5 scenic European railway journeys: the Royal Scotsman to the Glacier Express

As travel chaos continues across the continent, a slow train journey may be the ultimate antidote

Switzerland's Glacier Express covers the scenic route between two Alpine ski resorts, Zermatt and St Moritz. Getty Images
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With Europe’s airports in a state of disarray, it may be time to discover some of the continent’s great train journeys. Travelling from a train station involves a lot less hassle than an international airport and splurging on a first-class railway ticket feels a lot more reasonable than current flight prices in many parts of the world.

Here are five spectacular railway journeys to consider.

The Cinque Terre, Italy

A train passes through Monterosso al Mare, part of Italy's Cinque Terre. Getty

The local train for La Spezia, which pulls out of Genova’s bustling central station, takes its time winding along a 120-kilometre stretch, slowly rumbling for two and a half hours along the spectacular Ligurian coast between two of Italy’s major maritime ports.

While the early stops and picturesque seaside views are already beguiling, as chic holidaymakers descend at Rapallo and Santa Margherita Ligure, en route for the mythical resort of Portofino, the crucial part of the journey begins when the train pulls into Monterosso.

This is the first of the Cinque Terre, five idyllic villages of brightly painted fishermen’s and farmer’s cottages that tumble down jagged dead-end headlands jutting out into the sea. For centuries, the Cinque Terre were virtually cut off from the rest of Italy, and today there is still no road link, only this tiny train, whose station is still a good walk down to the edge of each village.

After Monterosso, the train slips in and out of mountain tunnels, stopping each time it arrives at the next Terra — Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, each unique in its own way. The coastline is Unesco protected, with no modern development, and most visitors arrive and depart the same day on the train.

A maze of narrow footpaths along the steep cliffs links each village, so you can leave the train at Manarola for example, enjoy a plate of traditional pasta al pesto overlooking the sea, then walk on to Riomaggiore to pick up the train again to La Spezia or back to Genova. A one way Genova to La Spezia ticket costs €8 (Dh36)

Royal Scotsman, Scotland

The famed Glenfinnan Railway Viaduct in Scotland, which featured in the Harry Potter films. Getty

Some of the world’s most famous train journeys have been immaculately operated for years by the luxury hotel group, Belmond.

Apart from the signature Orient Simplon Express from London to Venice, Belmond's classic trains climb through the mountains and plains of the Andes in Peru and traverse the rice paddies and tropical jungles of South-East Asia, weaving up from Singapore, through Malaysia to Bangkok.

But it is one of its more discrete European routes that really delivers a memorable journey — the mythical Royal Scotsman. This opulent palace on wheels sets off from Glasgow station and follows a route that goes through the wild hills and glens of the Western Highlands.

Average trips last five days, and with luxurious vintage cabins, fine dining and even a carriage converted into a spa, the price reflects that this is a very special occasion. Depending on which journey you choose, the trip may pass through unforgettable sights such as Loch Lomond and Ben Nevis, but also include stop-offs at an artisan smoked salmon producer, a tour of majestic Glamis castle, a round of golf or a spot of clay pigeon shooting in a local laird’s private estate. A top viewing point has to be as the train crosses Glenfinnan Viaduct, made famous the world over by Harry Potter’s adventures. Tickets costs from €4500 (Dh20,280)

The Glacier Express, Switzerland

The Glacier Express travels between the famous Alpine ski resorts of Zermatt and St Moritz, above. Getty

Don’t be misled by the name of Switzerland’s most famous train. This is no express ride, as it takes almost eight hours to traverse the 290 kilometres that separate two of the most famous Alpine ski resorts, Zermatt and St Moritz.

Average speed is only 38 kilometres per hour, but don’t think you will need a book to read or a Spotify music list to keep you awake, as you won’t be able to take your eyes off the ever-changing mountain scenery, visible through wide panoramic windows.

At its highest point, the narrow gauge railway rises to a little more than 2,000 metres, and when you discover that the line has only been running since 1930, it is hardly surprising, as engineers had to work in extreme conditions to construct the staggering 291 bridges and 91 tunnels.

From the foot of the Matterhorn at Zermatt, the Express cuts through the dazzling valleys and glaciers of the central Swiss Alps until it reaches the exclusive glitzy playground of St Moritz. Along the way, it is not just the natural beauty that catches the eye, but examples of the age-old Alpine lifestyle, with tiny clusters of ornate wooden chalets surrounding an onion-domed church, herds of cows, medieval castles and isolated farms.

The trains are ultra modern, equipped with a comfortable dining wagon serving traditional Swiss cuisine, and there is not even a huge difference in first and second class comfort. One way tickets are €135 (Dh608) for second class and €237 (Dh1,070) for first class.

Baie de Somme Railway, France

The French village of Le Crotoy. Getty

The estuary of the Somme river is one of France’s best kept secrets, an unspoilt natural paradise.

These immense wetlands change dramatically with the tide. Sweeping sand dunes appear at low tide, resembling an arid desert that is rapidly filled by the sea at high tide, creating a natural harbour where a thousand years ago, William the Conqueror hid his fleet before crossing the Channel to successfully invade England in 1066.

Two delightfully old-fashioned seaside resorts sit opposite each other across the bay, Saint-Valery-sur-Somme and Le Crotoy. Adventurous trekkers can join the daily low-tide eco-walk across the estuary, but for train fans, nothing compares to chugging round the estuary on the antiquated steam engine of the grandly-named Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme.

The volunteers running this now private railway have renovated half-a-dozen ancient steam engines, the oldest dating from 1889, which saw service in the Panama Canal. Passengers climb on board at Saint Valery-sur-Somme, a genteel, picture-postcard village, with fishing and sailing boats bobbing in the port, imposing medieval ramparts, and a long waterside boardwalk lined with sumptuous 19th-century villas that were artistic retreats for the likes of Victor Hugo and Jules Verne, Alfred Sisley and Degas.

The track follows the edge of the estuary, passing fields of grazing sheep and migratory birds that range from herons and storks to egrets, swans and spoonbills.

Across the bay, the final stop is Le Crotoy, a charmingly old-fashioned holiday resort with donkey rides and amusement arcades, as well as offbeat excursions ranging from seal and bird spotting to helping fishermen harvest local mussels. The one-hour trip is a bargain at €12 (Dh55)

Oslo to Bergen, Norway

The Flamsbana train journey travels between Flam and Myrdal in Western Norway. Getty

The Bergen Railway runs for about 800kms miles though Norway’s magnificent mountains, lakes, rivers and fjords, beginning at the national capital of Oslo and ending at Bergen, a distinguished Hanseatic port that is the gateway to the Arctic and home to celebrated Norwegians such as composer Edvard Grieg and painter Edvard Munch.

The train is always full of adventure tourists, who pile out at varying stops to join nature trekking trails, mountain bike paths and, when the snow covers the scenery, winter sports stations offering downhill and cross-country skiing.

The highlight of the trip is when the train pulls into Myrdal, when nearly everyone transfers over to the unique branch line to Flams. Rated one of Norway’s top tourist attractions and described as the world’s most beautiful railway journey, the Flamsbana does not disappoint.

In only one hour, the retro train travels almost 1,000 metres steeply downhill to Flams on the panoramic Aurlandsfjord, perilously descending for 20 kilometres, along vertiginous mountain tracks, cascading waterfalls and fast-flowing river gorges.

A return ride on the Flamsbana costs €45 (Dh202). Bear in mind that reaching Bergen by train could just be the first part of an unforgettable journey, as the Hurtigruten, Norway’s coastal steamer that acts both as a cargo and passenger line, sets sail from Bergen on its slow epic voyage into the Arctic Circle up to the North Cape. Oslo to Bergen costs from 400 Norwegian krone (Dh172).

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Updated: July 21, 2022, 9:39 AM
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