Fred said “Book Early!”, and who’d want to argue with that face.

Fred gives the GCERC the thumbs up
click for closer view

Alas, calling up a commission based travel operative and asking for a quote will get a standard “come back in 3 months, we cant book summer 2012 yet”. When I tell them it’s 2013!, not 2012, they don’t even bother replying. I’ve been toiling through the bible on all these matters, our Man in Seat 61, and we’re looking at at least 4 operators, one for Scandinavia (either the Swedish or the Norwegians), one for lower Balkans (a bloke in Turkey), one for Swiss (the Swiss), one for Trenhotel, and then one of them to do everything else, or yet another one. With potentially £30,000 worth of business to offer you’d like to think it wouldn’t be this hard, but I guess everyone isn’t looking much further than next month’s renumeration in the current climate.

Mission Creep
We’ve noticed that the trains to Syracuse and back have vanished from the timetable. Seat61 thinks it’s just TrenItalia being behind on their IT, but it caused me to look more closely at Berlin and Prague. With the extra day we’d get back from turning back at Rome, I’ve worked out that we can hit Berlin at 11 pm, have a night on the tiles and then dump ourselves on a sleeper at 04:30 to Warsaw and get 6 hours kip on that. We can then get back down to Prague in time for a good sample of my all time favourite lager in Velkopopovicky,  and do the oblig photo shoot in Wenceslas Square, then catch a midnight sleeper to Vienna, and actually have more flexibility to handle the suspicious Bucharest connection. If the Sicily train re-appears we’ve now a tough call to make. We now have a train journey that only Europe, home of the railway, could possibly offer. 22 countries, 21 capitals, only 2 of which you don’t get to sit in a bar and raise a glass to, plus Istanbul, Venice, Sicily, Barcelona, the Arctic Circle and the Bernina, clocking up close on 20,000 km, is now looking at leave Friday 11 am, get back 2 weeks on Sunday at 9:30pm.

STOP PRESS: I’ve just realised the new early arrival in Vienna means we can do Bratislava, so make that 23 countries, 22 capitals (+Istanbul), etc etc. the route is now officially over 20,000km, or 12 ½ thousand miles.

Why Why Why Bernina ?
The whole of the trip is on standard gauge, with one exception. Instead of diving into the Simplon tunnel and bee-lining for Geneva,  I’ve insisted on twisting the agenda so that we do this particular route amongst so many of Switzerland’s mind boggling examples of narrow gauge railway engineering. The original reason was that it doesn’t cost any time. If you are in northern Italy come lunch time and heading west then you will end up on the same train as we get to Barca, or spending the wee hours on a railway platform. But this train really is a world beater and deserves including in any itinerary.
For some reason, when you surf for “greatest railway journeys” the Bernina Express rarely seems to make it onto people’s top 10, the Glacier Express usually gets the nod over it for a Swiss contribution. Well, I’ve done both,  and jaw dropping  though the Glacier’ is, the Bernina’ beats it hands down in my opinion. It actually runs higher than the Oberalp that the Glacier Express traverses, indeed it’s higher than Ghum, the highest point on Indian trains. The view of the glaciers at the top of Bernina are perhaps the best you will get from any train window, anywhere. But for me it’s the second section, between St. Moritz and the Rhine valley at Chur, that really takes the biscuit. The snippet of map that Mr Pontin is pontin at gives you an idea. there are 4 full 360° corkscrews on the route, add that to the Brusio circular viaduct, and seemingly endless stuff like this

and you have a journey that is guaranteed to satisfy even the most ardent railway sceptic.  The whole route is actually a UN world heritage site. Sometimes that doesnt seem to count for what it should, but every inch of this railway is worth the title.

The Jungfraujoch also usually gets a mention, and that is undoubtedly the most ridiculous piece of railway engineering of the 19th century. If you’ve got a few more days more and really want to do the ultimate-ultimate trip, then work that one in, and the Semmering Railway in Austria which I would have done if I could have sneaked it in without anyone noticing, and you’ll take some beating.

Comparisons with the Trans-Siberian
As you all know, I’ve got a complex about not being a real globe-trotting railway fan cos I’ve never done the Trans-Sib. So here are some comparison figures, to go with the 21 capital cities, heaps of world heritage sites (we drive through at least 6), and 360° of Europe’s spectacular culture.

Moscow-Vladivostok GCERC
Number of trains 1 42, plus 2 buses, several boats, and a few necessary trams, and a few more 
Mileage 5785 11250 (aprox)
Duration 6 days 15 days + 10 hours
Average Speed 40mph 53mph (30mph inc stop offs) I was expecting much higher than that though sleepers do tend to dawdle about
Cost £708 (plus extras) £1,500 (all in)
Cost per day £118 £91

I know which one I’d rather do.