Train on Landwasser Viaduct bridge

Book review: ‘Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide’

Image credit: Eva Bocek/Dreamstime

After a tough period for transport operators, a new edition of this well-established guide aims to inspire travellers to enjoy their journey as well as the destination.

Unlike other literary genres - fiction, fantasy, creative non-fiction etc – guide books as a rule enjoy a much shorter lifespan, with some already getting out of date by the time of their publication. The notable exception here are the classic ‘handbooks’ - Baedekers, Murrays, Blue Guides, Warlocks, and others - whose readability and informative value, curiously enough, tend to increase with time, alongside their retail prices. Some rare vintage Baedekers, for example, will easily set you back several thousand pounds. And, believe me, they are well worth the price; there’s no greater delight for a knowledge-hungry traveller than to criss-cross the globe with a hundred-year-old Baedeker or Murray which provide the wanderer with a truly unique perspective not only in space, but also in time.

During the gruesome periods in history, or in a traveller’s life, when physical journeys have to be stopped or heavily curtailed, those guidebooks become invaluable sources for the vicarious travels of imagination, which, in the words of Albert Einstein, can be more important than knowledge.

Among such ‘immortal’ guidebooks, I can now safely list ‘Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide’ (Hidden Europe, £17.99, ISBN 9783945225035), the latest edition of which, the 17th, has just been published.

Two-and-a-half years have passed since I wrote about the 16th edition in my 2019 selection of ‘Best Christmas Reads’. That period has probably seen the most difficult post-WWII years for both the travel industry and travellers, mostly due to the numerous pandemic-related lockdowns, when everything - including most of public transport - would come to a complete stop from time to time. The moment the pandemic began to ease, Russia invaded Ukraine, unleashing war in eastern Europe.

How have all those disasters affected European rail travel in general and the new edition of ‘Europe by Rail’ (EBR) in particular?

I am lucky to enjoy a lasting friendship with the guide’s indefatigable authors, Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries. I have visited their cosy cottage in a leafy suburb of West Berlin, where they recover from their incessant travels and put together not only each edition of EBR but also the beautifully designed and informative ‘Hidden Europe’ magazine. I was therefore able to address the above question directly to the writers.

They told me that Europe's rail operators had a really tough time during the pandemic, whereas 2022 looked as though it might bring a bright new Spring as travel resumed. Many innovative new services geared at a leisure clientele, who might, post-pandemic, be less keen to fly and more interested in making time for slower options, have emerged. Then along came the war, profoundly shaking our shared European homeland. It is hard to imagine large numbers of people heading off by train to Russia, Belarus or Ukraine this summer. Numbers are also likely to dip over a larger area. Many travellers will debate whether to travel to such areas as the Baltic States, eastern Poland and Moldova.

One should never look for silver linings to a major conflict, but perhaps the current geopolitical situation will give impetus to Rail Baltica, which is developing a major new route from Poland, north through the Baltic States to the Gulf of Finland. That railway is needed now more than ever as a key transport connection helping consolidate the post-Soviet geography of the region.

As for the EBR itself, readers should bear in mind that the 17th edition had gone to print before Russia invaded Ukraine and before P&O’s treatment of its workers led to severe disruptions to ferry operations all over Europe and beyond, which are also covered in EBR.

And yet, Gardner and Kries have managed to fit in the detailed description of 50 wonderful train routes, among which are a number of brand new ones absent from the previous editions: to Slovakia’s Tatra Mountain (Route 34); through Romania to the Black Sea coast (Route 33); down’s Italy’s Adriatic coast and on by ferry to Greece (Route 49); from Basel/Bâle to Milan using the new Treno Gottardo via the classic Gotthard Railway to Locarno, then on by boat down Lago Maggiore to Italy (Route 41); a classic Habsburg connection using the new direct Eurocity service from Vienna to Trieste via Ljubljana (Route 44); a new route (Route 30) celebrating Gothic architecture of the Hanseatic League; new opportunities for using slow trains, such as Route 14 from Paris to Geneva via Burgundy and Savoie. And these are just a few.

I asked the authors what advice they would offer E&T readers who remain keen on railway journeys. Here’s what they said: "Our emphasis in this new edition is on fine journeys that showcase Europe's varied landscapes and cultures. We really want our readers to rediscover the pleasures of the journey, as something worth enjoying in its own right, rather than just dashing to the next destination. Slow down and just watch Europe slip by beyond the carriage window."

I can only add: happy journeys! And, as before, do not leave home without ‘Europe by Rail’ as your trusted companion and guide.

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