A holiday on the rails is the ideal way for solo travellers to see the world, plus it’s environmentally friendly. Joe Zadeh gets on board…
From Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the train has always been an object of romance and mystery in popular culture. Whether its a sleeper train rattling through the Trans-Siberian wilderness or a steam train snaking its way through the valleys of Salamanca, it is a mode of transport that is deeply imbued with a sense of adventure and wonder. A train journey, after all, is to experience the world at ground level.
Mark Smith is a man who has dedicated his life to championing train travel. Via his award-winning website Seat 61, he’s turned many a would-be flyer into a life-long train aficionado. When we speak, he’s in Eastern Java, having crossed there from Bali via ferry for just 45p. In a few days, he’ll get his next train to Jakarta for £25; always travelling, he assures me, in an air conditioned carriage.
I ask him what in his eyes makes train travel such a special experience? “I was at a dinner party once, and discussion turned to travel,” he begins. “It soon degenerated into whether such-and-such an airline offered bigger seats or more leg-room. Is that all travel means to people now? It used to be so much more than this! Mountains, lakes, scenery, sights and socialising can all be a factor of the travelling experience. Journeys should be part of your adventure, not an interruption to it.”
From London’s St Pancras International – just two hours from Manchester, and even less than that from Birmingham – it’s quite incredible how mainland Europe can open up. After a relatively short Eurostar journey to Paris, one can easily find connections to Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Spain and Eastern Europe. You can have breakfast in London and lunch in Paris (preferably at the highly rated Le Train Bleu restaurant inside Gare de Lyon) without worrying about booking fees or baggage fees. And, because you’re always travelling directly from city centre to city centre, you can forget about waiting for those dreaded airport transfers.
Much of this can be done via either Eurostar or Voyages SNCF, which offer routes across Europe on high-speed trains. Fast and direct Eurostar routes to Marseille and Bourg-Saint-Maurice mean you can get from London to a beach in the south of France within seven hours, or to a ski slope in the Alps within nine hours. All aboard a comfortable mode of transport where you can wine, dine, unwind and wander freely – and, if you want to, find companionship.
It’s this return to simplicity and adventure among travellers – not just simply convenience and speed – that has sparked a renaissance in train travel over the last decade. In fact, speed is often a common misconception around using flight over rail. Last year, an analysis from Go Euro found that 14 of Europe’s most popular flights were far quicker by train, including London to Brussels, Paris to Amsterdam and Munich to Vienna.
In response to all this, numerous service providers have popped up to curate wonderful rail package holidays across the continent for UK travellers. One of those is Ffestiniog Travel, who recently launched Easy Rail Holidays, designed so that travellers stay in one location and then make daily excursions rather than constantly re-packing. Next summer, it will be offering four special packages, ranging from an eight-day retreat to Lake Lucerne to an eight-day exploration of the Swiss Alps.
The pick of the bunch is its five-day adventure through the Belgian Ardennes: heading to the picturesque city of Namur, the capital of Wallonia, travellers will use it as a base as they embark on excursions to Luxembourg and the historical city of Maastricht, and even take a ride on the heritage South Limburg steam train.
For those in search of a little luxury, Great Rail Journeys has a wealth of well-curated trips on offer for 2018. Its grand tour of Italy is a 14-day holiday that gets under the skin of Italian culture as it guides travellers on an escorted tour through almost every major city in the country, including Milan, Rome, Vatican City, Florence, Venice and Pisa. Not to mention the eye-catching landscapes of rural Italy that you will see from your carriage window each day, and the four-star hotels you’ll be staying in each night.
But why wait until next year? Solos, a company that specialises in holidays for the solo traveller, has train packages leaving London and heading to France from now until Christmas. In October, guests can embark on the Eurostar to Lyon for three days of discovery in the gourmet capital of France. Of course, Lyon isn’t just about food; there’s also a wealth of history lurking in the city, with the Ancient Roman Theatre of Fourvière worth checking out, as well as the Renaissance architecture in Vieux Lyon.
For Smith, the limits of train travel are boundless. “How about London this morning, Morocco tomorrow night?” he suggests. “It’s actually really easy: travel from London to Paris, Barcelona and Algeciras by train, then get on a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier. No airports! No flights! It’s safe, comfortable and eminently doable.”
His sentiment is shared by many others. This year, the United Nations declared 2017 the “year of sustainable tourism”, placing a keen emphasis on encouraging more and more people to take advantage of Europe’s fantastic railway network, largely because of how much better it is for the environment. Train travel really is the green way to get around: it accounts for just 1.2 per cent of transport CO2 emissions, compared to 12.3 per cent for aviation.
But the key thing is still simply the fun of it, especially for those travelling alone. “On trains and ships there’s room to move, interact and meet people,” says Smith. “That’s why all those filmmakers and novelists often set romances and mysteries on trains, but the only things set on planes seem to be disaster movies.”
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