Six Of The Most Scenic Train Trips In Europe

Forget flying around Europe. At 30,000 feet it’s impossible to truly experience the continent’s remarkable landscapes. Rather than being shuttled around in a plane that only allows a birds-eye view, train trips immerse travelers in the terrain. There’s a reason why trains are often thought of as the most romantic mode of transportation: riding the rails makes you feel more connected and in tune than air travel ever could. Instead of feeling like a chore, as flying often does, train travel can be an experience in itself. In fact, there are plenty of scenic train rides in Europe that are worth the trip just for the view. The following are top rated train trips, and from the rolling hills of England to the craggy Alps of Switzerland, each one offers travelers something different.

6. United Kingdom
London to Edinburgh
The rolling, green hills and moors that are often associated with Yorkshire make this one of the most scenic train trips in Europe. When entering the northern parts of England, travelers will catch glimpses of the rugged coastline along the North Sea. During the 4 1/2-hour train ride, English speakers will notice a distinct difference in passenger accents as the train gets closer to Scotland. Although the common language is English, it can be hard to decipher as the Scottish brogue gets thicker and thicker.

[Flickr photo via boutmuet]

5. Holland
Amsterdam to Groningen (best in April)
In Holland, the most scenic train trip isn’t necessarily about being on the right track; it’s actually all about timing. Travelers will want to hop onboard in spring – particularly in April – to see the blanket of colors that results when the famous Dutch tulips are in full bloom. On the two-hour route between Amsterdam and Groningen, travelers will also be able to spot plenty of windmills, another quintessential part of the Dutch landscape.

[Flickr photo by Amy Bonner]

4. Italy
Rome to Verona to Venice
Train trips don’t get much more romantic than the ride from Rome to Venice, especially if you make a stopover in Verona. The train ride starts in Rome, the enchanting “Eternal City,” and then makes its way through the Tuscan farmlands to Verona, a pleasant city famous as the setting for Shakespeare’sRomeo and Juliet.” Make a day of wandering around the city’s lovely corridors (pictured above) and passing some time in a local cafe or bar. Then head to Venice, Italy’s famed “Floating City,” that is by far one of the most romantic destinations in the world. The train approaches through Venice’s lagoon in the Adriatic Sea, and upon arrival you can hop on a gondola ride for two – what could be more romantic than that? Another scenic train trip in Italy is the route from Venice to Trieste. On this trip, the train hugs the coast of the Adriatic Sea until reaching Trieste, a charming destination with beautiful sea views and several cafes and pubs for you to spend your days and nights in.

Balconies in Verona, Italy [Photo by Libby Zay]

3. France
Montpellier to Nice
The train ride through southern France from Montpellier to Nice is another visually stunning trip. From Montpellier to Marseille, travelers will see the typical Provençal landscape of red-colored soil, tall cypress trees and expansive fields of lavender and olives. As the train gets closer to Nice, the coastal scenery along the Mediterranean Sea comes in to view. Note that if you have a France Rail Pass, it’s possible to break the ride up to spend some time exploring small Provençal towns, such as Aix-en-Provence, the famous home of Paul Cézanne, or Nimes, with its stunning Roman amphitheater that is second only to Rome’s Colosseum.

[Flickr photo by paularps]

2. Germany

Black Forest Railway
The Roman’s gave this thickly wooded and mountainous region in Germany the name Silva Nigra (i.e. “Black Forest“) because the dense growth of trees blocked out most of the light inside the forest. Experience the spectacular scenery on the Black Forest Railway, part of the German National Railway that connects Offenburg and Singen. The 93-mile-long route ascends (or descends, depending on which way you travel) more than 2,000 feet as it passes through 39 tunnels and over two viaducts. The section between Hornberg, Triberg, and St. Georgen is particularly pretty. The stretch is also popular with locals, who use it as part of their regular commute between the towns they live in and larger cities. Tourists, however, will probably think it looks straight out of a storybook – so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Black Forest is the setting for the Brothers Grimm tale “Hansel and Gretel.” But don’t worry, you won’t need to follow a trail of breadcrumbs to get back home.

Look closely for one of the viaducts trains along the Black Forest Railway pass over in Hornberg [Wikimedia photo by Prolineserver]

1. Switzerland
Wilhelm Tell Express (May to October only)
Switzerland is known for some of the most stunning scenery in all of Europe. This trip from Lucerne to Locarno connects two of the prettiest parts of the country, central Switzerland and the Italian-speaking Ticino region. While in Lucerne, travelers can opt to take a boat ride on a vintage paddle steamer where they can enjoy lunch or dinner. When the boat reaches Flüelen, step onto a panoramic train that will whisk you past lone cottages on pine-covered hills, glistening streams, cerulean lakes, vast valleys covered in green, and craggy, snow-covered peaks, as it makes its way to Ticino. If you get a chance, make a stop in the tiny town of Bellinzona, an easily walk-able place that is well worth a day trip in order to explore one of their three medieval castles. Switzerland has some of the most fantastic scenic train trips in Europe with the Golden Pass and Glacier-Express also offering awe-inspiring views through panoramic train windows.

[Photo by Libby Zay]

Vagabond Tales: How to wine taste in France without speaking French

For many global travelers there are few languages more useful than French.

In case you aren’t aware, or it’s been a healthy number of decades since your last high school French class, the Francophone world still extends far beyond the borders of France. From the beaches of Martinique to the cloud forests of Rwanda, French is still the default language of choice for tourism and local commerce. Madagascar, Belgium, French Guyana, Morocco, Tahiti, and even Laos and Cambodia to some extent are all global travel destinations where the ability to speak French can make or break your travels.

And then, of course, there is France.

Amongst travelers it isn’t exactly a secret that the French people can be a bit reluctant to speak anything other than French. Although some complain it smacks of arrogance, to be fair, as travelers to another country we should always make the effort to learn the local language, and after multiple visits to France I can attest that effort is often weighted heavier than proficiency. Still, it can be challenging.

So what’s the only thing more intimidating than traveling through France and not knowing French?

Talking about wine, in France, and not knowing French.

Seeing as many French people are immensely proud of their wines and often consider them to be some of the finest on the planet, discussing such a passionate topic in a language in which you claw for the basics can be an overwhelming undertaking. So much so, in fact, that some travelers opt to not go down that road at all, which from a cultural standpoint can be a major faux pas.

So what’s a non-French speaking traveler to do if they want to learn about wine in France but don’t have the linguistic tools to get them there?

Luckily, on a cobbled street corner in Aix-en-Provence, I would find out there is a niche market for people asking themselves that exact same question.Enter Wine in Provence, an American-operated company who specialize in helping native English speakers get a handle on French wine, food, and pairings. Run by a mirthful team of young Americans who are as passionate about the Provence region as they are about the wines which come out of it, it’s a linguistic safe haven for those just looking to learn about wine while in France.

Sure, I suppose you could always search out a French wine-touring company which happens to have an English speaking guide, but for some reason, having a native English speaker who understands where you, and your questions, are coming from is a breath of fresh air amongst a sea of constant struggle.

“The first thing I want everyone to know is there are no dumb questions” ensures our American guide, Brian.

Standing in a tasting room in the legendary Châteauneuf-du-Pape region, Brian, a native of Seattle, has already given us a rundown of the entire region from the storied history to the unique soils and terroir. I’ve learned more on the car ride here than on my entire three previous tasting excursions, all of which, of course, were performed in an awkward French/English combination.

Furthermore, there are only four people in our group, a major plus when considering some of the mass group wine tours I’ve witnessed in the past. Teaching us how to properly swirl our glasses along the nicely polished wood bar, I feel a surge of energy not from the wine, but from the fact I suddenly realize I can ask Brian for answers to all of the lingering questions seemingly always lost in translation.

Why does France mix so many grapes? How do I choose a good bottle in the market simply by reading the label? What exactly is malolactic fermentation and why is this important to me? Which wine won’t give me a headache and turn me into a firestorm of bad decisions? You know, those sorts of things.

The funny part is that up until this moment in Provence, I really had never been interested in wine, mainly because it’s such an overwhelming topic that even finding a starting point seems like an undertaking unto itself. Now, however, with someone here to explain it all to me in plain English, pun completely intended, my genuine interest in international wine touring legitimately began to take off.

More than just guiding you through a fleet of tastings at countryside vineyards, I’d later find out that Wine in Provence can arrange customized food pairing sessions where they accompany you to the fabled outdoor markets of Aix-en-Provence, help you purchase local produce, teach you how to prepare it, and finally instruct you on which wines will best accompany your meal.

Back in the final tasting room of the tour, a strong buzz permeates amongst the group as a bald headed bartender aggressively sniffs a glass of deep purple liquid. He mumbles something in French which causes him to close his eyes and smile, an aura of overwhelming satisfaction beaming from all parts of his face.

“I guess he likes the wine” I inquire to Brian, confident in my ability to read his facial expressions.

“Actually”, Brian translates, “he’s smiling about what it will taste like in five years. Right now he says it’s just alright, but in five years, he thinks it will be one of the best bottles this vineyard has ever produced.”

I sniff along with the bartender and decide to buy a bottle. Though I may not be able to speak directly to him about the nuances of the aromas and the proper temperature for storage, thanks to my English speaking intermediary I’m no longer intimidated, no longer wandering lost in the woods.

So does one day of solid English explanation make you an expert? Far from it. Can it help you learn French? Perhaps. Will you be capable of ordering a proper glass of French wine? Well that’s all most of us can really ask for isn’t it?

Want more stories? Read the rest of the Vagabond Tales here

Gadling + BootsnAll – Picks of the Week (5.29.09)

Gather round dear readers, it’s Friday and that means it’s time for our weekly roundup of links from our friends at BootsnAll. Think of it like a travel website “cage match:” hundreds of travel stories go into the ring, only five of the best come out alive. Got it? Then to the winner the spoils! Here’s what we found this week:

  • Calm Those Flying Fears – I have a secret confession. Despite the fact I write for a travel website, I’m quite a nervous flyer. The fact is, I doubt I’m alone in my fear. Thankfully our BootsnAll friend Katie Hammel is here to help, offering up some great tips on How to Control a Fear of Flying. I’m feeling more relieved already. You can too – check out Katie’s tips.
  • South of France Secrets – travelers have long been drawn to France’s beautiful southern regions, flocking by the planeful to hotspots like Cannes and Aix-en-Provence to experience the pastoral landscapes and wonderful climate. If you’ve ever wanted to visit, make sure to read Christine Cantera’s Seven Secrets About the South of France, offering some insider tips for this highly trafficked region.
  • Scenic European Driving – the image of the European railpass traveler, backpack over shoulder and Eurail in hand, has become such a cliche that it’s easy to forget Europe also has an extensive network of highways Have you ever considered renting a car and taking a scenic drive though mountainous valleys and coastal vistas? Christina Dima has the scoop on Nine of Europe’s Best Drives. Take a look before you buy that Eurail.
  • Use the Crisis: Volunteer! – there’s been much made in recent months of the current economic crisis. Many have lost their jobs and others are struggling just to get by. But instead of bemoaning our bad luck, what if we were to consider the crisis as a hidden opportunity to try something new? Alix Farr has Five Reasons why right now is the perfect opportunity to switch things up and volunteer abroad. Not only can it be personally rewarding, travel can offer surprising cost savings.
  • Amazing Iguazu – along the northern border of Argentina with its neighbor Brazil is one of the world’s great natural wonders, Iguazu Falls. Consisting of a system of over 200 different waterfalls, some rising over 200 feet in height, it’s a must see for any South American traveler. Keivin Lim recently put together a photo tour of the famous falls. Even if you can’t make it to South America any time soon, take a visit with your eyes through his great photo roundup.

This marks the end of yet another week of Gadling + BootsnAll Picks of the Week. Hungry for more travel picks? Check back next Friday for another round of links.