European Rail Timetable: the stuff travel dreams are made of

The digital world may dominate how we plan and book travel, but real things still make for the best inspiration.

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Take the European Rail Timetable, the reborn monthly publication brought back to life by ‘the former compilers of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable’, or the wise old heads of European train travel as we should probably call them.

This wondrous tome is, apart from the Thomas Cook branding, unchanged since my first forays on the continent’s railways in the early 1990s, and probably for decades before that. The cover remains Leyton Orient red, the paper thin, the print on the timetables small. Each table is packed with symbols to make Dan Brown salivate, and with surprising ease and elegance in the presentation of information a lifetime’s potential journeying around Europe slowly unfolds. Should you wish to detain your dinner guests in a newly-decorated toilet I suggest leaving a copy in there, as my father does.

Looking through the August 2014 edition there’s the reassuringly familiar order to the book: news first. Seasonal services, easier links between northern Sweden and Finland, storm damage to tracks in Montenegro. The high-speed service in Turkey has still not fully started. Then the all-important index, city maps and then country-by-country routes. It’s not fully comprehensive, but then how could a 600-page guide cover all of Europe, but there’s everything you need. If you’re heading somewhere without trains like Iceland, once the timetable has gently chided your chosen destination for not having rail services principal bus lines are noted. There’s even some coverage beyond Europe, varying continental focus on a rolling basis and making a subscription well worthwhile.

Here are five highlights of this edition that got my feet itching, how about you?

1. A car-carrying train from ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands to Koper, Slovenia. Car plus you and your family sped across Europe in classic vehicle-on-vehicle action, with the added excitement of a sleeper journey thrown in. Your kids would love it.

2.Luleå to Narvik across the roof of Sweden. The train leaves Luleå at 0553, when the Arctic will be alight, but asleep.

3. Nice to Moscow/Moskva. Nice, the heart of the glitzy, sunny south of France to brooding Moscow via Austria, Czech Republic, Poland and Belarus. The heart flutters just thinking about it.

4. Then why not cross Moscow from Belorusskaya station to Kiyevskaya and roll to Ukraine and Bucharest, from where one can connect through Bulgaria to Istanbul? Double-headed eagles of Byzantium all round.

5. Ferries: Barcelona to Tanjah (Tangiers, Orlando) and Hirtshals (Denmark) to Torshavn (Faroe Islands) and, if you’re very lucky, Seydisfjördur in Iceland. Zoinks, what a trip.

Europe is best seen slowly, and best from a train. The pages of the European Rail Timetable make for very satisfying series of ‘what ifs’ and no travel library is complete without several copies, preferably used on the road.

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