Eurostar's new E320 trains are fast connecting Europe
Eurostar's new fleet of high-tech E320 trains are not only some of the fastest in the world but are revolutionising journeys around Europe. Anthony Dennis reports.
It would be difficult to nominate my favourite experience on the move in Europe. It might be the rack railway that clangs up Mount Rigi in central Switzerland, pressing your back against your seat as buttercup-studded meadows and snowy peaks grow ever more extravagant beyond the windows.
It might be sailing out of Santorini in Greece at sunset, the cliffs of the volcanic island turning to gold as drinks are served on the deck of a cruise ship. Or it might be driving along the back roads of the Dordogne region in France through half-timbered villages and apple orchards, making you feel as if you've strayed into a fairytale by Charles Perrault, gazing up at vine-hugged, pepper-pot castles and wondering whether Sleeping Beauty is still having her snooze.
There are abundant reasons to love Europe as a travel destination, and certainly getting around is easier than anywhere else. It has more transport options to more places than any other continent, and generally of high quality, reliability and safety.
It has convoluted, cruise-worthy coastlines jammed with culture, and rivers easily navigated in style that penetrate deep into the continental interior. It has first-class roads and railways, and coach touring that meanders into some of its remotest corners. Getting around Europe is seldom less than a great pleasure. Here's how to go about it.
Photo: International Rail
The reach of Europe's railways systems is impressive, and the variety of trains allows everything from panoramic meanders to efficient, high-speed hops between cities and jaunts on steam trains. Luxury services such as the Orient Express through central Europe or new Grand Hibernian in Ireland are increasingly popular. Some luxury trains now take you through the Balkans and beyond into the Middle East, or deep into Russia.
Some of the shortest train journeys, however, provide the most spectacular rides: Snowdon Mountain Railway in Wales, for example, takes you 7.6 kilometres from Llanberis to the 1065-metre summit of Snowdon, while the Diakofto-Kalavryta Railway in Greece runs 22 kilometres through the rugged Vouraikos Gorge.
Even better, though, is that you don't have to take special trains to enjoy some of Europe's most splendid landscapes. Even on regular scheduled services, you can journey through the vineyards above Lake Geneva, along France's scenic Rhone Valley or through mountain-draped landscapes between Munich and Innsbruck.
PROS Europe is knitted together by railway lines: you could have an entire holiday on the rails, from high-speed intercity trains to all-stops services serving small towns and rack railways up mountaintops.
Without having to concentrate on the road, you can enjoy the scenery. Many stations are architectural marvels, and newer stations attached to airports (such as Zurich, Munich, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Vienna) allow seamless connections onto the rail network.
Trains are eco-friendly, reliable, safe, punctual and have improved enormously in comfort and value as national railways seek to compete with budget airlines. In fact, travel times between many cities, such as London-Paris or Paris-Milan, are faster by rail than air, taking into account check-in waits, security queues and airport transfers.
Interior of first class carriage, Eurail train, Switzerland.
CONS The only real downside is that the endless combinations of tickets and passes are enough to induce a headache: you would need a PhD in occult sciences to interpret the many offers that depend on your age, destinations, number of travellers and number of days. Multi-destination or multi-day rail passes might attract additional payments, such as for mandatory seat reservations or for using high-speed trains.
Individual trips can sometimes be expensive. Rail travel is cheaper the more you go by train. Still, if you do your research, some passes allow you to travel as much as you want for about $20 a day, an impressive bargain.
WHAT'S NEW High-speed Eurostar trains are being rolled out (see video above) that carry 900 passengers. Last year, a year-round Eurostar route started between Lyon, Avignon and Marseilles in the south of France. This year, a new route is linking Brussels and Amsterdam via Antwerp and Rotterdam. It will allow direct trains between London and Amsterdam in about four hours. In July, a new high-speed TGV-Est line will open, shaving 30 minutes off the travel time from Paris to Strasbourg and onwards into Germany.
MAKE IT HAPPEN You can buy tickets and passes online from national rail companies, but talking to a specialist is often the best way to make sense of the many options, especially for complicated itineraries. International Rail offers a variety of Eurostar rail tickets and Eurail and British rail passes, and provides advice on rail travel across Europe. Phone 1300 387 245.
Geiranger Fjord, Norway. Photo: Alamy
Europe has its fair share of landlocked countries, but many of its most significant cultures and powers arose among seafaring nations. Its highly indented coastline now provides a lifetime's exploration of ancient ruins, cliff-clinging towns, battlemented islands, major cities and chic holiday retreats.
Europe's coastal landscapes are magnificent too, with the Norwegian fiords, Italy's Amalfi Coast and Greek islands of the Aegean Sea among the most sought-after destinations in the cruise world.
Arriving in historic ports such as Venice, Valletta and Istanbul would melt hearts of stone as centuries of fabulous architecture unfold. On the approach to Stockholm, ships tiptoe through myriad islands crowned with pine trees and cheerful yellow summer houses, before the city's church spires and gabled old town emerge in the pale Nordic light. In contrast, the French port of Nice is all peacock-blue waters. A looming rocky crag is topped by gardens and a ruined castle, and rows of grand hotels and mansions nestle among palm trees against a backdrop of rugged hills.
SeaDream I in Portofino. Photo: Supplied
PROS A cruise is a fine way to avoid the tedium of travel practicalities, as you don't have to book hotels, organise ground transport, heft and repack suitcases, or try to find decent restaurants.
On the whole, cruising is good value, depending on what your fare includes. It would be difficult to imitate the itinerary yourself on land within a budget that might be as low as $200 a person a day.
There's always the pleasure and time saving of letting someone organise on your behalf, and, of course, some European destinations really should be seen from the sea: there's really no better way to admire the Norwegian coast, Svalbard islands or the magnificent approach to Kotor in Montenegro.
CONS You have to stick to coastal destinations, leaving much of Europe unexplored. Big-name cities such as Rome, Paris, London and Berlin, although visited on shore excursions, are often distant from cruise ports.
Given that you generally have only one day in cities, you might feel you're getting a fleeting glimpse.
Another downside is that you seldom see ports in the evening, or have the chance to enjoy the atmosphere and regional cuisine of local restaurants, unless you're prepared to abandon your prepaid shipboard meals.
WHAT'S NEW Europe is a traditional epicentre of cruising, but cruise companies continue to offer new itineraries to tempt repeat passengers.
Star Clipper will sail around the Greek islands and Turkey for the first time in September. SeaDream Yacht Club will sail into smaller Mediterranean ports such as Cannes, St Tropez and Portofino, and has eight wine-themed cruises in the Mediterranean. Celebrity Cruises will have five ships in the region, sailing to more than 100 destinations, and Azamara Club Cruises' two refurbished ships will sail all around Europe, with a focus on the Adriatic, Turkish and Greek coasts, Spain and the Baltic Sea. Meanwhile, Crystal Cruises has launched a yachting brand whose first small ship, Crystal Esprit, will sail around the Adriatic.
In its 2016 summer season, Royal Caribbean will make maiden European visits with four ships, including Harmony of the Seas, which will home port for the season in Barcelona and sail seven-night western Mediterranean itineraries. Navigator of the Seas is offering new cruises out of Southampton to the Baltic, Norway, Canary Islands and Mediterranean. There's also a new 10-night Greece and Adriatic cruise on Jewel of the Sea.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Most European cruises skirt the northern Mediterranean coast, but the Norwegian fiords and Baltic Sea are significant regional centres. Less frequented itineraries bring you to the Black Sea, Arctic islands and around the British Isles. Royal Caribbean calls at 80 destinations in 27 countries from six European home ports. Phone 1800 754 500.
See also: 25 insider secrets about cruise ships
No continent has more river cruises than Europe and, given the importance of rivers to trade over the centuries, few riverbanks are as dense with towns, villages, vineyards, castles and assorted cultural assets.
Ports such as Dresden, St Petersburg, Bordeaux, Paris, Vienna, Venice and Budapest rank among Europe's most beautiful cities. Distances are usually short, time spent off ships long, and there's plenty to see and do.
The Amsterdam-Budapest route, largely along the Rhine and Danube rivers, is the popular river-cruise highway, but there has been a huge expansion in river-cruise routes in the last decade. You can cruise dozens of European rivers, including the Douro in Portugal, Elbe and Oder in Germany, the Meuse in Belgium and a handful of rivers in France. A journey along the Volga waterways between Moscow and St Petersburg is Europe's magnificent cruise marathon. Top for landscapes are the Rhine Gorge in Germany and the Iron Gates, a gorge on the border of Serbia and Romania. Further down the lower Danube, splendid views of snow-capped Bulgarian mountains are magnificent.
Cruising the Douro River in Portugal. Photo: Uniworld
PROS Value for money and ease of travel are what attract many to river cruising which, much more so than ocean cruising, provides almost everything as part of the package deal, including daily shore excursions, meals and, increasingly, Wi-Fi and airport transfers. River cruising has also become incredibly varied, offering ultra-luxe and budget ships, long and short itineraries, packages for families and solo travellers, and cruises themed on special interests such as music, wine, cuisine and culture. River cruising also has the edge on ocean cruising in being able to visit small towns and even villages. Even while sailing, you can enjoy the passing countryside.
CONS Europe imposes size restrictions on river-cruise vessels thanks to locks and low historic bridges. Space is tight in cabins, and public areas and amenities are limited, although cruise itineraries generally have you off the ship most of the day. Communal dining (few ships have room for tables for two) requires ongoing sociability. Shore excursions often focus on run-of-the-mill sights, although these are changing.
Some companies also offer additional-charge excursions of a more varied nature. Last-minute deals are now rare, and you really have to book up to a year in advance to get a good price and the cabin category you want.
WHAT'S NEW River cruise options continue to grow. APT has launched in France's Bordeaux region and Scenic splashes onto Portugal's Douro. It also has a new eight-day Iconic Danube cruise from Passau in Germany to Budapest along the Danube. Viking River Cruises has two new Rhine itineraries (Amsterdam-Frankfurt and Paris-Basel) and Tauck is launching two new ships.
Also increasing their offerings in Europe are more budget-conscious brands Evergreen Tours and Travelmarvel, while small companies such as A-Rosa River Cruises and Lueftner Cruises are now marketing in Australia. From 2017, ocean line Crystal Cruises will launch a new river-cruise arm on luxe ships that will sail Rhine-Danube routes and France's Seine River and Bordeaux regions.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Several big brands dominate the European market, including home-grown companies Scenic (see www.scenic.com.au) and APT (www.aptouring.com.au), but a number of smaller cruise companies add to the choice, while CroisiEurope (croisieurope.travel), little known here, has Europe's biggest river fleet. The best deals at the moment may be with Viking River Cruises, which has many new ships and routes across the continent. Phone 1300 131 744.
Driving in Norway. Photo: Alamy
If you want to speed from A to B, Europe has quality motorways. If you want to explore the byways, it features country lanes and impressively engineered roads that loop over remote mountain passes. This is the way to enjoy Europe in the slow lane, puttering around Ireland's coastal Ring of Kerry, along the French Riviera or dizzying Amalfi Coast in Italy, or around the hairpin roller coaster of a road that winds up Norway's Trollstigen mountain road, where clouds cling to the cliffs and waterfalls plunge.
What's more, many routes have been planned out and well signposted to suit tourists, and will lead you around a region's highlights, whether it's the Route Napoleon through the French Alps, the Romantic Road through Bavaria, or the Route of the White Towns through the rugged village-topped hills of Andalusia in Spain.
Most of all, though, travelling by car allows the sort of spontaneity you just can't achieve on cruises or railways, allowing you your own adventures.
PROS Self-driving is generally the most flexible transport option of all, because you can depart when you like, drive to your hotel, and go where you want, although some city centres, such as London's, restrict traffic through tolling. Parts of the European countryside and many villages and sights such as castles are often inaccessible any other way, or otherwise involve convoluted and time-consuming public transport hopping. Without a doubt, many of the continent's rural roads also provide glorious scenery and unexpected, out-of-the-way finds. If you're a family or a group travelling together, this will almost certainly work out to be the cheapest way of getting around, especially over time.
CONS You won't need to ask what the downside of European driving is if you've ever tried navigating around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, where undisciplined, multi-lane traffic provides dodgem-car thrills. Driving on the wrong side of the road doesn't help, and you have to contend with local traffic rules, such as alarming priority on the right in France.
Most European towns and city centres feature narrow, historic streets (watch out for those wing mirrors) and difficult parking, so hire a compact car. Mountain roads can also be hair-raising for the unpractised. Petrol is more expensive than in Australia. Some countries have tolled motorways (particularly pricey in France), and car drop-off in another country attracts hefty surcharges.
WHAT'S NEW Western Europe's road and motorway network is generally excellent, but the European Union continues to make improvements with projects that encourage long-distance trucks onto trains and adding missing links, such as the Toulouse-Lyon motorway in France across the rugged Massif Central, still under construction. The biggest change is in Eastern Europe, where countries such as Romania, Poland and Bulgaria are investing huge amounts in top-quality highways, already partially completed. Four new motorways have also been approved in Greece.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Car-hire companies big and small are ubiquitous in Europe, with offices at almost every airport and major train station, making car pick-up and return easy. Leading Australian self-drive specialist DriveAway Holidays offers car hire in Europe from about $300 a week. Phone 1300 723 972.
See also: Europe's 10 most beautiful drives
Coach touring won't take you anywhere roads don't lead, but you might have more time to enjoy your destinations when you get there. Coach tours might also offer routes that you would hesitate to do by car: a combination of Spain and the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, perhaps; a trans-continental journey between Moscow and Prague; or a tour of Belarus, one of Europe's least-known destinations.
Without having to white-knuckle a steering wheel and concentrate on the road, you can enjoy the ride, which offers a more elevated perspective on the passing countryside. The range of tours is now astounding, so there are few parts of Europe you won't be able to admire by coach. Trundle around the Christmas markets in Germany and Austria, meander down Spain's coastline between Barcelona and Cadiz, or take in the Italian lakes or castles of Romania.
PROS Those used to independent travel often scoff at coach touring, seen as budget-end travel for either youthful party types or staid retirees, but companies have invested serious money into coach touring, expanding options, upping the luxury and broadening appeal.
Trafalgar Tours even has family-oriented itineraries. It's a sociable way to travel, with convivial meals and shared experiences along the road.
Some tours are themed on photography, jazz, wine and other special interests. Many are now combined with cruises or city stopovers. Daily excursions provide active and immersive experiences, such as market visits with chefs or meals in local homes. You can save energy and stress from driving, and let someone else deal with the nitty-gritty of daily travel.
CONS Some coach tours still have the "If it's Monday, it must be Germany" mentality that tries to pack too much into too short a time, but reputable companies such as Trafalgar Tours, Insight Vacations and Contiki now have more leisurely itineraries characterised by free time, two-day stopovers or a slower pace. It might be best to focus on regions rather than entire countries or multi-country tours.
Like cruising, coach touring also asks that you be sociable most of the time, including over meals, which may not suit every traveller all the time. Daily sightseeing tends towards the overview, which will disappoint if you're in a destination you've already visited before.
WHAT'S NEW Insight Vacations has a new Harmony of Central Europe tour between Prague, Budapest and Warsaw and new Majestic Switzerland tour return from Zurich. Contiki Tours has five new Europe tours in 2016 aimed at its youthful market, including itineraries in the Balkans and Iceland and a 14-day Mediterranean Escape through Italy, Greece and Turkey.
MAKE IT HAPPEN All manner of companies offer coach tours, including Trafalgar (trafalgar.com), Bunnik (bunniktours.com.au), Globus (globus.com.au), Cosmos (cosmostours.com.au), Scenic (scenic.com.au), Evergreen (evergreentours.com.au), Contiki (contiki.com) and APT (aptouring.com). Insight Vacations has tours in almost every European country, including a premium category, Easy Pace tours with more free time, and Country Roads that focus on less-frequented regional destinations. See insightvacations.com/au.
See also: How a bus tour won me over
BUDGET FLIGHT TIPS FOR EUROPE
There are so many air routes across Europe a route map looks like a demented spider's web of possibilities. Routes monopolised by national airlines are ludicrously expensive, but dozens of discount airlines make most routes amazingly cheap.
■ Big players include Ryanair, easyJet, Norwegian and Jet2. Others to look out for are Wizz Air, German Wings, Air Berlin, Sky Europe and Flybe.
■ Budget airlines don't only operate out of their home countries. British airline easyJet, for example, has significant hubs in Paris, Milan and Geneva, among others, and routes across Europe.
■ For rock-bottom fares, take early-morning, late-evening or midweek flights. Avoid the summer and school holidays. Last-minute specials are sometimes available on airline websites, but the best bargains usually come by booking far in advance.
■ Most tickets can only be bought online. Assigned seats, inflight food and, increasingly, baggage attract additional fees.
■ A lack of onward connections is a major inconvenience. Passengers must collect baggage and check in again for ongoing flights. You aren't compensated if you miss your connection.
■ Budget airlines operate on tight turn-around times, and you'll be denied boarding if you arrive at the gate late.
■ Take careful note of which airports the airlines serve. Some, such as Stansted outside London or Girona outside Barcelona, are a long way from city centres. Ground transport might cost more than your airfare.
Go far by pedal power
European cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Munich are very bicycle friendly, and many more, such as Paris, Dublin and Vienna, have public bike-rental systems at low cost. What's less well known is that Europe is also establishing impressive long-distance cycle routes that criss-cross the continent. About 50,000 kilometres are currently in place. Here are three choice routes. See eurovelo.com for more.
From Gdansk in Poland to Pula in northern Croatia: this route cuts across the heart of central Europe via Vienna and Ljubljana. It will be a 1930-kilometre pedal. The 380-kilometre section between Brno and Maribor has been completed and is highly scenic, traversing eastern Austria.
Forget a river cruise: you can follow the Rhine on wheels from its source near Andermatt in the Swiss Alps north through Germany and into the Netherlands, finishing at Rotterdam. The route is 1230 kilometres, all completed. The Rhine Gorges section in Germany is magnificent.
Start in Andermatt and head in the direction of another alpine watershed via Montreux, Lausanne and Geneva into France, finishing at Montpellier on the Mediterranean coast. It's 940 kilometres, mostly completed. The section through the vineyards of Lake Geneva, with views of the French Alps, is heart-pumping but glorious.
See also: Six of the best Paris cycling routes