From Krakow to Rome: the Tyrolean Way

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Oct 202017

By train through the Brenner Pass, and lots more!

Alan Heeks writes…

I suspect that most British train lovers, like me, mostly travel across Europe to and from London – radiating out from the Eurostar. Belatedly I’m realising that I’ve missed out on some great rail journeys that run across these radial routes from England.







The Brenner Pass

The Brenner Pass and Italian Tyrol are good example: I’ve wanted to see them for years, but they’re not on the way to anywhere from England. So I was excited recently when I realised I could go on from a steam train holiday in Poland to a pilgrimage in Italy. This blog covers the journey between the two: you can find other blogs about London to Krakow, and Steam Adventures in Poland and Slovakia, here…

By day, the journey between Krakow and Vienna is slow, and the landscapes pleasant but not exceptional. I saved time by using the Polish Railways sleeper, which was comfortable. From Vienna you can catch the impressive Railjet, OBB’s high-speed service. Instead of building a completely separate line, OBB have built a series of new high-speed stretches which connect back to the existing line for main stations. The only drawback is that much of the new lines is in tunnels or behind sound barriers, so you see less of the scenery.

To get into Italy via the Brenner Pass, you usually need to change trains in Innsbruck, and I recommend a couple of hours stopover here to saunter around the old town and take on refreshments. The town’s most famous landmark, the Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof) is less than 15 minutes’ walk from the station. From here, my train was a big EC intercity from Munich to Venice – another route you’d rarely take from England.

If you’re wondering why you’ve heard of the Brenner Pass, the answer is probably historical. This is the lowest North – South pass through the Alps at 1370 metres, and it’s been important at least since Roman times. More recently, it was vital in Austria-Hungary’s efforts to maintain its territory south of the Alps, and they built the first trans-Alpine railway through Brenner between 1860 and 1867.

Many rail fans are probably connoisseurs of mountain routes, and I’d rate the Brenner route highly. As soon as the train leaves Innsbruck, it’s climbing steeply up a narrow gorge, through a series of tunnels, with an Alpine torrent far below. What adds to the drama is the autobahn: first seen spanning the gorge on an amazingly high viaduct, several hundred feet above the railway.

The autobahn reappears, now running high up on the other side of the gorge on a series of viaducts. The train keeps climbing steeply till it’s level with the road, which then goes way higher again. This time, the railway forms a big horseshoe up a side valley to gain altitude.

The drama of the pass is helped by glimpses of snow-capped peaks far above, and because the summit is not a tunnel, it’s the bleak frontier station of Brenner, where several freight trains of lorry trailers await the line.







View from the train on The Brenner Pass

For Brenner/Brennero South, all the signage is in Italian and German: this is the Italian Tyrol, formerly the Sudtirol, probably Austria’s most painful territory loss (along with Trieste, her outlet to the sea).

The Tyrol region straddles the Alps, and for centuries has drawn cultural influences from the North and South. Like other regions of Europe (e.g. Galicia, now in southern Poland), Tyrol has lurched between eras of autonomy and frequent foreign domination. The Tyroleans fought hard for their independence, notably against Napoleon, whose armies they defeated twice through a mix of bravery, bluff, and man-made avalanches.

The main town in Sudtirol is Bozen/Bolzano, so delightful and interesting it gets its own blog. For many miles south from Bolzano, the train follows the River Isarco, which combines a wide flat valley full of vineyards with magnificent, high, semi-wooded cliffs on each side.

Beyond Trento, the train is on the plains around the River Po, and the landscape is nondescript as far as Bologna.

From here, the trains offer main interest. The high-speed Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) of Trenitalia is the rail equivalent of Alfa Romeo, in style, speed, and that luscious Italian racing red. Its private sector competitor, Italo, has chosen tasteful crimson lake, á la Midland Railway: it’s less expensive but less punctual.
Between Florence and Rome, you’ll get glimpses of fine countryside and distant wooded mountains, but less than you might hope, as much of the new high-speed track is in tunnels. However, Rome awaits, with its ruins, craft beers and gelato!

Practical tips
• It seems impossible to book tickets online with OBB (Austrian Railways) from outside Austria, I booked by phone with Deutsche Bahn in London, who are a good option for most European journeys.
• Through the Brenner Pass, the best views are mostly on the right side of the train.
• For trains in Italy, I find quite easy to use. On Frecciarossa, you can get good deals if you book well ahead, and it’s often little extra to upgrade above Standard Class.

Perfection on rails: The VSOE British Pullman

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Jan 292017

The re-creation of the British Pullman is a classic British story of eccentric, visionary wealth allied to traditional craftsmanship. James Sherwood rescued carriages from weird locations and states of disarray. Bob Dunn, whose grandfather made marquetry for the original cars, was one of a host of dedicated restorers.

Now, for a princely sum, you can get a princely ride on the British Pullman: most often, a day outing from London. On June 7, I treated my mother and me to a trip on this palatial train, on a re-run of one of the Classic Pullman trips: the Bournemouth Belle.



The interior of the Phoenix carriage

When I was born, my family lived in a rented flat in Wyndham Road, near Bournemouth Station. My mother has often told me how she’d lift me up at the kitchen window to see the Bournemouth Belle go by. Later, when I moved to Reading, we’d regularly find ourselves peering longingly into those fairytale Pullman cars from our second-class compartment at Southampton Central Station, on our way to see family in Bournemouth.

So when I was looking for a really special gift for a big birthday, the Bournemouth Belle was ideal. And everything about the trip was truly perfection on rails: the Pullman cars are works of art, down to the mosaics in the toilets; the food and drink were sumptuous; and the service was both friendly and impeccable.




Alan and his mother in front of the Phoenix carriage

Our itinerary included three hours of free time in Bournemouth, so we had a delightful nostalgia binge, revisiting Wyndham Road and other favourite spots from my childhood, and my mother’s.
The Pullman carriages are so special that you receive a colour booklet with a whole page on each one’s history. Ours was Phoenix, who started life in 1927 as Rainbow, and was destroyed by fire in 1936. She was rebuilt in 1952 and used on the Golden Arrow, carrying such celebrities as Sophia Loren and General de Gaulle.

This might be the trip of a lifetime for you, as it was for me: it’s totally worth taking!

PARIS – MILAN: the slow-fast train

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Jan 092017

I go to Italy by train every couple of years, as one of my best friends lives in Liguria. It’s a great train destination, as there are so many options, most of them scenic.

The fastest way by train is with the Paris – Venice Sleeper: this tips you out at Milan about 5am, which means you can get to much of Northern or Central Italy by 9am. Recently, we took daytime trains to Milan and realised how scenic the Paris – Milan route is.

A big factor in my train planning is how far you can get in a day, starting from Bridport: I’ve coined the term DJD’s (Day Journey Destinations) for this. A favourite DJD if travelling to Germany or further east is Aachen.

Heading to Italy, the 7am bus from Bridport to Dorchester meant we reached Paris Gare du Nord at 1547. Nipping briskly onto RER Line D, we caught a TGV from Gare de Lyon at 16.45.

TRAVEL TIP: if you book well in advance, First Class on TGV’s is quite cheap. We paid 35 euros each. You get huge comfy seats and more peace and quiet.

Centre ville, Chambery

Travelling to Italy, I can recommend Chambéry as a DPD. It’s a pretty, small cathedral city on the edge of the French Alps. The old town is car-free, with lots of beautiful old buildings and nice places to eat: we arrived in time for a late dinner.

TRAVEL TIP: The Hotel Ibis Styles is two minutes’ walk from the station, and for an extra few euros you can get a bedroom overlooking the railway!

The next morning, we joined at Chambéry one of the special Paris – Milan TGV’s, which run three times a day. They’re more spacious than most French TGV’s, and in First Class you get at-seat service for food and drink.

TRAVEL TIP: Book well in advance and you can get First Class seats cheaply. We paid £31 for the four-hour trip from Chambéry to Milan. Note that these trains terminate at Milan Porta Garibaldi, so leave time to get over to Milano Centrale where most onward trains depart from.

Climb to Modane, photo courtesy of SCF

As the train heads south-east from Chambéry, it’s climbing into the Alps, heading for the long tunnel near Modane which crosses into Italy. The railway follows river valleys which get narrow, tortuous, full of waterfalls. There are frequent small tunnels, with great views of the mountains between them.

The climb each side of the Modane Tunnel is really steep, and there are banking locomotives at Modane and on the Italian side at Bardonecchia. The descent into Italy is equally dramatic. At first the line is at the bottom of a narrow valley in a huge gorge, then the valley widens and drops dramatically, and the railway winds down the hills to catch up with it.

The train stops in Turin, which I can highly recommend as another stopover point. It’s an outstandingly elegant city, with a fresh semi-Alpine climate, and great ice cream (it’s the home of GROM, for starters).

Adventures around Dartmoor – with the Withered Arm

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Oct 042016

This blog is artfully designed to suit both general hikers or cyclists, and railway lovers. Just choose your section!

For hikers and cyclists
On summer weekends, you can do a great trip right around the edge of Dartmoor: the cycling/walking distance is around 24 miles, and the rest can be done by train. The key to this is a special train service between Exeter and Okehampton, which only runs on summer weekends.







Bere Alston Viaduct

From Okehampton, it’s worth taking a small heritage line, the Dartmoor Railway, another 3 miles west to the spectacular Meldon Viaduct. You are now on the Granite Way, a glorious off-road cycle trail on the former railway track, running downhill to Lydford. The route continues on minor roads through Tavistock, and beyond that, you can follow the Drake’s Trail, largely on another former railway line, down to Plymouth. For a shorter ride, head to Gunnislake, a few miles west of Tavistock, where you can pick up a train to Plymouth, and another train back to Exeter. I’d advise doing this route anticlockwise, as the trains will get you to the highest point of the route, around 950ft. It’s a great day out, and there are plenty of places for lunch and refreshments.

Railway lovers
The great railway races to Scotland are well known, but for a while there was fierce rivalry in the West Country between the GWR and the London and South Western Railway. The biggest revenue source was Plymouth: the GWR got there by going south of Dartmoor, with the famous but vulnerable coastal route, and steep gradients around Rattery.







Tavy Bridge

The LSWR had little choice but to go around Dartmoor to the north: their line ran through beautiful upland landscapes around Lydford, and later skirted the spectacular Tamar Estuary, with a couple of long viaducts.
The combination of intense rivalry between the railway companies, and tortuous topography, produced a railway network in Devon and Cornwall which was arcane and never commercially viable. The LSWR routes west of Exeter were nicknamed the Withered Arm because of their bizarre shape.

I recently followed the LSWR main line route from Exeter to Plymouth. The long stretch from Exeter to Okehampton currently has a passenger service only on summer Sundays, but it is hoped to extend this. Okehampton station has been beautifully restored by the Dartmoor Railway, and the station buffet is excellent. The trains they run are rather less so: mine consisted of a diesel shunter, one coach, and a guard’s van. However, the railway devotees like me got a great view standing in the open front of the guard’s van as we trundled up the line.








Meldon Viaduct

The Dartmoor Railway takes you up to Meldon, and Meldon Viaduct is truly spectacular. It is one of the very few remaining large metal viaducts in this country, as the others were swept away by Beeching. From here, the Granite Way enables you to follow the old track bed down to Lydford, and you can easily imagine Bulleid Pacifics charging up the gradients around gentle curves, pulling the Atlantic Coast Express.

West of Lydford, the track route is hard to follow exactly, but you can shadow it on footpaths and country lanes to Tavistock. From there, I recommend cycling to Gunnislake, which is now the end of the line from Plymouth. This line crosses the spectacular Calstock Viaduct, and rejoins the old LSWR main line at Bere Alston, so you get the views of the estuary and the viaducts as you travel down to the Plymouth. A couple of the stations on this section are well preserved, especially Bere Alston, which also has some old rolling stock.

From Plymouth, you can catch a mainline train back to Exeter, but if you have a bike, you should it reserve it in advance.

Do Sleeper Trains Resemble their Country’s Leader??

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May 102016

Insights from Europe’s Sleeper Trains

The Paris – Venice Treno Notte has advanced my insights into the special ways that so-called sleepers help me, and maybe other seekers for truth.

The France – Italy sleepers are now run by an outfit called thello. As the name already suggests, this is a new private venture, and guess what, it’s the same run-down carriages, with a thello badge stuck on them. You can probably imagine the gimmicky graphics on the website: I could put up with that, but the site doesn’t work. I had to book our tickets via The Trenitalia website, and all they had left were couchettes.








Meet the new coach, same as the old coach

A couchette is like sleeping on a lightly upholstered park bench, with a tiny cushion and a few rags for bedding, in a space the size of a walk-in closet, shared with several strangers, who may cough, snore or worse. It’s a very surreal situation. For example, how and when do you undress and put on your night clothes?

Not only do you get a rare chance to lie awake for hours in the middle of the night, you can also be inspired by a unique range of bumps, groans and rattles, intrusive lighting, airlessness, and noises from fellow-travellers.
Somewhere in the night, I found a useful comparison between sleeper trains and national leaders. The German Nachtzugs are like Angela Merkel: blandly modern, efficient, and they clearly know what’s best for you. Whereas the Treno Notte are like Berlusconi: ancient, a bit sleazy, erratic, but trying to look modern; blow hot and cold, dodgy sanitation, but somehow keeping a touch of Mediterranean style.

Those long hours gave me time to extend this model to UK sleepers and David Cameron: modern-looking, shiny, but doesn’t deliver on some of its promises, expensive, trying to be superior, liable to sudden delays and failures.
My couchette night on the Paris – Venice sleeper wasn’t great for sleep, but good for insights, and Venice remains one of the best railway destinations anywhere. You walk out of Santa Lucia station, and in front of you is medieval Venice: the Grand Canal, the palaces, the churches, the light, the colours…








The view on leaving Venezia Santa Lucia Station

Train Lovers: The London Underground as a spiritual map

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Jan 282016

It was in a lull on a retreat group recently that I realised I was musing on the spiritual significance of the Northern line at East Finchley.  This is where, after twenty-one miles of tunnel, the Tube emerges into daylight: much as a travailing soul find illumination after the long darkness…

This blog is intended to appeal to spiritual travellers and railway lovers, though it may deter both: give it a couple of paragraphs.  The Tube Network can show us a lot about aspects of our spiritual quest.

Take the Circle Line: going repeatedly round the same circuit, at shallow depth, is like our daily routines, which mindfulness urges us to notice and value, not just rattle through them.

The Central Line and Piccadilly Lines are rich in symbolism. The Heathrow loop reminds us how our deep journeyings can lead to high places, exotic destinations: but if we miss our stop, we head back round into the depths.  Whereas the Hainault loop offers an image of the segue from deep stuff into a rambling rural idyll, and back again.

Underground blog 2







The transition from deep dark to conscious light

Sometimes part of our psyche may become run-down, decrepit, in need of renewal.  The Docklands Light Railway shows how new routes can help such regeneration, and it doesn’t always need heavy excavation to achieve this.  Imagine your new initiatives prancing lightly across the skyline as new high-rises emerge from the grunge.

You’re doubtless familiar with the idea of neural pathways: how repeated thoughts or feelings create repeating patterns in our brain.  So imagine the famous Tube map as pathways in your brain: what rich complexity, with so many access points and interconnections; and it’s good to realise new routes can be created, and new connections like Crossrail or the Jubilee Line.  But the effort and upheaval can be major.

Underground blog







A new route means deep excavations …

I have a soft spot for the Metropolitan Line, helped by John Betjeman’s ode to it. In this exploration, it shows how a starting point deep in the centre can be linked to far-flung, rural outposts of our psyche, like Chesham and Chalfont. It also reminds us how our spiritual travels can be in style: there used to be restaurant cars on this line!

It’s fascinating to me that there are whole stretches of tunnel, and stations like Aldwych, now disused.  Surely there are echoes here, of the neglected backways of our psyche?

If I lived in London, I might hate the Tube, or take it for granted… As a visitor, I love the speed and ease.  And as a map of the spiritual life, it’s exciting to realise how many connections, and possibilities are within easy reach, and how accessible and useful the deep places can be.