“What’s the best way from X to Y?” It is a query we’ve read a thousand times here on EuroCheapo, and it comes in various guises on hundreds of other travel forums: from Fodor’s to Frommer’s, from BootsnAll to the Thorn Tree. For those who pose such questions “best” probably equates “cheapest” or “fastest.”
But every journey deserves time and in our recent meanderings by rail around Europe we’ve made some engaging slow diversions, favoring rural branch lines that really tap into the spirit of local landscapes.
Here are four great rural rail journeys that we have taken over the last four weeks, each one of them a ride to remember.
Italy: Peaches in Puglia
The regular Trenitalia rail fare from Bari to Taranto is €7.70. The journey between the two cities on the fast Trenitalia route is unexceptional. But for the same fare you can ride the Ferrovie del Sud Est (FSE) route via Martina Franca.
This really is the Italian outback. The FSE network in Puglia does not feature in most online databases of European rail schedules (not even in the Deutsche Bahn’s celebrated HAFAS system which shows only a subset of all European trains and is by no means as complete as some travelers imagine).
Our FSE train rattled south from Bari, eventually swapping half-built industrial parks for the orchards of the Puglian countryside. Peaches and almonds aplenty, and – as we climbed up into the hills – plenty of the classic Puglia trulli. These are dry stone buildings with distinctive conical roofs.
Czech Republic: Through the Erzgebirge
It is an easy journey from Bohemia to Saxony by train. Comfortable EuroCity services follow the main line through the Elbe Gorge and it is very pretty indeed. The run from Prague to Dresden takes just 2hrs 15mins.
But for a change last Monday, we took to the hills traveling via Karlovy Vary and Zwickau. There are four rail routes that cross the border between the Czech Republic and the German State of Saxony west of the Elbe Gorge, and all are worth a try. Each climbs over the hills, along the way making stops at the tiny villages that rely on the railway for links to the wider world. They are part of a family of routes, some entirely within Germany, marketed under the banner Erzgebirgsbahn – derived from the name of the mountain range that straddles the German-Czech border. The name Erzgebirge means the ‘ore mountains’, a hint of the rich history of mining in the region.
The Karlovy Vary to Zwickau train (with links at either end from Prague and on to Dresden respectively) averaged less than 40 kph (25 mph) on its tortuous and steep journey through hills and forests that this week still had plenty of lingering winter snow.
France: To Switzerland by stealth
We could of course have taken the fast train to Switzerland. Modern French TGV Lyria services streak from Dijon to the shores of Lake Geneva in just a couple of hours.
In mid-March, we opted instead for the slow alternative, taking local trains that followed switchbacks through the folded hills of the Jura. This is an exquisitely beautiful mountain range, the outermost ripples of the Alps that straddle the border of France and Switzerland between the Doubs Valley and Lake Geneva.
Highlight of the journey was the two-hour section from Besançon to La Chaux-de-Fonds. We found this little gem of a route tucked away in Table 376a of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. It is served by modern trains with panoramic windows well suited to sightseeing. Trains runs thrice daily from Besançon to Switzerland via the rural cross-border route, so do check times before setting out.
Germany: Across the Lüneburg Heath
Even tame landscapes have their minor rail routes, so it is always worth checking if there is a credible alternative to the fast train. The Thomas Cook European Rail Map is a good starting point for your research.
The main line from Hamburg to Hanover in northern Germany wins no medals for its scenic charm. Twice-hourly ICE trains speed between the two cities in just 80 minutes.
But there is an alternative. The Heidebahn cuts across the Lüneburg Heath, a sparsely populated area of delicate beauty that you simply miss if you follow the main line. True, you have to change trains along the way (always at Buchholz and sometimes also at Soltau), and the entire run from Hamburg to Hanover takes twice as long as on the fast ICE train. But it’s a chance to see an area rarely visited by tourists.
This rural rail service across the Lüneburg Heath is run by a private company rather than the Deutsche Bahn, but happily the times are shown in the Deutsche Bahn’s HAFAS online information system and schedule planner. Eurail and InterRail passes are valid.
Your favorite rural rail routes
We are always on the lookout for good rural rail diversions that warrant a mention in forthcoming editions of our book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for Independent Travellers. If you would like to suggest your personal favorites, we’d love to hear them.