Book review: Mainlines and sidetracks mapped in ‘Europe by Rail’

E&T features editor and columnist Vitali Vitaliev put the latest version of a guide to Europe’s rail routes to the test on a recent trip to Switzerland.

This Summer sees the long awaited arrival of a completely revised and updated 14th edition of Europe’s most comprehensive railway guide book – the only remaining publication that continues the fine traditions of Thomas Cook, the father of modern tourism whose first travel guide was published in 1873.

Just like the previous edition, ‘Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for Independent Travellers’ (European Rail Timetable Ltd, £15.99, ISBN 9780992907358) has 50 main railway routes at its core, but all of them have been rewritten and re-tested (read re-travelled) by tireless authors Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries.

The main routes cover the bulk of the continent, from northern France to Serbia and western Ukraine. Yet, on top of the main rail thoroughfares, the book contains 26 less well known ‘Sidetracks’ which to me are the Guide’s most admirable feature, for I have always believed that for an inquisitive traveller there is much more to learn in narrow side lanes – both real and proverbial – than in all kinds of high and main streets and their railway equivalents.

It is from one of those fascinating sidetracks that E&T readers will be delighted to learn the story of Georges Nagelmackers, born in Liege in 1845 and the founder of the Companie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, who can be called the engineer and inventor of long-distance rail travel. Nagelmacker took the Pullman principle one step further by adding separate compartments with proper beds to Pullman carriages. He was also the first to introduce railway dining and was the founder of the world’s most famous train, the Orient Express. Champions and staunch supporters of long-distance train travel, Gardner and Kries deplore the gradual demise of sleeper trains now happening all over Europe and note with regret that Nagelmackers is “probably turning in his grave”.

europe_by_rail_14th_edition.jpgI had a chance to test this amazing Guide in action (or should I say traction?) during a recent trip to and around Switzerland, and can testify that it is an indispensable companion, particularly in combination with the same publisher’s European Rail Timetable, to which Gardner and Kries contribute a regular ‘Beyond Europe’ section. A bi-annual Summer edition of the latter, in conjunction with Europe by Rail, was essential in planning my travels in Bernese Oberland. Not once did the Timetable (helped by the extraordinary punctuality of Swiss Railways) let me down, and the Guide never failed to be on top of the case, with its invariably precise and succinct tips and its writers’ admirable ability to sum up the essence of a location in one or two sentences: “Our train runs West from Interlaken to Spiez with fine views over the Thurnersee en route.” And the views were all fine indeed.

Being always meticulous with the facts, Gardner and Kries manage to maintain an extremely high quality of literary description reminiscent of Patrick Leigh Fermour, whose influence I could feel here and there. In his ‘Time of Gifts’, Leigh Fermour talks about entering Rotterdam under a heavy snowfall which made it feel as if he was “slipping into Rotterdam and into Europe through a secret door”. To me, this echoes one of the Guide’s Sidetracks entitled ‘The Back-Door Route to Holland’.

I’m lucky to know Gardner and Kries, a two-women-strong travel and publishing institution that also produces Hidden Europe magazine, and was privileged to visit their Berlin offices last year. They are constantly on the move, and every now and then I receive their emails from the road; from the Balkans one day, from Odessa the next. Before I sat down to write this review, I was able to ask them what makes this year’s ‘Europe by Rail’ special. Here’s what they said: “There is more ‘good writing’ (for want of a more felicitous phrase) in this new edition, most conspicuously in the introductions to the 50 journeys, but also laced through each route. All in all, there’s a stronger sense of history and of Europe’s varied languages and cultures. And more references to historic patterns of train services to communicate a sense of how any particular journey have been tacked 50 or 150 years ago.”

In short, get on board a European train armed with ‘Europe by Rail’ and you’ll be in for a fascinating journey.

Bon Voyage!

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