Arc de Triomphe.

Riding the Rails Through Europe


Written by Ashley Macnie, Student Product Manager at travelcuts

“I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.” – Paul Theroux

One of my favourite sounds in the world is the chime you hear over the PA system in a train station. I have a vivid memory from almost a decade ago of being at Roma Termini, the main station in Rome. We were standing on the platform, searching for our train to Nice, waiting within the hustle and bustle of possibly one of the busiest places in the Italian capital, listening to each new chime as they introduced another announcement in Italian. I remember being in that moment and thinking to myself: “I love everything about this.”

Within the past few years I noticed that Union Station in Toronto has adopted the same chime, and every time I hear it (which is almost every day), all I can think about is that train station in Rome and wish I was back in Europe.

I’ve been following a personal pattern of taking an epic European rail adventure every few years. I’m a “best bang for the buck” type of traveller, so I love how I can fit in three, four, five, even six countries into one itinerary. In 2008 I travelled throughout Italy, Vatican City, Monaco, and France, visiting Naples, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Rome, the Vatican, Orvieto, Nice, Eze, Monte Carlo and Paris. In 2014 I had some brief train travel in Spain, but the following year I took on a marathon of a journey from Berlin to Krakow via Warsaw, down to Budapest, then onto Vienna, Salzburg, Český Krumlov, Prague, Nuremburg, Cologne, and Amsterdam – that’s six new countries to add to my list! This past year, I ventured into the United Kingdom for the first time and travelled throughout Scotland and down to London, all by rail.

When I’m planning a trip in Europe, my first step is to look at the train routes to see where I can go. It may be quicker to fly from major city to major city, but there’s nothing like taking the train. There’s just something classically romantic and fulfilling about this method of transport. You get to sit back and experience the country that you’re travelling through in comfort, meanwhile mixing with locals and travellers alike. It’s often more affordable than flights, and less stressful than driving and navigating on your own. Plus, it offers scenic views that you’d miss from the air or highway. I’ll never forget the train ride from Vienna to Salzburg and seeing the Austrian Alps for the first time; or the journey from Glasgow to Oban and witnessing the mountains and lochs of Trossachs National Park within the Highlands of Scotland.

One of my favourite things to do while travelling is to see what little towns or villages I can get to for a spontaneous day trip. Europe is perfect for this, and the flexibility of train schedules offers many opportunities to anyone who’s curious. There’s so many new places you can discover that are off the beaten track! When I was in Italy back in 2008, we had a spare day for free time, so we traced the rail lines north out of Rome and found Orvieto on the map. Taking the chance, we journeyed to this little, clifftop city and got to experience its 14-century cathedral, its Pozzo di S. Patrizio (“St. Patrick’s Well), and ride the funicular up the volcanic rock that the city is perched upon.

When I was in Eastern Europe, we added some additional stops to our itinerary that I didn’t even consider while I was planning the trip back home, all by seeing what destinations we could get to by rail from our current location. These additional, unplanned segments really enriched each trip and added memories that we wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.

If you’re dreaming about or planning a trip to Europe, do yourself a favour and take a look at the Rail Europe map and the passes they have to offer. If you’re like me, you’ll probably wanderlust and want to go EVERYWHERE, but at least they can give you the tools needed to plan your trip of a lifetime. Besides, what other method of transportation offers a pass that gives you unlimited travel throughout 28 countries, as far north as Norway or as far east as Turkey? So you can stop wanderlusting and actually start fulfilling those dream itineraries.

Here are some of my dream train trips (some of which include my second favourite mode of transportation – ferries!). I hope they inspire you to take some train adventures of your own.

Scandinavia and the Baltics:
Copenhagen, Denmark > Odense, Denmark > Hirtshals, Denmark > Ferry to Kristiansand, Norway > Oslo, Norway > Stockholm, Sweden > Ferry to Turku, Finland > Helsinki, Finland > Tallinn, Estonia

Italy and the Balkans:
Rome, Italy > Ancona, Italy > Ferry to Split, Croatia > Ljubljana, Slovenia > Zagreb, Croatia > Budapest, Hungary > Belgrade, Serbia. You can extend the itinerary with an internal flight to Sofia, Bulgaria, then pick up the rails again to Thessaloniki, Greece and end in Athens.

Portugal and Spain:
Faro, Portugal > Lisbon, Portugal > Porto, Portugal > Santiago de Compostela, Spain > Ourense, Spain > Madrid, Spain > Barcelona, Spain > València, Spain > Granada, Spain (via Albacete and Alcázar) > Cadiz, Spain > Seville, Spain

Ready to experience Europe for yourself? Chat with a travelcuts expert and start planning your next vacation.

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