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Train Travel in Europe
Great Journeys Across Europe
London – Tangiers
While this journey may not compare in terms of sheer epic grandeur to some of the great American train journeys, it does have a special charm all of its own. Its appeal lies in the gradual progression through four separate countries, from Northern Europe to North Africa, and from one world to another…
Whilst taking the train from London to Morocco is not necessarily going to be the cheapest option, if you keep your eyes peeled, you can find some surprisingly good deals, particularly around weekends when the airlines tend to up their prices. You can also, of course, offset this extra cost against the fact that you are saving on a night or two of hostel accommodation.
To cite price, however, is to miss at least some of the point, for there are few more beguilingly romantic ways to travel than the night train. This is traveling for the sake of traveling, an experience in and of itself. A little of the scenic appeal may be lost by traveling at night, but it more than makes up for it with atmosphere.
The first leg of the journey gives you very little indication of what lies ahead. Setting off from London Waterloo, you catch the Eurostar to Paris. The journey is fast, and extremely comfortable.
So far, so good. When you get to Paris, you’ve got to head across town, in a nice leisurely fashion, on Metro Line 5, from Gare du Nord to Gare d’Austerlitz. Once there, if you’ve timed it right, you should have plenty of time to stash your bag away in a luggage locker and set off for a stroll and a bite to eat.
The TrenHotel leaves in the early evening, and as you head down the platform, like a spy from an old movie, imagined steam swirling around you, fearing that, at any minute, the police will come and pick you up, it’s hard not to get caught up in the romance of it all.
Back in the real world, if your budget doesn’t quite stretch to a sleeping compartment, you can always just curl up in your standard, economy class seat for the night. Once the carriage’s lights have been dimmed, the seats are sufficiently comfortable to allow you to get your head down for a good night’s sleep.
A good tip if you choose to do this is to have a travel blanket or sleeping bag handy (something that, in any case, isn’t a bad idea in Morocco, anyway), as the air-conditioning can lead to it getting a bit chilly in the middle of the night!
But the way to get the most out of the experience is to book a bed in a couchette compartment. The beds come stocked with pillow, blanket and freshly pressed sheets, and you’ll generally share the compartment with two roommates.
Clean, functional bathrooms can be found at the end of the carriage. There are obviously other (more expensive) classes of compartment which come with their own sink, and you can, of course, like a hostel dormitory, book the whole compartment with a couple of friends.
The train sets off, and the real thrill of the journey should begin to become apparent. The London-Paris, for all its debonair appeal, is really little more than a local train: fast and efficient.
Now, as you pull slowly away from the station, there is a sense of uncertainty, of being on the threshold of something; a night of travel awaits.
After finding your compartment, and introducing yourself to your roommates, you can dump your bags and make for the restaurant car or the bar. Sitting at the bar you can order a steak and have a couple of glasses of wine, whilst you read your book or pull out some guidebooks and plan the trip ahead. It’s a wonderful sensation being spirited off through the darkness to a strange and far-away land with a glass of wine in your hand, and a good meal in your belly.
That night, as you lie in your bunk bed, the rhythmical motion and the dull rumbles of the train lulling you to sleep, you can revel in the sense of being suspended in the moment of expectation that a train journey allows you.
The next morning, the best place to wake up, if you were to possess that uncanny knack, would undoubtedly be as the train crosses the Pyrenees shrouded in the grey dawn and the morning mist of the mountains (cue romantic daydreams about perilous border crossings).
At this point, you should leave your room and head back to the buffet car for a coffee, the better to take in your first glimpses of Spain. You can also head to the hallway area, open a window, and drink in your first smells of a new unfamiliar, country. In summertime, Spain smells different, as it gradually heats up in the morning sun: drier certainly, and in some way exotic.
Having arrived at Madrid Chamartin station bright and early, you can find your way to the hostel in which you’re going to spend the night, check in, and head out for some sightseeing. After a long and hopefully, enjoyable day in Madrid, you can dwell on the fact that tomorrow you’ll be in Africa over a few drinks.
The next day, you should get up as early as humanly possible, in order to have a good breakfast (and a proper, strong coffee!) before getting on the morning train for Algeciras from Madrid Atocha. The journey will rattle by: the train has a café-bar from where you can watch the dramatic mountainous scenery of Andalucia flash by outside.
You should arrive in Algeciras sometime after lunch. As you get off the train, the arid smell that you’ll have noticed throughout the day will have intensified, for now you are so close to Africa that you can smell it, its dust mingling with that of Southern Spain in a heady mix.
The ferry terminal isn’t far from the train station, and the crossing, which is great fun, should take about 2 hrs and 30 minutes.
Once in Tangiers, having successfully avoided the assembled touts, cabbies and general no-gooders waiting for you to get off the boat, you can make your way across town to the train station. If you’ve had a fair wind behind you, so to speak, from Madrid, then you should be bang on time for the night train to Marrakech. But that’s a whole different story…
To check ferry times and prices from Algeciras to Tangiers see: www.trasmediterranea.es, www.comarit.com, for all other information on this and other European train journeys go to: www.internationalrail.com
The Orient Express
It may not run to Bucharest any more – and, sadly, it may not run at all for much longer – but whilst it is still with us, you should try your hardest to catch it.
This is the grand dame of rail travel, and if the current incarnation bears little resemblance to the luxury of the original (that’s maintained by the prohibitively pricey Venice Simplon Orient Express), that doesn’t mean it’s not still a wonderful journey.
Every evening, it leaves behind the elegance of Paris, and arrives, early the next morning, to the, well, elegance of Vienna. Travel doesn’t get any dreamier.
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The Bernina Express
Switzerland to Italy: A proper European train journey.
The Bernina Express from Chur/Davos to Tirano, boasts countless jaw-dropping views from bridges viaducts and tight bends as the train climbs ever higher and higher, until, sprightly as a mountain goat, it goes through the Bernina Pass, at 2553m, the highest rail crossing in the Alps.
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Genoa – Casella
One of Genoa’s best-kept secrets, and as the Genovese like to say: “Si deve conoscerla per amarla” – “You have to know Genoa to love her.”
This is a day trip from Genoa to Casella on the Ligurian coastline, and, with a gentle quaintness to proceedings, an antidote to all these grand, pan-continental journeys. Locals do the grocery run, children have a day out, and everyone, but everyone seems to have a nice time.
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