romania border stations. Both countries are in the EU; however, Romania is not part of the Schengen agreement. This means we had our passports checked (and stamped) at both Biharkeresztes (Hungary) and Episcopia Bihor (Romania) stations. We were timetabled to arrive at 21:08 and 22:56 respectively, meaning no through-the-night disturbances. Romania is in Eastern European Summer Time (EEST), while Hungary is in Central European Summer Time (CEST), so the Romanian time includes the +1 hour time difference, as we cross the border. Another benefit is the 09:42 arrival in the morning, allowing for a full day to explore Brașov, known for its medieval Saxon walls and bastions.

Armed with plenty of fluids and emergency food supplies from nearby Spar, we headed to our platform around half an hour before departure. Here, our friendly Hungarian Sleeping Car Attendant greeted us, checked our reservation, and showed us to our compartment. The train conveyed one sleeping car, one couchette car, two seated carriages, as well as the recently re-opened dining car, following closure through the COVID-19 pandemic. We were in store for a highly memorable trip!

Booking

Booking a ticket from the UK for the Corona proved to be a challenge. Sleeping cars cannot currently be booked online at the, otherwise much improved, Hungarian Railways website. While these cars can be booked on the Romanian Railways website, no discounts can be applied if you already hold a valid ticket. My party of two had an InterRail Pass, and I can obtain a discount using FIP Coupons available to European railway staff.

Another drawback with the CFR website is that it only shows availability for the Corona when the Ister is not available – at least from my observation for a handful of upcoming dates.

Having consulted one UK Travel Agent, International Rail, who were able to book trains in western and most of central Europe, they were unable to book trains between Hungary and Romania. I tried another UK Travel Agent, Rail Canterbury, who saved the day being able to make our reservation for this train.

Onboard the Corona

Sleeping Car

Towards the rear of the five car train was Coach 435, the elderly sleeping car which would be our base for the next 15 hours. Although on some occasions there are refurbished air-conditioned sleepers on this route (as can be seen on VagonWEB), for us today, we would instead be in store for a trip of nostalgia. Not at all a bad thing.

In our comfortable compartment, our two beds were made up ready for us when we arrived, complete with clean bedding and towels. Air-conditioning would be supplied via an open window, and there was a black-out blind and red curtain. The train had clearly been baking in the warm 25°C April sun for the day, so after departure (window down fully) we were brought some very welcome bottled water, multi-vitamin juice, and chocolate wafers on the house.

There was a USB and conventional socket within the cupboard above the sink; however, as explained later, we were not able to use it.

Dining Car

A real treat was the Hungarian Dining Car on the Corona, situated at the centre of the train that stays with the train for the full journey, boasting an extensive menu. Taking full advantage of the early evening meal departure time, we did not waste any time in seeking it out.

Enjoying a substantial beef burger with a few Korona wines (yes, the wine was called that too!), before we knew it, the sun was setting, and we were approaching the Hungarian border. We settled the bill and headed back to the compartment, to be ready with our passports.

It is worth mentioning that as Sleeping Car passengers on the Corona, we were entitled to a free breakfast in the Dining Car in the morning. The Sleeping Car Attendant handed us a voucher with our tickets.

Powerless

Returning to the compartment nicely full, we were surprised to find the Sleeping Car plunged into darkness. Our Sleeping Car Attendant appears out of nowhere to try to tell us what is going on, but we struggle with a mutual language. It appeared that he was telling us that in a few stations we will have power – I assume that he was referring to one of the stations where the locomotive would be changed.

Hopeful our power will return, we sit tight, enjoy the unique experience of travelling in the dark, glancing up at the stars. Resourcefully, we use every opportunity at lit stations to search our luggage for what we need to settle down for the night.

Unfortunately, the power never arrived, with the exception of the corridor that miraculously lit up at the border stations. Following a restful sleep, we woke up to a freezing carriage and frost on the ground in Romania, so we were very glad to be returning to the Dining Car for some sustenance and much needed mobile phone charge.

Couchette Car

Following breakfast in the morning, in search of somewhere warm to sit and power, we head to the Couchette Car, which offered us both. This carriage has been refurbished recently too. Our Sleeping Car Attendant pops his head in to say hello and understandingly nods his head when we tell him we moved to get power.

Seated Car

On the Corona there are two compartment Seated Cars. One was a refurbished car, the other looking more tired but comfortable. Take your pick.

Scenery

It’s worth heading to the back of the train to see the sunset over the east of Hungary. In the morning, we were greeted to hilly views of Transylvania.

Arrival

We arrived on time after an overall pleasant trip. And, in case you were wondering, we did not catch Coronavirus from the Corona.

Fares

Journey LegFull Price Return*Global InterRail Pass
Budapest to Brașov123.73 LEI (25€) + Reservation FeeIncluded + Reservation Fee (80€ for two people sharing 2-berth sleeping compartment)

*pricing valid at the time of writing – May 2022.

If you work for the rail industry in a European country, as I do, you can take advantage of FIP free and discounted travel across Europe, which includes a trip on the Corona plus the one-off reservation fee for the whole journey in the chosen accommodation.

Journey LegUsing FIP Free Coupons
Budapest to BrașovMÁV FIP Free Coupon (Budapest to Biharkeresztes)
+ CFR FIP Free Coupon (Biharkeresztes to Brașov)
+ Reservation Fee (80€ for two people sharing 2-berth sleeping compartment)

This article was first published in May 2022

Interlaken 🇨🇭 to Jungfraujoch 🇨🇭 – The Top of Europe by train. What’s the journey like and is it worth the cost?

A trip to the Top of Europe sounds impressive, right? At an impressive 3,454 metres high, Jungfraujoch is Europe’s highest train station. As you might expect, this is a tourist attraction and not the cheapest train journey even by Swiss standards – but is it worth the cost?

The trip starts at Interlaken Ost, a resort town that is a core part of the Swiss rail network with direct trains to Bern, Lucerne and even international destinations to/from Germany.

It isn’t a case of jumping on one train to get to the Top of Europe – there are multiple changes required. There are also different route options – whether you want to go via Lauterbrunnen or Grindelwald, whether you would like to go solely by railway or the faster cable car and train combination. You can also mix and match making tailoring the trip exactly how you’d like it – we opted for ascending exclusively by train via Lauterbrunnen and descending by cable car and train via Grindelwald.

In this blog I will explain these routes, however please consult jungfrau.ch for the latest information about each of the options and fares available.

Interlaken Ost to Lauterbrunnan (796 metres)

Journey LegDurationOperatorViews
Interlaken Ost to Lauterbrunnan20 minsBerner Oberland-BahnRight Hand Side

First up, our chariot is the train of the Berner Oberland-Bahn taking us 229 metres up to Lauterbrunnan in 20 minutes.

Lauterbrunnan to Kleine Scheidegg (2,061 metres)

Journey LegDurationOperatorViews
Lauterbrunnan to Kleine Scheidegg38 minsWengernalpbahnRight Hand Side

This next leg is where the spectacular scenery begins. It’s a steep ascent on the rack railway from Lauterbrunnan to Kleine Scheidegg. As soon as the train departs there is a beautiful view over Lauterbrunnan. Then a views down into the valley on the approach to Wengen station sitting at 1,247 metres followed by Allmen station at 1,509 metres. This is the point I realised how unique this journey is – you get a real sense of the height you’ve climbed. Look out for Swiss cows donning big bells around their necks and the first view of a glacier. I did notice how thin the air was getting off at Kleine Scheidegg. There is a water machine and taking slow steps is advised from here upwards.

Kleine Scheidegg to Eigergletscher (2,320 metres)

Journey LegDurationOperatorViews
Kleine Scheidegg to Eigergletscher5 minsJungfraubahnRight Hand Side

Next up the rather comfortable, red, Jungfrau Railways train climbing up to Eigergletscher. This is a quick 5 minute trip. Unfortunately for us, this is where the mist came in obscuring our view across the valley.

Eigergletscher to Jungfraujoch (3,454 metres) – the Top of Europe

Journey LegDurationOperatorViews
Eigergletscher to Jungfraujoch26 minsJungfraubahnN/A

The final leg is on another red train by the Jungfrau railways. This journey is entirely in a tunnel, built in order to protect the railway line from snow and extreme weather. The train makes a stop at Eismeer, the second highest train station in Europe at 3,159 metres, stopping for 5 minutes to admire the panoramic view of Ischmeer glacier covered in thick snow. Impressive.

Finally everyone gets back on to travel for the final 300 metres to the Top of Europe, at Jungfraujoch.

The Top of Europe

We made it to the Top of Europe! There is a viewing platform here at Jungfraujoch however the mist never cleared in our experience. Despite this and much to our surprise, it turned out to be very easy to spend a few hours at the Top of Europe with an ice plateau outside, vast ice caves with ice scultptures, a museum, shops (including souvenir and the highest Lindt shop), Europe’s highest post office and a café.

Jungfraujoch to Eigergletscher (2,320 m)

Journey LegDurationOperatorViews
Jungfraujoch to Eigergletscher24 minsJungfraubahnN/A

To begin our descent we retrace our steps and travel back through the tunnel on the same route, however it’s worth noting that that the train doesn’t stop at Eismeer in this direction – it’s direct to Eigergletscher. A family sat their child in the spare seat next to me, who fell asleep for the duration with his head on my shoulder…

Eigergletscher to Grindelwald (1,034 m)

Journey LegDurationOperatorViews
Eigergletscher to Grindelwald15 minsEiger Express Cable CarFront

Spicing things up for the return leg, we opt for the route via Grindelwald this time instead of Lauterbrunnen and tried out the new Eiger Express Cable Car that opened in December 2020. With its 44 cabins, it glides down the 1,300 metres elegantly with stunning views from the front. Although you’re sat with the window to your back, you can turn around for an unobscured view. There is also a Wengernalpbahn train along the same route taking longer.

Grindelwald to Interlaken Ost (568 m)

Journey LegDurationOperatorViews
Grindelwald to Interlaken Ost35 minsBerner Oberland-BahnLeft Hand Side

This would be the final leg of our trip back to Interlaken. Grindelwald itself does have a vast array of shops, perfect for a travel break on the way back. Once ready to head back, the final leg to Interlaken Ost is by rack railway with river views on the left.

Overall despite the weather conditions, I thoroughly enjoyed my journey to the Top of Europe. No matter what the weather is at the top, you can still appreciate the scale of the railway and the effort required for those involved in building it. It’s a true engineering marvel. Getting on and off trains en route gives you the chance to experience stunning views while breathing fresh mountain air aplenty.

Route wise, both routes via Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald are spectacular and I recommend going up one and down the other.

In terms of buying tickets, I suggest waiting until the day of travel to purchase these so you can check for the weather conditions on the day – the pricing is the same no matter when you buy it and no reservations necessary. We found the staff at Interlaken Ost booking office to be very helpful, happily working out the cheapest price for us. There are webcams online and in hotel room TVs in Interlaken, so you can check the conditions before setting off.

Tickets

Ticketing isn’t the easiest to get your head around, though you can purchase a through ticket from Interlaken Ost to Jungfraujoch despite using three train operators services and the cable car, and all from the booking office at Interlaken Ost. There’s a cheaper Good Morning ticket available for the early bird departures and discounts for those with InterRail, FIP and Swiss Half Fare cards among others. More details can be found here.

Journey LegFull Price Return*InterRail Discounted Return
(valid, but no need to date)*
Interlaken Ost to Jungfraujoch (Return)Valid all day – 210.80 CHFValid all day – 177.20 CHF
Interlaken Ost to Jungfraujoch (Return)‘Good Morning’ ticket – 175.00 CHF
*pricing valid at the time of writing – December 2021.

If you work for the rail industry in a European country, as I do, you can take advantage of FIP free and discounted travel across Europe which includes a trip to the Top of Europe.

Journey LegUsing FIP Discount Card*
Interlaken Ost to Jungfraujoch (Return)Valid all day – 117.90 CHF
Good Morning Ticket – 95.00 CHF
*pricing valid at the time of writing – December 2021
Journey LegUsing FIP Free Coupons*
Interlaken Ost to LauterbrunnenFIP Free Coupon (SP)
Lauterbrunnen to Kleine ScheideggFIP Free Coupon (SP)
Kleine Scheidegg to Jungfraujoch via EigergletscherFIP Fare 39.00 CHF
Jungfraujoch to EigergletscherFIP Fare 37.50 CHF
Eigergletscher to Kleine Scheidegg (Cable Car)FIP Free Coupon (SP)
Kleine Scheidegg to Interlaken OstFIP Free Coupon (SP)
*pricing valid at the time of writing – December 2021

This article was first published in December 2021

Europe’s Only Train-on-a-Ferry route – Mainland Italy 🇮🇹 to Sicily 🇮🇹 direct

Italy is well known for its expansive railway network, but one intercity route stands out as being particularly unique. There are trains that start in the major cities of Milan and Rome and travel for up to 20 hours direct to stations in Sicily – terminating in Siracusa on the south coast and Palermo in the north. Trains on these routes board a ferry as part of the trip and are the only passenger trains in Europe to board a ferry as part of the journey. A truly unique travelling experience.

I opted for the InterCity Notte, or night, from Milano Centrale to Siracusa, mainly for the opportunity to witness the ferry crossing during sociable hours and to take advantage of a longer journey duration and distance that is rarity for European sleeper trains. This train offers sleeping cars and couchette cars where I opted for the former.

I made a video of the journey that includes the process of the train boarding and leaving the ferry crossing the Messina Strait, the excellent coastal views you can expect as well as the accommodation and service onboard.

The trip took place during the COVID-19 pandemic when travel was permitted from the UK to Italy.

This article was first published in December 2020.

Frecciarossa 500 🚆🇮🇹 in Business Class during the COVID-19 Pandemic

The world looks different across all industries in 2020 as we all adapt to the needs of the COVID-19 pandemic and this very much includes the railway sector worldwide.

In October 2020 I travelled to Italy for some train-sampling Trenitalia style. Here is a video showcasing travel in Business Class on Italy’s most premium high-speed rail service by the nationalised operator, the Frecciarossa. I travelled from Verona Porta Nuova to Bolzano Boden – a wonderfully scenic journey towards the border with Austria.

This article was first published in November 2020.

All aboard one of the final Hamburg 🇩🇪 to Copenhagen 🇩🇰 train-ferry 🚆🛳 services and the Schwebebahn 🚟 in Wuppertal 🇩🇪

One weekend in Germany and a lot to fit in! To add to the schedule, we had planned to take the slower, more interesting and relaxed route from the UK to Germany and Denmark exclusively by train. This is all perfectly do-able in a long weekend taking Friday off work and two full days on Saturday and Sunday. Our plan was to kick things off with the direct Eurostar service from London to Amsterdam…

London to Amsterdam by Eurostar

But luck wasn’t on our side… We had booked several weeks in advance on one of the three direct train options from London St Pancras to Amsterdam Centraal stations with operator Eurostar. I wanted a repeat of this smooth journey I had completed in April 2018 where the train passes through four countries seamlessly. Also I wanted to spend the time in Standard Premier class where you can enjoy a couple of small bottles of wine and a light meal and snack… bliss. On this train you don’t even notice the border crossings thanks to pre-travel check-in in London and with France, Belgium and the Netherlands being in Schengen Area. See my earlier blog post from 2018 here.

Unfortunately, one week prior to departure, Eurostar informed us that our train was cancelled due to a French General Strike affecting flights as well as the railway. It was just part and parcel of travel and the sometimes unexpected fun of having to think on your feet.

Naturally, in order to continue with the rest of the trip myself and my friends Mike and Ed had to find an alternative way to travel from the UK to Amsterdam. So I obtained a Eurostar refund and booked a flight with easyJet from Edinburgh to Amsterdam for £29 – not bad for one week before the time I wanted to travel. The flight served its purpose but was quite boring, there’s something truly special about travelling by train instead of flying as well as the environmental benefits.

I arrived in Amsterdam to meet my friend Mike who had flown to Amsterdam from a different airport and Ed was joining us later in Hamburg. We headed for the cosy Cafe Pollux for a few beers and then next door to our hotel, the Hotel Mansion, which was very comfortable.

Amsterdam to Düsseldorf by NS/DB ICE train

The following morning we set off early to catch the 08:08 InterCity Express (ICE) train from Amsterdam Centraal bound straight to Germany, operated jointly by state operators Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) and Deutsche Bahn (DB). The train was booked to be two trains coupled together for its journey to Basel in Switzerland, however our bad luck continued as due to a train fault one of the trains wasn’t there and that included our reserved coach.

Not to worry, we found some staff for advice on the platform and were advised to find any unreserved seats. Much to our delight we found several unreserved in the panorama coach… yes on the DB ICE 3 trains you can sit behind the driver and the cab with a glass screen between!

We arrived in Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof (Main Station) in good time and as we weren’t meeting Ed until the evening in Hamburg, we were able to take full advantage of our flexible pass to travel virtually anywhere in Germany (European rail staff FIP free coupon, but similar to flexibility of publicly available InterRail passes), being able to be spontaneous.

We opted first for a trip to Wuppertal to ride the recently re-opened Schwebebahn, only 20 minutes from Düsseldorf Hbf by DB operated Regional-Express (RE) train.

Riding the Schwebebahn 🚟

Built as a means to get city dwellers from one part of Wuppertal to the other is the Schwebebahn – the world’s oldest electric elevated railway with hanging cars. It was closed for eight months due to an accident in November 2018.

The Schwebebahn is fast and efficient and during our visit it was very well utilised by the locals with our carriage soon filling to capacity. We joined at its southwestern start in Oberbarmen and travelled the full length to Vohwinkel Schwebebahn in the northeast. The full journey time is 25 mins with the train covering 13.3km with 21 stops in total. It weaves its way through city streets then the river Wupper up to Wuppertal Hauptbahnhof.

Next up we boarded an ICE headed for Cologne. We went to the Bordrestaurant for a drink and shared a table with a gentleman travelling to work. We asked for recommendations of where to go and he recommended Bonn so we headed there changing at Cologne for a regional train to Bonn Hauptbahnhof. We spent a few hours here before ultimately heading to Hamburg.

Bonn, one of Germany’s oldest cities, did not disappoint. We enjoyed a walk around the old town, perusing the Christmas markets, supped some beer at the Brauhaus Boennsch, with its famous non-symmetrical curved glasses, and grabbed some pastries for the road from a local bakery before continuing our journey north.

We headed from Bonn to Cologne on a National Express regional train and then changed onto our ICE up north. There was a direct InterCity train from Bonn but we wanted to ride in the more comfortable ICE.

Koeln Hbf to Hamburg Hbf via DB ICE trains

In order to travel by ICE trains we would have to change trains in Hannover.

Our next leg was from Cologne to Hannover was on a DB ICE 2 train, taking 2 hours and 40 minutes.

We were hungry so instead of finding an unreserved seat we headed straight to the Bordrestaurant, the DB dining car. We started with some beers, Erdinger wheat beer was a very tasty choice. We then tucked into the German speciality currywurst followed by a rice pudding with the choice of cinnamon or sugar as a topping. Absolutely delicious and reasonably priced!

Then an easy 8 minute change at Hannover and we continued our journey on a brand new ICE 4 to Hamburg Hauptbahnhof… in the bar of course.

Hamburg to Copenhagen via train-ferry 🚆🛳

Until December 2019 there were three departures each day each way connecting Hamburg Hauptbahnhof and Copenhagen Central Station with a direct EuroCity train operated jointly by DB and Danske Statsbaner (DSB). What was very special about this international rail route is that the train boards a commercial Scandlines ferry as part of the schedule for its journey from Puttgarden to Roedby! This was one of three routes in Europe that has such an operation of a train going onto a ferry.

This route has now been changed so the train-ferry no longer runs and the train from Hamburg to Copenhagen goes on an overland route to the west which is longer in distance but is a similar journey time to what the ferry option was. In the coming years a tunnel will be built between Puttgarden and Roedby calling an end to the future of the train-ferry service.

Luckily, we managed to fit in the penultimate weekend of operation of the train-ferry in December 2019…

We set off on train ‘EuroCity’ 33 from its origin Hamburg Hauptbahnhof and were travelling to its terminus of Copenhagen (Kobenhavn) Central Station. The train was an DSB owned IC3 variety. There were two of these trains coupled together to make a 6-car train and even then every seat was taken, but this could’ve had something to do with the penultimate weekend of operation. The train didn’t have a dining car, but did have a vending machine selling some expensive Coca Cola which didn’t tempt me unsurprisingly.

I don’t know whether the ferry related quotes on the wall will survive once the route has changed!

The scenery wasn’t much to write home about and there wasn’t much life along the route – though there was plenty of sea on the approach to Puttgarden. At one point the train was surrounded with views of the sea from both sides.

As the train went onto the ferry, there was a thorough announcement by the conductor in three languages, Danish 🇩🇰, German 🇩🇪 and English 🇬🇧, asking customers not to remain on the train once it boards the ferry – the train would be locked shut.

See below the video of the train boarding the ferry complete with the announcement!

Train EC33 boarding the ferry en route from Hamburg to Copenhagen for one of the final times

Once we had boarded the ferry the capacity issues had become apparent – the train was practically touching both ends of the ferry – some impressive train driving going on there!

The ferry was large and had a number of amenities from a restaurant to a supermarket. You could tell it was a Scandinavian ferry by the eye-watering prices onboard, however the deck space was free for some fresh Baltic sea air.

The train arrived into Copenhagen and what a beautiful historical station it was with red and black checkered tiles and a very grand wooden roof.

Copenhagen city itself was a great place to finish the trip with some beautiful historical buildings and churches. The Christmas market was on and who knew the Danes were as crazy about Christmas as we Brits are? There were many places to buy ‘gloegg’ (mulled wine) at the market, and we were able to try ‘snaps’, a local floral-flavoured spirit traditionally served with a meal.

Tickets

TrainFIP Rail Staff Travel FacilitiesPublic Fares
(purchase online at DB Bahn)
London to Amsterdam (Eurostar)£44.50 in Standard / £62.00 in Standard PremierFrom £35.00 in Standard / From £79.00 in Standard Premier
Amsterdam to Duesseldorf(NS/DB ICE)NS/DB Free Coupons + 4,50 EUR Optional ReservationFrom 18,90 EUR bought in advance in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation

From 29,90 EUR bought in advance in 1st Class (inc. seat reservation)
Duesseldorf to Wuppertal (DB RE)DB Free Coupon
Wuppertal to Cologne (DB ICE)DB Free Coupon + 4,50 EUR Optional ReservationFrom 13,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation

Cheaper RE trains also available.
Cologne to Bonn (DB RE)DB Free Coupon
Bonn to Cologne (DB RE)DB Free Coupon
Cologne to Hannover (DB ICE)DB Free Coupon + 4,50 EUR Optional Reservation23,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation

Cheaper IC trains also available.
Hannover to Hamburg (DB ICE)DB Free Coupon + 4,50 EUR Optional Reservation From 12,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation

(through tickets from Cologne to Hamburg from 27,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation)
Hamburg to CopenhagenDB/DSB Free Coupons + 4,50 EUR (on train-ferry)From 28,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation on current IC train route (non-ferry).

From 54,90 EUR in 1st Class including seat reservation

This article was first published in January 2020.

U.K. 🇬🇧 to Istanbul, Turkey 🇹🇷 Exclusively by Train 🚆 – 2,100 miles, 12 days, 12 trains

I embarked on a voyage with my Mam to travel exclusively from York, England to Istanbul, Turkey by train – that’s right, over 2,100 miles without leaving the ground once!

In total this would mean 52 hours being spent on 12 different trains (albeit inclusive of a few days ‘off-piste’ to visit beautiful Split, Croatia.. who said there were rules?!). This would be nicely spread out across 2 weeks which meant for a journey of pure relaxation and excitement. Much more interesting than flying!

Here is the itinerary and that all important route map…

JourneyTrainDuration
Leg 1York 🇬🇧 to London 🇬🇧LNER Azuma1h59
Leg 2London 🇬🇧 to Paris 🇫🇷Eurostar e3202h16
Leg 3Paris 🇫🇷 to Munich 🇩🇪TGV EuroDuplex5h41
Leg 4Munich 🇩🇪 to Villach 🇦🇹ÖBB RailJet4h56
Leg 5Villach 🇦🇹 to Zagreb 🇭🇷EuroCity Mimara4h00
DetourZagreb 🇭🇷 to Split 🇭🇷Sleeper train7h16
DetourSplit 🇭🇷 to Zagreb 🇭🇷ICN6h13
Leg 6Zagreb 🇭🇷 to Belgrade 🇷🇸Regional6h39
Leg 7Belgrade 🇷🇸 to Nis 🇷🇸Regional4h43
Leg 8Nis 🇷🇸 to Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸Regional3h35
Leg 9Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸 to Sofia 🇧🇬Regional2h12
Leg 10Sofia 🇧🇬 to Istanbul 🇹🇷Sleeper train8h00

The grand plan was to spend 2 or 3 days in any one city and then spend a day travelling. We did however take two time-effective and very comfortable sleeper trains.

Day 1

Leg 1 – York 🇬🇧 to London King’s Cross 🇬🇧(1 hour, 59 mins)

We kicked things off with travelling by the new LNER Azuma train from York to the heart of the capital London King’s Cross in just under 2 hours.

Day 3

Leg 2 – 11:31 London St Pancras 🇬🇧 to Paris Nord 🇫🇷 (2 hours, 16 mins)

After a day exploring London we really kicked our European adventure off by travelling ‘sous la manche’ from London St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord on the high-speed Eurostar service.

We then had one hour in Paris before leaving on our next train to Munich. We allowed an hour between trains in Paris to give time to the 10 minute walk from Paris Gare du Nord to Paris Gare de L’Est and any minimal delay on Eurostar. Thankfully we were running to time. However we had the knowledge that if we missed the connection we would be covered by the self explanatory Hop On The Next Available Train (HOTNAT) agreement between Railteam members.

Leg 3 – 15:55 Paris Est 🇫🇷 to Munich Hbf 🇩🇪 (5 hours, 41 mins)

Our next train was the double-decker TGV for 770 km direct from Paris Est to Muenchen Hauptbahnhof (translated as Munich Main station). Upon entering Germany it was apparent that the train didn’t require customers to have a seat reservation as in France, so we timed our visit to the bar badly having to navigate our way around standing customers through four carriages as the train travelled between Strasbourg and Stuttgart.

When we arrived at the bar we treated ourselves to the in-house TGV chef menu by Michel Sarran. I had the ’Poulet Grillé’ and ’Comme une Charlotte aux Fraises‘ for dessert, both of which were very tasty however I was disspointed at the lack of chicken with the main course. The bar had also run out of white wine so I had to opt for rose and bought an extra one… why not!

We arrived into Munich Hauphtbahnhof on time ready for a full day of sightseeing the next day. Although the weather was wet, we did a walking tour to learn about Munich’s fascinating history and take in the sights of the glockenspeil in the main square, the Residenz and visit the Hofbraeuhaus.

Day 4

After a day exploring Munich, and what beautiful city it was, we were eagerly awaiting the next leg of the journey. Today would see us travel some 850 km through four different countries and on three different trains with our final destination being Split in Croatia.

Leg 4 – 07:47 Munich Hbf 🇩🇪 to Villach Hbf 🇦🇹 (4 hours, 56 mins)

First up, we had planned for an afternoon in Austria’s seventh-largest city, Villach.

The train was due to depart at 08:17 originally as marked on our reservations, however it’s just as well we checked the Deustche Bahn app the night before. Due to engineering work, our train was scheduled to depart half an hour earlier than scheduled! A lesson learned here is definitely to check your train before you travel.

Luckily we were in for a absolute treat with this journey so it was well worth the extra early start.

The smart Austrian RailJet train was our chariot for this leg. It boasts 3 classes of travel from Economy to First Class and even Business Class. It also has a sit-in restaurant called DoN’s Bistro which is available for all customers to use!

Mid journey we were peckish, so consequently headed to said restaurant for a spot of lunch. We were transiting through Austria and so chicken schnitzel and potatoes felt an appropriate choice. We also shared a bottle of very nice white wine while enjoying the spectacular scenery.

My Mam tried to flog Alex, who was looking after us in the bar, a £1 coin instead of a €1. He commented how much he liked Elizabeth, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to accept GBP so we did more digging for Euros.

As marked in the menu the Viennese-style chicken breast with parsley potatoes (Wiener Schnitzel von der Hendlbrust) main course cost €11.20 each while the large, high quality ‘Riesling’ bottle of wine cost €10.20. There was wine on the menu for €3.80 for a small bottle as well however this was the only one Alex had left on this trip.

While eating, we enjoyed the most scenic leg of the trip with lush green fields and steep mountain sides, especially in the run up to Bad Hofgastein during and after. Simply stunning.

Leg 5 – 16:53 Villach Hbf 🇦🇹 to Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 (4 hours)

After a relaxing 4 hours in Villach, where we explored 3 churches, had a long walk by the river and found a café serving Sachertorte (hurrah indeed!) we headed to the main station to board our next train. This was the cross-border EuroCity service to direct to Zagreb.

The train had come from Frankfurt and the it divided into two parts at Villach with one portion for Klagenfurt and the rear three coaches for Zagreb, the latter of which we joined.

This train was immensely popular, especially with interrailers. All three carriages were full upon departure from Villach, however 1.5 hours into the journey the vast majority of customers disembarked. The train was then only around half full for the rest of the journey to Zagreb.

We watched the sunset as we travelled towards the Slovenian-Croatian border. The mountains were dominating the landscape more and more as we travelled south so less of a view to enjoy from the train.

As the train was approaching the Slovenian-Croatian border, it stopped at a place called Dobova where our Slovenian conductor left the train for the authorities to conduct passport checks. It was now pitch black outside.

The station had an eerie feel to it as if this small village had history. The border police were searching the train on the adjacent platform, the Serbian carriages departing for Ljubljana, before moving onto our train so we sat waiting.

We watched as the torch was shone in a search for something in the toilet as you can see in the photo below. They then evicted a gentleman from the train.

We stood for around 40 minutes then our Croatian Railways’ conductor joined the train and we departed for Zagreb.

Upon arrival into Zagreb we had a couple of hours to find a hot drink and stock up on supplies before our next departure, the domestic Croatian Railways’ night train from Zagreb to Split.

22:56 Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 to Split 🇭🇷 (7 hours, 49 mins)

Our train was ready to board approximately 20 minutes before departure. In the meantime we sat at the station watching the train being prepared. There were staff walking on the tracks to access carriages with various manoeuvres and uncoupling of cars taking place, others were sat in the station platform bar drinking and enjoying a cigarette.

The train consisted of a motorail coach at the front followed by one sleeping car (1, 2, 3-berth cabins), two couchette cars (6-berth cabins) and four 2nd Class seated compartment cars. There are no catering facilities so luckily we brought our own drinks and snacks.

We had reservations in the sleeping car which was very comfortable, although the beds were quite short. On this train, in the sleeping car, despite three beds being made up the cabin is reserved exclusively for your booking. There are two toilets at the end of the carriage.

We arrived into Split station on time, refreshed and ready to sightsee whilst looking for coffee due to the 06:42 arrival!

We had a good couple of days exploring and relaxing in Split, especially enjoying its Roman old town. This was beautiful and a great place to get lost in the winding streets, not knowing which monument you’re going to bump into next from Diocletian’s Palace to the Cathedral of Saint Domnius and a number of restaurants serving high quality cuisine. Just outside the old town was a enticing fruit and vegetable market.

We also had time for an afternoon visit to Hvar with frequent ferries direct from Split with Jadrolinija and Kapetan Luka ferry companies. Fares were priced as one-way journeys around 40 kn / £4.63 each way depending on the departure time.

Hvar was quite similar to Split in size and feel and was easily walkable from the port. Hvar also had an impressive Spanish fortress dominating the skyline. To walk to the fortress, this involved a large number of steps.

After three days enjoying Split and Hvar we were due to travel to Zagreb on the one direct train per day leaving at 08:33 the next morning. Well, we weren’t officially due to travel since our compulsory reservation bought in the UK in advance was actually dated for April…

This meant an impromptu trip to the station was in order at 21:45 to be issued with a new reservation. The booking office clerk laughed at the error and issued us with a new reservation and actually at a fraction of the cost of the original.

While we were at the station I couldn’t help but notice the sleeper train about to leave for Zagreb and a shunting type of locomotive on the front. Apparently this is normal for the front of the sleeper for the first part of the journey out of Split to Ogulin. It has a sole purpose of climbing the steep mountain from the port town up to Ogulin then the locomotive is changed.

Day 7

08:33 Split 🇭🇷 to Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 (6 hours, 13 mins)

We arrived at Split station on time to catch our one daytime train option to the capital. Much to our surprise the train waiting to take us had only two carriages! As expected the train was relatively busy upon leaving, but we found that roughly 90% of customers travelled the entire route to Zagreb!

With two of us sitting at a table of four, we were convinced we were going to have to share with some other travellers at some point in the journey. Another surprise… At the 15 stations en route no more than 4 people joined at any one station! Most stations had no customers, so we never had to share our table with anyone.

There wasn’t much demand for travel at intermediate stations and there was nobody sitting in the 1st Class at any time in the journey. Not even the train conductor sat in there. She set up camp in 2nd Class placed her HŽPP branded antimacassar onto a seat of her choosing after departure. She mustn’t have wanted any customers to sit in her seat!

The train didn’t have any catering facilities, though there was what looked like a shop in the centre of the train albeit closed for us. I was informed on Twitter that this is supposed to be used as a ‘coffee point’ where the conductor can give you free coffee, but we were not offered this unfortunately.

The ICN train travelled through some beautiful mountainous terrain. The trains tilt around the corners to allow for a faster journey time which is a strange sensation.

Upon arriving at every station, even stations where the train didn’t stop, we found there was a Station Master awaiting the train’s arrival ensuring it safely departs. This railway pride was lovely to see, especially as we were travelling through many remote areas in the Croatian countryside. I don’t expect their jobs to be stressful in the slightest.

We arrived in Zagreb’s Glavni kolodvor station on time. The afternoon arrival enabled us to make the most of sightseeing and we particularly enjoyed exploring the Old Town up the mountain accessible by foot or by the funicular railway.

There was a wedding taking place in the Old Town, and what an amazing place and weather for it! We were in time to see the official photographs being taken with the bride and groom and their guests.

Day 8

Leg 6 – 11:03 Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 to Belgrade Centar 🇷🇸 (6 hours, 39 mins)

Next up was our train direct to the Serbian capital. There is one day train per day from Zagreb to Belgrade and the train consisted of just three carriages, two 2nd Class Serbian carriages and one 1st Class Croatian car. The latter car was detached within Croatia at Vinkovci however, so only 2nd Class was available for customers travelling to Serbia.

The Serbian carriages weren’t too inviting especially from the outside. They were drowned in grafitti. Inside the colour scheme is bland however the seats are very comfortable with decent legroom on offer.

The train actually starts in Zurich and runs direct to Belgrade as a EuroNight service. However, to travel from Zurich to Belgrade you must change cars since there is no through coach travelling the entire way. The Serbian day carriages are attached to the train at Villach and the night train carriages from Zurich are detached in Zagreb.

Mid-journey, I noticed that there was a steady stream of passengers moving themselves and their luggage into the next coach. Interested to find out what was happening, I went for a walk and discovered that one of the 2nd Class carriages was a declassified 1st Class coach and there was plenty of room for us to sit and enjoy it.. what a winner I said! In the carriage, there were more comfortable, larger seats and more leg and arm space than 2nd Class. Plus there was carpet instead of lino floor.

Without hesitation we moved our bags and enjoyed the second half of our journey even more. The scenery was mainly countryside and flat landscape, but pleasant enough.

There is no catering car so bringing your own picnic is recommended. Zagreb Glavni kolodvor station has an underpass beneath the station accessible by escalator in the square, at the front of the station. This features a supermarket and a number of bakeries with delicious pre-made sandwiches. Upon entering Serbia however, at Šid station, there was a very welcome arrival onto the train… a vendor with his cool box of drinks!

Six hours is a long time for no drinks to be available so unsurprisingly many people took advantage of his good selection of Serbian beer, canned soft drinks and strong coffee to keep them going for the remaining 2 hours while transiting through Serbia.

I saw him get off the train at the following station which concerned me as I hadn’t been able to ask him for a drink yet. Behold, he got off the train to hand strong coffee to the train drivers up front as I captured in the photo below. I’m sure they were in awe of his arrival as well!

He soon got back on the train and I was able to put in my order for a can of lovely Serbian Lav beer. Much nicer than the name suggests in English!

For payment he accepted both Serbian Dinars and Euros, which was a great way to use up our change from Germany and Austria.

The arrival into Belgrade was quite something with a view of the Ada Bridge whilst crossing Railway Bridge across the Sava river.

Our arrival into Belgrade was into the new Beograd Centar station, 2.7km from the centre of Belgrade. That evening following a visit to the excellent Zavicaj restaurant we went to see the sad state of affairs at the old Belgrade Main Station which has been closed to trains since June 2018. Following from my visit 4 months ago in June 2019 (see my blog post here from then) the old platforms have now been completed dug out.

Belgrade is a friendly city full of history. Its position on the confluence of the Sava and the Danube rivers has made it an important location for trading historically and today makes a lovely view from the old fortress.

Day 10

Leg 7 – Belgrade Centar 🇷🇸 to Nis 🇷🇸 (4 hours, 43 mins)

In the summer one direct train departs Belgrade Topcider station at 09:12 for Sofia arriving at 20:30, however we were travelling a day after the summer schedule had finished. This meant we had to be up for a planning challenge!

In order to get to Sofia the next day we would have had to either travel from Belgrade to Niš at 06:10 in the morning, with a risky 21 minute connection at Niš or travel the night before and stay over in Niš so we opted for the latter.

We decided to walk to Beograd Centar station from the centre of Belgrade. At first this was a nice walk through some leafy suburbs but we were soon faced with a series of motorways and we got confused.

We asked a series of very pleasant locals “where is Beograd Centar station please?” and not one of them knew where it was. The most common response was “I never use the train”. As a last resort we managed to find our location on Google Maps and which way we had to go. We had minutes to spare before our train was due to leave.

We soon realised that if we didn’t find a taxi we would miss the train. Luckily by the roundabout for the motorway there was a series of five taxis. We asked them one by one and four of them weren’t able to take us nor knew where the station was. Luckily our last driver did know and we made the train with 3 minutes to spare. Unbelievable.

We found the train and behold there were only 3 customers travelling on the smart, modern Serbian train. This departed at 17:30 on a Monday but wasn’t anything like a ‘peak’ time service in the vast majority of cities with a railway!

“Why oh why did Serbian Railways decide to build a centre station 2.7km from the centre of Belgrade?” was going through our lips several times as we caught our breath. We calmed down and we were then able to enjoy the journey to Niš.

Unusually as darkness fell we were faced with police conducting an ID check. This was very unusual for a domestic service not leaving Serbia, but nevertheless we showed our passports.

We arrived into Niš on time and we were faced with its brutalist check-in hall built just after World War II.

Day 11

We had an early start in Niš so we made the most of being somewhere new and fitted in a walk before the next leg of our journey. Niš was delightful and has its own fortress which is worth a look.

Leg 8 – 11:10 Nis 🇷🇸 to Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸 (3 hours, 35 mins)

We arrived back to Niš railway station for our next leg. There were no departure boards so we had to look at a printed timetable on the wall to find which platform we needed for the departure to Dimitrovgrad.

The train was a regional type and stopped 25 times during its journey. The scenery was breathtaking, especially the mountains following Ostrovica station. As at each station en route from Split to Zagreb in Croatia, on this route every station had a Station Master seeing the train through.

The train passengers were a mix of locals and tourists. On the train I had met a fellow traveller, Peter from Cambridge, who had travelled a similar route as us but a day later! He was talking at the European Association of Japanese Resource Specialists conference in Sofia so it was lovely to share the last leg of his journey from Dimitrovgrad to Sofia with him.

Leg 9 – 15:35 Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸 to Sofia 🇧🇬 (2 hours, 25 mins)

At the border at Dimitrovgrad in Serbia (not to be confused with Dimitrovgrad in Bulgaria) our train pulled into the one platform at the station. We disembarked the train and then 15 minutes later, the same train departed on a service back to Niš.

A few moments later a train arrived from the sidings – this was our international train to Sofia. It had only one carriage!

The train was very hot upon boarding as it had clearly been sat in the sun for hours and the windows were closed. Naturally myself, my Mam, Peter and our new train friend Alejandro from Spain soon opened every single window to help cool the carriage down.

This was our first train without air conditioning and thankfully the last, but luckily when the train set off it cooled down inside the carriage. There were curtains on the windows which helped to shield the sun, but once the train got up some speed they started to blow around uncontrollably so I had to open them again!

The train departed Dimitrovgrad, set off promptly but then stopped in some sidings. Bulgarian passport control was about to take place which was the method of taking them away, holding them for 30 minutes and handing them back out again before setting off. The train jumped one hour forward in time.

The train guard had a unusual dispatching device which was nothing more than a cardboard pole.

We arrived on time into Sofia which was a huge station with extremely long platforms. As we disembarked we noticed that this carriage had been used for the direct summer only service from Belgrade Topčider to/from Sofia as displayed on the carriage door. Even though we had 3 train changes, we concluded that we would have preferred to travel in the modern, air conditioned Serbian carriages for the trip from Belgrade to Dimitrovgrad at least.

Sofia was a great place to spend a day. There were many beautiful churches, gardens and palaces to explore.

Day 12

Leg 10 – 21:45 Sofia 🇧🇬 to Istanbul Halkali (for Sirecki) 🇹🇷 (8 hours)

Time for the final train of our trip with 400 miles to go on the cross-border sleeper train from Sofia to Istanbul.

We arrived at our train to find five carriages going to Turkey, four of which were modern Turkish Railways’ sleeper cars and there was one Bulgarian Railways’ couchette car which didn’t nearly look so new and inviting. We were glad we had booked a sleeper.

Once onboard the sleeper we were impressed with the size of the rooms onboard. It was left up to us to put the beds out but these were easy enough to set up. There were two members of staff in the sleeping cars but they were looking after four coaches of people.

The sleeper cars came with their luxuries. The large cabins came complete with their own fridge which was stocked with free bottled water, orange juice and cheese crackers! There was a choice between a western-style and squat toilet onboard in each carriage. The western-style toilet, which also had toilet paper available, even had a bidet fitted to the toilet bowl. I can’t vouch for its success though as I didn’t use it!

As the train crossed out of the EU and into Turkey, we were in for a night of disturbances. This was the negative associated with the sleeper train. The train reaches the first border point in Bulgaria at Svilengrad at approximately 01:30, however on this occasion it was running over an hour late. The EU Bulgarian police check passports on the train, taking them away and then returning them upon leaving Svilengrad.

The train then continues across the border to Kapikule where you must disembark the train with your luggage, walk under the tracks and queue up at passport control. After the passports are checked you then queue up to have your bags scanned.

The authorities don’t start the bag check until after the last person has had their passport checked. This resulted in being outside for a while, in fact one hour which was quite surreal at that time of the night. There were wild cats roaming around the platforms which did provide some entertainment until one cat started bullying another one. This caused some upset among passengers.

Due to engineering work the sleeper train terminated in Halkali instead of Sirkeci which is 23km from the centre of Istanbul. We were still able to finish our journey by rail however by using the Marmaray Metro direct from Halkali to Istanbul Sirkeci.

It was lovely to finish our trip at this beautiful station which is where the Orient Express finished its journey from Paris from 1883-1977. The station has its own museum which is full of old Turkish Railways’ merchandise and machinery and free to enter.

Whilst in Istanbul we visited the Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern and Grand Bazaar. All of these attractions are in walking distance to each other. We also had a boat ride along the Bosporus crossing between Europe and Asia.

I used Rail Staff FIP facilities to make this journey. Most of the trains accepted FIP Free Coupons and only required a nominal fee for a reservation. My Mam used an Interrail pass and we travelled in 2nd/Standard Class for every train.

Tickets

For both of us, with our passes, the following services required supplements to be paid:

  • flat fares for Eurostar between London and Paris
  • the cross-border TGV between Paris and Munich
  • the overnight sleeper from Zagreb to Split for private 2-berth sleeper cabin
  • the overnight sleeper from Sofia to Istanbul for private 2-berth sleeper cabin
Train No.Journey LegFIP Facilities UsedFIP Reservation Fees (inc. supplement where required)Global Interrail Pass Reservation Fees (inc. supplement where required)
ES9022London to ParisReduced Rate Card / Staff Travel Card£34.50£26.50
TGV9577Paris to MunichReduced Rate Card – no free coupons accepted on cross border TGV€15.00€13.00
RJ111Munich to Villach – reservationFIP Free Coupons (DB, ÖBB)€4.50 €4.50
EC213Villach to ZagrebFIP Free Coupons (ÖBB, HŽ)€4.50€4.50
D821Zagreb to Split sleeperFIP Free Coupon (HŽ)€25.00€25.00
IC520Split to ZagrebFIP Free Coupon (HŽ)€4.50€4.50
EN/D 415Zagreb to BelgradeFIP Free Coupons (HŽ, ŽS)€4.50€4.50
793Belgrade to NisFIP Free Coupon (HŽ)Free – reservations not possibleFree – reservations not possible
5903Nis to DimitrovgradFIP Free Coupon (ŽS)Free – reservations not possibleFree – reservations not possible
7991Dimitrovgrad to SofiaFIP Free Coupon (ŽS, BDŽ)Free – reservations not possibleFree – reservations not possible
493/
12501
Sofia to Istanbul sleeperFIP Free Coupon (BDŽ) & full fare for leg in Turkey (TCDD)€15.25€15.25

This article was first published in November 2019 and updated in December 2019.

Belgrade, Serbia 🇷🇸 to Bar, Montenegro 🇲🇪 by sleeper and direct day train

Having seen pictures of this journey, I was inspired to take this train journey when myself and a friend decided to visit Montenegro for a week. This journey features in a number of those ‘Top 10’ railway journeys in Europe books for its amazing scenery through the mountains so we were excited to experience this journey for ourselves.

There are two options for travel between Belgrade (Serbia) and Bar (Montenegro) – one day train and one night train which are both operated jointly by state-owned Serbian Train (Srbija Voz, “SV”) and Railway Transport of Montenegro (Željeznički prevoz Crne Gore, “ŽPCG”). Both trains run in both directions every day all year round.

There are two train sets which comprise the day train, running in the opposite direction each day. One is formed of Montengrin compartment cars, the other a mix of Serbian compartment and open saloon cars. What you get is a mystery for the day of the trip itself. The sleeper train is more uniform, with both train sets comprising a mix of Serbian and Montenegrin cars.

We decided to take the sleeper train from Belgrade to Bar, enjoy a week in Montenegro and then take the day train back to Belgrade one week later. Although our return train starts in the port city of Bar, we planned to depart from the capital of Montenegro, Podgorica.

Our itinerary looked like this:

Journey TrainDuration
Leg 1Belgrade
Topčider 🇷🇸 to Bar 🇲🇪
Sleeper (433 Lovćen)10h58
Leg 2Podgorica 🇲🇪 to Belgrade
Topčider 🇷🇸
InterCity (430 Tara)10h10

Belgrade Main Station (Železnička stanica Beograd Glavna)

All services to/from Montenegro now depart from Belgrade Topčider which is 4km+ from the centre of Belgrade. The old Belgrade Main Station has been closed since June 2018. We decided to visit and this is its current condition – only a few offices remain open (including a ticket office) and no more tracks… sad times. It is worth a visit though, especially as there is the impressive locomotive from Tito’s Blue Train still stabled outside.

Also, in the old booking office, we noticed that the railway timetable is being kept up to date for the other Belgrade stations which was good to see  – a number of services blanked out with stickers because of track work north of Belgrade on the line to Hungary.

Belgrade Topčider

Also built in the 1880s (and still open thankfully) is Belgrade Topčider station which is some 4km from the main centre of Belgrade. This is the main station in Belgrade now where to catch international trains to/from Montenegro. In terms of facilities, there is a waiting room, ticket office and toilets.

All aboard the night train, Lovćen

The sleeper train had 12 coaches which consisted of a combination of Serbian and Montenegrin sleeper coaches, 1st and 2nd class couchette coaches and seated coaches. Also there were two motorail coaches for carrying cars at the rear of the train.

There was no Cafe Bar or catering provided on the train so it was good to take bottles of water and food. We packed some M&S emergency biscuits for the trip before leaving the UK, but ate them all straight away on this train.

Toilets on the train were of varying cleanliness. Some had soap, some had toilet roll, and some had paper towels, but none had all three! Plus, supplies of loo roll and paper towels were not re-stocked during the journey so our top tip is to bring your own supplies – as nothing can be guaranteed especially towards the end of the journey.

We opted to travel in a private sleeper berth with two bunk beds and were reserved in Coach 406 which was a former carriage from the communist era. It featured its own TV room and had a map on the wall of Yugoslavia – a real blast from the past! 

The beds in the sleeper berth were very comfortable and clean bed linen was provided. The room however was not air conditioned and despite the window being wide open it was very hot before the train departed.

Once the train started to move the air came through which was delightful but the slide down window had a habit of closing itself with the draft. My friend risked a pair of his socks in the corners of the window to keep it open. This was a complete success for us as the socks stayed in place and the window didn’t close on its own accord any longer. This resulted in pleasant cool conditions onboard.

The train departed promptly at 21:10 but encountered unexplained delays en route which meant the arrival into Bar was two hours late. Having read reviews in advance, this seemed to be normal practice, so we gave ourselves plenty of time to wait for a train back up the line to Podgorica to collect our hire car for the week.

Onboard the train we had our passports checked twice on the journey, once by the Serbian police at 03:14 at Prijepolje (the last stop in Serbia) and once by the Montenegrin police at 04:28 at Bijelo Polje (the first stop in Montenegro). Each stop is scheduled for 30 minutes, however there is no need to get out of bed – the border police will come to you in your cabin.

We enjoyed the views waking up in Montenegro that morning after a relatively comfortable night’s sleep – note the expert positioning of the socks in the left corner of the window!

Admiring the view from the sleeper berth window

All aboard the day train, Tara

The train left Bar at 09:00 and we joined the train at Podgorica at 10:00, albeit 20 minutes late in arriving. Our journey would take over 11 hours.

This train consisted exclusively Montenegrin compartment carriages (all air-conditioned which was a treat) and one Motorail coach. The only non air-conditioned passenger coach was the Cafe Bar carriage in the middle of the train. There were five passenger 2nd Class coaches in total, some were marked 1st Class coaches but weren’t and didn’t differ at all from the other compartments marked as 2nd Class.

The Cafe Bar’s menu was limited, so we were glad to have brought our homemade sandwiches featuring the much-loved prosciutto in Montenegro. There was however the very nice Montenegrin Nikšićko beer available for €1.50 so we made several trips to the bar to keep our supplies up!

As per the outward train journey there were passport checks conducted at the last station in Montenegro and the following station in Serbia, each stop lasting 30 minutes. The stations were Bijelo Polje (Montenegro) – the same as the night train in the other direction and Vrbnica (Serbia), a different station this time.

The Montengrin officials checked passports within the compartment, but the Serbian officials took the passports away to another compartment for stamping. The Montenegrin officials were supposed to stamp our EU British passports but didn’t despite us asking. So, officially we’re still in Montenegro! I hope I can go back one day.

A Serbian lady, Vesna, joined us in our compartment at the border, after her trip to her holiday home, and we soon made friends raising a can of beer or three and taking lots of pictures of the view. Here are some of the sights we enjoyed… absolute bliss.

Generally each compartment was occupied all the way to Belgrade, but not all seats were taken meaning there was plenty of space to stretch out.

As per the outward train, this train was also delayed arriving into Belgrade Topčider 1.5 hours late. It did mean we could enjoy the sun setting over the countryside from our comfortable compartment.

Safety expectations

The train maybe old, but it did feel safe. Journey speeds were very slow for most of the journey, but faster towards and through the two capital cities. This enabled us more time to take in the beautiful countryside!

A different sight to the UK was witnessing rail staff drinking beer together on the night train and people smoking on the train, though people generally seemed to respect other passengers and smoke at the ends of the carriages.

Tickets

To travel on the direct international trains from Belgrade to Bar, customers are required to purchase a ticket as well as a compulsory reservation. These range from €3.00 for a seat to €45.00 for a single berth cabin. The options illustrated are the 2-berth “double” sleeper on the night train and the 2nd Class seat on the day train.

Belgrade <> Bar FaresFIP Rail Staff Ticket PricePublic Ticket Price
Day Train€10.50 each way€21.00 each way
Night Train€10.50 each way€21.00 each way
Fares updated April 2020
Belgrade <> Bar Reservation Fees2nd
Class seat
6-berth couchette4-berth
couchette
3-berth
“tourist” sleeper
2-berth “double” sleeper1-berth “single” sleeper
Day Train+€3.00N/AN/AN/AN/AN/A
Night Train+€3.00+€6.00+€9.00+€15.00+€20.00+€45.00
Fares updated April 2020

A note about language

English is widely spoken in Belgrade and across Montenegro which made being an English tourist easy, though it’s always fun to try and speak a bit of the loco lingo.

My understanding is that both countries have the same language but different pronounciations for some words. The Serbians however prefer to use the Cyrillic alphabet while the Montenegrins prefer to use the Latin alphabet, though both is taught in schools in both countries.

This article was first published in July 2019 and updated in December 2019.

London 🇬🇧 to South of France 🇫🇷 direct by Eurostar train – what’s the journey like?

For my sun seeking September trip this year, I took advantage of the once daily direct Eurostar train service from London St Pancras International station straight to the heart of Marseille in the South of France. This took 6 hours and 28 minutes. No train changes were required for this trip in Paris or Lille, where normally you would have to change onto a comfortable domestic TGV to the South of France. This meant I could just sit back and relax and let the train take the strain.

As is the norm with all Eurostar services, you simply walk straight off the train when it arrives at your destination and through the station exit – all security checks are completed before the train leaves London.

There is one train per day (on selected days of the week), mainly in the summer months, which leaves St Pancras at 07:19 local time and arrives into Marseille at 14:47 local time making stops en route to drop off customers only at Lyon Part Dieu and Avignon TGV stations. The return direct train journey takes an hour longer for security checks to be conducted at Lille Europe station and leaves Marseille at 15:22 local time.

Eurostar offers two classes of accommodation on this service – that’s Standard and Standard Premier. I opted for Standard Premier and the journey was a breeze with a complimentary breakfast and lunch served with wine while speeding through the French countryside.

In terms of food, I specified a gluten free meal after booking on the Eurostar website (other special dietary requirements are available) and I was served at my seat – no questions asked. You do only have one option if you specify a dietary requirement with the meal being prepared just for you. Customers who don’t specify are given the option of two meal choices when the trolley comes to your seat.

Below is a video I took of the trip’s scenery showcasing some of the best views on offer of the trip speeding through the French countryside. Imagine having a glass of wine in hand enjoying this on a beautiful summer’s day… it was bliss.

Here are some other pictures of the trip including those all important meal photos!

FIP Rail Staff Travel FacilitiesPublic Fares 
(purchase online at VR and SJ)
Helsinki to Kemi with VR sleeper trainSeat
Couchette
Sleeper
Lulea to Stockholm with SJ sleeper trainNot availableSeat
Couchette
Sleeper
*each way based on a return. Fares updated April 2020

This article was first published in December 2018.

Swim the Arctic Circle: the plan that didn’t go to plan travelling in Finland 🇫🇮 and Sweden 🇸🇪

Yes that’s right, this was the plan that didn’t go to plan… but it’s a happy ending thanks to three groups of strangers. This was a trip for restoring faith in humanity.

My destination was Juoksenki in Finland – where the 3km Swim the Arctic Circle event start line was. The finish was in Juoksengi on the other side of the water in Sweden. Yes the place names are very similar.

The event would not just see me swimming across the border but also finishing the swim before I had started it in the midnight sun… No, I didn’t have a time machine, but I would cross the time zone between the two countries. I would just need to finish the race within 1 hour to accomplish this.

The journey

My journey started from the UK from London Gatwick airport flying with Norwegian Air International to Helsinki airport. I then took a train from the airport to the city centre and enjoyed what Helsinki had to offer for a few hours.

I then took a night train from Helsinki Helsingfors railway station to Kemi railway station in the north. This was operated by Finland’s national railway company, VR, departed the station at 23:13 and arrived at Kemi on time at 09:20 the following day. The train was made up of comfortable, modern double deck sleeper carriages and sported a shower at the end of the carriage exclusively for sleeping car passengers as well as an alarm by your bed to wake you up.

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Sun setting over Helsinki railway station and the VR night train to the north

Upon arrival I walked around Kemi, a very quiet town but nicely set on the Baltic sea. I then caught a bus to the airport and awaited the arrival of my friend Louise who flew into Kemi Airport shortly after my arrival.

The plan was to take out a hire car that Louise had booked months in advance before the trip and drive up to Juoksengi. However, our problems started when we found that to take out the car hire we needed a credit card with the driver’s name on. Louise was driving us – I don’t drive but have a credit card! This still wasn’t enough for any car hire company – except for Sixt who could put me down as an additional driver for an extra fee but then we found they didn’t have any cars available. We had considered all sorts, could we get Louise a credit card or could we get a train somewhere else to get a car?

We were able to catch a bus to Haparanda which was on the Sweden:Finland border but there was no public transport available to travel further north than here. We still had 95 km to travel to Juoksengi!

IMG_5848
One step at a time. We were on the move from Kemi!

So we put together a board for hitching a lift.

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Louise holding our sign ready for hitch-hiking

But this didn’t get us far, we had no success on the roadside.

IMG_5878
Having a break from hitch-hiking

In hindsight we should have realised that most people wouldn’t have known where Juoksengi was and that would explain some of the strange looks.

Anyway we were able to use the Swim the Arctic Circle Facebook group (for participants of the swim) for our cry out for help. As a result one top bloke called Sven promised to come down and collect us from IKEA in Haparanda – our first legend who then gave us a tour of the area and showed us some viewpoints.

We were on our way but found we were actually pushing it for time. We arrived at the Svanstein Lodge where we had booked to stay so we could check-in and drop our bags. Sven dropped us off and we had said our goodbyes.

We walked to the reception area and it was closed. We were wondering what to do and found a group from the Henley Swim Club who had also come from England.  We explained our problem to them and they had told us that our lodge had been given to another group of people at the last minute by the owner. Much to our horror we called the owner and she agreed that we could knock on the lodge door after the swim and the other couple would “probably let us in” and use another bedroom – this was the bit that was supposed to go right…

We had no choice at this point but to carry on, the swim was in a couple of hours and we were still miles from the start line. The group from Henley Swim Club kindly allowed us to leave most of our stuff in their lodge and they drove us in their coach to the start line (our second legends). What a relief, the swim was happening for us.

While we were travelling I was thinking about what to do on the way back the next day since Sven wasn’t able to help us further. I had tried to call some taxi companies but had got stuck – some didn’t speak English and others said Juoksengi was too far away for them to travel to pick us up. The Henley Swim Club had a Finnish guide with them, our third legend. The guide spoke on the phone and arranged a taxi for us to Övertorneå where we had worked out there was a bus south to Haparanda.

So after Flight > Night train > Bus > Bus > Sven’s lift > Henley Swim Club’s impromptu pick up we made it to the start line.

The Swim

The swim itself was incredible – what a beautiful location. As a result of a dry summer the water levels were low however. This meant that in places, while swimming, there would be rocks in the way. One rock mid swim meant I had to climb onto it and jump back in the water!

After the tiring journey I had somehow managed to complete 3km in less than 1 hour meaning I had made it before midnight. I had started the swim on 15th July and finished it on the 14th July. What an incredible journey to the start line and it felt great to celebrate the swim result with the hot tub and Finnish sauna at the end while our arrangements were in place to get back home.

The Henley Swim Club team drove us back to the lodge. We managed to get into the lodge, but no bedding had been provided at all. This didn’t stop us being exhausted and putting our heads down for the night.

The journey home

Our taxi arrived after four hours sleep to take us to Övertorneå. We then waited for the bus to Haparanda. I had decided to go home a different way via Sweden so I was travelling solo back.

I boarded another bus to Luleå and then took the SJ-operated night train from Luleå station to Stockholm Central station staying in a 6-berth couchette. The train was very old and had no air conditioning so it was a warm night. Interestingly the locals I shared the room with kept opening the curtains that I had closed so I had to sleep with a t-shirt over my head. Is it normal for Swedes to sleep with the curtains open in the land of the midnight sun?

The following day I awoke to a full day in the beautiful island city of Stockholm (thanks to the great time efficiency of night trains).

IMG_6015
Stockholm Central railway station
IMG_6063
Changing of the Guards Stockholm

Then it was time to fly back to the UK courtesy of Norwegian Air Shuttle from Stockholm Arlanda airport. What a weekend.

IMG_6092
Norwegian Air Shuttle from Stockholm Arlanda to Manchester
FIP Rail Staff Travel FacilitiesPublic Fares 
(purchase online at VR and SJ)
Helsinki to Kemi with VR sleeper trainSeat
Couchette
Sleeper
Lulea to Stockholm with SJ sleeper trainNot availableSeat
Couchette
Sleeper
*each way based on a return. Fares updated April 2020

This article was first published in November 2018 and updated in December 2019.

London 🇬🇧 to Amsterdam 🇳🇱: city centre to city centre by direct Eurostar train in 3h 41

I was fortunate to travel on the first direct Saturday Eurostar service from London to Amsterdam on 14th April 2018.

A city centre departure from London St Pancras International and an easy check-in procedure (compared to that of flying anyway) meant a stress free start to this epic train journey to Amsterdam Centraal station.

We were soon boarded onto the c. 900 seat train and this followed with a prompt departure at 08:31 (while allowing us to take some very necessary photos) prior to 3 hours, 41 minutes of relaxation whilst gliding through four countries and making stops in Ashford International, Bruxelles-Midi and Rotterdam Centraal.

(Necessary photos below)

We had upgraded and opted for Standard Premier. Catering consisted of a continental breakfast soon after departure and tea/coffee and juice until departure at Brussels where we were served an aperitif of wine and nuts. Eurostar catered nicely for my Gluten Free needs, as always, but for the normal breakfast in Standard Premier see my friend’s photo below.

We had a brief stop in Brussels South station to drop off and pick up passengers (yes, entirely continental journeys are permitted on this train which is unusual for Eurostar).

Then we headed north to Amsterdam via Rotterdam arriving at 13:12.

In summary the direct Eurostar from London to Amsterdam was a very fast and smooth journey from city centre to city centre in an impressive 3 hours, 41 minutes, making the train a great contender vs the plane. The view wasn’t much to write home about and the lack of lunch meant we were in search of food upon arrival. However, Standard Premier on the e320 train was a comfortable way to travel. When will you have me back Eurostar? 😊

Tickets

FIP Rail Staff Travel FacilitiesPublic Fares 
(purchase online at VR and SJ)
Helsinki to Kemi with VR sleeper trainSeat
Couchette
Sleeper
Lulea to Stockholm with SJ sleeper trainNot availableSeat
Couchette
Sleeper
*each way based on a return. Fares updated April 2020

This article was first published in April 2018.

Poland 🇵🇱 to the UK 🇬🇧 exclusively by train in less than a day! More interesting than flying.

I can’t start this blog with just the journey. I have to say how much I loved Poland… what a beautiful place.

My trip involved travelling from Gdańsk to Wroclaw to Warsaw. Three cities affected by the war, but the former two built back up again with their facades repaired. They boast charming streets and the milk bars are perfect for solo travellers and warm, hearty food.  Please see my blog here of Poland itself https://gdtravels.co.uk/2017/11/26/route-of-the-amber-road-gdansk-to-wroclaw-poland/

Trip summary: Warsaw🇵🇱-Berlin🇩🇪-Basel🇨🇭-Strasbourg🇫🇷-Paris🇫🇷-London🇬🇧

The journey home

For those tight for time there is a faster route to travel from Warsaw to London via Paris with one train change using the Russian Railways EuroNight service from Moscow to Paris departing Warsaw Wschodnia at 13:05 on Wednesdays and arriving into Paris Gare de l’Est at 09:33. Paris Gare de Nord is a short 8-minute walk from Paris Gare de l’Est where you can pick up a Eurostar direct to London through the Channel Tunnel.

As it was cheaper for me I worked out a different and certainly more fun way to travel to London. On 5 trains. The journey time was 23 hours, 30 minutes to cover 2,878km but this did not bother me: I would make lots of friends along the way, be able to read that book I’ve been carrying around for weeks and see the landscape change through the window… bliss. Plus, a couple of hours to enjoy Paris.

Train 1: Warsaw-Berlin (PKP IC and DB)

A rather elderly train using PKP IC coaches exclusively, this train consisted of mainly seated compartment carriages but did convey an open saloon carriage too. Much to my delight there was a seated bar carriage and it was well occupied, mainly with business travellers travelling from Warsaw to Poznan. Its popularity was justified with its food and drink offering – I enjoyed Smoked Salmon and a Savignon Blanc or three. Soon enough we crossed into Germany, the train crew changed and arrived on time to the impressive multiple-story station of Berlin Hauptbahnhof.

Train 2: Berlin-Basel SBB (OEBB NightJet)

Recently, Austrian Federel Railways (OEBB) have taken over this convenient north-south route from Hamburg to Zurich via Berlin and have rebranded the service as NightJet with other routes. I opted to travel as far southwest as Basel in order to allow enough time to sleep – yes I didn’t opt for that bargain seated carriage and in fact the most budget bed option, still not badly priced at €59 for this six-berth couchette (public Adult fare).

This was a pleasant enough way to travel – I shared with a middle-aged German lady and gentleman and three late-20s friends from Switzerland travelling home from a weekend in Berlin. We did have to make up our own beds since the carriage converts from seated accommodation early evening. It is normal however to have to place your own sheet on the bed and position your pillow, top sheet and blanket.

Soon enough we were able to settle and the Swiss friends kindly shared some of their peppermint liqueur.

Interestingly there was a knock at the door early morning upon entering Switzerland: the police wanted to know whose bag was whose. Lots of peppermint liqueur was handed over… shame we didn’t have a bigger party the night before.

Arrival in Switzerland for the first time. First impressions of Basel- very clean and modern.

Train 3: Basel-Strasbourg (SNCF TER)

Soon I was into France, before I got on this train technically, through Basel’s dedicated rail border area to the French platforms.

This journey involved chugging through the French countryside on a comfortable regional train. What a delight.

Train 4: Strasbourg-Paris (SNCF TGV)

Following an hour’s break in Strasbourg, enough time to walk the streets and enjoy a croissant or several at a French café, I returned to the gare de Strasbourg.

I was graced with a TGV Duplex and a seat upstairs with a window view… perfect.

Train 5: Paris-London (Eurostar)

After a few hours to enjoy Paris, Gare de Nord was in sight for me to enjoy my final leg home.

Arriving at the station 45 minutes before departure to check-in I was soon whisked away to London via the Chunnel on the super speedy Eurostar train with complimentary food and wine in Standard Premier. Heaven.

Trip took 23 hours, 30 minutes but didn’t feel long at all.

This article was first published in January 2018.

Route of the Amber Road: Gdansk 🇵🇱 to Wroclaw 🇵🇱 by Polish sleeper train

Gdansk is a magical place, brought back to life by the dedication of the local people to rebuild the Old Town identically to how it was before the destruction caused by World War 2. It’s main industry, the of extraction of amber from the Baltic Sea, is still thriving and on the streets it’s possible to purchase your own amber jewellery souvenir.

Day trains are available but I chose the night train designated TLK operated by the Polish state operator, PKP Intercity, that leaves Gdansk Glowny at around 22:00 and travels south arriving at Wroclaw Glowny at approximately 06:00 (for tickets and timetables visit https://www.intercity.pl/en/). Both of these stations are in the centre of their respective cities so travelling by train overnight makes very efficient use of time. I opted for the couchette option which consisted of a room with three bunk beds with a pillow, blanket and sheet provided. This is unusual for Europe where couchettes normally have between 4 and 6 couchettes in a room so it was very quiet especially as there was only me and a Polish lady sharing (the middle bed was unoccupied).

The Conductor of the train didn’t speak any English so communication was a challenge with my lack of Polish knowledge. When it came to the time to wake me up his method of wake up call was an interesting one. He waved my ticket in my face. I can’t say this was the most pleasant way of waking up and I didn’t expect this having never been woken up this way before! He also woke me up at 05:15, but upon waking up I didn’t understand what he was saying to me. I assumed I would have to get off at the time printed on the ticket which said I would arrive at 06:15. The Conductor came back at 05:40 and I understood from him that we had arrived at Wroclaw and he wanted me off the train! I rushed off the train and then took a trip to the warm part of the station on the main concourse and had a bite to eat at the 24 hour McDonald’s before waiting for daylight to arrive! I did enjoy the comfort of this night train but my advice here is to be ready for an early start and perhaps a strange method of being woken up!

It certainly saves time travelling through the day and the cost of a hotel.

Wroclaw sits on the River Oder and the oldest part of the city dates back over 1000 years. Its setting is beautiful and it boasts squares with buildings with colourful facades – great for pictures.

Look out for the over 400 gnomes situated across the city all with their own professions!

This article was first published in November 2017.