If convenience, reliability and cost aren’t enough to make you take to the rails in Europe, the passing scenery will surely win you over.
Picture the scene: you loll in a comfortable seat, legs outstretched, a glass of Rioja to hand as you hurtle through Spain on an AVE high-speed train. Almond groves and whitewashed villages, Baroque cathedrals and hilltop towns zip past in a Picasso blur of light and colour. Or imagine this: you sit in a little red carriage, pressed against your seat back as cogs clank and you're hoisted past grand Victorian-era hotels, smug cows and the jumbled ice blocks of the Eiger glacier in central Switzerland. Then you're swallowed by the belly of the mountains, and coughed up at the highest train station in Europe, below the summit of the ice-clad Jungfrau. At 3454 metres, the Alps are a frozen pavlova, and the panoramas gin-clear all the way to Germany.
From the burnt plains of Spain to the snowy heights of Switzerland, the fjords of Norway to Romanian forest, there's scarcely a corner of Europe that isn't accessible by train. Rack railways, steam trains, high-speed TGVs, dependable inter-city expresses, sluggishly scenic local trains: you can have an entire holiday without ever inhaling the exhaust fumes of coaches, standing in airport queues or arguing over road maps. The reach of the rails makes European travel easy.
If you think trains a clunky, old-fashioned way to travel, it might be time to rediscover railway romance. True, a decade or more ago, European train travel was in the doldrums, considered more expensive, more tedious and certainly much slower than flying. No longer. Railway companies responded to the budget airline challenge with major investment and discounting, and European travellers have rediscovered train travel's convenience, comfort and value for money. On shorter journeys, travel times between cities are faster by rail than air. It's two hours 30 minutes from Madrid to Barcelona, 90 minutes from Florence to Rome. The two hours 16 minutes' train ride from London to Paris takes half the time, city centre to city centre, than it would by air.
What's more, European train stations have more character than airports. Many were built with Victorian-era enthusiasm and opulence: marvellous enough to be the subject of poetry and Turner paintings. Centraal in Antwerp, St Pancras in London, Sirkeci in Istanbul, Sao Bento in Porto, Hlavní in Prague and Gare du Nord in Paris are architectural wonders. Some of the latest stations are incredible too: Liege-Guillemins in Belgium, Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Strasbourg in France.
Competition from budget airlines has made pricing very competitive. Like airlines, there are now discounts for advance rail purchases in countries such as Italy, Germany, Spain and Britain; a ticket from Milan to Venice can cost as little as $14. Under 26-year-olds and those travelling in groups (which sometimes means just two people) attract hefty discounts. You can also save over individual tickets with a multitude of rail passes, though supplements are required for premier trains such as the TGV and Eurostar. At the top of the range, a 15-day first-class Eurail Pass covers 24 European countries (though not the UK) for $880. You can vary the class, number of days and number of countries covered.
National rail passes too are excellent value. For example, a one-month second-class Swiss Pass offers unlimited travel on trains, postal coaches, lake steamers and urban public transport, plus free admission to museums, for $767. There's 10 per cent off for booking two or more tickets, and children under 16 travel free on a Family Card. Unlimited transport for $25 a day? There's no cheaper way to travel unless you hitchhike.
Certainly, there's no more relaxing way. Travel by train and the pleasures are everywhere. Take the old-fashioned orange train that groans from Innsbruck to the alpine village of Igls in Austria, through fields splattered with daisies and buttercups. Take the Glacier Express that chugs at a snail's pace from St Moritz to Zermatt via almost 300 bridges and over 90 tunnels. Ride the rails to Bergen in Norway, a journey so ridiculously scenic that the train stops to let passengers admire the views. Other trains are a deluxe cruise on wheels, and an experience in themselves: the Orient-Express, the Royal Scotsman, the Majestic Imperator.
Even better, you don't have to resort to tourist trains to enjoy the ride. Some of Europe's regular routes provide splendid landscapes at bargain-basement prices. You just have to ride from Zurich to Geneva, Salzburg to Munich, Rome to Nice, Athens to Thessaloniki, or Fort William to Mallaig in the Scottish Highlands. It's just 18 kilometres from Levanto to La Spezia in Italy, but you'll boggle at every centimetre of turquoise, tumbling coastline. Speed from Lyon to Marseilles along the Rhone Valley, Koblenz to Mainz along the Rhine River. Castles brood, vineyards ripen, and your passing train blows geranium petals from village window-boxes. Just sit back, and enjoy.
Train stations seldom attract kudos for their food, but these top in-station restaurants invite pre-travel indulgence.
SEARCYS (St Pancras, London)
This Art Deco-style brasserie has views over the station's soaring glass and steel structure. The modern British menu changes, but might feature smoked haddock, roast pheasant and Cumbrian sirloin. The whisky bar has a impressive selection of champagnes and cocktails. See searcys.co.uk
LE TRAIN BLEU (Gare de Lyon, Paris)
Named for the legendary train to the Cote d'Azur, this Belle Epoque restaurant preserves old-time railway glamour. Gilt and landscape murals run riot, parquet floors squeak, crystal glasses gleam. Dine on foie gras and Charolais steak, or indulge in a six-course degustation. See le-train-bleu.com
BRASSERIE MIDI STATION (Zuidstation, Brussels)
This ultra-chic restaurant and deluxe cigar bar also has a dance floor for tush-shaking before you board. All Brussels stops here to quaff evening cocktails. The three-course business lunch is good value, or indulge in sole meunière or Black Angus entrecôte from the menu. midistation.be
AU PREMIER (Hauptbahnhof, Zurich)
Overlook the uninspiring entrance and minimalist decor: a creative, seasonal menu and suave service set this Michelin-recommended restaurant apart. In July and August, a Swedish smorgasbord buffet provides delectable smoked salmon, reindeer and cloudberry trifle. See au-premier.ch
RESTAURANT 1e KLAS (Centraal Station, Amsterdam)
Head to Platform 2 for hearty French-influenced Dutch cuisine under soaring arched ceilings, surrounded by wood panelling and lush wallpaper flowers. Waiters in bowties dodge Chinese vases as they serve sole in white wine. Elvis the cockatoo entertains at the bar. See restaurant1eklas.nl
HOW TO BOOK
International Rail offers European and UK rail tickets and passes, and provides advice on complicated or multi-sector bookings. Phone 1300 387 245 or see internationalrail.com.au