During lockdown we spent a lot of time browsing the Man in Seat 61’s website, dreaming about the travels we might do in the future once the world opened up again.
Planning is part of the joy of travel, and we dreamt up many wild, long trips we could envisage doing by train. Flight-free adventures now seemed not only possible but even more exciting than flying in and out of a country in a quick weekend.
With city and culture and nature a must for our first big European train trip, we settled on Slovenia, inspired by the Rewilding Europe projects, and captivated by how green and nature-friendly Slovenia is with its pristine forests and spectacular landscapes. To leave work in Wigan on a Friday and be in Ljubljana 36 hours later seemed magical. Being able to get a train to London Euston in two hours, then stay overnight at Kings Cross ready for an early-morning Eurostar definitely makes planning flight free adventures a lot easier!
The Eurostar brings back some of the excitement of travel compared to airports and it's a great way to arrive on the continent. You get a nice cup of coffee, flick through the interesting magazine and watch the British scenery disappear to be replaced on the other side of the Channel with the sight of northern France. That moment when the train comes out of the tunnel is always exciting.
The Eurostar brings back some of the excitement of travel compared to airports and it's a great way to arrive on the continent.
We had allowed an hour and a half to cross Paris, and took the advice of the Man in Seat 61 to buy our tickets for the Metro from the Eurostar’s on-board café. This came in very handy as we negotiated the connection with time to spare and bypassed some very long queues for the ticket machines at Gare du Nord.
The next leg of our journey took us through the beautiful hills and woods of Alsace, an area with a distinct combination of French and German culture. We read, relaxed and took in the views as our train headed for the Swiss border.
The scenery in Switzerland was every bit as stunning as we had hoped, and we had a few hours in Zurich to look around the beautiful and compact city, have a pre-dinner drink at a lakeside bar and tuck into delicious, homely German food at a traditional bierhalle. Zurich was a real gem, and one we would never have found if we had simply flown to Slovenia.
Zurich was a real gem, and one we would never have found if we had simply flown to Slovenia.
Then it was back to the station for the biggest adventure of the trip: a night on a sleeper train. We shared a six-berth couchette and were soon chatting over miniature bottles of red wine from the supermarket (we definitely recommend this!) with our new travelling companions: two other young couples of similar ages to us, one from Switzerland and one from the Netherlands.
We quickly found we had lots in common, including why we were all on an overnight train rather than flying to our destinations. In fact we got on so well with the other couple who got off in Ljubljana that we all went for an early morning coffee while we waited to pick up our rental vehicles.
The sleeper train had been excellent: an enjoyable evening and a pleasantly good night’s sleep, considering six adults were packed into a room not much bigger than a double bed. In the morning we emerged into the corridor to take in the views. There was Slovenia, all dramatic mountain peaks with their slopes clad in thick forest, with the early-morning mist adding to the picture.
We spent six days in Slovenia in total: three days in the countryside, enjoying the caves, bird watching and walking, then three days in the small but fascinating capital city of Ljubljana taking in its museums, castle and riverside café and bar culture. It was great to see plenty of environmental measures too, with a huge pedestrianised zone in the city centre, and plenty of public fountains to encourage people to cut down on plastic use.
The end of our Slovenia trip was not the end of our holiday by a long way. The bonus of travelling overland is that you can add destinations on the way, so our return journey would take us to Trieste, Venice and Milan, culminating with a lunch in Paris.
The bonus of travelling overland is that you can add destinations on the way.
Trieste is a delightful seaside city tucked into the north coast of Italy. We chose to travel from there from Ljubljana by Flixbus, because the timings worked out better than the train, and it was also a bit quicker. The bus wound through the beautiful Slovenian mountain scenery to Trieste, where, intriguingly, a canoe polo tournament was taking place on the grand canal.
We spent a whole day in Trieste before getting the evening bus to Venice. Excitement built as our Flixbus drove along the coast road, with stunning scenes of the sun setting over the Adriatic sea. We arrived in the famous city on the lagoon at 9.30pm. Walking into Venice at night was truly magical, with the lights twinkling and their reflections glittering on the canals, the streets and bars bustling, and the water lapping at the Ponte degli Scalzi bridge.
Travelling by train gives you a different insight into the places you go. As well as the world-famous sights of Venice – the stunning history and art in its churches, museums and landmarks like St Mark’s Square – we also noticed how a city built on water has to cope without cars, how the emergency services and everyday tasks are carried out by boat, and how final-mile journeys are done by strong Venetians hustling small, wheeled carts along the paths and alleys. Cities – including Manchester, near where we live – are debating life with less car dependence, often quite acrimoniously, yet in places like Venice, people have been dealing with these issues and getting on with them for centuries.
After three days in Venice we had one last stop in Italy: an overnight stay in Milan. Our trip finished with a marathon travel day that saw us leave Milan at 6.20am and arrive home just before midnight. Sixteen hours on trains did initially seem quite daunting, but in the end it was a pretty relaxed experience.
Sixteen hours on trains did initially seem quite daunting, but in the end it was a pretty relaxed experience.
The first train took us all the way from Milan to Paris, carving through the beautiful Alpine scenery and running alongside the blue waters of the lake at Aix-les-Bains. In Paris there was time to find a small bistro for lunch, then it was back onto the Eurostar, arriving in London in the early evening.
Our third and final train home was not until 9.30pm – we had specifically planned it so there would be enough time should there be any delays, but also with enough time to eat between trains – and we finally went to bed slightly dazed, not only that the whole trip had gone without a hitch, but that we had woken up in northern Italy that same day.