The former stretches from St Pollen to Frankness, a land of pretty grazing meadows and gentle pathways (tickets allow you to hop on and off), while the latter climbs up through the ruggedly handsome Erlang gorge and the peaks of Ötscher-Tormäuer Natural. Top tip: For widescreen views, grab a first-class panorama carriage (May to October on weekend and holiday services), while heritage rail fans love the 100-year-old Ötscherbär train that runs from June to late September.
Top tip: At each stop you can order fresh dishes from local restaurants, such as smoked Arctic char and loganberry crumble. The Mandas-Laconi line weaves through wild woodlands, the Palau-Tempio track culminates in a town famed for its cork groves, and India–Boss forges from the island’s untamed interior out to its western coast.
But, for the rest of us, the magic lies in leaving behind France and Austria for the greats forests of Poland and Belarus, where the train’s wheel gauge is adjusted to the narrow local tracks, before sloughing on to the onion-dome churches of Moscow. We say… Every twist and turn of this train line is an engineering marvel: it ticks off a mighty 106 tunnels and over a thousand bridges, as well as the seriously lofty (46 m high) Chamborigaud viaduct.
There are gentler pleasures still to be found in the rolling vineyards of the Aubergine, the chestnut forests of Revenues National Park and the track’s picturesque dalliance with the River Allied. Most boat trips only venture as far as the port-producing village of Pindar, but this train line plows further into the heartlands, past great walls of rock and rambling quints (wine estates).
The train travels at a glacial speed (you can walk beside it in parts), but it’s a journey to Seymour, with stops for hiking in Bank, Leningrad’s hot springs and Belts’s dancing bear sanctuary. The Classic itinerary hugs the northern coast, with stop-offs at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, seafood suppers in Santander and, on longer trips, hiking in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Picks de Europa National Park.
We say… With a shrill whistle and a scorching blast, this steamy trip into the North York Moors National Park begins in lively Whitby, so spare time to visit its recent reopened Abbey. Though devoid of most mod cons, the NMR’s hundred-year-old steam trains make surprisingly quick work of these rolling moors, as you stop off for picnics and village walks along the way.
We say… To ford the peaks of the Julian Alps to the northernmost sliver of Italian coastline, the Behind Railway must slice a route it has plied for over 110 years. It was built as a strategic network for the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, but these days it’s catnip for hikers and cyclists who revel in the easy connections to Most Na Sci, Lake Bled and Nova Africa’s wineries.
Top tip: For a special trip, catch the heritage steam train (May to November) between Berenice and Nova Africa, where staff still don the uniforms of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. We say… Praised by UNESCO as ‘one of the greatest feats of civil engineering’, the Simmering teeters on two-story viaducts and narrow mountain passes, with twists and steep inclines aplenty.
Stretch your legs at Fine, the highest station on the line (1,222 m), to see where Robert Falcon Scott and his crew trained in advance of their infamous 1912 South Pole expedition. Top tip: Hop off at Myrdal and pick up the extraordinary 20 km branch line to Flag (one hour), whose spiral tunnels and steep gradient will sweep you up further into these breathtaking mountains.
They climb thick pines and wildflower meadows up to the 1,141 m peak, forming one of three lines on the Hard Railway, Europe’s longest network (140 km) still running daily steam trains. We say… Operated by the oldest surviving train company in the world, the Destining Railway has run for almost 200 years through Rondônia National Park, and has a gleaming troupe of steam locomotives.
A quaintly old-fashioned rack- or cog-railway sets off from a low mountain pass inland from Saint-Jean-de-Luz to ascend the westernmost peak of the Pyrenees. The train returns to base, but you might prefer to follow the marked footpath (two hours) down slopes grazed by wild ponies.
Photograph: Christoph Sandbagger/Switzerland Tourism Length 290 km Adult fare From €85 one-way, more expensive for the full route and lunch on the way The full route takes eight hours from St Moritz to Zermatt, crossing 291 bridges, passing through 91 tunnels and reaching an elevation of 2,033 m.
A luxury hotel on wheels travels along the Bay of Biscay on Spain’s north coast, but far better is to do the trip on local stopping trains. Other places to break the journey include prehistoric painted caves (the replica at Altamira), the pre-Romanesque churches of Asturias, the magnificent Picks de Europa and endless cute beach resorts.
Most of the narrow gauge lines in the Peloponnese were lost to cost-cutting during Greece’s financial crisis, though fortunately there are two left. One ascends to the historic site of Olympia but far more endearing is this 750 mm gauge rack railway, built in 1895, that sets off inauspiciously on the Gulf of Corinth at Dakota but soon passes through beautiful, wild scenery on its way through a gorge to the mountain town of Kalavryta.
Austria has lots of scenic rail routes but the narrow-gauge line from St Pollen (west of Vienna) along the picturesque Preach valley to the pilgrimage spot of Maribel is widely considered the best. The aging of train crews, meanwhile, means the end of footplate courses for anyone who wants to learn to drive a steam engine.
Photograph: Emilia Daniela/Getty/stockpots Length 34 km Adult fare €45 return, from any HUB station to the top of the Broken The Harder Schmalspurbahnen is a 140 km network of narrow gauge lines in the Hard mountains of the former East Germany.
Everyone’s favorite trip is from Wernigerode through the woods up to the summit of the Broken mountain (1,125 meters) which takes around one hour and 40 minutes each way. It is staffed by children aged 10 to 14 (under adult supervision) who are required to take a training course and pass an exam before they are put in uniforms and given a variety of duties, including operating points and making platform announcements.
There has been much exciting news on the sleeper train front, with Austrian operator COBB announcing it would be extending its network of overnight services over the next few years. First slated for December 2020 but now pushed back until spring 2021, the Night jet will link Amsterdam and Austria with a handy nightly service where you can alight in Vienna or continue on to Innsbruck via Munich.
British travelers can easily make use of the service by hopping on an Eurostar to the Netherlands capital before catching the 7.30pm train bound for Austria. To mark the milestone, the Queen of the Mountains (as she’s been nicknamed, presumably by the tourist board), is throwing a whole host of special events, including a week-long festival (28 July to 8 August).
They’ve also spruced up a steam locomotive from 1873 that will make the journey from Vietnam to Rigid KLM on 21 May, exactly 150 years after the railway’s maiden voyage. Brits can access Lucerne by train in a day, taking the Eurostar to Paris, with another change at Basel.
The newly reinstated Euro city Water service allows travelers to do just that, coupling a break in Berlin, Germany, with a side order of Kraków, Poland. Departing mid-morning and taking seven hours, the daily services gets you to Kraków in time for dinner, and also has the benefit of offering a full restaurant car, so you can lunch in style.
This summer, Czech open-access operator Region launched a new overnight service between Prague and the northern Croatian coastal city of Rivera. Swedish operator Snälltåget has announced it will launch a direct night train from Berlin and Hamburg to Stockholm on 31 March 2021.
Branded the “panorama route”, this line is not as quick as the alternative Gotthard Base Tunnel, but has the advantage of offering magnificent Alpine views for travelers who prioritize experience above speed.