JR.R. Tolkien writes in The Lord Of The Rings: ‘Not all those who wander are lost.’ This is a good line to remember on a series of random rail journeys in Europe.
Serendipity is what it is all about. Who needs plans? Let the tracks take you wherever they go. When I set off with a month-long Interrail pass along Europe’s railway lines last year, I had an eventual destination — Venice. But that was it.
Let what would happen, happen. From London Victoria to Dover and onwards via Calais into France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and beyond I went, reaching the Black Sea in Ukraine via Poland. Out-of-the-way spots I had never heard of — Vrbas in Serbia, Opole in Poland, Zidani Most in Slovenia — came and went. Encounters with poets, professors, drop-outs and dreamers were to come — as well as a fair few rail enthusiasts. Trains are a sociable way of getting about.
The finishing line: Santa Lucia station in Venice (La Serenissima) was Tom’s final destination
After 15 countries on 38 trains, covering 4,000 miles, I made it to La Serenissima.
Why should Interrailing be the preserve of students? After all, the all-Europe version — the Global Pass — offers rides on mainline trains to 40,000 destinations in 31 countries, from Norway to Greece, or from Lithuania to Portugal. Here is a pick of the rides I discovered:
BRUGES TO LIEGE
Tom set off from Bruge’s Art Deco station, pictured, and passed through a pancake-flat landscape
Railways helped forge national identity in Belgium in the 1830s.
Travelling from the Flemish north to the Wallonian south you sense this, setting off from Bruge’s Art Deco station and passing through pancake-flat landscape to Ghent and Brussels.
Carriages have plush seats and conductors are chatty, wearing comical orange uniforms.
King of the hill: The view from the red-brick Montagne de Beuren stairway overlooking Liege
TIME: 2h 4m
DISTANCE: 120 miles
FARE: £18 (belgianrail.be)
LEIPZIG TO DRESDEN
From Leipzig station, pictured, Tom caught a red Deutsche Bahn train
Germany’s Leipzig station is one of the world’s largest.
From here you catch a red Deutsche Bahn train past crumbling Communist-era factories and then a series of obscure towns: Oschatz, Glaubitz and Priestewitz.
Dresden-Neustadt station has lovely Meissen porcelain artwork and a moving memorial to Dresden Jews deported to concentration camps.
A German classic: The Augustus Bridge over the River Elbe in Dresden
TIME: 1h 24m
DISTANCE: 69 miles
FARE: £29 (bahn.de)
KATOWICE TO KRAKOW
This journey between Katowice — a coal mining hub in southern Poland — to the ancient city of Krakow with its magnificent market square, castle and lively nightlife is intriguing.
Catch a performance by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice before boarding one of the orange trains to Krakow. Then slowly rattle across an eerie industrial landscape potted with mine shafts.
TIME: 2h 3m
DISTANCE: 50 miles
FARE: £5.40 (omio.com)
LVIV TO ODESSA
Royal greeting: The monument to Queen Catherine II in the centre of Odessa, Ukraine
Lviv is a beautiful Ukrainian city with a fine opera house, baroque churches and bars serving cherry wine.
From here, catch the sleeper to Odessa with its Black Sea beaches. Relax in Lviv station’s Soviet-era Hall Of Enhanced Comforts before setting off.
TIME: 10h 31m
DISTANCE: 515 miles
FARE: £14 (uz.gov.ua)
VRBAS TO NOVI SAD
Not many tourists make it to Vrbas, a sleepy town in northern Serbia. But it’s got a relaxed centre with a cafe culture and makes a pleasant pitstop. The journey to Novi Sad — with its grand castle and popular summer music festival — is on graffiti-covered trains.
TIME: 48 minutes
DISTANCE: 27 miles
FARE: £1.35 (srbvoz.rs)
ZAGREB TO ZIDANI MOST
Begin in Croatia’s capital and cross into Slovenia, passing gently rolling hills and following the Riva Sava.
There’s a lovely little chapel on the platform at Zagreb, and Zidani Most station is wonderful, too, right by the Sava and with a little cafe (home to a white cat).
TIME: 1h 25m
DISTANCE: 50 miles
FARE: £7.75 (hzpp.hr)
INNSBRUCK TO VERONA
The scenery between Innsbruck, pictured, and Verona is full of lakes and cliffs
The Brenner Pass between Innsbruck in Austria and Verona, Italy, opened in 1867 and was a key Austrian Empire hub.
From Innsbruck you roll past the city’s ski jump and rise into the mountains, crossing into Italy at 1,370m.
Enjoy Alpine scenery with lakes and cliffs.
The sunset over the historic centre of Verona and the River Adige
TIME: 3h 32m
DISTANCE: 171 miles
FARE: £38 (oebb.at)
Month-long, unlimited-travel Interrail passes from £610 (interrail.eu). Slow Trains To Venice by Tom Chesshyre is published by Summersdale at £16.99.