Today’s rail journeys seem rather sterile in comparison, with once mysterious routes so well trodden there is little left to say about them. But there are exceptions. There still exist some sleeper trains that manage to convey the sheer romance and glamour of embarking on a great journey across a continent full of possibilities.
We outline four such journeys that anyone seeking adventure really should put on their bucket list.
1. The Trans-Siberian Railway
No compilation of great train routes is complete without this iconic journey. The Trans-Siberian Railway traverses eight time zones, connecting Moscow with Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast. Connecting lines branch off into Mongolia, China and even the Hermit State - North Korea. At 9,289 kilometres long, the Trans-Siberian is the longest railway in the world. On board the train, an eclectic mix of passengers rub shoulders for the long journey, drinking vodka and staring out onto the bleak Steppe. Some hardy souls like to do the whole journey in one go - this takes seven days. Travellers survive on vodka, the dining cart fare and vendors selling food and drink at each platform. You can book a private car for a little extra comfort or hop off and explore the cities long the way. Citybreak in Vladivostok, anyone?
2. The Danube Express - Budapest to Istanbul
Classic elegance and modern convenience on one of the most fascinating European train routes in history. What’s not to like? The Danube Express - which boasts the most lavish sleeper cars on the continent - begins in Budapest and traverses rural Hungary and the heart of Transylvania (yes, you can stop at Dracula’s castle) and ends in Istanbul, in its final leg travelling along the Bosphorus, allowing passengers to watch one of the world’s most spectacular skylines unfold before their eyes, with Topkapi Palace as its focal point. The duration is eight days, which includes stays in Budapest and Istanbul. Cars are decked out with everything from heated towel rails (in en suite bathrooms, natch) to dimming lights. Included in the fare are three-course meals in the dining car - accompanied by as much Hungarian wine as you like. You can dine alone or with others. It’s a convivial atmosphere and you might find you make a few new friends on the journey. After dinner, when you return to your car, you will find it has been converted into a cosy sleeping area. No bunks here even with the most basic fare - all lower beds. And boy are they comfy.
3. The Orient Express - Istanbul to Venice
The very name of this train conjures up Eastern mystery and dark, handsome strangers - and murder (the fictional kind). This venerable route was once associated with all the magic and mystique of Istanbul, which was considered the gateway to the east. The legendary train service no longer exists, but a private company, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, has refurbished some of the old carriages and now runs a service that pleasantly echoes that most famous of train. Passengers sleep, dine and drink expensive bubbly in beautifully restored vintage 1930s art deco carriages, waited on by uniformed stewards. The Venice to Istanbul route connects two of the most beautiful northern hemisphere cities with a two night stop in either Budapest or Vienna. Suites are composed of two connecting cabins. Guests can lounge on banquette sofas in their private dining room before retiring to sumptuous beds in the sleeping quarters. The passenger train enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the mid 70s with a film adaption of Agatha Christie's 1934 murder mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express. The film's star spangled cast - including Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman and John Gielgud - was a box office smash and prompted a surge of bookings for the train.
4. The Royal Scotsman, Edinburgh - The Scottish Highlands
Scotland’s luxury train offers 2-7 night tours of the Scottish Highlands. The aim is to create the rail equivalent of a Scottish five-star country house hotel, and they do a pretty good job, with cabins decked out with polished wood and brass and decorated with tartan, marquetry walls and antique fittings. Only 36 passengers are allowed, and with a passenger-staff ratio of 3:1 you really are getting exclusive treatment. The (substantial) price includes amazing food, wine and service as well as some carefully chosen off-board excursions such as distilleries, clay pigeon shooting and, of course, castles. In between, take in the stunning and mountainous scenery of the Scottish Highlands as you wind in and out of pretty coastal towns and along mountain ranges.
5. El Transcantabrico - Northern Spain
This elegant blue and white luxury train traverses Northern Spain, from either Santiago de Compostela to Leon, or the other way around. The magical landscape of northern Spain waits, from the rich lands of Castile to the Bay of Biscay. Inside, luxurious suites are decked out with wooden veneers and sumptuous upholstery, creating a five-star hotel atmosphere that is both elegant and relaxing. A luxury coach takes passengers to and from destinations along the way, including top restaurants, art galleries, monuments and striking landscapes. The train has six sleepers, each with four double en suite compartments. A new service introduced a couple of years ago now allows passengers to book Preferente Suites, which take up half a train car each. These suites are 129 square feet and have a private lounge area as well as a flat screen television, computer and lots of luxurious touches.
As well as being romantic, long-distance train travel is also practical. Sleeper trains allow you to cover many miles while you sleep, allowing you to bound out of bed relaxed and ready for a day’s sightseeing. Combining sleeping with travelling also allows you to save on expensive hotels, and there’s no need to lug your belongings around with you.
Many travellers believe there is no better way to see the world than from the window of a train. And, as Paul Theroux wrote, you never know what to expect on a train journey: “Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night's sleep, and strangers' monologues framed like Russian short stories.”
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