Have you ever wanted to go on a truly epic railway journey but didn’t know where to start ?. If you are a European there’s good news. You don’t even need to leave the European Union to put together a journey that will leave you amazed. Europe can deliver a greater variety, both inside and outside the train, than anywhere else on Earth. It’s not even a contest once you start counting languages, cultures and landscape types that you can cover in western and central Europe by train.
For the same price as you can travel second class from Moscow to Beijing, including cheap flights at either end, single hotel nights in both those cities, your Russian and Chinese visas, and paying for a limited range of sustenance options, you can travel in first class to every mainland European Union capital inside 18 days, with a hefty working budget to feed yourself from the finest delicatessens in civilization.
You could extend your scope to include all of western Europe and go via the Arctic Circle, the roof of the Alps, hit most capitals in what was once Yugoslavia in a total of 23 countries, and find yourself back on The Euston Road 17.5 days later, all for the same price. If you wanted to include Helsinki, the Baltics, Warsaw and Athens in some ultimate Interrail expedition, you could do a combo of these two trips in 3 weeks for less than £1,600 in first class. (the Baltics aren’t on your pass, but it’s just local trains and connecting buses that you have to hopscotch your way down, it’s less than 50 Euro to get you from Tallinn to the Polish rail network).
I have run several of these marathon expeditions over the last 10 years. We call them Tourisme Grande Vitesse. They are essentially mobile adult picnics lasting a fortnight and covering what feels like the entire continent. Recent political events have provoked us into re-living our experiences in 2013 when a dozen of us went from London to the Arctic and back home via Skopje and Lisbon. This time we will visit all 27 EU capitals without leaving land or sea, until we get to the last two Cyprus and Malta. Leaving Dublin on an auspicious Friday 13th, arriving in Athens two weeks on Tuesday almost entirely by train and 3 boats (the Baltics takes a bit of road to sew things together). We’ll travel first class the whole way and have a hell of a time as we go. We will then get two very cheap flights to Cyprus and on to Malta. In less than 21 days we will have visited the capitals of every EU member state. With the exceptions of Helsinki (90 mins) and Vienna (56 mins) we will at least have time to sit down and eat and drink something in every city.
Here’s a route map of what we will to do this time
And here’s a sample schedule of it for 2017, https://www.dropbox.com/s/j5zn6yw9qtlccxj/elt-schedule.ods?dl=0
We wont be going till next year 2018.
A bit too stupid ?, here’s the route map of what we did last time
This blog itself is originally of that trip and links in turn to 3 other daily blog reports. It might not convince you that this is a good idea for you, but you can’t argue that it didn’t have a massive impact on all of us who did it.
This is, to all intents and purposes, a continuous trip. There are no day-offs in Tallinn, or Madrid or anywhere else. You get around 4 hours on the whole, unless we are forced to stay for the night, as we are throughout the north. There are many candidates for “World’s Greatest Railway Ride”. At roughly 18,000km a piece, spanning a kaleidoscope of culture and geography, these two European super trips take some beating. You could of course just be less daft and do half of either of the above and still be blown away.
Three or four hours in any of our capitals, let alone a whole night, does not have to be a wasted opportunity if you have a plan of action. In our case that organization will invariably be centred around the details of resupplying the picnic baskets (all 12 or so of them). This makes eating and drinking to excess much cheaper, and exposes us to our host’s most exquisite culture via their markets and delicatessens. If you have a wallet to cope you could spend a lot more time in the restaurant car that is on most of our trains, at least up to Budapest, and spend your time off the train in the best restaurant you can find. Posh picnics are more fun, but you do need a group of you to make them work.
The accumulative effect of hitting a new capital or two or three, every day, for a fortnight will leave you in awe of your civilization, and perhaps change who you think you are. The experience will live with you for years, may be even a lifetime.
How much does it cost ?
The ticket for the entire run including all boats and buses where needed, comes in at a stupendously low £1,300 in first class. We will spend that amount again on hotels where forced, getting quite tipsy very regularly and eating some of the finest and varied picnic food available to humanity. If you are happy dorming it, travelling in second and not going overboard on the deluxe picnic stuff, you could do the entire trip for £1,500 including board and lodgings, and enough beer and wine to make a party. I know that’s still £100 a day for you students, but this will change your life.
Can you come too ?
Yes of course you can, but unfortunately not with me. We had thought about turning this into some kind of mega party and getting hundreds to do it. If we drilled down the costs to under £1,500 we could potentially fill a whole train. I would have been prepared to throw myself at that but the problem is, with that many people, the love is going to crack somewhere along the line, probably round about Amsterdam. There’s only so much first class going, and me and my mates have bagged virtually all of that already. 1st class on night trains means showers. No showers on back to back sleeper trains means either feel crappy or have to muck about and lose time getting washed. So it’s already an us and them scenario. This trip, more than any other I have devised, is an act of expression. I don’t want this to become the Euro Hate Train.
It needs to be done as relatively tight groups of a dozen or so. This is just a plea for you to do something like this yourself before you regret not having the chance again, or wish you’d spoken out more at the time but couldn’t find a way to do so. I’ll even help you if you want advice. You need to get a group together, I’d say at least 4 of you, better 6+. Obviously if you are picnicking, the more the merrier, and as this is a mobile party it helps if you don’t have to look at the same person for 2 weeks solid. You don’t need a doctor or medical expert on this kind of expedition, but someone who knows their way around a continental food market and prepare a salad would come in handy.
We aren’t going till summer 2018. If you want to do this, most likely with your own mods, be my guest. If you want to run something like this yourself and charge an organizing fee (I don’t, it’s just for friends), please be my guest. If you are a travelling blogger and this has inspired you, please take the idea for yourself.
In recent years we have lost the whole of CityNightLine, DeutscheBahn’s sleeper train operation. Austria’s ÖBB still runs two sleeper services into Germany, and they are very nice ones, but that’s it. SNCF have pulled out of overnight operations completely, there is now just one Italian train down to Venice that you can sleep on. The low countries and Denmark have no sleeper services at all any more. Any of Oslo-Tromsø, Stockholm-Boden or Lisbon to Madrid and Hendaye would be grievous losses. Scandinavia will surely be keeping theirs, but Portugal-Spain/France is less safe. The East and South is even more concerning. In much of south-eastern Europe you are lucky if there are cross border services, let alone magic sleeper trains that whisk you off to a brand new international destination every morning. If you leave this another five years you could find there’s hardly anything left to sleep on outside a handful of ÖBB super trains and the two Arctic services in Norway and Sweden.
A more pressing issue is the rapidly deteriorating political situation. At the time of writing we are in the midst of the French election. The British meanwhile are having their third national vote in two years. We are threatening to break from our kindred nations in a manner far worse than most of us thought thinkable. No one could seriously expect us to have to get 23 visas to be able do this if we wait another two years. If the worst were to happen you just never know.
We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being a European as of belonging to their native land, and that without losing any of their love and loyalty of their birthplace.
We hope wherever they go in this wide domain, to which we set no limits in the European Continent, they will truly feel “Here I am at home. I am a citizen of this country too”.
Let us meet together. Let us work together. Let us do our utmost—all that is in us—for the good of all. How simple it would all be, how crowned with blessings for all of us if that could ever come, especially for the children and young men and women now growing up in this tortured world. How proud we should all be if we had played any useful part in bringing that great day to come.
If you’d like to share the love and let everyone on the mainland know that there are very many people in the UK who agree whole heartedly with Winston Churchill, love our collective culture and will always consider themselves intrinsically European at no cost whatsoever to their identity as English, Irish, Scots or Welshmen, then perhaps get yourself a T-shirt something like this, and maybe go for a continental train ride.
That’s my T shirt for the trip. If you want one just for the sake of it, be my guest, you can have the source docs, and the PDFs and I can even show you where I have had them made which should make it cheaper as the set-up charge is already paid, (you can get the front and back designs from C2O here and here) but use anyone you like including yourself.
I may do a second run with “twelve beers please” which might have more practical value, or perhaps “I love your train” which my straight laced English male friends might prefer.