Tag Archives: Europe

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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Classic Travel: A Time of Gifts

A Time of Gifts is everything a travel book should be: brilliantly written, educational, inspiring and full of memorable anecdotes that, once read, appear like ghosts in the reader’s own journeys.

It begins with a simple decision. It is December 1933. 18 year old Patrick Leigh Fermor can’t decide what to do with this life, so he decides to go for a walk. Full of the vim of youth, he decides that Constantinople is his destination. Resolved to this gently eccentric trip, Leigh Fermor proceeds to carry it off, armed with a stick, a few possessions and occasional pickups of money from home.

As the story progresses his naive charm works a magic spell, turning a trip that promised months of freezing nights in hedgerows into being put up in castles and fine apartments. Leigh Fermor never loses his edge though, and once back on the road returns to the traveller’s life with endless enthusiasm.

Two features of A Time of Gifts jump out and linger long in the memory. The first is Leigh Fermor’s prose which is rich and lively. He deserves the title of the greatest living British travel writer. While in part the lucid nature of the writing is due to the author writing – in 1978 – as an older man looking back on an adventure rather than scribbling in the moment, and therefore being able to weave in the astonishing knowledge he possesses, it is also the obvious thrill of discovery and the simple delights of an utterly free life that makes the book special.

Once read, I’d defy anyone to not recall the noise of the ice skiff charging along frozen Dutch canals or share the joy of rummaging around a ruined castle on the banks of the Danube, when considering a journey to the areas visited today. The Europe the book describes disappeared forever in 1939, and the lands travelled through in A Time of Gifts feel foreign and distant. That said, it remains a richly rewarding companion on a journey to the continent.

There is a sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, which takes the journey from the Hungarian Border to the Danube gorge known as the Iron Gate in what was Yugoslavia. Leigh Fermor did make it to Constantinople fourteen months after leaving Tower Bridge, but that was not the end of the adventure. The author went on to fall in love with Greece and a Romanian noblewoman with whom he lived with in Athens and Moldavia, and serve in the Irish Guards during the Second World War. Later adventures in Greece and the Caribbean, marriage and a life divided between England and Greece followed.

There has not yet been a third volume. Patrick Leigh Fermor will celebrate his 95th birthday on 11 February.

Suggestions for your favourite travel reads are welcome. With what’s left of winter, warm yourself up with A Time of Gifts.

Articles you may have missed

Here are a couple of articles posted on the Lonely Planet website that you may have missed.

Jump the queue! – Unmissable sights in Europe you can book in advance. Originally published June 12.

Europe’s ten finest train stations, originally published August 11.

More to follow.

– Tom