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

Zürich🇨🇭 to Lucerne🇨🇭 by train 🚆- the fast or the slow option?

Lucerne and Zurich are two unique Swiss-German speaking cities that are highly likely to be on your itinerary as a visiting tourist to Switzerland. To travel between the two there is a fast, comfortable, direct train that serves the two cities operated by SBB in as little as 41 minutes.

Those who know this part of the world could well be asking “which slow option?”. Well this is very much an off-the-beaten-track route and one I’ve very much devised on my own, taking three trains instead. Why not just take the fast train you ask? I’ll show you why I think the slow option made for a more memorable experience and in my opinion is not worth missing if you can spare the time. But first, what’s the fast route like?

Fast Option – Direct

Journey LegDurationTrain TypeOperator
Zürich <> Lucerne41 minutes*InterRegio [IR]SBB
*based on a journey taken departing Zürich at 11:10 on 29th August 2021. Journey durations may vary slightly on different departure dates / times of day

The direct route from Zürich to Lucerne is well served with two trains per hour using comfortable, modern double-deck SBB InterRegio trains. The route travels via the aptly named town of Zug, though the name doesn’t refer to its railway heritage but its fishing past.

The route takes as little as 41 minutes on the fastest trains and up to 50 minutes on the slightly slower trains. The Swiss offer fantastic dining cars on many routes, but not this one – the journey is too short to offer such a luxury. Simply grab your morning coffee at the station beforehand.

If you’re looking for views then this route will most likely disappoint, especially if you’re used to Swiss standards. There is some token scenery in the form of two lakes en route to take in however.

Slow Option via Interlaken

Journey LegDurationTrain TypeOperator
Lucerne <> Interlaken Ost1 hour, 49 minutes*InterRegio [IR]Zentralbahn
Interlaken Ost <> Bern52 minutes*InterCity [IC]SBB
Bern <> Zürich HB56 minutes*InterCity [IC]SBB
*based on journey taken departing Lucern at 15:06 on 29th August 2021. Journey durations may vary slightly on different departure dates / times of day

Now for the scenic route I’ve devised from Lucerne to Zurich which goes via Interlaken – perfect if you’ve got some extra time and want to enjoy some spectacular Swiss scenery.

This route travels via Interlaken with hourly departures. It’s worth noting that there are three trains to catch instead of one on this route but you won’t find yourself waiting around in stations as the connections are short. If missed connections are a concern, we experienced first-hand a delay to our first train and much to our delight the second train waited for our arrival. Should the train not wait, there are certainly worse places to spend an hour in both Interlaken and Bern before continuing your journey on the next train.

It’s worth noting that the journey time for this route is considerably longer, taking 3 hours, 52 minutes in total however if you’re like me and love gazing out the window and dining on the move time will fly-by – all three of these trains had excellent Swiss dining cars. There’s no need to reserve these in advance – just show up whenever you feel like it. Here is a summary of each leg of the slow option. This journey can also be taken in the reverse direction with a similar journey time.

Leg 1: Lucerne <> Interlaken Ost

First up, from Lucerne to Interlaken via the jaw-dropping scenery of the Luzern-Interlaken Express by Die Zentralbahn. This route is full of character from start to finish with steep ascents, the magical Brünig mountain pass and no fewer than five lakes – all to enjoy at your seat through the window. Sitting on the right hand side departing Lucerne is recommended for the best scenery and staying on that side when the train reverses at Meiringen.

This is a regional train but with a bistro! Our train was formed of two trains coupled together, one without a bistro – so if you would like to take advantage of a cuppa on the move make sure you sit in the train set that has one.

Our train managed to rack-up a small delay of five minutes – which would have been enough to miss the connection at Interlaken Ost should the onward train have departed on time. Much to our surprise there were many customers switching trains and our next train was held back for our arrival despite being different operators – impressive work from the Swiss railway companies!

Leg 2: Interlaken Ost <> Bern

Next up, after the (rather unnecessary) drama of rushing to catch this InterCity train we were hungry. It was time to eat at the dining car for our 52 minute journey to Bern. The SBB InterCity trains on this route have a whole dedicated dining carriage with a mix of table sizes from sitting two people up to five with one host looking after what turned out to be a full carriage. He impressed us with his speed and managed to serve us a delicious warming Thai Green Curry and chilled wine within minutes of departure. They arrived just as we were passing the glorious Lake Thun on our right. Bliss. There’s something truly special about dining on the move.

Leg 3: Bern <> Zürich HB

We arrived into Bern a few minutes behind following our late start from Interlaken. No time to waste we headed straight over to catch our next SBB InterCity train to Zürich, this time a more modern double-decker variant for our final leg of the journey to Zürich.

We had room left for dessert so headed again straight to the dining car which is on the upper level. The train was busy, however we were able to share a table with a friendly Swiss couple playing a board game. Enjoying some more wine and a tasty Schweizer Apfelküchlein, the conductor checked our tickets. It was our last date of travel on our train passes and she commented sympathetically “last one” – our two weeks travelling on Swiss trains was drawing to a close and what a way to spend our last day in this beautiful country with our three-train adventure. We enjoyed every minute.

Tickets

There are whole host of ticketing options for train travel in Switzerland including point-to-point tickets for a one-off journey (more expensive per journey), to cheaper travel if you’re planning more journeys for example using the half-fare travelcard or InterRail tickets if you live in another European country. Reservations are not required to travel on non-tourist trains in Switzerland such as these journeys featured in this blog post.

As you can see in the table below if you’re planning the direct train from Zürich to Lucerne and not making any other journeys in Switzerland a point-to-point ticket might be cheaper for you. If you’re planning the trip via Interlaken, then a day pass might be cheaper for you (SBB Saver Day Pass or InterRail) or purchasing a half-fare railcard for point-to-point tickets from SBB. It all depends what else you have planned.

Ticket Type – Available to the PublicFull Price one wayPrice (half-fare travelcard) one wayReservation Fees
Zürich to Lucerne Point-to-Point (2nd Class)
– valid for one journey, bought in advance
from CHF 13.80from CHF 7.60Not Required
Zürich to Lucerne Point-to-Point via Interlaken (2nd Class)
– valid for one journey, bought in advance
from CHF 92.00from CHF 46.00Not Required
SBB Saver Day Pass
– valid throughout Switzerland, bought in advance
from CHF 52.00from CHF 29.00Not Required
Swiss InterRail Pass (e.g. 5 days in 1 month, 1 Adult)
– valid throughout Switzerland
€56,50 per dayN/ANot Required
Fares correct as of 30th October 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 – again no reservation fees for these journeys.

TrainJourney LegFIP Facilities UsedFIP Facilities Reservation Fees
InterRegio (SBB)Zürich HB to LucerneFIP Free Coupons (SBB)Not Required
InterRegio (Zentralbahn)Lucerne to Interlaken OstFIP Free Coupons (SP)Not Required
InterCity or EuroCity (SBB)Interlaken Ost to BernFIP Free Coupons (SBB)Not Required
InterCity (SBB)Bern to Zürich HBFIP Free Coupons (SBB)Not Required
Details correct as of 30th October 2021

This article was first published in October 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.