I was thrilled when an opportunity arose to review the latest edition of Europe by Rail in exchange for a complimentary copy. This guide, now in its fifteenth incarnation, is to print what the Man in Seat 61’s website is to the internet – the definitive guide. But with so much information freely available on the internet, should you buy this book at all?
A task of epic proportions
Covering all the railways of all the European countries in a book light enough to carry onto a train is a huge undertaking. As a consequence this book acts as an overview. While it’s definitive, it doesn’t claim to be comprehensive. The guide is designed to be used together with the European Rail Timetable – or in these times of data roaming, in conjunction with the websites of national rail providers in the countries it covers. The authors, Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, have updated the guide once more, expanding coverage of the Baltics and the Balkans, as well as providing current information about rail travel across the continent. Schedules change frequently, and I was sad to learn that the excellent CityNightLine service which I enjoyed in 2015 ceased operations between Munich and Berlin last year.
An inspiring guide
The authors wanted to take the guide in a different direction and as such, set out to inspire as well as inform. So although there are factual sections in the guide, its greatest strength is in the persuasiveness of the descriptions that comprise the bulk of its pages. Underpinning this erudite prose is a fundamental belief that train journeys are fun and, most crucial of all, to be savoured. While acknowledging the important role Europe’s high speed trains have to play, Gardner and Kries put the case for slow travel, yet never come across as preachy. If you need to zip across the continent in a hurry, then so be it, but for those with more time, there are routes to be savoured on local stopping trains, with tempting sidetracks built in as well.
Punctuating the narrative are frank insights into the realities of each trip: “It’s an easy run south to Barcelona. The railway enters the Catalan city through its unexciting northern suburbs and terminates in the subterranean gloom at the Estació de Sants.” Nuggets of advice are also in abundance, such as this on Italy’s fabulous Cinque Terre: “A long sequence of tunnels means that you’ll see little of the area from the train, but take time to stop and explore. Vernazza is a good base; it’s the prettiest of the villages.” Gardner and Kries have put the hours in and travelled these routes, which makes them authoritative as well as engaging.
What could be improved?
Numbers rather than names refer to each of the fifty routes covered by the guide once you get past each one’s title. Though this system takes a bit of getting used to, many of them cross international borders so it’s hard to see how they could be referred to in any other way. It doesn’t help, however, that some of the subtitles within each section, specifically those of the major cities en route, are in the same sized font, making it confusing as to whether you’ve reached the end of a route or not. It takes a bit of time to get your head around, but once you’ve got into a rhythm, you won’t be bothered by it.
Each route features a map. The presentation is simple, with a table attached that shows the journey time, frequency and cross-reference for the European Rail Timetable. While I could see that the authors were aiming for clarity, I thought it was a shame that these maps couldn’t have been illustrated to showcase some of the key attractions along the way. This would have added to the temptation to jump on a train and follow in their footsteps. I’m guessing publishing constraints required the photographs to be grouped in their own section, as is the way with most guidebooks, but it’s again a pity that these couldn’t have been integrated with the text. Instead, I wanted to skim over them, impatient to get to the routes themselves.
There’s a lot of page turning, back and forth, which breaks into reveries and brings the reader back to reality. I appreciate that logic dictates a section entitled “Before you leave” should be placed at the beginning of a guide, but perhaps the parts detailing rail passes, ticket classes and the like would have been just as at home in an appendix. These are minor criticisms, more a measure of how keen I was to get stuck in than any fault with the guide.
The verdict: would I buy this guide?
For anyone planning to embark on a rail holiday in Europe, this guide is an invaluable companion. Even if you’ve travelled extensively by rail across the continent, things change regularly and it’s an easy way to bring yourself up to date. Don’t wait until you leave to buy it. The suggestions for stopovers and detours will help with your planning and you’ll have information at your fingertips about rail passes, supplements, connections and the like. If you’re like me, it won’t help you make a decision, as there are so many tempting routes from which to choose, but it will give you hours of pleasure as you take a virtual journey on some of Europe’s most scenic tracks. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to go back to that chapter on Arctic Norway…