I was recently sent a copy of the latest (15th) edition of the book Europe by Rail – The Definitive Guide, by its Berlin-based authors Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries (who are also the lovely people behind hidden europe magazine, to which I have been a regular contributor since 2007).
It’s a wonderful book – I love the idea of arranging a travel guide around rail journeys, rather than rail journeys merely being included as a means of getting from A to B (or as the authors put it, it’s a guidebook with an emphasis on journeys rather than destinations). Over its 512 pages, it includes some 50 rail routes, which between them do an impressive job of covering the wealth of landscapes, cities, cultures and languages this continent has to offer, from the Bay of Biscay to the Baltic, and from the Balkans to the Arctic Circle. The routes are preceded by a 48 page introduction which carries sections on night trains, rail passes, how to get the best deals on tickets and other useful information, along with plenty of inspiring colour photos.
As you’d expect from the people behind hidden europe, it’s very readable, with a more literary style than you’d generally expect from most guidebooks, and an emphasis on slow travel. And it’s not too large, fitting easily within my camera bag (a fairly standard indication of whether something is likely to accompany me on my travels). That’s not to say the routes are short on facts either – along with tips on what to see along the route, each is accompanied by journey times, distances, train frequencies (cross-referenced to the relevant sections of the European Rail Timetable), suggested stop-overs, connections and other details (including some suggestions for hotels, and the locations of tourist offices), together with a handy sketch map.
Europe by Rail began life around 20 years (and more than 100,000 copies) ago, and over successive editions has been transformed from a book about 60 European cities (presented with a healthy serving of information on rail travel), into a book about the rail journeys themselves, a form it first took with the 14th edition. This new, 15th edition builds further on this, with more routes added, improved sketch maps, and thoroughly updated timetable information.
Within the card covers are maps of Europe showing the location of the routes. With one of these open, I closed my eyes and took a blind prod at the map with my right index finger. It landed somewhere near Prague, on Route 22 – a rail journey stretching from Hamburg to Budapest. Having been on at least one leg of that journey earlier this year – taking the S-Bahn east from Dresden along the Elbe to Kurort Rathen, followed by a short ferry crossing and a hike up into the other-worldly rock formations of Saxon Switzerland National Park – this brought a smile to my face. Turning to the corresponding page of Route 22, I found the sensible advice to 1) sit on the left when travelling south (the views of the sandstone formations are on that side) and 2) take the slow train, allowing for a stop-off to visit the national park, and mentioning the ferry.
The information given on a suggested stop-over is always interesting and goes well beyond the standard blurb of tourist brochures. Looking up another journey (45, from Zagreb to Thessaloniki) for example, I turned to the pages on Zagreb, a city I know rather well having lived there. Sure enough, what greeted me was not a paragraph with its number of inhabitants or a dose of hyperbole, but a paragraph about Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža and one of his essays on Zagreb. More familiar and practical information on the city is cross-referenced to another journey (44).
As the authors state in the introduction (I paraphrase a little), it is the job of a decent guidebook to inform and inspire. Europe by Rail does both in spades.
You can find information about where you can order a copy of Europe by Rail – The Definitive Guide here.