As you may know, I am a huge train buff – it is my number one preferred mode of transportation (after my own two feet, I suppose). So I was excited to receive a copy of Tom Chesshyre’s Tales from the Fast Trains – with such a fun cover, I expected to lap up stories some good stories about traveling Europe on rails.
The storyline is a couple who live in London and use the city’s St. Pancras station as their base for a number of regular weekend breaks into Europe. Some of their destinations are very quick – Lille, for example, is faster to get to than many other cities in England. Others are further afield, such as the multiple transfers required to reach Spain or Switzerland.
It was an interesting read for me, having been to many – actually, all – of the destinations he visits, sometimes on rails and other times not. What’s most interesting is the stark contrasts in travel times – I remember when it took 4.5 hours to get from Amsterdam to Paris. Now the high speed line runs the full distance and the travel time is nearly halved.
Europe’s Joie de Vivre on Rails
One interesting thing to note in this book is how the author explores the development of rail in Europe in relation to several political and social moments in history. For example, because Germany is such a large country, the railway was critical in connecting the several cities – Germany, both then and now, does not have one focus “capital” city so the need for connections was urgent.
There’s also an interesting story about a single tunnel, bored through the swiss alps to connect the German’s industrial need for coal with Italy’s reserves. The three countries split the cost, and that one tunnel led to an explosion of Switzerland’s railway network.
Isn’t the feeling of jumping on a train and heading for distant places what it’s all about… and taking in what you can along the way? Isn’t it the chance to see the Continent in a different, but still very fast, way? Isn’t that what fast trains offer? isn’t that how they are changing things? It’s the sensation, not just the statistics. It’s all about the experience.
Where to Go on the Train?
The places highlighted in the book are all places I would recommend. What I like is that the author wasn’t afraid to portay an honest appraisal of all their trips, including some places that many would skip – such as Frankfurt, or Rotterdam, both considered a bit too “gritty.’ (And you would be right for saying so – but then you’re missing the point.)
A few personal faves:
- Lille, France: This has to be my favourite city in France, above Paris even. I love the old town, the wonderful walks, the world-class museums. Oh, and the food. And the wine. And the shops.
- Lausanne and Montraux, Switzerland: This destination is so wonderful and famous, it was part of the original grand tour of Europe. Perhaps one of the most expensive strips of rail in Europe, it is also the most scenic. Lausanne slopes steeply down into Lac Leman, and from there the train crawls through UNESCO World Heritage territory until it reaches Montraux, where you can visit Chateau De Chillon, one of the most famous castles in Switzerland.
- Bruges, Belgium: Along with Ghent, these are the most popular stops in Belgium for a reason. Architecture, beer, food, romance. What’s not to like?
- Cologne, Germany: The city of Cologne is a personal fave – museums, shops, architecture, hospitality. A great place to come for Christmas too.
- Luxembourg City, Luxembourg: A quiet and relaxed break; not many tourists make it to Luxembourg, assuming it’s just filled with bankers and tax evaders. (While the latter may be true, there’s still plenty else to see!)
Who Should read this Book
Although sometimes I don’t understand the couples travel style – they often take taxis in towns where you could walk probably a bit more quickly – and I laugh at their sometimes ill-prepared plans (but who hasn’t made a bad hotel choice now and then), I found Tales of the Fast Trains to be a great read.
I’d recommend this book for a wanderluster hoping for some inspiration on choosing a European rail itinerary – these destinations can be visited from anywhere in Europe, not just London. Just to be clear, this isn’t a travel guide – it simply lists some personal experiences and offers a handful of recommendations on the good and bad in each place. For the most part, the highlights are covered, but I would use this as your starting point, not the finishing line.