Holidays in the South of France have changed a lot since my youth.
Cut that – the South of France has changed a lot since my youth.
The first time I made my way through the coastal towns of Southern France, I was a teenage upstart, fresh out of school and keen to soak in as much foreign culture as possible. France will always hold a special place in my heart as being the first foreign land that I ever visited. As a young lad, wide-eyed and open to influence, I remember my first rail journey through this land I’d heard so much of as a rite of passage. This was the litmus test of my future successes as a traveller, the actions that I would take and the people that I would meet would determine the future path that I would take for the rest of my life – or so I thought at the time.
1970s France was a strange, mysterious place. Scars still remained from the Second World War and where those scars weren’t visible, cubist concrete buildings were creeping up into the sky to remain an eyesore for the next forty years or so. The rail systems were in a state of flux at that time, with one stuck in the past and another hand feebly groping into the future. The trains that I caught back then were frequently late, leaving me sat for hours at a time slowly chewing on day-old baguettes – when they arrived, I was always a little nervous stepping aboard as the carriages often skittered between states of disrepair and total dilapidation.
As I said, things have changed a little since then. The modernised rail system that now winds its way along the coast, past part-time models with their miniature dogs and hotshot directors alike, makes for a smooth, enjoyable ride that exemplifies the very best of the region’s beatific pleasures.
A window seat on the left hand side of the well maintained SNCF trains down to Cannes offers the eager traveller a chance to truly appreciate the spectacular views that coastal France has to offer. Aside from the landscape there’s also heaps of people watching for the uninitiated. If anything, this is one aspect of train travel in France that hasn’t changed for decades. French people remain utterly fascinating to observe from a distance; whether it’s holidaymakers enjoying their private villas in Provence or animated elderly women conversing on park benches, this train travels at just the right speed to catch a glimpse of all of them.
This hour-long train journey might only cover a fraction of France’s elegant Cote D’ Azur (of which the entire length is worthy of travelling through) but at just €15 for an all-day pass it’s difficult to not argue with the value on offer.
Train etiquette in this country is uniformly excellent, services on board are above the standard of most short-haul flights and you’ll always have room to stretch out your legs.…
Here in the UK we usually associate steam engines with children’s television characters and miniature model railways.
It can be easy to forget that the use of steam-powered tank engines is not as outdated as we think.
Although the romantic age of the steam engine might well be a relic of the past in the UK, in Germany, thanks to it’s complicated and fascinating political history, there still remains a fully functioning steam-powered railway system that has been running unperturbed (save the minor intrusions of World War I and II) since 1886. For steam train fanatics, such as myself, the Harzequerbahn, Selketalbahn and Bockenbahn (collectively known as HSB) offers a unique opportunity to take a step back in time and experience a steam engine experience like none other on the planet.
So the big question is: Why?
Why does Germany, a technologically advanced major world power, still insist on utilising this massively outdated system? The answer lies in the dark recesses of it’s complicated post-war history and thankfully allows us to take a seat in a deliriously romantic train ride through some jaw dropping scenery.
The HSB was initially built to transport the workers and resources involved in the heavy coal mining that took place in the area during Germany’s industrial revolution – during this prosperous period of time the railways were used for everything from tourism to agriculture. It wasn’t until the outbreak and aftermath of World War II that significant changes came to the HSB. The compartmentalising of Germany, in the wake of World War II, led to the three line railway system being taken over by new Russian overlords.
It’s thanks in large part to the commandeering of the HSB by the Russians that the railway has maintained it’s distinctive vintage appearance and functionality, something that attracts thousands of rail-fanatics and fans of the period from all over the world. Despite the obvious attraction the HSB holds in terms of tourism, it still remains a functional railway that serves the various communities of Germans throughout the region. School children, commuters and elderly people from the numerous towns and villages all step on board at Quedlinburg, a mountain town renowned for it’s picture perfect appearance.
The steam engines used on the HSB still carry with them the austere grandeur of their Russian roots. Many of the locomotives used on the HSB have been faithfully protected, treated and looked after, to ensure that they continue to shine as if it were their first day in service. Despite the odd relationship the locals workers for the HSB have with their former Soviet forbears it has not hindered their evident affection for these machines; their enthusiasm for their work on this historic railway almost shines as much as the brass and steel of the locomotives themselves.
The journey, a smooth ride up through some incredibly crisp mountain terrain, is as smooth and efficient as you’d expect from a German rail service. My fellow travellers on this 0842 service are made up of a handful of tourists, a couple of neat businessmen and half a dozen school children.
All aboard seemed content to simply watch the scenery move by – and when it’s this good, it’s hard not to see why.…
See the cities of Italy in a day – for less than £50
I’ve been making lengthy trips out to the continent from my home of Liverpool for the past 10 years or so.
The rent here is cheap, as are most of the amenities. It’s rather paradoxical, then, that I’ve somehow grown more money conscious over the years.
I’ve learnt a few money-saving tips over the years, in order to make my frequent trips to Europe a little more affordable. They range from the classic: book flights around two months in advance and never fly on a Friday or in the afternoon; to the more obscure: I find cheap parking at Liverpool Airport two weeks before I fly, for extra piece of mind whilst I’m away. Beyond these little rituals, I’ve learnt a few exceptions to the rules, when it comes to travelling by rail on the continent.
Many experienced Inter-Railers will swear by the pass that they use to save money on long-distance European rail trips, but you shouldn’t listen to them when looking to see Italy by rail. This is a country whose rail system has improved immeasurably over the years but whose Government have stubbornly refused to raise the prices, to the benefit of both travellers and natives alike. As such, travelling through this vaguely mystifying country by rail is fantastic value for money (especially in comparison to our extortionate ticket prices here in the UK).
Flights to Milan, booked well in advance, can be as cheap as £45. A slow train from Italy’s fashion conscious Financial capital, to rough’n’ready Naples, sets you back around the same price. Taking you on a lazily scenic tour of Italy’s tourist cities, across around 800km in a cool 4 hrs and a half, this trip allows you to truly appreciate the North-South divide that the country exhibits so effusively.
You start the journey by drifting out of Milan. Winding through fields; passing small towns and villages at a sedate pace (if you choose to take the cheaper slow train), the landscape could not be described as dramatic. This offers a fine opportunity to get lost in a short book, or perhaps a collection of stories from a legendary travel writer. Henry James’ collection of essays, Italian Hours, can fill your mind with a vision of a very different Italy, from over a century ago.
By the time you’ve reached Bologna, you have the option of jumping out and grabbing a quick lunch. Pasta in this region is particularly good, however if you were wise and packed a robust lunch with you, feel free to carry on your journey through to Florence.
Put the book down for this portion of the journey and switch to some Classical music, or even opera. It might sound like a cliché, but a selection of Pavarotti’s finest performances perfectly fit the scenic route through the forest laden landscapes and vistas. Whilst you cross bridges and edge through hills, take the opportunity to enjoy the peace and serenity before you arrive at one of Italy’s busiest tourist destinations.
If you’ve not visited Florence before, then you should really hop out and take a walk around this bustling town, noted for being one of the most beautiful in the whole of Italy. Although the wealth of art galleries and cultural sights demand a longer visit, unless you stay in a decent hotel (which could set you back a rather serious amount of money) you’ll be forced into one of the many costly and rowdy hostels. If this is the case, you’ll be looking forward to a night of heavy drinking, loud dormmates and endless ‘where are you from’ conversations.
Otherwise, set off from the city in the early evening and wind your way down to Naples. This is a pleasant journey that will take you around 1 hour and 20 minutes, sitting on the left hand side of the train to get the best view of the surrounding countryside. You’ll pass through no fewer than three separate areas of outstanding beauty; National Reserves, Parks and Lakes will all be laid out in front of you on a clear day – the perfect time to sit back and let your mind wander.
Rome is a city that demands to be visited at least once in your life – however you would be forgiven if you gave it a miss on this whistle-stop tour. Accommodation is almost always overpriced and during peak season it can be a nightmare making it through the crammed streets and piazza. Skip the Colosseum for now and stay on the train to benefit from the cheap thrills lying in wait in Naples.
The last leg of your Italian train-tour will fly by, quite literally. High-speed rail links have been invested in across the country; make up some time by catching one of these and travelling the 200-plus km trip in just over an hour. The plains and hills might be whizzing by too quickly to truly appreciate, but you may as well take this time to enjoy the super-clean environs of the train you’re on – things are about to get messy.
Alighting in Naples you’ll notice that the town exists in a state of disrepair. The concentration of organised crime – in the form of extortion and corruption – is known to be of a much higher concentration in the southern regions of Italy; resulting in, rather stereotypically, a constant backlog in waste disposal. Unemployment is high here and some citizens exhibit a flagrant disregard for their own heritage: even the statues in the centre of plazas are not safe from graffiti artists.
Despite all this, you’ll be relieved to hear that the chances of travellers being affected by street crime is relatively low. It does pay to be cautious of pickpockets and bag snatchers, but the same could be said for any part of Italy. For the most part, Naples’ citizens are friendly and helpful, even if they struggle with the English language even more that the rest of the country. Thankfully, the excellent range of hostels employ fluent English speakers who are more than happy to help you out. Prices for beds are as cheap as they get and you’ll find the best pizza in Italy in the city that popularised the stuff.
Before you fly back home, you should find time for one last train journey.
The 40 minute trip will take you South, past Mount Vesuvius, and drop you right outside Pompeii. You’re given a decent amount of freedom to explore this town, so you can spend the waning hours of the evening wandering the deserted alleys of a forgotten town, before heading back to the streets of Naples for a well deserved beer in one of the many relaxed bars.
Take the right route and you’ll find a trip through Italy could cost you far less than you think……
A truly scenic rail ride that belongs to the realms of fiction…
There are certain experiences whose reputations precede them.
They are seen as Holy Grail moments: featured moments of the sizzle reel of your life. Regardless of how many times you might see them photographed, their unique beauty does not fade. The thousands of selfies that litter social media do nothing to diminish the awe that they instil when they are witnessed first hand. Think Machu Pichu, the Great Pyramids, the Grand Canyon – these locations may be tourist hot spots, swarmed by hordes of camera wielding travellers, but the impression they leave on the mind is undeniably powerful.
You’ll find an altogether different kind of tourist on the 7-hour scenic train ride from Oslo to Bergen. Less rowdy Gap Year students and more elderly hikers.
In all respects the Bergen Railway belongs to the realms of fiction. Around half and hour into the journey, you’ll leave the bright fascias of Norwegian suburbia behind you and start ascending into the mountains. As the altitude makes itself felt in your ears; scenic Norway will show its true colours. Arrive in the Spring and lush green fields, filled with golden wheat and lily covered waters, will greet you around the first bend.
Don’t get too used to these rolling green fields though. Photographers will be flocking to the wide, clear windows that run the length of the handsome trains at certain points during the trip. However, you’ll notice that the serious photographers might hold themselves back until the famous fjords show themselves.
In the mean time, you can take a break from gawping through the window and saunter along the length of the train to find the dining carriage. Depending on the time of day, you could indulge in a beer with an open topped sandwich (smørbrød – in the local tongue). To avoid raising eyebrows, its best to order coffee in the morning, with a selection of the excellent sweet pastries that are always their best on the continent.
Make sure to slowly sip your beverages; as the dining cars usually have larger windows, you’ll be in a perfect position to witness the majesty of the fjords as they pass by. Make way for other patient diners and find another seat, in time to see one of the highlights of the journey.
The Hardangerjøkulen glacier will create a momentary hush in the carriage you’re travelling in. It had a similar effect on tragic hero Captain Robert Scott, who trained on the glacier before heading out on his doomed expedition of the Antartic and it’s scale is of such a magnitude that George Lucas, in 1979, chose it as the location to shoot scenes for the epic battle of Hoth in his follow-up to Star Wars.
The non-stop train from Bergen to Oslo can cost as little as £22, when booked in advance. It’s a truly authentic Norwegian experience, a breathtaking journey that was built out of necessity (you’ll see lucky locals snooze past the vistas, after a long day of work) and has, naturally, become a compulsory experience when visiting the area.
Often described in superlatives, this is a quintessential European train journey, that has to be seen to be believed.…
Living as a Spaniard in England can often be a challenge.
Although I speak more English than the the entirety of my (quite large) family, put together, I’m often not understood by the natives here in Newcastle.
The weather is a constant blight on my spirits. Grim winds and spitting rain are often the order of the day, regardless of the season – dismal compared to my home city of Barcelona. Finally, although there is a vibrant rail buff community here in England, the trains themselves are rather disappointing to ride. Slow, bumbling and often late, I don’t share the same love of the British Railway system as my fellow writers here on RTSC.
The hardest thing about being a Spaniard in England is the distance I have to live from my aforementioned family. Moving from Spain to England was a challenging experience and one that made me truly appreciate every single one of them. They’re a rascally bunch of miscreants, but they also make for the best of company. Brothers, sisters, cousins and parents – they are all growing a little older and wiser every day whilst I’m away from them. I miss them all dearly whilst I’m here and always look forward to my annual visit back to Spain.
In order to make my journey a little cheaper (and more enjoyable) I employ a few clever tricks that I’ve picked up over the years.
Firstly, travelling home during the major holiday seasons is strictly off limit for someone on my budget. I usually look to book my trip back home to Barca in February, when flights are at their cheapest. Flying directly into Barcelona is usually far more expensive than the other major cities in my home country, so I fly into Madrid to save a hundred or so pounds. With the money I save from the cheaper flight, I book a high-speed train from Madrid back to my beloved Barcelona.
The Renfe operated service, from the gorgeous Madrid Puerta de Atocha, has been in operation since 2008. My Father (a huge rail buff and Renfe employer of over thirty years) was over joyed when we first rode this line nearly 10 years ago. Up until that point, it took either 6 hours to drive or an excruciating 12 hour train journey, making frequent stops, to cover the 630 km.
Today, the AVE Class 103s travel at speeds of up to 186 mph, making the travel time from Madrid to Barcelona a lightning-fast 2 hours and 30 minutes.
These trains still feel as modern and elegant as they did when they were first introduced. It’s an experience that blends the sleek style of airline travel with the comfort and space of the old days of First Class trains. The seats are tall, wide and deep, offering plenty of legroom for even the tallest of travellers. There’s even the option to watch a movie, with complimentary headphones given out. However, with the views of rural Spain that you are afforded as soon as you leave urban Madrid, you’re unlikely to pay much attention to it.
Riding on this smooth, almost noiseless, non-stop express is an absolute joy that I wholeheartedly recommend to any traveller, regardless of their love for trains.…
When you start approaching my age, your holiday plans become a little less adventurous.
As a younger man, I would think nothing of taking a week’s holiday off and improvising my way around continental Europe.
It might have been a little trickier to navigate your way around the continent at that point; back in the 80s less Europeans spoke English and there was no mobile telecommunications, but that was part of the thrill of travelling. I’ve talked to my grandchildren about this and they were, quite frankly, shocked. Then again, it takes little to shock young people from this day and age.
They were worried when I told them that I’d be taking the train down to Long Preston, from my home in Edinburgh, to meet them at Bowland Fell Park for a long weekend. They really had no need to be.
I sold my car, a lovely little MG Roadster, a couple of years back. I adored that car, but it was always more of a hobby than anything else. I loved tinkering with it in the garage and meddling with the engine more than actually driving it. Although my aforementioned children and grandchildren saw this as my final retreat into old age (and senility), it was more akin to the beginning of a renewed phase of travelling throughout Britain.
Our train system gets a great deal of criticism.
OK – it’s expensive, often runs off schedule and the staff vary greatly in their helpfulness. But, those focussing on these negatives are missing out on what makes train travel so enjoyable in our country. Our railway system allows us to travel in relative comfort to over 2,500 different locations throughout the country.
For old folks like me (anyone over the age of 60), we can use a Senior Citizen Railcard to get a 1/3 off any of our train tickets, hugely reducing the overall cost of any journey. If you’re aged between 18-24 then you can get a similar discount. This means that a great swathe of young and old people can make their way safely around the country, at little expense to themselves.
By searching online (yes, us old folks know how to do that too!) I found tickets that cost me around £60, a steal considering the distance. All that was left for me to do was pack my bags, get to the station on time and watch the world go by.
Many of my train journeys have begun at Edinburgh Waverley Station. Its a station with half-buried in the past, almost as old as our railway station, with parts of the grand building date back to 1847. Having lived in Edinburgh for the past 30 years, each time I embark or arrive here my mind drifts back to one of those times. If nostalgia is my greatest weakness as an old man, then train journeys are the catalyst for those moments.
Although I fall asleep as soon as the train leaves the station (a napping addiction is perhaps by second greatest weakness), when I wake up, the train is lazily drifting down the Eastern Coast of the UK and I’m treated to a view of England’s stunning coast line. By the time I arrive at Long Preston, my family are waiting to pick me up.
They ask me if I’m OK, I wipe the mist from my eyes and tell them I’ve never been better.…