“We could all try to rediscover the joy of travelling a little more spontaneously,” says Nicky Gardner, who is encouraging me to travel by slow train and take the stress out of travel.
She’s has a gentle, reassuring voice and she’s starting to convince me. “Make the journey part of your holiday,” Nicky continues. “Trains are wonderfully seductive and offer the perfect way to start your holiday. You’re missing a trick if you’re flying off to Spain.” She stresses the word flying. “The joy of the journey should be savoured at the start of a holiday.”
Nicky tells me that rail travel retains the romance of the Victorian age if you take the cheaper, slower trains throughout Europe. And her book, Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for Independent Travellers, co-written with Susanne Kries, highlights trains with plenty of seats and great picture windows where you can watch the landscape slide by.
I start imaging the places she’s describing, like finding a small Tuscan town where time has stood still. But as we chat I glance at the muted news channel on the TV. Graphics on screen highlight the sorry state of services experienced by passengers in southern England. I wonder whether Nicky is seeing rail travel through rose-tinted specs.
“British train travel can be difficult,” Nicky concedes. “The complexity of the fare structure is daunting and the endless announcements once you are on-board can be irritating,” she adds. But she reminds me that her book is about holidaying by train in Europe. “Travelling through the Rhône Valley or along the French Riviera is very different from commuting to Waterloo,” she says.
Nicky says that 95% of the time, her railway travel works and glitches are rare. The most challenging journeys are in Balkan countries, particularly Croatia and Bosnia, where austerity has, “bitten hard in the rail networks.”
Nicky is an advocate of not planning ahead. We Brits are conditioned into booking rail travel in advance because it’s cheaper. Not every country does this. In the Netherlands you’ll pay the same amount for a walk-up fare. If you just go with the flow, you’ll relax on a railway holiday, she says. In Italy and Poland you can buy affordable slow train tickets minutes before you travel. There are also good one day tickets in Germany which can allow you to travel for as little €40 a day on slower services. “Just follow your nose, stop off where you want. If you find a place you love just stay another night and don’t be committed to pushing off at dawn the next morning,” she suggests.
Nicky and her writing partner Susanne have found places to stay within a few minutes walk of the railway stations and they’ve listed them in their book. And they suggest another option – take a sleeper and treat the train as a Travelodge on tracks. “There’s nothing better than having a nice meal in the restaurant car and retiring to the comfort of crisp, clean sheets -letting the train rock you to sleep,” Nicky enthuses.
I know what she means. I lived on the Isles of Scilly for almost ten years and often took the Night Riviera Sleeper between Penzance and London. I looked forward to a nightcap and a chat in the buffet car. You never knew who you’d meet. I can still recount fascinating conversations with people from all walks of life, thrown together in the confined space – from backpackers, to an opera singer and a member of the House of Lords!
Nicky has some recommendations. “Some of the finest overnight services are Russian trains,” says Nicky. “They run from Moscow to Paris or Nice, although you can use the services for much shorter hops within the European Union. We find the overnight Russian Railways train between Nice and Innsbruck in the Austrian Tyrol is by far the nicest way to make that journey.” Catch them while you can, though. Nicky says that some sleeper services in France and Germany are under threat because daytime trains are getting faster.
I was surprised by Nicky’s reference to new rail services. I had assumed that lines were being closed. The book highlights new routes. Nicky says European Schengen cross-border arrangements mean that trains don’t have to stop for customs checks and immigration formalities. There’s been a ‘blossoming’ of cross border rail routes and Nicky recommends a new service that links Germany and Poland, travelling from Saxony to the Tatra Mountains. The line had been mothballed but reopened in December last year.
So what journeys would Nicky recommend for winter and summer travel. “For British travellers I’d start with Eurostar. It’s a piece of theatre.” Nicky also suggests meandering through France – via Vichy and the Massif Central – to the Mediterranean then continuing east along the French Riviera into Italy and down to Genoa, Pisa and Rome. “It would be a super summer journey,” she adds.
Nicky’s winter suggestion would be Spain on the slow train. She loves the once-daily Barcelona to Seville service, which travels through Valencia. “You’ll see beautiful but rugged countryside out of the windows,” she says.
Nicky firmly believes there is scope for a woman’s perspective on rail travel and she says they’ve approached the guide in a different way from how a man would write it. Nicky thinks that male authors focus more on technology. “We don’t know one engine type from another,” she says, adding quickly, “This is not a book for trainspotters although we do hope that the train geeks will get a bit of a kick out of it!”
But the authors do celebrate the magnificent architecture of the golden age of rail. “To arrive at Santa Lucia Station in Venice or Santa Maria Novella Station in Florence is worth doing. Some of the stations are places well worth visiting in themselves and that’s true from Antwerp to Porto,” Nicky says.
There is one slightly anoraky railway ride that is listed and which could warrant a visit – the world’s longest tram route. The Kusstram runs for 68km across the entire length of the Belgian coast. Nicky says the mainly urban service offers a “surreal” two-and-a-half hour journey from Adinkerke by the French border to Knokke near the Dutch side. “It’s not boring,” she says. “There’s ever changing scenery and some beautiful coastal places en route.”
Nicky says the book was written for “the normal travelling member of the public who wants to rediscover the joy of travel.” To make cross-border travel straightforward she suggests the international booking site Loco2.com.
After our chat Nicky has convinced me to focus less on the destination and more on the journey. “Travellers who take the train to the Highlands of Scotland will know how very different it is from flying to Inverness.” Minutes after our conversation I closed down the flight booking websites in my browser and booked my rail tickets to take me through Germany and Austria.
Europe by Rail by Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries is out now. The women have their own website at europebyrail.eu.
You can hear the full interview with Nicky here…