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Diverse scenery on great European rail journeys

By Herald Express  |  Posted: November 22, 2012

  • PORT: The splendidly comfortable trains that operate services between the capital and the west coast port, above, are the perfect grandstand for some of Norway's most spectacular landscapes

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We've teamed up with travel journalist and rail expert ANTHONY LAMBERT to come up with six of the most scenic rail routes of Europe. So sit back and enjoy the ride while the train carries you through the stunning countryside.


IF a winter journey over this extraordinary line arouses a feeling of déjà vu, that could be because one of its remotest sections was used for the battle scenes on Ice Planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back.

It is one of Europe's most difficult lines to operate in winter, since almost a quarter of its 489km length is above Norway's average snow line.

To protect the line, the builders constructed snow shelters and tunnelled through the incredibly hard gneiss, granite and crystalline schists that make up the desolate mountain terrain.

The splendidly comfortable trains that operate services between the capital and the west coast port are the perfect grandstand for some of Norway's most spectacular landscapes.

In winter, the train carries skiers to resorts such as Finse and Haugastøl.

Finse is the highest station on the line and cannot be reached except by train, so sleds hauled by huskies sometimes meet the trains.

Many leave or join the train at Myrdal junction for a short journey down to a fjord at Flåm. It is such a steep descent that trains have five braking systems and drop down through a spiral tunnel, with breathtaking views from the ledge of rock.

During the spring snowmelt some passengers stop off at Kyosfossen to wonder at the power and noise of a colossal waterfall that thunders beside the line.

Don't miss:

Viking ships and Kon-Tiki museums in Oslo

The Akershus Fortress in Oslo, which sprawls along the cliffs overlooking the harbour

The National Gallery in Oslo, which includes Edvard Munch's famous The Scream

The cablecar up Mount Ulriken for a panoramic view of Bergen

The Bryggen Museum and the old quarter of Bergen, a World Heritage Site.

Journey time: from six hours 41 minutes, fares from £93.50 — direct service with stops including Asker, Honefoss, Gol, Geilo, Finse and Voss.

Flåm Railway — journey time from Myrdal to Flåm from 45 minutes, fares from £27

EASILY reached by TGV from Paris, Nîmes is the starting point of this leisurely journey through the remote, wild country of the Cevennes. Though only 303km long, the line burrows through 106 tunnels and crosses almost 1,300 bridges, including some of the most impressive viaducts on French railways, such as the 28-arch edifice at Chapeauroux and the 41-arch near-semicircle of Chamborigaud Viaduct.

The southern plain of vineyards, Lombardy poplars and Aleppo pines gives way to a few miles of hilly post-industrial landscape with occasional traces of mining activity gradually being reclaimed by nature.

The long climb into the Cevennes and the summit at La Bastide (1,023m above sea level) is flanked by woods and the occasional agricultural terrace etched into the hillside.

Running across a plateau, the train offers panoramic views across hills stretching to the horizon.

Lonely stations in the middle of nowhere make one wonder at the optimism of the railway's builders.

But perhaps the finest stretch is the long section of track built on a masonry ledge above the River Allier with glorious views along the sinuous valley.

Don't miss:

The Roman amphitheatre in Nîmes

Maison Carrée, Nîmes, the only fully preserved Roman temple

Carré d'Art, Nîmes, designed by Norman Foster

Clermont-Ferrand's cathedral, built of black volcanic rock

Villefort, an intermediate stop, is a walking and hotel centre from which radiate the walking trails Grandes Randonnés 44, 66 and 68. Nearby is the 16th century Château de Castanet and the Chassezac Gorge.

Journey time: from five hours 36 minutes, fares from £34 — direct service with stops including Ales, Chamborigaud, Villefort, Chapeauroux, Langogne, Langeac, Brioude and Issoire.

RAILWAY lines along both banks of the Rhine parallel one of Europe's most famous and scenic stretches of river.

The steep wooded and vine-clad hills that flank the river are punctuated by a series of castles in wildly different architectural styles.

Many of the villages along the river are full of picturesque timber-framed houses and inns.

The journey along the east bank entails a change of train in Koblenz, but this attractive town is worth a visit in its own right.

The main reason for making a circular journey, apart from the different perspective, is to see the castles that crown the hills on the opposite bank, usually invisible when travelling the same side.

The entire riverside stretch is a series of picture-postcard landscapes, but the best-known section is the bend at Loreley overlooked by a towering mass of basalt 132 metres high.

The region is a paradise for walkers, with hikes from almost every station, but notably Boppard at the confluence of six valleys.

The castle of Stolzenfels was stayed in by Queen Victoria and is now a museum, reached from Koblenz.

Don't miss:

The colossal Gothic cathedral in Cologne, which took more than 600 years to complete and is a World Heritage Site

The Wallraf-Richartz-Museum and Fondation Corboud in Cologne, one of the foremost art collections in Germany

A walk in the riverside park at Koblenz, dominated by the gigantic equestrian statue of Wilhelm I

The 1816 Prussian citadel across the Pfaffendorfer Bridge in Koblenz.

East Bank route — journey time: from three hours 20 minutes, fares from £45 — indirect route, changing at Koblenz with stops including Bonn, Königswinter, Linz am Rhein, Bad Honningen, Koblenz, Braubach, Kaub, Lorch, Rudesheim and Wiesbaden.

West Bank route — journey time: from two hours 20 minutes, fares from £45 — direct route with stops including Bonn, Remagen, Andernach, Koblenz and Mainz.

There is an alternative high-speed route between Cologne and Frankfurt with stops in Montabaur, Limburg Sud, Wiesbaden and Mainz. This route does not follow the Rhine, so be sure to specify you want local routes when booking.

LINKING two of Switzerland's most famous resorts, Zermatt and St Moritz, the Glacier Express is the finest way to marvel at the incredible beauty of the Alps.

Seven-and-a-half hours may sound a long time to spend on a train but the new carriages with panoramic windows in the roof as well as the sides are wonderfully comfortable and the scenery is so varied that you never tire of gazing out of the window.

An English headphone commentary alerts you to places and features of interest, you can enjoy a freshly cooked meal, served at your seat, and there is a bar car for drinks at any time.

Mountains are always in view, and the railway follows various river valleys including the infant Rhine.

The differences in vertical height along the line are so great that the railway uses spiral tunnels and horseshoe curves to overcome the gradient, sometimes making it impossible to guess the direction of travel without a map.

Among the many scenic highlights are the wild country around the Oberalp Pass, the tightly clustered chalet villages of the Goms Valley and the Flims Gorge with its towering cliffs of milky white limestone.

Much of the railway between Chur and St Moritz is a World Heritage Site.

Don't miss:

For a break of journey, take the old route from Realp by the steam Dampfbahn Furka Bergstrecke to Gletsch

In winter, toboggan down the road from Preda station

The new Alpine Museum in Zermatt, a lively history of climbing the nearby Matterhorn

The Gornergratbahn which takes you to one of the best views of the Matterhorn

The Segantini Museum in St Moritz for his Graubünden landscapes.

Journey time: from seven hours 30 minutes, fares from £92 — direct service with stops including Visp, Brig, Andermatt, Chur and Tiefencastel.

THIS international journey is full of contrast. At one end is the canter along the northern shore of sickle-shaped Lake Geneva, passing among the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces which are a World Heritage Site for their lovely position and antiquity, dating from the 11th century.

On a clear day there are views over the French Alps towards Mont Blanc before the train drops down to the lakeshore to run beside the water and pass Chillon Castle, immortalised by Byron in his poem about an unfortunate prisoner.

At the end of the lake there is a sudden transition into the western end of the deep Rhone Valley, which the railway follows all the way to Brig.

Under mountains whose summits are often out of sight, above even higher side-valleys, the railway passes castles, wineries and one of the finest pine forests in Europe.

After connecting with the railway to Zermatt at Visp, the train turns south from Brig through the Simplon Tunnel into Italy.

Near journey's end is another lakeside stretch beside Lake Maggiore.

Connoisseurs of secondary, scenic railway journeys have lots of choice along the way: Montreux for the rack railway up Rochers-de-Naye and the MoB to Gstaad and Lenk; Martigny for the line to Chamonix and St Gervais; Aigle for three narrow gauge lines, to Les Diablerets, Leysin and Champéry; Bex for Villars; and Visp for Zermatt.

Don't miss:

Geneva's old town straddling the hill around the cathedral

The International Red Cross Museum in Geneva

Italy's largest Gothic building, Milan Cathedral

For a break in the journey, Lausanne and Montreux are the best bet.

Journey time: from four hours 28 minutes, fares from £17.50 — direct service with stops including Lausanne, Montreux, Sion, Domodossola, Verbania, Stresa and Arona.

THE name of this incredible railway comes from the unusual canary yellow colour of its trains, lined out in red.

No railway winds through the Pyrenees like this 63km narrow-gauge rollercoaster journey on metre-gauge tracks between two remote junctions on French railways.

From snowmelt to autumn, trains include open carriages from which to enjoy the impressive gorges, forested mountains and rolling lush pasture of the Cerdagne (take suncream and hat in summer).

Villefranche is reached by a pleasant railway journey from Perpignan at the southern end of the Pyrenees — where the station was whimsically dubbed 'centre of the universe' by the Catalan surrealist Salvador Dalí — and Latour de Carol is served by French trains from Toulouse and Spanish trains from Barcelona Sants.

The yellow trains rattle across two spectacular viaducts: the two-tiered stone Sejourne viaduct across the River Tet which occupied 1,500 workmen for three years; and the astonishing suspension Pont Gisclard, situated in a great bowl of densely wooded hills.

Trains slow across the bridge so that passengers can appreciate its construction and the precipitous view into the river valley.

The best place to interrupt the journey and have lunch is Mont-Louis-la-Cabanasse, France's highest fortress at 1,600 metres / 5,250ft, designed by the great military engineer Vauban.

Don't miss:

The fortifications at Villefranche, also built by Vauban

France's highest station, Bolquère-Eyne, at 1,593m (5,226ft)

The huge solar oven powered by a bank of mirrors near Font-Romeu-Odeillo-Via station

The gorge at Thues Caranca, served by a request stop, where an exhilarating trail negotiates ladders, catwalks and wobbly bridges

Journey time: from two hours 41 minutes, fares from £17 — direct service with stops including Bourg Madame, Saillagouse, Mont Luis and Fontpedrouse.

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