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

Italy’s Scenic Routes by Train 🇮🇹

Italy, which boasts a vast national rail network, is well known for its modern ‘Le Frecce’ high-speed services; but what about those people who like to take it slowly and enjoy the scenery that a train journey has to offer? The fastest journeys aren’t always the most picturesque. Here is a compilation of ten of the routes which offer splendid views across the country, that should not be missed.

1. Pisa 🇮🇹 to Florence 🇮🇹 (the slower route)

Onboard Trenitalia’s Regionale | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️✖️

Journey LegViews
Pisa to LuccaRight Hand Side (recommended)
Lucca to FlorenceLeft Hand Side (recommended)
Recommendations based on a journey on the route from Pisa Centrale to Firenze SMN via Lucca and Pistoia

Pisa to Florence is served by fast and frequent trains departing in each direction at least every half an hour with journey times that take anywhere between 51 minutes to 1 hour 21 minutes on the most direct route. However, departing four times a day, there are direct regional services with much less attractive journey times for the same end-to-end journey which most passengers probably avoid on this basis. Taking more than 2 hours, there is a route which offers a much more spectacular landscape to enjoy than the faster route that travels via Lucca and Pistoia offering green, mountainous terrain and picture perfect villages. A true investment of time.

2. Pisa 🇮🇹 to Genova 🇮🇹 via Cinque Terre (towards Côte d’Azur, France 🇫🇷)

Onboard Trenitalia’s Frecciabianca (ETR.460)| Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️

Journey LegViews
Pisa to GenovaRight Hand Side – Mountains and Villages of the Cinque Terre
Left Hand Side – Ligurian Sea
Recommendations based on a journey on the route from Pisa Centrale to Genova Piazza Principe via La Spezia

This route is a real treat for scenery lovers. Trains glide past (and some call at) the five fishing and wine-making villages of the famous Cinque Terre, now home to much tourism. Think lush green mountainsides and steep-drop rocky coves on the Ligurian Sea glistening in the sunshine. Idyllic.

Please be aware that there are a number of tunnels on this route especially after La Spezia Centrale, so it’s a case of ‘blink and you miss it’ scenery and quite tricky to take shots with the camera, but fantastic when you do snap up a glimmer of sea or lush mountainous terrain.

If you’re doing the whole route, InterCity and Frecciabianca trains operate and are recommended, these offer greater comfort but don’t call at the all five villages of the Cinque Terre. There are regional trains available too with an easy change of train required at La Spezia Centrale.

3. Naples 🇮🇹 to Siracusa 🇮🇹 via the west coast

Onboard Trenitalia’s InterCity Notte (Deluxe)| Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️

Journey LegViews
Agropoli to Villa San GiovanniLeft Hand Side – Tyrrhenian Sea and Italian Villages (recommended)
Right Hand Side – Views of the Apennines and Countryside
Messina to SiracusaLeft Hand Side – Ionian Sea
Right Hand Side – Mount Etna
Recommendations based on a journey on the InterCity Notte from Milano Centrale to Sicily in the morning from Sapri and following the route to Sicily in daylight

Italy offers two impressive rail routes which spans the west and east coasts of the mainland from top to bottom. A particular scenic part of the west coast route (in addition to the Cinque Terre route mentioned above) is the leg south of Naples towards Villa San Giovanni – the town where passenger trains board a ferry to Sicily. This is a must-do trip in its own right. At the time of writing this is the only passenger train that boards a ferry as part of its scheduled journey in Europe.

Here is a link to a special trip report on the InterCity Notte from Milano Centrale to Siracusa which takes in the sights of this very route and the unique experience of boarding the ferry.

The route from Agropoli to Villa San Giovanni hugs the west coast and offers irresistible views to look at across the Tyrrhenian Sea as well as some moments of steep-sided mountains as well as towns and villages popping up en-route – all on the coast side of the train. Delightful.

After the ferry crossing and landing in Sicily, switch sides for more sea views – this time of the Ionian Sea. Alternatively stay put to marvel at the incredible active volcano of Mount Etna – that has a long history of destruction.

4. West-to-east: Naples 🇮🇹 to Foggia 🇮🇹

Onboard Trenitalia’s Frecciargento (ETR.485)| Scenery: ⭐️⭐️✖️✖️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Journey LegViews
Naples to CasertaRight Hand Side – Mount Vesuvius
Caserta to FoggiaLeft Hand Side – mountainside
Recommendations based on a journey on the route from Naples to Termoli via Caserta, Ariano Irpino and Foggia

One of Italy’s jaw-dropping cross-country routes. On this journey you pass Mount Vesuvius in the distance on your right and then cut through the Apennine mountain range with beautiful views. The fastest journey times are as little as 2 hours 30 minutes with a change of train required from a regional train at Caserta and a Frecciargento train from there to Foggia, but important to check before travel as some journey times are considerably longer and involve a bus.

5. Italy’s East Coast 🇮🇹

Onboard Trenitalia’s Frecciargento (ETR.700) | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️✖️✖️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️

Journey LegViews
Foggia to RiminiRight Hand Side – Adriatic Sea (recommended)
Left Hand Side – green fields, some hills
Recommendations based on a journey on the route from Foggia to Bologna Centrale via Termoli and Rimini

Often favoured less compared to its west coast counterpart, Italy’s east coast should not be overlooked as it offers fantastic sea views of the Adriatic Sea for almost all of the journey from north to south. It is served by high speed, high comfort Frecciargento and Frecciabianca trains – ideal for relaxing in a large, comfortable seat, enjoying a glass of wine and getting lost in a good book.

6. Verona 🇮🇹 to Bolzano 🇮🇹 (towards Austria 🇦🇹) on the Brenner Railway

Onboard Trenitalia’s Frecciarossa (ETR.500) and DB-ÖBB EuroCity | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Journey LegViews
Verona to BolzanoLeft Hand Side – mountains and most of the River Adige (recommended)
Right Hand Side – mountains
Recommendations based on a northbound journey from Verona Porta Nuova to Bolzano Boden

The advertising poster at Verona Porta Nuova station doesn’t need to try hard to sell this journey… simply stunning and my favourite Italian railway route to date. This route is the gateway from Italy to Austria and the excitement continues long past Bolzano, where it reaches the border of the two countries at the Brenner Pass. This is the steepest point on the Italian and Austrian standard gauge rail networks at an ear popping 1,371 metres.

Upon departure from Verona, the train soon becomes engulfed by spectacular mountain scenery on both sides. And if that wasn’t enough you can also be confident you are heading in the right direction as the route follows the River Adige for the entire journey to Bolzano.

Please find a link to a special video featuring this journey onboard the Frecciarossa 500 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

7. Milan 🇮🇹 to Domodossola 🇮🇹 (towards Switzerland 🇨🇭)

Onboard Trenitalia’s EuroCity (ETR.610) | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️

Journey LegViews
Milano to DomodossolaRight Hand Side – views of Lake Maggiore
Left Hand Side – mountains
Recommendations based on a northbound journey from Milano Centrale to Domodossola

One of two routes from Italy to Switzerland is this route via the border station of Domodossola. This is the most direct route across the border from Milan with trains travelling to the Swiss cities of Zurich and Geneva via the Simplon Tunnel and Brig. The full route is served by comfortable and modern looking pointy-nosed pendolino trains.

Soon after departure you’re spoiled for choice for views on both sides of the train, from views of Lake Maggiore on your right and mountains on your left of the Ossola Valley with views of the Italian Alps. Bring your own food and drink as the bar on the train doesn’t open until Switzerland.

8. Circumvesuviana 🇮🇹, Naples Circular around Mount Vesuvius

Onboard Ferrovia Circumvesuviana FE220 and ETR211 | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️✖️✖️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️✖️✖️✖️✖️

Journey LegViews
Barra to Barra (clockwise)Right Hand Side – views of Mount Vesuvius
Recommendations based on a clockwise journey from Napoli Garibaldi to Barra

Yes that’s right – this is one of two railways in Italy that travels around the full circumference of a volcano. An interesting, but a scary concept! This one is called the Circumvesuviana and with its metro style operation, it serves local communities around Mount Vesuvius.

The full route isn’t designed for tourists as such, but you can enjoy views of Mount Vesuvius by sitting on the right hand side when travelling clockwise and tie this in with a visit to Pompeii or Herculaneum, which both have nearby stations with a frequent service. You will need to change trains at Poggiomarino to complete the full circle.

Please be aware to complete the full circumference you can purchase a 180 minute ticket for €4,90, however if you break the journey to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum then separate tickets must be purchased – there is no ‘day’ ticket.

9. Circumetnea 🇮🇹, Catania Circular around Mount Etna

Onboard Ferrovia Circumetnea| Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️✖️✖️✖️

Journey LegViews
Catania to Giarre 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
Recommendations based on a clockwise journey from Catania to Giarre Riposto on the Circumetnea and a mainline journey from Giarre Riposto to Catania.

The second railway in Italy that circles a volcano is around Mount Etna in Sicily. This impressive narrow gauge railway, the Ferrovia Circumetnea, is one of those journeys where you’re rewarded for your patience, as the most scenic part of the journey is along the routes most northern point. You can travel clockwise or anti-clockwise on this route, but best to check times in advance as there is a change of train required at Randazzo and limited journey opportunities for travelling the full circle. There is also a required journey on the mainline from Riposto to Catania (separate ticket required), which also has scenic views of the Ionian Sea.

Few people use the route to travel the full circle, but if you do it’s probably the best €10,30 you will spend for 4 hours and 30 minutes of travel. I found it to be mainly locals travelling from A to B on the first section of the Ferrovia Circumetnea from Catania to Randazzo and I was the only customer travelling for the Randazzo to Riposto leg, the most scenic part. A fantastic experience.

10. Tirano 🇮🇹 to St Moritz 🇨🇭

It would be rude to exclude this spectacular railway journey across the Swiss Alps, the route designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This route is the more touristy route taking longer in journey time but with delightful scenery to match. Pictures will be coming soon (once I’ve been on the journey to take them!).

Have I missed any scenic railway routes in Italy? Let me know your recommendations!

This article was first published in January 2021.

Japan 🇯🇵: an introduction by rail 🚆 – Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Niigata, Tokyo

This was my first time visiting Japan. A beautiful country with a welcoming culture and an inspiring transport network! The one thing I couldn’t wait to try was the Shinkansen, or bullet train, that Japan is so highly renowned for. Rest assured, there would be plenty of train trips planned in this jam-packed week-long visit.

My Japan premiere (and therefore this blog post) features:

  • Flying with LOT Airways London City Airport to/from Tokyo Narita Airport via Warsaw Chopin Airport
  • Tokyo Narita Airport to Central Tokyo onboard the Narita Express
  • Tokyo to Kyoto by Shinkansen Hikari
  • Exploring Kyoto including Hozu-gawa river boat ride
  • Kyoto to Hiroshima by Shinkansen Hikari and Shinkansen Sakura
  • Exploring Hiroshima and Miyajima
  • Hiroshima to Izumoshi by Shinkansen Kodama and Limited Express Yakumo
  • Izumoshi to Tokyo by Sunrise Izumo sleeper train
  • Tokyo to Niigata by Shinkansen Max Toki

London City (LCY) to Tokyo Narita (NRT) via Warsaw (WAW) with LOT Polish Airlines

Staying over at London City airport, we kicked things off early for our Premium Economy experience through to Tokyo with LOT Polish Airlines.

Our first leg departed London City at 8am sharp, taking two and half hours to Warsaw Chopin airport onboard an Embraer-190 plane. This had the same type of seats and legroom for all classes, which was a little cramped, however we were treated to our own private cabin with Business Class customers separated from the Economy cabin by a curtain drawn shortly after departure.

Peculiarly, myself and my friend Ed, sat in row five, were the only customers travelling in Premium Economy. In the front row, a gentleman was travelling Business Class to Israel.

Upon departure, our dedicated Cabin Crew member delivered us a welcome orange juice and much to our surprise, a cooked breakfast. This was the second breakfast of the day, having also ate at the airport, but naturally we were on holiday so felt zero guilt for eating this too. We expected only a snack for this leg.

We arrived into Warsaw airport with three hours to kill before our next flight direct to Tokyo. The airport wasn’t the most comfortable with the waiting areas being small and cramped. Premium Economy doesn’t come with business lounge access, but we were able to pay a 120 PLN (c.£23.16) supplement per person. We were able to relax in there enjoying even more food, wine, beer and soft drinks. It was a busy lounge, but it was well worth paying the supplement for the duration we were in Warsaw.

We then departed Warsaw at 14:40 on our 787-Dreamliner, travelling overnight and arriving at 09:20 Japan time. The total journey time of this leg was ten hours and 40 minutes.

The service with LOT on both flights was second-to-none with meals on the Dreamliner fusing European cuisine with Japanese, making for some interesting dishes. Also on the Dreamliner, there was a basket of goodies that was always available. Drinks were plentiful with a glass of bubbly being offered upon boarding, another drink offered shortly after (I had a G&T), then the first meal being served with wine then tea or coffee afterwards.

Tokyo Narita Airport to Tokyo by Narita Express train

We wasted no time before travelling on our first train. We travelled on the Narita Express straight into the heart of Tokyo. The train is non-stop and takes approximately 54 minutes. We visited the JR booking office where we exchanged our JR Pass Exchange Order for the real deal – the dated JR Pass. We opted for an Ordinary Class pass over the Green Car (Japan’s First Class equivalent), the difference in the service being the seat and 3+2 seating vs 2+2 seating. The pass gave us total freedom to go anywhere we wanted to in Japan! A great feeling.

We also obtained free seat reservations for the day including the compulsory reservation for the Narita Express.

Immediately while arriving at the train station, the efficiency of the Japan Railway became apparent. We found our platform and the inbound service from Tokyo arrived and we were asked not to board. A staff ‘squad’ boarded the train at different carriages and pulled a belt across the door behind them, why? Their mission was to go through the train as quickly as they could, wiping down tables, the floor and turn around every seat with a lever so it would face the direction of travel. It was a fine art and fascinating to watch.

We boarded the train and by the entrance doors were luggage racks. Not only was there plenty of room for cases of all sizes, there were wires to wrap around the suitcase handle where you self-set a number lock to ensure your case wouldn’t be stolen. I couldn’t imagine a theft for one minute in Japan, but it’s best to be safe and we were going to the capital city afterall. If you forgot your number there was a process – travel to the final station and speak to staff who will release it. They thought of everything.

Within the passenger saloon with its spacious, reclining seats there were screens detailing information about the train’s journey featuring pages about the various weather disruption incidents across the JR East network. Line closures due to typhoons and earthquakes popped up!

Tokyo to Kyoto by Shinkansen

This would be our first ride on the Shinkansen, travelling to Kyoto on a Shinkansen Hikari service in two hours, 40 minutes. We asked the Booking Office Clerk at the airport to make us a reservation on the side of Mount Fuji. She did so and thanked us for showing interest in the beauty of her country. Throughout the week, this culture of gratitude kept popping up.

Onboard the Shinkansen, just like the Narita Express, all the seats were facing the direction of travel. Ten minutes into the journey, a trolley manned by a very polite lady came through the carriage. She turned and bowed to customers in the carriage as she walked in and out of each carriage – that’s a lot of bowing she must do in a day’s shift! We purchased lunch from her selection of Ekiben (train bento boxes) which were shown to us on a menu complete with pictures. A delightful meal which was beautifully presented, and part of the fun is there’s always something which you’re not quite sure what it actually is!

We passed Mount Fuji in the distance, capped with snow, and took a snap.

We arrived on time into Kyoto station. The station boats an impressive array of shops – perfect for bagging that souvenir of your visit. Also don’t miss the very long ride up the escalators to the top floor of the station, where the Cube food court is. I enjoyed pork cutlet.

Exploring Kyoto

Kyoto is a very walkable city. Everywhere you walk you can see Shinkansen trains gliding past. In fact one 16-car N700 Shinkansen series train alone weighs 715 tonnes – it was unreal to think that was flying above your head!

It is worth spending time visiting at least one Buddist temple or Shinto shrine – there are many around the city. We went to one of the oldest – the Tō-ji temple, built in the year 796.

While wandering around admiring the architecture, statues, plants, ponds and art work a lady invited us into her temple for a morning prayer and blessing. We took our shoes off upon entering, took part in the ceremony listening to her instructions throughout. It was a very relaxing experience and made me slightly envious that her morning routine started this way every day.

We visited the wonderful Kyoto railway museum in Shimogyō-ku spending three hours wandering around the exhibits. It had everything from the first Shinkansen to a mock control centre and a museum shop.

Hozu-gawa river cruise

The following day we started with a ride onboard a JR Ltd Express train from Kyoto to Kameoka, the starting point for the must-do river boat ride along the Hozu-gawa river.

Kyoto to Kameoka by Ltd. Express Hashidate train

At Kameoka, the river boat terminal is a five minute walk from the station. The Tourist Information Office is within the station and they provided invaluable help with directions to reach the terminal. You purchase your ticket there and then wait for your number to be called out in order of purchase. We had roughly a 20 minute wait and there was a very enthusiastic man holding the board with the ticket numbers calling them – no chance of missing your number!

The ride was exciting, dealing with varied water currents. There were three men rowing the boat however only Japanese was spoken, but the scenery alone was enough to enjoy the trip. There were many bridges where you could observe trains passing and a boat arrived towards the end selling soup and drinks.

The boat journey finished in Arashiyama some ten kilometres from central Kyoto. It was delightful to walk around this area with temples, looking out for Geisha, see the manned level crossing in action and stroll in the Bamboo forest. Then we took a regional train to travel back to central Kyoto.

Our few days in Kyoto concluded and we then headed to Hiroshima.

Kyoto to Hiroshima by Shinkansen

There are direct trains from Kyoto to Hiroshima however these are Shinkansen Nozomi services which are marketed as the premium bullet train services. These services cannot be used with the JR Pass. Therefore we would have to complete the journey with an easy change of train at Shin-Kobe station on the same platform and board the next train.

The change of train is a good chance to stretch the legs, if anything, and gives the opportunity to purchase an Ekiben bento box from the station kiosk. The trains used on the majority of Shinkansen Hikari and Shinkansen Sakura services are actually formed of the same N700 series Shinkansen as the Nozomi services, so comfort levels are exactly the same. The journey time is also the same but with some extra minutes for the change of train.

Our first leg for this journey was on a Shinkansen Hikari service taking 28 minutes. Then, with an eight minute change at Shin-Koke, we boarded the Shinkansen Sakura to travel a further 73 minutes direct to Hiroshima.

After arriving into Hirsohima we headed straight to the left luggage lockers to store our baggage – these lockers proved invaluable on our trip to Japan, being available at all major stations costing from 200 yen/day to 600 yen/day depending on luggage size.

Day trip to Miyajima (Itsukushima)

Trains depart Hiroshima every 15 minutes for Miyajimaguchi which is on the JR Sanyo line. Then it’s an easy five minute walk to the JR Ferry terminal for the 10 minute boat ride to Miyajima. Both trips are included with the JR Pass.

Miyajima is the perfect place to bag your souvenir with lots of shops selling Japanese gifts. The island is famous for its Momiji manjū cakes which are made of buckwheat and rice powder, they are shaped like maple leaves and contain a red bean paste. Look out for these and for the thousands of friendly Skia deer wandering the streets.

Once you have finished at the shops, it is well worth a trip on the Miyajima Ropeway to see the view from the top of Mount Misen. The cable car is a 15 minute walk away from the centre of Miyajima and is a mean feet of engineering taking the strain off climbing 350 metres of the mountain’s 535 metres.

At the top of the mountain the views of Hiroshima Bay are fantastic with green islands dotted around the water and the city of Hiroshima visible in the distance. Absolutely delightful on a clear day. There is also a café at the top which we enjoyed.

Exploring Hiroshima

Hiroshima is a city which resonates with most people worldwide because of a devastating event that took place in 1945. On 6th August an atomic bomb made of uranium was dropped on the city by American forces during World War II, ultimately killing a total of 140,000 people. Another atomic bomb was dropped days later in Japan but on the city of Nagasaki this time.

I wanted to learn more about what happened so spent a day visiting the extensive Peace Memorial Museum and Park situated alongside each other. I recommend spending the full day visiting both, the Atomic Bomb Dome alone really hits home.

The museum actively supports the movement against nuclear weapons asking visitors to sign up to International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons (ICAN).

Hiroshima has one of the most impressive shrines in Japan, also a World Heritage Site. The Itsukushima Shrine is significant because its torii-gate and shrine are in the middle of the sea! No photos however as we ran out of time.

Hiroshima to Izumoshi by Shinkansen and Ltd. Exp Yakumo

Izumoshi, also known as Izumo, is probably a place you’ve never heard of, we hadn’t neither. Izumo is a small city on the northern coast of Japan. We went to visit not only to get a taste of a non-tourist region of Japan, but also a chance to use our JR Pass for another day and to pick up the Sunrise Izumo sleeper train which starts its journey here.

Our fastest option, and what we perceived to be the most scenic option, to go from Hiroshima to Izumoshi was to travel on a Shinkansen service to Okayama and change onto a Yakumo train direct to Izumoshi there. The day before, booking seats for the fast Shinkansen Sakura trains proved to be a challenge with trains fully reserved and we were advised in the booking office to queue very early for the unreserved cars if we wanted to travel on this.

Instead, we found the option to travel on a slower Shinkansen to Okayama. This Kodama service had plenty of seats available but a longer journey time of 86 minutes instead of 46 minutes. This was operated by the nice retro, swift looking 500 series Shinkansen, which I have to say was my favourite! Just look at that nose! It was nice to see this train, which features in the Railway Museum in Kyoto, on a passenger service.

There is no green car on the Kodama service, however just by reserving a seat you can get a reservation in a car which used to be the Green car! The 500 series Shinkansen was degraded from the fast Nozomi services in 2010 to these stopping Shinkansen Kodoma services, because of their age, but I do feel it was well worth the extra 40 minutes of travel at least for the space we had onboard.

After the break in Okayama we boarded the Ltd. Exp Yakumo train bound for Izumoshi. This journey leg took three hours, seven minutes and is a beautiful ride through mountains as the train heads north then, as the train reaches the coast it heads west past rivers and lakes of Nakaumi and Lake Shinji. Before boarding we bought lunch to enjoy with the views – another Ekiben bento box of course!

Izumoshi to Tokyo by Sunrise Izumo sleeper train

One of the last remaining sleeper trains in Japan is the Sunrise Izumo. The train actually joins to the one other sleeper train in Japan en route, the Sunrise Seto. The eastbound trains couple together at Okayama and complete the rest of the journey to Tokyo as one train. The westbound trains split at Okayama and follow their respective routes to Izumoshi and Takamatsu.

We joined the Sunrise Izumo in Izumoshi at the start of its journey, departing at 18:51, taking 12 hours and 17 minutes in total and arriving into Tokyo at 07:08.

A variety of accommodation is available priced according to comfort. The most basic option, which is actually free to use with the JR Pass (reservation required), is the Nobinobi sleeping area. This is described by the Japan Railways as a “seat”. This is in fact an open-plan carriage with carpeted areas on two floors for lying down and a section per person. Each “seat” has a window and limited privacy dividers to cover your face.

We had enquired about travelling in the Nobinobi area, but all spaces were sold out (reserving 6 nights before, travelling on Thursday night). We decided to treat ourselves to the other option, a twin sleeping berth, at a total cost of ¥22,000 / £164.30. Just like European sleeper trains – though with a shared WC at the end of the corridor.

We did have a problem with fitting our suitcases in the cabin but once we had been creative with our space challenge we managed fine.

The train had showers and a small seating area with a vending machine selling soft drinks. In order to use the shower there was a dedicated vending machine where you pay ¥320 / £2.39 for a shower card. Then you insert this into the shower and your timer starts for six minutes. This doesn’t sound long, but actually it was plenty of time for a refreshing hot shower.

Life suddenly got busier when stepping off the train into Tokyo. Advertised everywhere was the upcoming 2020 Olympics with a countdown clock outside the station.

Tokyo is a bustling metropolis that boasts an impressive 160,000 eateries. Its attractions include the Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower, which both have observation decks, shrines and temples.

The weather in Tokyo didn’t live up to much, so for our last full day in Japan we dropped sightseeing and searched the country for sunnier climes. We also wanted one final trip on a Shinkansen train. Niigata on the northwest coast seemed a good candidate so we boarded a Max Toki Shinkansen service.

Tokyo to Niigata by Shinkansen

We boarded a Shinkansen Max Toki service direct to the port city of Niigata via the Jōetsu Shinkansen, taking two hours and nine minutes. These double-decker E4 series trains were quite retro (for Japan anyway) dating back to 1997. Each one has a pay-phone located onboard, unmissable due to its luminous green colour!

Shinkansen Toki services operated by single-decker E2 series and newer E7 series trains also operate on the route. We travelled back on an E7 series.

The journey in itself is a delight taking in mountainous scenery cruising past Mount Tanigawa, Mount Naeba and Mount Aizu-Komagatake – be ready with your camera.

Although there’s things to see, Niigata city itself isn’t so much a tourist destination, but for a taste of typical Japanese city (with a small town feel) with a river walk, we had an enjoyable stroll in the sunshine for a few hours.

Tokyo Narita (NRT) to London City (LCY) via Warsaw (WAW) with LOT Polish Airlines

The end of the trip was in sight, and the time had come to reflect on the incredible week that we enjoyed in Japan.

The journey back was similar to the way there. We started at Tokyo’s Narita Airport in the morning for a LOT flight departure at 11am bound for Warsaw Chopin Airport taking 11 hours, 25 minutes. Then we had a two hour layover before our connecting flight to London City Airport taking two hours, 40 minutes.

In true Japanese style, this airport was very zen. It was quiet (for an airport) and less hustle and bustle than most airports. There weren’t just seats available for all passengers, but loungers available too – a great way to relax before your flight!

Food wise we had three delicious meals just like we enjoyed on the way there, again incorporating a mix of European and Japanese cuisine. We made use of the attentive service in Premium Economy and in total enjoyed 10 drinks including wine, gin and tonics and Irish Cream on the two flights!

Train Tickets

If you’re planning to travel for a week or more, then without a doubt the Japan Rail Pass is what you need. This is only available for tourists residing outside of Japan. Passes are available for 7 days, 14 days and 21 days continuous travel and the prices can be found in the table below. You are required to purchase the Japan Rail Pass via a travel agent in advance of travel who will send you an exchange order. Then, when you arrive in Japan, you are required to visit one of the ticket offices to swap it for your train pass. We purchased ours via International Rail, a reputable travel agent in the UK.

Japan Rail Pass2nd Class1st Class (Green Car)
7 Days Continuous£217£289
14 Days Continuous£345£468
21 Days Continuous£441£608
Prices correct at 30th March 2020
TrainSupplement with JR PassFull Price without JR Pass
Tokyo Narita Airport to Tokyo by Narita Express (NEX)Free – including compulsory seat reservationsTicket Price
+¥1,340 / +£10.07

—————————-
Compulsory Reservation
+¥1,930 / +£14.50

Green Car
+¥3,300 / +£24.80
Tokyo to Kyoto by ShinkansenFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price
¥8,360 / £62.82

—————————-
No reservation
+¥4,960 / +£37.27

Reservation
+¥5,690 / +£47.25

Green Car
+¥10,360 / +£77.84
Kyoto to Kameoka by Ltd. Exp Hashidate trainFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price
¥420 / £3.16

—————————-
No reservation
+¥660 / +£4.96

Reservation
+¥1,390 / +£10.44

Green Car
+¥1,960 / +£14.73
Kyoto to Hiroshima by Shinkansen (change at Shin-Kobe)Free – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥6,600 / £49.59
—————————-
No reservation
+¥4,170 / +£31.33

Reservation
+¥4,900 / +£36.82

Green Car
+¥8,360 / +£62.82
Hiroshima to MiyajimaguchiFree – reservations not possibleTicket Price ¥420 / £3.11
Miyajimaguchi to Miyajima ferryFree – reservations not possibleTicket Price ¥180 / £1.33
Hiroshima to Okayama by Shinkansen (Kodama or Sakura)Free – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥3,080 / £23.14
—————————-
No reservation
+¥2,530 / +£19.01

Reservation
+¥3,260 / +£24.50

Green Car
+¥5,330 / +£40.05
Okayama to Izumoshi by Ltd. Exp YakumoFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥4,070 / £30.58
—————————-
No reservation
+¥2,420 / +£18.18

Reservation
+¥3,150 / +£23.67

Green Car
+¥6,610 / +£49.67
Izumoshi to Tokyo by Sunrise Izumo sleeper train*Nobinobi “Seat” (carpeted bed): Free, but reservation required.
Twin Room: total ¥22,000 / £164.30
Single Deluxe Room: ¥17,280 / £129.05
Ticket Price ¥12,200 +
Seat (carpeted bed): ¥4,030 / £30.10 for reservation.
Twin Room: total ¥22,000 / £164.30
Single Deluxe Room: ¥17,280 / £129.05

Tokyo to Niigata by ShinkansenFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥5,720 / £42.98
—————————-
No reservation
+¥4,510 / +£33.89

Reservation
+¥5,240 / +£39.37

Green Car
+¥8,700 / +£65.37
Niigata to Tokyo by ShinkansenFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥5,720 / £42.98
—————————-
No reservation
+¥4,510 / +£33.89

Reservation
+¥5,240 / +£39.37

Green Car
+¥8,700 / +£65.37
Tokyo to Tokyo Narita Airport by Narita Express (NEX)Free – including compulsory seat reservationsTicket Price
+¥1,340 / +£10.07

—————————-
Compulsory Reservation
+¥1,930 / +£14.50

Green Car
+¥3,300 / +£24.80
*Sleeper seats were fully reserved 1 week in advance in our experience. Fares and exchange rates from ¥ to £ correct April 2020

This article was first published in May 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 Ser