My husband and I had originally planned to hop on a flight as soon as we were married last December – perhaps to the US or New Zealand – but that plan changed once I discovered I was pregnant a few months before the wedding day. Long-haul flights were an uncomfortable prospect but I wanted to try to do as much travelling as possible while I still could. It turns out my situation was rather prescient as Covid-19 arrived soon after and long-haul flights are now an unpalatable prospect for many.
Train travel was already having a renaissance before lockdown with many eco-minded passengers preferring it to air travel. Its appeal has only grown in the post-lockdown landscape, as people seek safer ways to get around during the pandemic. Armed with an Interrail pass, you can whip between European cities with ease. There are different passes available depending on how long you’d like your trip to be. Whilst social distancing measures are in place on trains across Europe, you can choose off-peak train times to ensure a less crowded journey and even move to a quieter carriage should yours feel too busy. On a plane you are stuck with your seat.
While you can turn up at the station and hop on most trains, it’s worth booking ahead to ensure you have a seat. That said, it’s also easy to change timings if you find yourself in a city you’d like to explore more. The train travel site ‘The man in seat 61’, which is run by Mark Smith, also proved to be a terrific resource. It provides ample amounts of information about all the different trains – including details such as what type of catering they have on board, what power points, and which seat you should sit in to ensure you have the best view.
We spent between one and three nights in each city and while at times it did feel like we were rattling through some of the places, the train journeys in between were relaxing enough that it didn’t matter. It’s best to arrive at the station at least half an hour before the train leaves, as some cities now enforce border control checks. But compared to travelling by plane, it was all decidedly laid back.
London, St Pancras – Amsterdam Centraal
Journey time: 4.5 hours
We left St Pancras on the Eurostar on a cold, bright blue day. When we arrived in Amsterdam, it was dank and drizzly but the canals were lit up by Christmas trees in every other window. We spent two nights at The Dylan, a hotel in the heart of the ‘9-streets’ area on the Keizersgracht. With its stylish grey, white and black interiors, the hotel looks as if it was designed by Vermeer. A friend back in London had suggested we head to the Café-Restaurant Amsterdam, which is situated in an old Pumping Station, built in the late 1800s. It serves dishes such as pickled herring, mackerel on toast and duck in port. The following day, we visited the Rijksmuseum and were lucky to be able to see the Rembrandt- Velázquez exhibition. A morning in the museum was followed by cinnamon buns at Le Vain & Le Vin, a bread and wine shop that opened last year at Jan Pieter Heijestraat 168. In the evening, as the rain came down with more gusto, we holed up in Pulitzer’s hotel bar.
Amsterdam Centraal – Berlin Hbf
Journey time: 8.5 hours
We packed a picnic for this leg of the journey – ham, cheese, bread and hard-boiled eggs. Our German companion in our cabin had done the same, but her picnic consisted of a pot of Nutella and a spoon. We arrived into Berlin for a late dinner at the Orania.berlin hotel, in the Kreuzberg district. The building is an art deco landmark and the hotel now hosts a range of concerts, film screenings and literary events. Our stay coincided with the arrival of St Nicholas and on our second morning in Berlin, we woke to find stockings on our doors, filled with satsumas and gingerbread.
A relative who lives in Berlin suggested visiting the Topography of Terror Museum which is next to the longest surviving part of the wall – and near to Checkpoint Charlie. The nearby Christmas markets were heaving and so in the afternoon, we retreated to a bar in Krauzberg where everyone was wearing black, apart from us. The bar had no name – just the word ‘Fuck’ scrawled across the top of the building. We drank hot chocolate before heading to Mauerwinzer, a wine bar which celebrates the reunification of Germany through its wine list.
Berlin Hbf – Prague Hlavni
Journey time: 4 hours
This train journey took us along the banks of the river Elbe which is an exceptionally pretty route. The dining carriage on board was also lovely, full of pale blue and gold art deco flourishes. As a city, we found Prague somewhat disappointing, in that it is very much geared towards the stag-do crowd. But there are more relaxing parts to it, if you avoid the main tourist sites – such as the Charles bridge – and cross using the other bridges.
Our base in Prague was the Mandarin Oriental, which is situated in an old monastery and is a tranquil haven away from the torture museums and endless street caricaturists which Prague seems to specialise in. The city’s food is nothing to write home about – although we dined well in both the Café Savoy and Next Door, which serves dishes such as beef broth, steak tartare and mushroom soufflé. In an old elegant café called Mysak, which has been open since 1911, I had an exceptionally good hot chocolate.
Prague Hlavni – Vienna Hauptbahnhof
Journey time: 4.5 hours
Vienna felt like a much more civilised city than Prague. We stayed for two nights at the Hotel Bristol, which is next to the opera house and is a divine, old-school establishment, full of chintz. We had pre-booked tickets at the Musikverein for the evening we arrived and saw the Warsaw Symphonie Orchestra performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 4.
Afterwards, at the Café Mozart, we dined on sausages and ‘Empress pancakes’ with apple compote. We’d been told that the best schnitzel was to be found at Lugeck, so headed there the following day, before spending the afternoon exploring the treasures in the Kunsthistorisches and the Belvedere Museum. Weary with museum feet, we spent our final evening in the American bar at the Bristol.
Vienna Hauptbahnhof – Venice Santa Lucia
Journey time: 9 hours
This was the longest journey of our trip. The train snaked through the snowy hills of southern Austria and once we arrived in Italy, the entire carriage cleared out, meaning that we were the only people in the carriage for the final few hours. We spent three days in Venice, two nights of which were at the Aman next to the Grand Canal. The beautiful 16th-century palazzo was filled with enormous Christmas trees and bowls of sugared almonds.
The floods had subsided a few weeks before we arrived, but the city still seemed relatively quiet. A friend who lives in Venice tipped us off about a restaurant called Estro, a gem amongst Venice’s many tourist traps, which serves traditional dishes of octopus, sardines and gnocchi. At the Peggy Guggenheim museum, we were amused to find that the entire staff seemed to be made up of surly English students, who gave the place a somewhat despondent feel. It was a lovely time to visit Venice, though, as everything felt very empty, including St Mark’s square.
Venice Santa Lucia – Milano Centrale
Journey time: 2.5 hours
We breezed through Milan, and spent one night at the Bulgari hotel, but wished we had stayed for a little longer. From the restoration of the cathedral’s front to the glamorous tribes of Milanese who fill the city’s bars, everything seemed very slick. We picked up Christmas presents at Peck, Milan’s upmarket food emporium and in the afternoon, visited the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum, which is a historic 19th century house in the Montenapoleone district. After a quick coffee for breakfast the following day, we headed on up to Geneva.
Milano Centrale – Geneva
Journey time: 6 hours
My husband laughed when I suggested we spend a night in Geneva, which is frequented more for business than for pleasure – but it proved to be the ideal pit stop on our way from Italy to France, a journey which took us along the edge of the Italian lakes and up into the snowy mountains. The majestic Beau-Rivage is a five-minute walk from the station and right next to the lake. We had a very amusing time at the hotel’s pop-up fondue bar, which was housed in old gondola cabins.
Geneva to Paris Gare de Lyon
Journey time: 4 hours
Despite the best efforts of the French rail unions, we managed to make it up to Paris, where we spent our final few days of the trip at Le Meurice. Paris had been brought to a halt by the strikes but we were happy to walk everywhere. We spent one evening at Le Grand Colbert, ordering all the classics – onion soup and crème caramel – and the following night we ate at Restaurant le Meurice Alain Ducasse. Thanks to the strikes, the Musée D’Orsay was free to visit.
We returned to London from Paris, full of good cheer and a sense that the best way to see the world is by train. This is true now more than ever.