Criss-crossing Europe by rail is a rite of passage, and over the years, millions of people have done it, most of them using the marvellous Interrail and Eurail services that have been linking national rail networks since 1972. With the Iron Curtain long consigned to the historical dustbin of Europe, it is now possible to circumnavigate the whole continent by using (almost) only rail connections. This seems to be the ultimate adventure for rail aficionados, as such a trip might require at least 60 days of nonstop travel. It would take time, stamina and above all a well-filled pot of cash. Still, riding around the perimeter of Europe and hugging coastlines for as long and as close as possible might take you across 20 plus countries. Maybe some day ...
Marstrand, West Coast, Sweden
Four essential websites and apps will help you plan your journey. German Railways Deutsche Bahn offers precise connections across the whole of Europe. It is an invaluable journey planner.
Rome2Rio provides you with detailed bus schedules should you get stuck at a railway station.
There is also an interactive railway map which allows you to look at the more prominent transnational lines, but also offers the chance to zoom in on smaller regional and local lines.
And lastly, get the mightily impressive app for either Interrail (for European citizens) or Eurail (for non-Europeans). Both services are by and large identical but operate under different websites and apps, so it is crucial to choose the right one.
Let's highlight some of the stars of the European rail network. A Scandinavian loop springs to mind, which takes you from Kristinehamn in southern Sweden via the so-called Inlandsbanan (just a glorified tram really) to Lapland, from where you can catch a train to Narvik in Norway before travelling back south via Oslo. In northern Spain, you can travel on the small-gage FEVE railway along the northern coast between Bilbao and Ferrol. The Glacier Express in Switzerland is a strong contender for Europe’s most scenic rail trip, while in the Balkans, rather more bygone trains cut their way through steep mountain passes (for instance the trip from the Serbian capital Belgrade to the Montenegrin port of Bar on the Adriatic coast). Night trains are an altogether different proposition, and a separate article provides more detailed information.
What follows are some regional highlights which could form the framework for a rail journey across a specific region. I have organised the itinerary into hopefully manageable day trips of no more than 7 hours on the train (with the occasional longer journey listed as a night train option). The overall length of your trip then all depends on how much time you would like to spend in places along the way.
Abruzzo Mountains, Italy
Scandinavia: Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. 9 travel days A couple of days into the journey and there's a tricky challenge: Although there is a train track between northern Finland and Sweden, it is used exclusively for freight and there aren’t any passenger services connecting the two countries at this point. Instead, travellers have to take a bus from Kemi in Finland to Haparanda (also in Finland), and then another bus on to Luleå in Sweden. The whole trip covers 150 km. Narvik on the Norwegian coast marks the end of the spectacular Iron Ore line, and in order to travel south, you could go back to Kiruna in Sweden from where there is a connection to the capital Stockholm, with links to Copenhagen in Denmark. But more dramatic, however, is the journey through Norway, which requires you to take a bus from Narvik to Bodø, from where you can start to tackle the 1000km journey to the Norwegian capital Oslo. Day 1: Helsinki (Finland) – Kemi: 7 hoursDay 2: Kemi – Haparanda – Luleå (Sweden): 3 hours (bus) Day 3: Luleå – Narvik (Norway): 6 hoursDay 4: Narvik – Bodo: 6 hours (bus)Day 5: Bodø to Trondheim: 10 hours (night train) Day 6: Trondheim to Oslo. 7 ½ hours (night train)Day 7: Oslo – Gothenburg (Sweden): 4 ½ hoursDay 8: Gothenburg – Copenhagen (Denmark): 4 hoursDay 9: Copenhagen – Kolding (2 hours) and Kolding to Hamburg/Germany (3 hours)
Asturias, Northern Spain
The Iberian Peninsula: Spain and Portugal. 10 travel daysFrom Hendaye at the south-western tip of France, you can walk or take a quick local train (10 minutes) to Irun in Spain on the other side of the river. From there, you can catch a local train to San Sebastian and a further one into Bilbao. In Bilbao, you can board the FEVE small gage train which runs all the way along the northern Spanish coast to Ferrol. Then it's down along the Portuguese Atlantic coast, before entering Spain once more, finishing off in BarcelonaDay 1: Irun – San Sebastian – Bilbao: approx. 4 hoursDay 2: Bilbao – Santander: 3 hoursDay 3: Santander – Oviedo: 4 ½ hoursDay 4: Oviedo – Ferrol: 6 ½ hoursDay 5: Ferrol – Porto (Portugal): 7 hoursDay 6: Porto – Lisbon: 3 hoursDay 7: Lisbon – Albufeira: 4 hoursDay 8: Albufeira – Huelva/Spain (bus: 2 ½ hours) and Huelva – Cordoba (2 hours)Day 9: Cordoba – Alicante: 6 hoursDay 10: Alicante – Barcelona: 4 ½ hours
Skopje, North Macedonia
Across the Balkans: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, North Macedonia. 5 travel days
This is a tricky one: From Trieste on the eastern edge of Italy, travellers can enjoy a beautiful link to the Croatian capital Zagreb and onto marvellous Split on the Adriatic coast. But this is where the tracks stop, necessitating a bus journey to Bar in Montenegro. A train to Podgorica allows you to connect with Tirana in Albania and onto the southern town of Vlorë. But once again, a bus journey is required to reach Kalabaka in Greece with a rail connection to Athens. While hugging the coast and thereby meeting one of the journey’s objectives, it is also quite cumbersome. It therefore might be best to follow a straighter route from Trieste to Belgrade, and then onto Athens. Day 1: Trieste – Ljubljana (Slovenia): 2 ½ hoursDay 2: Ljubljana – Zagreb (Croatia): 2 ½ hours Day 3: Zagreb – Belgrade (Serbia): 7 hours (option of night train)Day 4: Belgrade – Skopje (North Macedonia): 10 hours (night train)Day 5: Skopje – Thessaloniki (Greece): 5 hours
Text and Photos: Andreas Staab
Except 'Skopje': Courtesy of Getty Images