All aboard for Europe
The Landwasser Viaduct, the highlight of the Bernina Express route, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008.
In our sometimes nomadic era, with many concerned about reducing their carbon footprint against a backdrop of climate change, swapping your plane ticket for a train ticket can be the most respectful choice for the planet you can make. The train, which can produce up to 80 times less CO2 than a plane and up to 50 times less than the car, is at the forefront of eco-responsible long-haul transport. The duration of a journey is no longer seen as an inconvenience but rather as an integral component of the experience itself. It is all about rediscovering the enjoyment of slow travel, and surrendering to the pleasures of contemplation and reflection, especially since Europe has some of the most scenic railway routes in the world.
The Jacobite Steam Train has linked Fort William to Mallaig in Scotland since 1984.
Traversing the grandiose landscapes of the Highlands, the Scottish steam train and the Glenfinnan viaduct served as sets for the Harry Potter film saga, making them world-famous.
The Bernina Express panorama train crosses the Swiss Alps from north to south through no less than 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges.
Where no road ventures...
Rail is like a fabulous hyphen linking the trendiest districts of big cities to the most remote and wildest of landscapes, where it is indeed sometimes the only means of travel available. The European rail network has certainly come a long way since the invention of the “devil’s machine” in the 19th century! More than 260,000km of railways criss-cross every corner of the old continent, from climbing epic mountains to snaking along the water’s edge of its magnificent coastlines. This sprawling network, an infinite combination of routes and invitations to adventure, carries the traveller off on an unparalleled escape from the everyday. It is this contrast, this change of scenery, this total change of terrain that we experience along the West Highland Line, the legendary route between Glasgow and Mallaig that sets off across the Scottish highlands, flirting with the deepest loch and Scotland’s highest peak. It certainly was a task to master the valleys, rivers and mountains, taking both patience and engineering prowess to navigate a way through this hostile wilderness.
10:15 a.m., at Fort William station, the Jacobite Steam Train bellows white smoke and finally sets off. With a more than substantial Scottish breakfast warming the stomach, we take our seats in a vintage-styled carriage with flowery-patterned armchairs, retro lamps and tartan curtains. We are ready to savour one of the most beautiful rail routes in Europe, the final section of the West Highland Line, which comes to an end at the sea in the small, remote port of Mallaig. The promise? A window upon nature at its most dramatic, coupled with more than a whiff of history still alive today.
Magic mountain hop
Nose pressed to the windows, the magic of rail lets you take in the panorama around you, amassing new perspectives with the rhythm of the journey. Ruined castles, magnificent in their solitude, loom over the slate-grey waters of the lochs. Contrasting are the bright colours of the moors, with peat bogs as far as the eye can see, and the deep green mystery of the pine forests... There is certainly no doubt we are crossing the fabled Highlands. If you are lucky, you can even see the silhouettes of red deer against the horizon. And when we approach the iconic curve of the Glenfinnan viaduct, a railway masterpiece that the Hogwarts Express takes to journey to the school of wizards in the saga Harry Potter, this reminder of the stunning tracking shot on Loch Shiel leaves you speechless. The imagination literally flies away! Similarly, the Glacier Express catapults us high into the epic landscapes of the Swiss mountains. Sharp peaks, glaciers, plunging gorges, crystalline lakes, fairytale chalets... Between Zermatt and Saint-Moritz, the “slowest express train in the world” offers a breathtaking, panoramic view from the large windows and glazed roofs of its carriages. Invigorating!
Between two trains
There is nothing like a rail journey to evoke la dolce vita of the Ligurian coast, a short journey that is nonetheless punctuated by 51 tunnels and 23 bridges between Sestri Levante and La Spezia, where irresistible villages splashed with colours of the Cinque Terre cling precariously, above the Big Blue below. We had to wait until the end of the 19th century for the railway to open up such jewels to the world, so isolated was this little paradise of green and blue. Today, this is still the best way to visit, as each village has its own station. Each stop brings the promise of delicious strolls through an improbable tangle of colourful houses, swimming, ice cream breaks and hikes in the heady scents of the maquis. Leave the car behind, for you can jump from train to train and simply explore on foot!
Manarola station provides access to the famous village of colourful houses set on the cliff overlooking the sea, typical of the Cinque Terre.
A world on rails
No matter the destination, could the true adventure actually be found on-board? Each and every journey by train is a unique experience, a bubble floating out of time. Yet in the hushed cocoon of the Jacobite Steam Train life is throbbing still. On the West Highland Line, we travel in the company both of hikers and the numerous fans of Harry Potter. The enthusiasm is palpable and conversation on all manner of subjects starts easily. Time passes quickly, so distracted are we. Little moments of life, memories for a life-time secured even before arriving at our destination. And then there is the magic of the night-trains that travel the same route... Ecological and lively, the itinerant world-on-wheels has a full head of steam once again. Sheltered from the hustle and bustle of the world, we work there, we eat there, we play there, we read there, we listen to music, we meet new people, and we also sleep and dream. We can already imagine having dinner in London, climbing aboard the Caledonian Sleeper, falling asleep in a cosy berth and waking up in the early morning in the kingdom of whiskey, in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Fort William, Aberdeen or Inverness. Change of scenery guaranteed without ever having seen the time pass. Because beyond the landscape passing by outside, the scenery within the carriage is itself in endless transformation •
The Jacobite Steam Train is one of the last regularly running steam trains in Britain.
The windows of the Bernina Express open onto the Swiss Alps, offering breathtaking views.
Natasha Penot is the author of many travel guides and articles on tourism.
She has been travelling around Europe for over twenty years, from the Iberian Peninsula to Scandinavia.
Five unique train journeys
1 - Going for the summit
In Zermatt, Switzerland, the Gornergrat Bahn has been the highest open-air rack railway in the world since 1898. A short and steep ascent (9km in 30 minutes), punctuated by breathtaking views of the Monte Rosa glaciers, takes you to the summit of Gornergrat (3,089m). From here, the panorama sweep takes in 29 peaks over 4000m!
2 - Cross the sea on a floating train
After rolling along the Italian “boot” from Rome, the night train Intercity Notte stops at Villa San Giovanni, in Calabria… where it then boards a ferry for Sicily! At dawn, the staff are hard at work aligning the rails of the station with the rails of the boat. It is a railway curiosity not to be missed before crossing the Strait of Messina.
3 - Discover a giant work of land art
In Portugal, from Porto to Pocinho, the Douro train rolls through the vines of the almost unreal landscapes of the UNESCO registered, and oldest vineyard in the world. The hills, divided up into small vine-terraces, tumble towards the winding Douro River below. A superb view and the opportunity to taste the legendary Port and Douro wines.
4 - Immerse yourself in a noir novel
To relive the golden age of train travel, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, which has linked Paris to Istanbul since 1883, offers the ultimate experience! Between crystal and polished wood, the luxury of Pullman wagons transports you into the intrigue of the Murder on the Orient Express, the famous novel by Agatha Christie.
5 - Tackle the steepest line in Europe
From the village of Flåm, nestled on a arm of the longest fjord in Europe, the Flåmsbana sends you 20 km and in barely an hour to Myrdale station, perched at 866m above sea level. Truly a veritable distillation of invigorating Norwegian landscapes: forests, rivers, waterfalls and snow-capped mountains!