Meander round Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium: part 2

Jennie, Ian and the team at are promoting train travel stories to make it easier to travel by train. If you would like to donate or contribute a story to our train travel promotion mission, please DM us on Twitter.

In the meantime, enjoy the second part of Helen’s adventures through Europe. Part one is here.

Where’s this beautiful beach? Keep reading to find out!

After a quick visit to Barcelona, next on the itinerary was Torralba de Ribota, a little village near Calatayud, and the site of the Saltamontes festival. We decided to try our luck with BlaBlaCar, and despite a few communication challenges (turns out that listening to voice notes in fast Spanish with Barcelona bustle in the background is a lot harder than listening to TED talks) it was generally a good experience and an easy way to reach Calatayud.

The festival was an intense experience: staying with a group of volunteers in a shared dorm in the village council’s hostel, cooking together and turning a warehouse full of random stuff into something resembling a festival site. Even with a siesta to escape the heat during the day, it was HOT – pushing into the 40s most days (which is apparently not normal for summer there). The festival itself was fabulous, with a mix of music, theatre, circus, art made as part of local projects, rural produce displays and more.

After the festival, another episode of “Holy c***, the climate” struck. We had been seeing in the news that wildfires were sweeping much of Europe, including Spain. Suddenly, we were brought face-to-face with the reality when one came to a village about 20 km away. 

Celebrating the festival and ignoring the wildfire smoke clouds in Torralba de Riboto

The air was thick with smoke and an ominous grey-yellow colour. When it got dark, we could see a red glow behind the hill. All the volunteers were scared. We sat it out waiting to hear if Torralba de Ribota, like neighbouring villages, would be evacuated. Luckily the fire didn’t reach us, but it was sobering hearing villagers talking about friends who had lost everything. We were told the Red Cross were sending a team to help, and they needed the hostel we were staying in. It was time to move on again.

We decided to visit some long-lost family near Bordeaux. A bit of playing on Google Maps later, we plotted a route via Zaragoza and Pamplona. I had never really heard anything about Zaragoza, but it turned out to be beautiful. It was just a short regional train ride from Calatayud through spectacular arid, hilly countryside that has apparently stood in for the Wild West in spaghetti westerns. Definitely on my ‘explore further, preferably when less hot’ list. 

 Spaghetti Western landscapes from the train window in Aragon

Booking one of the cheapest hotels on, we somehow got a nice room with a view right over the spectacular Basílica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar. We spent an evening hanging out eating yummy tapas and drinking vermouth at the amazing Bar Gallizo owned by Pedro, who had been helping at the Saltamontes festival.

Zaragoza train station is a masterpiece in confusion. Boasting loads of ticket machines, none of which would let us buy the tickets we needed, it then followed up with a really long queue to actually speak to someone by which time we’d missed the train we wanted to get. The train to Pamplona itself was lovely though, and we spent a couple of days enjoying the views and architecture, and not being there when scary bulls are running through the streets.

A nice static statue of the running of the bulls in Pamplona- way less scary than the real thing

Spain to France

We were back on the coach for the next step of the journey as it was much cheaper than the train – Flixbus to San Sebastian, time for a quick lunch and looking at the river and then on to another bus to Bordeaux. We spent a fun few days hanging out with distant cousins in the gorgeous wine region (blessedly not hit by the wildfires that struck Gironde, about 50 km south), wondering why I hadn’t made the effort to visit since I was about seven and catching up on 35 years of gossip.

After sad farewells, we got the OuiGo to Paris – the not-quite-the-fastest train still only took 2 hours 40 minutes and was way cheaper. Then navigating the Paris Metro while Tom listened to a webinar, another train to Lille, cake in a café overlooking the Saint Maurice Church, then on to a coach to Rotterdam and a train to Utrecht

I felt I outsmarted the online travel platforms here: the combination of train to Lille then coach trimmed hours from the coach-only journey but was way less expensive than getting the train all the way.

The Netherlands and Belgium

The Netherlands has never been high on my travel radar, but we met a lot of lovely Dutch people in Malawi and were keen to visit them. We actually enjoyed the Netherlands way more than we expected. The canals (particularly in Utrecht, with lots of bars and restaurants right by the water), the amazing beaches outside the Hague, and cool arts (an explicit performance about vaginas at a theatre festival did a great job at confirming stereotypes I had about the difference between British and Dutch cultural norms) were particular highlights.

Our last destination was Brussels – an easy coach from Rotterdam. (We could have got the train but we were feeling cheap.) I feel Brussels gets a bit of a boring bureaucratic image in the UK, but that is only one very small side of the city. Having a friend who’s lived there nearly 20 years to show us around obviously helped, and the vibe we got was great outdoor music gigs, fascinating architecture (even after visiting all those European cities, the Grand-Place still stands out), street art, and almost Italian-level gelato. Oh, and beer and chocolate, of course.

We stumped up for the Eurostar back to London, as from Brussels it is way quicker than the coach. After some intense queues at the station, the ride itself was great, watching the sunset while sipping Belgian beer – and it’s amazing how quickly and easily you can be back in the UK.

Some general thoughts and travel tips

Travelling overground was a great experience. We saw so many places we wouldn’t have visited otherwise, and got a little bit more feel for the countries we were visiting as they passed by the window. It gave us loads of ideas of places we’d love to go back and spend more time.

Yep, they are less glamorous, but coaches are worth looking at for at least part of long trips, especially if you aren’t organised enough to book trains way in advance. Not my area of expertise but from the searching I did, they seem comparable carbon-wise to trains.

The Trainline is pretty good for researching and booking trains and coaches across Europe. I don’t know if it manages to get all the offers, but when I checked it didn’t seem more expensive and it saves loads of time compared to trying to navigate loads of different transport company sites in different languages. I think there’s a gap in the market for an app that helps plot multi-day routes with suggested stopovers, though.

With some research, travelling overland doesn’t need to be crazy expensive and considering the way climate change is escalating, it urgently needs to become more normal than flying. The heatwaves, fires and droughts in Europe this summer brought this home, though obviously the impact on people in East Africa and Pakistan this year is infinitely worse (and hitting people with some of the lowest carbon footprints). Changing travel habits will need structural change though. I had a sneaky look at flight prices for some routes and there were options that were way cheaper, particularly factoring in accommodation etc. This isn’t just a coincidence – it’s because flying is under-taxed and over-subsidised, despite all the talk about moving to net-zero. 

We do need a movement to change the system and make travelling overground cheaper and easier than flying. But don’t let that stop you getting out and travelling by train and coach now – we had an amazing trip and are really excited to hear about other people’s adventures!

Many thanks to Helen for this great article.

Would you like to read more travel stories? Why not try the first part of Helen’s great adventures around Europe? Or Matthew’s trip from Barcelona to Paris?

Barcelona to Paris in search of Wilfred The Hairy

Jennie, Ian and the team at are promoting train travel stories in order to make it easier to travel by train. If you would like to donate or contribute a story to our train travel promotion mission, please DM us on Twitter. In the meantime, enjoy this great article by Matthew.

In autumn 2021 and 2022, work and family commitments led me to repeatedly criss-cross the Pyrenees from Berlin, Strasbourg or Brussels to Spain. I chose the train, using either TGV cross-country via Lyon, or night trains from Paris. Our family group of adults and teens went by rail from Barcelona for a short break in the volcanic landscape near Ripoll, then on to Ribes de Freser and the Núria rack railway, and then finally home to Berlin the slow way, meandering through the Pyrenees, and picking up the couchette train from Latour de Carol to Paris.

Most visitors to out-of-the-way Spanish regions use cars (and planes if coming from abroad), but this is one area where the journey is definitely part of the prize. The central Pyrenees route rivals Switzerland for scenery, and beats it on price, but the practicalities of travel are not always as straightforward. Here’s our story of hikes in the wilderness, Romanesque Churches, and good-value gourmet food- helped by being a little train-savvy.

Hiking in La Garrotxa Volcanic National Park near Ripoll

The engineering and rolling stock are world-class. It’s an electrified single-track line with numerous passing loops, village stations serving local communities. It’s a mountainous zig-zag through extraordinary feats of construction, from precipitous gorge to viaduct to tunnel and back again, with picture windows. There’s also a rack-railway to a hilltop resort. But the timetable requires a bit of background knowledge and forward planning.

4 times a day, a train leaves L’Hospitalet de Llobregat terminal platforms for Latour de Carol. (Several others go almost as far as the border, see timetable here: It picks up passengers in the subterranean stations of central Barcelona. The train category is Rodalies, the Catalan equivalent of the Cercanías found elsewhere in Spain, used to denote local stopping trains with a separate ticketing system from regional, “medium-distance” or high-speed. (RENFE isn’t so much a rail network as an intersecting set of fiefdoms, each denying knowledge of the others’ existence). To see this 166 km international route in context, you need a copy of the European Rail Timetable:

When is a Rodalies not a Rodalies?

The Rodalies vending machine at the suburban station where we board our connection doesn’t serve such exotic Pyrenean destinations, so I queue for the counter, where I am sent back to struggle with a different machine. The train has no reserved seats or refreshments, but in defiance of its ticketing category it is otherwise pretty well-equipped for the €12 3-hour ride, with toilets and luggage racks. It’s far from a commuter sardine-can.

But first, you have to find it. The incoming train is late into L’Hospitalet (this is Catalonia’s least reliable route, as even the heavily-used section as far as Vic is single-track). Rather than displaying an estimated delay, the information screens erase the service completely every few minutes, as though they are programmed to mentally cleanse themselves of trains which are supposed to have already left. Each time, this entails a panicky run to the barriers (which we cannot exit without forfeiting our tickets) to shout over to the station manager for an update. There is charm amid the chaos – we find a traditional line-side café with outside tables, serving good-value tostadas and coffee. While stocking up on sandwiches and water for the journey, we discover that among the friendly and chatty patrons is our driver, so all is well. 

We proceed after him down the long platform to the “front train”, which slips in and reverses out of the platform almost unnoticed since the majority of passengers board in Sants and Plaça Catalunya. We stow our luggage and get nice window seats in the empty carriage. One of our party boards en route at a smaller, more central station, where there is no confusion over platforms – though they did have to spend their delay minutes in the rabbit warren, wondering which train in the endless commuter procession would be displaying our unusual destination.

Dawn in La Garrotxa 

2 hours from Barcelona is Ripoll, the mediaeval home of Catalan Braveheart Guifré el Pilós (Wilfred The Hairy) who both founded the monastery and repopulated the region. Way too busy to shave. 

From the adjacent bus station we head towards Sant Joan Abadesses and the heart of La Garrotxa, where we explore dry-stone villages, waterfalls, and the remnants of fortifications from when this was the 9th century battleground of Christian and Muslim empires. 

Bus times here:

Roman bridge near Ripoll

14 km further north by train is Ribes de Freser, a stunning town at the confluence of 3 rivers. The Barcelona train stops down in the valley, from where it is a 15-minute walk uphill to the centre. Being both luggage-laden and rail enthusiasts, we make this short hop on the rack railway. This 90-year-old mountain train departs from a shed on the main line platform, called “Enllaç” (or “Connection”). There is often half an hour or more between the two trains though, so “Connection” is a bit of an optimistic name. We cause great confusion by trying to buy a ticket to the first stop on the line, rather than the full tourist package. It’s a shame to see a scenic line with such potential not fully exploiting its ability to get people from A to B. 

You can check train times and prices here. Ribes-Vila station is in the heart of the village:  

On the way up, the main line train arrives exactly the right number of minutes late for us to hop straight on board. On our way back down, we make a virtue out of a necessity, and build in a lunch stop at Bar Gusi opposite. They serve salads and plats combinats featuring croquettes, lamb, and calamari. It’s good-value family fare, which would probably be considered retro chic in Barcelona (and cost twice as much).

Ribes de Freser

We start by exploring the railway museum on the platform (with its Swiss-built locos!) which is included in the train fare, and then walk across the square to our charming hostal, the Porta de Núria. It’s a delight to meander down the narrow streets and riverbank footpaths, clambering up rocks to the viewpoints, and sampling the delicious sourdough from Robiró, a traditional Catalan baker’s.

There are widespread and prominent separatist symbols in the region, and one river bridge is bedecked with yellow ribbons. Spanish is widely spoken, but a little Catalan goes a long way. 

For dinner, we try Restaurant Els Caçadors, with its slow food, local mushrooms, seafood, mountain stews and roasts, as well as vegan options. Every evening we explore the backstreets, and vow to try something new, but somehow our steps take us back around that corner, and by 9 o’clock we have again fallen prey to the Hunters. 

Viewpoint above Ribes

The valley rises to the summit ski resort at 2000 metres. There is no road access, so if you miss the last train back, it’s a long, lonely walk down a mule track back into Spain, or onwards into France, watching out for brown bears and Hairy Wilfreds. 

Rack railway to Núria

The budding naturalists in our party show up their parents on this walk. Amazingly, they don’t even need a phone signal to come out with extraordinary facts that we later have to humbly accept.

“Look – a chamois!”

“Is it? I’ve never seen one, but I’ve heard of chamois leather.”

“No, that’s from a goat, rupicapra rupicapra. This is rupicapra pyrenaica.”

“Ah yes, of course.” I like to think I sound wise when translating Latin: “The Pyrenean mountain goat.”

“No, it’s an antelope. A goat-antelope.”


“And see down by the stream, there? That’s a marmot.”

“Aren’t they extinct?”

“Yes, they all froze to death here about 12,000 years ago.”

“I see, so…?”

“French hunters reintroduced some after the war because they wanted to hunt chamois and the eagles were eating them all.” 

“Oh. Erm, did you know the groundhog is also called “marmota” in Spanish?”

“Ye-eah. You’ve told us that before!”

Skirting the reservoir, the return train departs from Núria ski resort and sanctuary (former prison)

View from Núria sanctuary

Hiking around the summit, there are many well-signed routes with timings

Not the end of the line

All too soon, it’s time to travel the final 30 km up through beautiful Toses (which hasn’t seen the need to change its name post-Covid despite being Spanish for “you cough”) to the French border. Note the Catalan name La Tor de Querol-Enveig. If you’re checking an index, it’s filed under “T” in Spain, “L” in France!

Here the wide Iberian-gauge tracks meet both the European standard gauge from France (which extends rustily as far as Puigcerdà) and the 1-metre narrow-gauge branch line to Villefranche, connecting for Perpignan. This “Petit Train Jaune” (or “Tren Groc”), colourfully inspired by the Catalan flag, is a tourist and local-need service run in all weathers by SNCF, though there are only a couple of round trips per day, and on our October afternoon visit it was rarer than the mountain goat:

An early-evening couchette all the way to Paris starts from €35 (or you can reserve a private compartment) – all the practical details are here:

Leave, or go to Spain? So many options.

The night train gives you the French half of the dramatic scenery, and you can open the window and savour the landscape, even after dark, in a way you never could by any other means. Someone else does the driving, you stop in the villages, go through as well as over the earth, and can lounge on your bed too. It’s worth remembering the train has no dining car, and the washing facilities are basic. Bring your own picnic, and extra water. 

Next morning I decide not to risk a wet shave with a razor as we rock & roll through the Paris suburbs, but after all, what was the point of the journey? We’ve spent days in a 65-million-year-old mountain chain of orchids, eagles, bearded vultures and brown bears in search of defrosted marmots and Wilfred The Hairy. (Don’t tell anyone what I just saw in the train mirror!)

Matthew Perret

Many thanks Matthew for this great article.
Follow his often quirky remarks on life on twitter.

Would you like to read more travel stories? Why not try Helen’s great adventures around Europe in the Summer of 2022.

Meander round Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium: part 1

Hi from Jennie, Ian and the 196Destinations team. Helen is writing about her great train travel adventure this summer. We thank you for reading, and hope it inspires your own travels.

Over to Helen for this great story.

During 7 weeks of summer 2022 I travelled overground to: 

London- Paris- Milan- Berici Hills in Italy- Milan- Genoa- Marseille- Barcelona- Torralba de Ribota – Zaragoza – Pamplona – Bordeaux – Paris – Lille – Utrecht – The Hague – Brussels – London.

A bit of background: my husband, Tom, and I had just got back to the UK after 10 years living in Malawi, Southern Africa. During that time we came back to the UK for wonderful-but-hectic whistle stop tours round family and friends, but hadn’t been to continental Europe for a decade. I’d just handed over my also wonderful-but-hectic job as director of a small arts for social change NGO and was feeling ready for a proper break before figuring out next life steps. 

An amazing invitation from a friend to visit her family’s house in the Berici Hills south of Vicenza in Italy was too perfect to turn down, and from there we winged it.

 Living in Malawi, where most people are subsistence farmers with a tiny carbon footprint but incredibly vulnerable to climate change, had made us increasingly climate conscious, so we thought we’d avoid flying.

London to Italy

First up – crossing the channel. We were booking this way too late to find cheap-ish Eurostar tickets, but a quick Google Maps search showed that Flixbus coaches go there. I’ve never been a big fan of coaches as I get travel sick if I read on them, but after looking at a random sample of routes within Europe I realised they are often MUCH cheaper than trains. I’d got a little into podcasts, and been toying with the idea of listening to audiobooks. I remembered having been put off reading Barack Obama’s autobiography by how long it was and thought this would be a great way to extract maximum value from an Audible free trial. This turned out to be a great call as he reads it himself so it feels like he’s actually telling you about his life as you stare out the coach window.

A poor memory for ferry routes got me excited that the coach would stop and take us by ferry, so I was a bit disappointed to arrive at Folkestone and realise we’d actually be going through the Eurotunnel. However, it wasn’t that bad listening to Obama telling me about his early life as we went through the tunnel, and it didn’t feel that long to get to Paris. Plus there was a lot of craziness going on at UK airports at the time, so we felt pretty smug avoiding all that.

The evening was spent wandering round the 17th Arrondissement and eating delicious Lebanese food, and the morning walking a bit of the Promenade Plantée and along the Seine. We saw awesome sculptures and a few Paris classics like Notre Dame (well, the little you can see that isn’t ensconced in scaffolding) and the Arc de Triomphe, and distant views of the Eiffel Tower. Obviously there’s loads more to see in Paris, but by the time we got to the station for the train to Milan, it felt like we’d had a bit of holiday rather than just a stopover.

The Paris to Milan train was the best transport bargain I found for the trip – just £25 a ticket on a TGV booked on the Trainline about a week in advance, which I snapped up immediately. The train stocked some delicious beer, which we sipped while looking at alpine views. A tree on the line set us back a little so we got to Milan a bit late, but managed to navigate the Milan metro and got to our cut price conference-y out of town hotel in one piece.

The friends we were visiting in the Berichi hills had told us rural Italy would be really tricky to get around without hiring a car, so despite it distinctly not chiming with our low-carbon travel ethos, we guiltily did. Luckily (?) a series of arguments between the car hire guy and customers meant we spent hours waiting to get the car, and navigating toll gates while driving on the right etc. was stressful enough to make us start missing the train pretty quickly.

Italy was wonderful in many of the clichéd ways. Delicious food! Gorgeous countryside! Unbelievably old Roman ruins! It also marked the start of the ‘holy c**p, the climate’ theme of our holiday. There was a lot of talk about the drought:  the great Po river was running nearly dry, and usually magnificent city fountains were off to conserve water. Due to the heatwave we didn’t spend much time hiking in the Dolomites, but the idea we could have done made it feel particularly scary when a glacier fell off a mountain crushing 16 hikers.

Italy to Spain

Catching the odd word of Italian where it’s close to Spanish gave me the urge to travel to Spain. I knew we’d get more language practice if we were doing something, and through Workaway found a festival in rural Aragon that was looking for volunteers. Turns out Aragon is pretty far from the Colli Berici so we plotted out route options using a mix of Google Maps and Trainline. A short train ride took us from Milan to Genoa – a city I’d never thought of visiting but really loved. Stunning old town, fab art and really cute old-fashioned lifts to amazing viewpoints were a few of the highlights.

Looking at the huge ships in the port, it dawned on me that we could probably have got a ferry to Barcelona and a quick search revealed that we totally could have and it wouldn’t have been all that expensive. Doh!

We decided to break the long coach journey and spent a night in Marseille – another pleasant surprise, particularly as Tom had found an incredible arts centre which happened to have open studios and we had arrived on the opening night of a festival with an awesome circus act. The coach was also generally alright, and gave us fabulous views of the Italian Riviera countryside. Listening to TED talks and podcasts in Spanish started to get my very rusty Spanish brain a tiny bit in gear and even more excited for the next stage of the adventure.

Thank you for reading. 196Destinations exists to promote train travel. Part 2 of Helen and Tom’s adventure is coming very soon along with many other stories. Please subscribe to find out about them first.

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The Importance of Being Earthbound

In 2019, a group of French rail enthusiasts decided there was only one way to get to the Tokyo Olympics, and that was by train. With all those wonderful places en route, why not? 

2020 put a dent in their plans like they did in most people’s, but the organisation they founded, Once Upon A Train, is still going strong. 

Last week, Ian put me in touch with one of OUAT’s organisers, Anna, so that we could discuss working together. At the end of our conversation, she invited me to represent 196 Destinations at OUAT’s assemblée générale (AGM) on December 10th

“It’s in Paris,” she said. “But of course you can always join us on Teams.”

There was absolutely no chance I was going to yet another Teams meeting when I could be in Paris, meeting new people, sitting in a cafe by the Seine, wandering through arrondissements, maybe getting some Christmas shopping done. 

They say people accumulate a sleep debt when they don’t sleep enough. They get gradually groggier and less happy the longer they go without catching up on it. I think I may have accumulated a travel debt in the last couple of years. 

The second the phone was down, I pulled out my computer and settled into the once-familiar routine of stringing together arrivals and departures with visions of hopping on an express to London after work on Friday night. The Avanti West Coast service from Manchester to London takes around 2.5 hours, the Eurostar not even that. I’d spend the evening in London catching up with a friend, find a Couchers host for the night before carrying on to Paris and trundling home contentedly on Sunday night, or perhaps even Monday morning if the connections worked out that way. 

As it turned out, nothing worked out that way.

First bad news: Eurostar Snap, my go-to way of crossing the Channel, hadn’t survived the pandemic. Introduced in 2016 to get rid of unsold tickets, Eurostar would allocate you an undersold train on the day of your choice and you’d get to go to Europe for £25. Perfect. Or it was until the travel industry got decimated by the universe grabbing us all by the shoulders, plonking us into our metaphorical chairs and telling us all to sit down and listen for two years, anyway. 

Gare du Nord, the Paris Eurostar terminal

Oh well. There are always the regular tickets. Next stop, Eurostar’s main website, where I discovered the cheapest possible option for a Friday out, Sunday home trip would leave me £269 out of pocket. That’s without the trip from Manchester to London. 

Apparently the only strain these trains were going to be taking was on my bank account. Never mind. There’s more than one way to cross a 22-mile-wide body of water. I like ferries anyway. They remind me of family holidays to France, driving down to Dover or Portsmouth, clunking on to the boat and throwing our things in a cabin in time to sit down to dinner with the sunset shining through the restaurant windows and the excitement of waking up in Cherbourg or Calais still to come. 

Direct Ferries is a great place to compare operators and times. Brittany Ferries was sold out, but DFDS’ prices weren’t that bad – £46 return for a four-hour night trip from Newhaven to Dieppe. That didn’t include a cabin but never mind, I’ve slept in weirder places than ferry lounges. Unfortunately, most south coast ports still need a change of train in London if you’re coming from the north of England. By the time I’d got myself to the south coast by whatever combination of rail, coach and ride-share necessary, I’d have been on the road for over five hours and not even got out of the UK yet. 

Ferries make a lovely alternative if you can’t get the train.

Never mind. I’ve taken longer trips. I like long trips. Practically bouncing off my chair with excitement at the thought of going somewhere, I opened another tab for the Trainline to sort out Manchester to points south and was rudely awakened when it told me the cheapest fare was an open return for £116.60.

Some creative split-ticketing later, I’d managed to whittle it down to £58 for two singles by changing at Stoke, Birmingham, London and Lewes. This, however, meant the trip was going to take over 6 hours even if all the trains ran perfectly on time.

UK trains are no longer a simple case of book ticket, board train, rumble into destination, either. About 50% of them seem to get cancelled, and they’ve been known to be so badly delayed that by the time the passengers finally arrived, they ended up locked in the station the station because the staff had given up in disgust and gone home. I’d have to leave plenty of spare time. Add to that a friend who works in rail warning of planned strikes on Sunday 11th, and the whole thing was starting to look hopeless. 

By this point, I felt more like a gap-year student who’d never been out of the country before than a fairly seasoned traveller, and was wondering why it suddenly seemed like taking the train from Manchester to Shanghai in 2009 had felt easier to organise than a weekend in Paris did in 2022. Never mind. There was still the coach, or Blablacar

Why did getting to Outer Mongolia in 2009 feel easier than getting to Paris in 2022?

The National Express could get me to London for under £25. It was an overnight service that set off at ten to midnight on Friday and got in until 6am the next day. At least I wouldn’t have to find a host in London, although I might just have to find a chiropractor instead after six hours asleep in a coach seat. Megabus had one that would get me in at 10:30pm, but considering that the ferry left at 11 from a completely different city, that wasn’t much help. 

Rideshare site BlaBlaCar had a shortage of helpful drivers wanting to split petrol costs, but it did have a bus service from London to Paris departing at 8:30 am on Saturday morning. It would arrive in Paris at 7pm, which meant I would completely miss the AGM and basically have to get off the bus, turn round and get straight back on it again to go home. Put otherwise, it would be a solid 24 hours in a succession of coaches for literally no payoff. While that still wouldn’t be the longest I’ve ever been in a coach (that very dubious honour has to go to the time 18-year-old me spent 4 days stuck in a Greyhound between New York and LA), it’s still way longer than I ever want to spend on one again. 

So, the train was off the rails, the ferry was sunk, Blablacar was a no-go and the brakes had been put on the coach. Setting off after work on Friday night and needing to be back, slept, showered and vaguely coherent on Monday morning meant that I only had around 55 hours to complete the trip. Without my feet leaving the ground, and without quick, simple rail connections, it was going to be – I’m not going to say impossible, because it’s possible. It’s just prohibitively expensive, exhausting, and wouldn’t leave me any time to actually enjoy being there. 

Visual interpretation of the inside of my head after trying to plan this weekend.

So, the inevitable question – why don’t you just fly? 

Well, for one thing, turning up by air to rail-promoting OUAT’s AGM would make me the discount equivalent of the type of person who turns up to COP27 in a private jet. 

For another, even flying’s not as easy as it once was. Ryanair’s Friday flights are sold out; Easyjet’s are £80 one way with no luggage. In one way it’s probably a sign that rail is catching up at least a little in terms of price and convenience.

After two years of being ravaged by Covid, travel (in the UK at least) seems to be struggling to get back on its feet. Flights and trains both are fewer and further between, and far more prone to delays. Like the frequent empty shelves in the supermarket, it feels that everything is in shorter supply, more squeezed, more difficult. For rail to be a genuine alternative, trains need to be cheaper, more frequent and have good connections. That’s especially true for people who don’t live in London or near the south coast. 

The last, most important reason is that today is the 7th of December and there are still green leaves on the trees in my local park. Until yesterday, I’d barely worn my big winter coat because it was too hot. Two weeks ago, I took a photo of myself sitting at a Christmas market in front of a giant Santa, slurping mulled wine in a strappy dress. 

I can’t do much about it, to be honest. There is a world full of things far bigger and more powerful than me, making far more of a mess than I do. But I will do what I can, for now, even if that means missing out on things I dragged myself through the last two years by dreaming of getting back. 

Never mind. There’s still Teams. And 52 weekends in 2023 to have fun with…


Three capital cities! In three days no less!! MADRID! PARIS! BERLIN!

Thanks for clicking through to read about this great journey, about an express trip across three major European capital cities.

That’s actually a little bit of click bait. This journey is EPIC, but it actually includes FOUR cities!

After 20 years in Manchester, I’m done with winter. The one winter in Berlin was enough. I now stay in Málaga in winter, and in summer I live in Berlin!

So, in spring I return to Berlin. You can follow the planning and preparation for this journey, and then the subsequent travel via #SpringMigration22 on Twitter.

I left Málaga on 4th April, and arrived in Berlin on the 7th. To some this sounds like a long time? “Why don’t you just fly, Ian?” – I can hear 90% of people saying. “The train is slow!!!” And well, I’ve been subtle in the past.

However, I must say I find the ability to ignore the climate emergency to be one of humanity’s greatest successes. Global warming/weirding has been a known thing for 20 years. Or more. And it’s only recently that I decided ‘hoping for change’ wasn’t enough. We NEED to be the change we want to see.

I’m not rich, but I’m willing to invest in this way of travelling to avoid winter, and travel on a more sustainable low-carbon mode of transport. I won’t be spending on heating in Málaga, after all! I hope to inspire people to try this way of travelling, and write about the issues. If you want to do that on this site, then I can help 🙂

So. DAY 1. Leaving Málaga… :/

Málaga to Barcelona

Distance – 923km (417 km + 506 km)
Train 1 – Renfe AVE 10:28 Málaga -> 13:09 Madrid (417km)
Train 2 – Renfe AVE 14:25 Madrid -> 17:21 Barcelona (506 km)

Cost – 65.50 Euros via I searched Málaga to Madrid, rather than individual trains to achieve the fare. Generally, OuiGo is cheaper from Madrid to Barcelona.

I left Málaga having experienced a mild winter once again. Though I must admit there was dreadful weather in March, which included much-needed reservoir-filling rain, and also some crazy sky dust from Algeria, Morocco and the Sahara known as “clima” in Spain.

On the fun side, it was like being in a dystopian sci-fi film. On the downside, if we don’t figure out how to solve the climate emergency Southern Europe faces much more drought potential, and many more sand storms. We can also plant more native trees to help solve this problem in Málaga, Algeria and Morocco, and travel by low-carbon means.


We had time to visit the tropical gardens for lunch here. Kinda nice really, as it was a little cold today. A 5-minute walk from the platforms, you easily have time to find lunch and eat it when you have an hour or more between trains – no problemo!

3rd City Of The Day: BARCELONA.

Here I stopped over-night. And with an early departure I was very keen to stay near the station – I’m really NOT a morning person. I found a quiet AirBnB and would stay again there. I’m in for 20 minutes, before I get the metro to Barceloneta, a touristy area I missed on my way south. But I got sunset on the rooftop of the history museum – with truffles, as tapas was crazy expensive. Not surprising given the amazing views, tbh. Then I got a proper tapas meal in my favourite Barceloneta tapas bar, and a drink in another bar, before walking back through the Gothic Quarter to my AirBnB.

You could easily stay longer in Barcelona. It has much going on. But this is an express journey, with some fun on the way home to Berlin ASAP.


Barcelona To Paris

Trains – 1.
Barcelona Sants to Paris Gare De Lyon
A high speed double-decker train from SNCF, but operated by Renfe in a joint agreement, which basically meant TGV quality, but Spanish food in the cafe. It’s reported this collaboration will end in December 2022. Hopefully this allows an increase of the service frequency.
Cost – 117 Euros. (Varies from 138 Euros on the day of travel, to 69 Euros in 2 months)
Distance – 831 km

The morning was basically waking up, fleeing my AirBnB to the nearest coffee place, and jumping on a bus to Barcelona Sants about 10 minutes away before finding the security queue for the train (allow at least 20 minutes for this) and jumping on. I noted I could have had an extra 10 minutes in bed as we pulled out of the station with a minor delay 😉

I’d got a regular seat. I hadn’t upgraded to first despite the length of the journey, as it cost quite a bit already. Regretted this immediately in our 2×2 seat setup where I hogged the table with laptop, whilst 2 definitely still drunk tall Dutch guys tried to wrap themselves in, talking loudly.

YEAH. You can. Just. However, there was no internet on the Spanish side. Clearly the joint partnership could have put a little more effort into that. As soon as we crossed into France, this problem was solved. Also I felt more than a little guilty for being the only person who could use the tiny side table, with my laptop on it!

YES, the eating experience was VERY good. Though the food wasn’t the highlight, and was actually confusing. Despite the internet being SNCF’s, and pointing at their own catering website, the menu was actually Renfe’s. Which I only found by joining the queue with the view in the buffet car. BUT….oh what a view….eating lunch, looking out onto snow capped mountains from the upper deck of a TGV whilst going 300km/h….beans on toast could well have been the best meal of my life!


We arrived, not in Texas, but the original Paris! It was grey, indicating that the northern European Spring had been delayed. However, we were here. In rush hour. And I started sneezing, so some effect of Spring was here. A pit-stop in a pharmacy to get about 8 tablets of not-very-effective French antihistamine and I was off on the metro for a few stops to where my friend lived.

Then to the Seine, and with the ever present Eiffel towering above I boarded a tourist ferry with 200 Dutch school children. I was very tired, but wrapped up warm I enjoyed the boat trip around the main island of Paris.

So, I thought, let’s go and have a crepe with Eiffel. There were plenty of obvious options, but it was not so obvious that the full side-street cafes had my desired food, so I ended up at a food van under the tower.

Out again away from the tourism, I met my friend in a Corsican bar with great beer, a pizza-like food, and the guy who influenced the founding of Once Upon A Train. He’d actually been all the way to Japan by rail. I was soo tired, but it was really nice to meet Anna too.

I woke under a homage to Manchester’s music scene, and it was time to continue my journey, tired but happy.

This was a considerably longer visit than my previous one aged 8 or so, where our family spent an eternity in a traffic jam to get into the centre before having to leave after a few minutes (my memory says) to go on to the south.

I will return to Paris, but the goal here was to have fun, whilst getting to Berlin ASAP. And I’d maximised the tourism, and also had a drink/food where the locals go. Excellent.

Day 3: Paris To Berlin.

Paris To Berlin

Trains – 2
DB ICE 13:08 Paris Gare de l’Est to 16:17 Mannheim Hbf (450 km)
DB ICE 16:32 Mannheim Hbf to Berlin Hbf (482 km)
Distance – 932km (450km + 482km)
Cost – €69.90 (including 4 euro seat reservation fee, and 3 euro service fee for Omio)

Unluckily I have this habit of finding the right road, and walking along it with determination in exactly the wrong direction. This is what I had done the day before, and found Gare Du Nord, which is very close to Gare de l’Est. I really wish I could have stopped for one of the amazing-smelling curries – something unexpected in Paris. But I had been lazy, and was just about on time for my Frankfurt-bound train.

I did love how shortly after departure I was thinking a coffee would be good, and then a ‘waiter’ appeared with one. Brilliant.

I changed at Mannheim for the Berlin train. A simple change, which was literally walking to the other side of the platform. I had 25 minutes or so, so I guess I wouldn’t have had time to meet with Frankfurt friends as I had on the southbound trip and bag another known city.

The scenery was flat, and unremarkable. I chatted with a French lady opposite me, who was struggling with the mask thing. I felt happy enough wearing mine, but could understand the frustration. Generally it feels like Covid precautions are reducing, and for me, I will probably continue when it is optional, but for those struggling with masks, I am sure the end cannot come soon enough.

As we entered Germany, our high speed train became a plod-along-train. I’m not sure what this old medieval part of Germany can do, but it really needs to do something to speed up the infrastructure. Having a high speed train running at nearly half speed seems quite a waste!

Luckily for me, I got hit in the face by a bag as we were getting off the Paris train. Not the usual sort of luck! But one that happens on travels. And the person who accidentally did this turned out to be one of the chattiest people I’ve met on trains ever. Fantastic.

Approaching Berlin in the dark, the train announcer played some music to wish us on our way. Unusual, and great. I wished that there was a carriage like this all the way on the train. It would have greatly reduced the slight panic of me phoning to confirm the hotel arrival time, and them telling me they’d cancelled the reservation, “but not to worry, as there would be no charge.” The jokers. Booking dot com was no help, and I turned up tired to a friend’s and fell asleep.

So, 3 Cities In 3 Days Is Possible….By Train?

Málaga to Berlin. 3 days. Very possible. You can have fun on the way. A bit of an adventure. You can see new places, and familiar places. You can make new friends. And see more familiar faces.

You can of course do a few different variations on this, although currently stopping in Barcelona feels mandatory because of the train times. But going north you could go across to Lyon or Avignon, then pick up the Frankfurt train.

In the future, I hope that there is a night train that covers part of this route. Maybe Berlin to Paris or Lyon by day train, or all the way to Barcelona by night train, then onwards to Málaga on the high-speed. Let’s see. There are announcements about new services coming out all the time now, proving that whilst there are still issues with the train, it can be a viable way to travel and save significant amounts of carbon over flying.

Want to read more about other variations of this route?

Fast, cheap trains from Barcelona to Madrid.

How? Well, with you can travel from Barcelona by fast 300km/h train, and travel comfortably with a range of operators, to Madrid.

Not only are the trains fast, the journey is quicker than flying city centre to city centre – often at 2.75 hours, sometimes at 2.5 hours!!! QUICK!

The number of operators is also changing fast. For a long time, Renfe had this high-speed route to themselves. And 3 million people a year chose to fly instead! Now there is competition, and it’s not just Renfe competing with themselves through their low-cost operator Avlo. The French state railway (SNCF) has entered the route, with their double-decker TGVs, operating as OUIGO. It’s a fun brand. But that’s not the last. Later this year, Iryo will enter Spain too, with fantastic new high-speed comfortable trains travelling all over Spain.

Tell Us About The Carbon Emissions?

Okay, when you fly, there’s more carbon dioxide emitted than when you travel by train! That bit you knew. But like me, have ignored sometimes. Why? Well, over certain distances it can be considered just too much to travel by train. But I can tell you, that over time, your perception changes. It could even become a challenge

Calculating the exact carbon emitted can be complex. However, flying consumes more than 6x as much CO2 as travelling by train – some estimate it to be as much as 20x!

On the Barcelona to Madrid high-speed train route, the carbon emitted is calculated to be between 16kg and 20kg. We include this on to help you choose the operator according to your own priorities – lookout for the CO2 column.

Can We Offset The Low-Carbon Travel?

YES! We’re looking at various existing schemes, and also at the possibility of planting trees around the popular tourist destination of Málaga.

Like you, we’re learning more each week. But it would seem that under some situations a tree can absorb 20kg a year of CO2. Convienient for that Barcelona to Madrid fast train route!

What About The Future Of To Travel To?

We’ll cover more high-speed train routes as 2022 progresses on We’ll prioritise high-speed rail routes that compete well with flying, and try to accommodate different travel niches such as long weekends away in Madrid and Barcelona, before expanding to include other train routes with competition in both Spain and the rest of Europe.

The climate emergency does require us to change our habits, and how we do things. It doesn’t require us to stop having fun altogether. By picking low-carbon travel, and considering offsetting the last bit of carbon, you can start to make a difference to the planet. Of course, there are also many other things we can change.

The first version of to travel to.

So, what are you waiting for? Check out for travel between Barcelona and Madrid today.

What is the cheapest price you can find between the two cities? Leave it in the comments below.

Berlin Escape: To The Polish Coast.

Ian escaped Berlin this summer by train and coach. As Covid was in the process of easing off, it was time to get out of the city. Something that many of us were thinking was wayyy overdue. Let’s remember summer, as the leaves are falling outside.

If you would also like to share your summer train escape stories, please do get in touch.

Berlin is located in the east of Germany, so actually not at all far from the Polish border. And then it’s another hop to the coast. Poland is slightly cheaper than Germany, and it also gives a different experience. JIN DOBRY! (Dzień dobry!)

Berlin To Szczecin

Train information, like usual, could be slightly better. We took a train direct from Szczenin to Berlin Gesundbrunnen last September. But can we find it now? Well, no. Not easily. Yet, there it was on the Szczecin platform when we arrived. At some point in time, you just hit go on these smaller journies. Even those with the passion, may not find the optimal route.

Szczecin is a small industrious city, on the edge of a lagoon. It’s probably got lots of great things, but we have become obsessed with a brewery bar that is conviently located 5 minutes from the train station. It has great food, lovely beer, and a stylishly done pre-war theme. Really worth checking out in between your transport connections.

Time To Relax On The Coast

Incidentally, Gryfice may have the solution to rolling stock problems in Europe 😉

Rewal is a little further east than our previous coastal visit of Miedzyzdroje. It’s a typical seaside town, with ice cream, gofre, and pizza aplenty. Arcade sounds and seagull squawks mix with the sounds of happy children.

However, the most amazing thing is simply the beach.

It goes in either direction from Rewal, for as long as you want. Often with a forest behind, and sometimes with high quality cycling paths too. It’s possible that it may have gone for the full 750kms of Polish coast-line, but this long weekend break was not going to be long enough to confirm that.

First stop; Niechorze. It had a large light house, and of course, more beach. A slightly larger town than Rewal, and a few more shops. Walking back along the squeaky sand, you will eventually encounter a small beach bar. Stay. Until sunset 🙂 Then, continue your walk in the dark.

Next up Pustkowo. Again, more beach, and beach bar, as well as an amazing sunset. Spotting a theme? Do try out the long zapiekanka (Polish pizzas) at Sabat beach bar – it seems a few of the restaurants compete over the size. Either XXL or 60cms is splashed about on the menus. Very tasty.

If it gets too windy, then consider hiring some bikes. We did this from Rewal, and headed down towards where the lagoon meets the sea, fully protected from the sea by a very large forest. Happily the wind was greatly reduced when we returned to Pustkowo and a swim was possibly, in the warm Ostsee (aka Baltic; synonymous for freezing!). It also surprises me how little salt there is in the Ostsee. The church at Trzesacz has mostly fallen into the sea, but it looks great at night as you walk past on the beach, with a billion stars, and for us lightning striking the Swedish coast 220kms away.

If We Must Go Home Lets Take Something Back

On the way back to Berlin we were determined to both go a more direct route, and revisit the gastro pub in Szczecin. We took a small private coach. Had a lunch break, and carried onto Angermünde by the cross-border VBB train (RB66) before picking up the regional (RE3) Berlin train to Gesundbrunnen. A quicker journey, and with a long lunch break, where we decided to take some piecuchy (pastry parcels) back with us 🙂

So, yes, you could do this route quicker by car. And depending on the time you leave, you may also get to explore/see some other places apart from your destination on the way. But it is very possible with a mix of coach and train to get to the Polish seaside and have an enjoyable break, and journey. Driving can be a hassle, and sleeping / reading is not so easy.

Travel Resources

Polish Buses:
VBB – Brandenburg & Cross-border trains – RB66:

Beach Bar – Sabat:
Browar Stara Komenda –

Ready To Board?

We’re ready to roll…

At we’re exploring what makes it fun to travel by train, and why people still often choose the plane! If you want to get involved then please contact us.

With the Climate Emergency declared in many places, how can people still choose air?

Well actually, often the train costs more, possibly due to the lack of competition. But more operators are coming into the European market. More night trains are being announced regularly, and not just by the state operators. OBB and Nightjet are doing really well at expanding their night train network – partnering with SBB etc. RegioJet are increasing their services to Croatia. Snalltaget are now operating from Stockholm to Berlin. EuroNightTrain and Moonlight Express are coming soon.

The potential is high. It is starting to feel that there can be less flying, and people can still be connected all over Europe. Train travel is low-carbon travel. With claims ranging from 6x less carbon, to 20x less carbon compared with flying.

But there’s still challenges. On price. On service. On quality. And on just providing what the travel consumer wants. Making changing connections easy. Helping people travel long distances by train.

The budget airlines, such as Vueling, Ryanair, and EasyJet have had 20 years to perfect their booking systems. However, there’s still no unified cross EU booking system for trains! Crazy.

We need to compete with airlines!

Whilst there are portals that give the aeroplane as an option across the EU, we don’t believe that is the right approach.

Trains, coaches, and overland is the way to go in the medium- to long-term.

Especially after people have had their first post-Covid travels.

Are you ready to ‘get on board’ ?

Which hats sound like they may fit you? More than one is fine.

We’d like to overlap with our first people in Berlin or Málaga. But remote will become more possible in time – especially for mob programming developers.

We are very early-stage, and the below roles are unpaid. Think ongoing hackday for now. And at this stage, we are looking for the people that can help figure out how to make this work and be monetisable, whilst encouraging people to travel by train through us. You need a problem solving, startup mindset! Contact us to get involved.

Head Of Country Community Managers -Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, Croatia. What makes people travel in your area? Let us know how you engage people.

Product Managers – a sense of experimentation, data junkies, travel business knowledge, and love of overland travel. What travel experiments did you want to try?

Social Media Managers for Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. You want to grow a community of travellers. What platform do you love? How have you engaged people already?

User Experience Experts. An awareness of what works (in travel) already. And a desire to find ways to overcome challenges to get the consumer what they want.

API Integration Experts. The data is out there Mulder. Maybe you work with Node, Go, Python.

Developers in Ruby On Rails. Any level!

(Come on. What other platform did you expect 😉 ) You need to be collaborative in nature. Pair programming or mob programming will be the normal. TDD with rspec is how you think. Part-time is just fine.

General Enquiry: We would love to hear from you if you just want to get involved.


Contact us and let us know what you would like to do 🙂

Cheers, Ian and team.

Berlin to Split By Train

Matthew and family decided to take the train this summer from Berlin to Prague, and on to Split. That’s quite some distance. Here, he guides us through the experience in an enjoyable manner. Over to you, Matthew!


We are up at the crack of dawn for our family adventure, taking the 07:00 EuroCity through Dresden, and along the Elbe Valley through the rocky outcrops of the national park shared by Saxony and Bohemia. We sit on the left for the river view, and tuck into bacon and eggs in the excellent Czech restaurant car. At Prague Central station, there are left luggage lockers (cheap and easy to find on the lower level, though you need Czech currency handy) and we set off to make the most of our afternoon in the City of a Hundred Spires.

Prague- Split

This RegioJet is a seasonal special with couchette cars (and a few seating compartments) heading through the heart of central Europe, with portions for the two Croatian Adriatic resorts of Rijeka and Split. Passengers are mainly students, backpackers and young families, and the lived-in compartments with open windows give it an old-fashioned Inter-rail feel, mixed with the more modern buzz of low-cost beach holidays, the thrill of passing through 4 countries’ capitals, and breathtaking scenery.

Our carriage on this trip has certainly seen better days, but the staff are extremely friendly and helpful with workarounds when a socket is faulty. The Czech language dominates, but English and German are widely spoken. I don’t test the staff’s Hungarian, but passengers certainly board in Budapest too!

In the morning, the train splits for Rijeka at Ogulin (or if you’re travelling to Rijeka, splits for Split). The final stretch through the mountains is the highlight of the journey, until the whole train squeals with excitement at our first glimpses of the sea.


The maze of Diocletian’s Palace fools even my GPS. When only 20 metres remain to our apartment in the heart of the Old Town, there are streets in 4 directions, and it whirls giddily like a top, clueless as to the direction we’re walking in.

“I think you are looking for me!” exclaims a friendly gentleman in a baseball cap, who turns out to be the owner. He takes us down a side-alley off a side-alley off an alley, and through two iron gates. He shows us around, and then takes me aside. “I have a funny drink for you!” he winks. The fridge is stocked with Croatian orangeade – brand name Pipi.

A mixture of the genuinely Roman, rebuilt Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, modern and lived-in, with some Game of Thrones memorabilia thrown in, Split has enormous charm, its alleys full of sun-seeking Northern Europeans and cats. The Riva, the seafront promenade packed with eateries, has an affluent Mediterranean charm, and it is hard to believe that less than 30 years ago this was a scene of desolation at the heart of a civil war, the hotels full of Bosnian refugees from the hills just inland. (I was shouted out of an otherwise friendly Bureau de Change for daring to try and exchange Serbian dinars- “Dollars, yes! Euro, yes! No Africa! No Makedonia!”)

Bačvice, the town beach, is pleasingly situated next to the end of the railway line. The restaurants are cheap and cheerful, staffed by English-speaking students doing summer jobs. Nataša, a pale waitress with numerous piercings, is genuinely ecstatic that we are reading “actual books”. After taking our order, she stops to comment, “Can I just say- that’s amazing!” I wonder if maybe she is a literature student, an aspiring writer. When she comes back with a tray to collect our empties, I clearly choose the wrong moment to ask her if she herself reads.

“Do I read?” she stutters, miscalculating her balancing act and sending a Bitter Lemon bottle on a downward trajectory that ends in a smash, a spray of shards, and a massive round of applause from the other staff, which soon ripples out to the tables of diners. “Yes,” she says wistfully, returning with a dustpan and brush. “Yes, I do read.” 

We make several day trips from Split: Marjan hillside park is a beautiful walk up steps from the Old Town, passing cave dwellings once inhabited by Christian hermits, to reach leafy Kašjuni beach. We take the local train north in a thunderstorm to Kaštela, with its mansions and towers built to protect the nobility from the Ottomans in the 15th and 16th centuries, including Kaštel Gomilica, another filming location for Game of Thrones (Braavos). It’s a short ferry trip to the beautiful island of Šolta, the site of many battles including in the recent civil war, and now thriving as an independent municipality with helpful tourist office (though when we get to the traditional restaurant up the hill in Grohote which they describe as “mwah mwah mwah!”, a lady says “All my family has gone to Split today. There is no food,” so we have to walk back down again).

We have an even more leisurely last day than planned, due to delays up the line. We check out and leave our luggage, for a last visit to the beach and plate of seafood pasta. The incoming train from Prague is nearly 4 hours late, so our departure will be delayed by at least 2 hours, until the early evening. This is a common occurrence with low-cost airlines of course, but the difference here is that the station platform is 5 minutes walk from the beach, and well-equipped with cheap refreshments. Also, when we finally board, we will have the kind of full-length beds and privacy you can only get in First Class on a long-haul flight!

When the train finally arrives, huge black bin-bags are planted in front of the doors, and Czech children help the elderly local cleaners plonk the filled ones into the supermarket trolleys they use to scoot along the platform- not being Croat speakers, their helpers use a combination of English and beaming grins to communicate. Not for the first time, I am thrilled to be admitted into a hybrid Bohemian-Balkan travel experience.

They don’t just clean the compartments, they hoist shut the windows and pull the curtains, as if the travelling bedrooms will be left to cool for hours. We shuffle on board, and all the compartments are unlocked except ours, which is nearest the door, meaning we completely block the corridor until the guard comes to unlock. She reclaims her own suitcase, which for some reason is under our bed. She slithers around the overweight passengers and over-sized luggage, somehow extricating herself and her luggage like a pink-shirted Regiojet Spiderwoman.

The scenery at sunset is breathtaking, as we creep away from the sea, and the shadows lengthen over the fortifications of Kaštela and the grimy scrapyards of the harbour. We recline, and munch. Above Knin, near the Bosnian (and therefore EU external) border, the moon lights up a ragged wasteland as a skinny grey wolf-cub scuttles along a rusty branch line. According to the map, it leads to Bihać, notorious in the 1990s as the site of a 3-year siege. Hopefully free movement will return to this region one day, and those trains will run again.

The teenagers watch US comedies on the laptop on the upper bunks. I half-register the shunting at Ogulin and Zagreb, and sleep until Gyékényes, where the Croatian and Hungarian Border Forces carry out their pre-dawn inspections. All lavatories (and even the washrooms with sinks) are locked out of service to avoid stowaways. “Német, Német,” mutters the Hungarian guard conspiratorially to his comrades as he takes down our every detail. (We are possibly the only passengers on the train with German paperwork.) He is assiduous in his duties, but uses his visor-mounted torch to cast only a cursory glance at the snorers above.

We read and sleep, and enjoy the hotel-on-wheels pyjama-party that criss-crosses Central Europe, up Lake Balaton to Budapest, sneaking in past Győr to take the suburbs of Bratislava by surprise on the back road, a clanking old freight route. We lean out of the window and take in the scents of dawn, and the sights of a retreating Hungary and gently encroaching Slovakia. We trundle through villages, almost nosing into back gardens, tilting over rivers and through waving cornfields- and then suddenly there is a crumbling concrete monstrosity: a border inspection post. But the train doesn’t need to stop at this now peaceful weed-strewn border, or the next, or the next; and we can cuddle up in our bunks and reminisce.

“I can’t believe this holiday’s nearly over,” says a voice. 

And “I still want that 40-cent apple crumble from the buffet.”


Berlin-Prague (EuroCity)

Seats booked through České dráhy (Czech Railways), and exact composition of the train checked on Vagon Web. We got a compartment in 2nd class (which we shared for half the journey with another couple). There is 1 socket per compartment and basic wifi. Czech restaurant car serves full meals.

2nd class single €24 adult, €12 child, including seat reservations.

Journey time: 4 hours. Services every 2 hours daily.

Prague-Split (RegioJet)

Free water and coffee, two sockets per compartment and basic wifi. There is no dining car, but a bistro in the Split portion serves hot drinks (including the excellent free espresso) plus slices of cake for 40 cents apiece. There’s also an at-seat menu of cold food and drinks, plus the option of pre-booking sushi and wraps online.

Private couchette compartment one-way €125 (sleeps up to 4 people, with plenty of luggage room).

Journey time: officially 21 hours, but frequently delayed. Less stressful to book a (maybe en-suite?) stop-over on arrival rather than a connecting train. RegioJet operate numerous connecting buses to other resorts using through ticketing. In 2021, the first year of operation, services are nightly in July and August, thrice-weekly in June and September. There are plans to extend the season for 2022.

The Future Of International Train Travel?

The night train from Stockholm to Berlin has arrived.

A lady on the platform started to wave and get excited as the Snälltåget red train engine pulled onto Gleis 3, on-time at 08:52 this morning. She was there to greet her friends.

Simultaneously a FlixTrain appeared on the opposite platform.

Today was a different visit to Berlin’s hbf. A building with fantastic architecture, but often considered confusing number and orientation of platforms. Today, I didn’t get lost. Today was different as a much anticipated service had it’s inaugural service between Sweden and Germany. Excitement was in the air.

Gathered in the middle of the train on the platform, was an assortment of journalists, campaigners, and others passionate about the increase in the number of train services in the EU. And me.

This was the first night train from Stockholm to Berlin. And it had arrived. On time.

This night train is ready for service.

Berlin’s central station is not far from the Government district, and I dare say you could make a 9am meeting there with this train service with international governing bodies. Or you could spend the day seeing the many sights of Berlin, before heading onwards to Prague or Amsterdam?

I’m not a morning person, so had hoped to chat gently with a few people, but I was not as organised as many others. Chatted with Jon, Pro Bahn, and the guy from Back On Track EU who’d been on the train, as well as Thomas from Snälltåget, whilst many journalists interviewed various people.

I was encouraged by the excitement from the press. This surely meant that the Stockholm to Berlin night train service has a future?

For me, this has to be just the start. And with covid issues, it’s the persistence of the Transdev & Snälltåget team that has brought this together. It’s now running. Lots of announcements recently about potential new services, but this one is here!

There’s still covid times challenges – you cannot book an individual bed, but have to book the whole couchette. These are not insurmountable. And actually the price for a family of four works out well when competing with Lufthansa.

For now, it is too soon to predict when individual beds can be sold. There’s not really the appetite for sharing with strangers right now. We (196) had a brief experiment to see if there was people who would share, with the tallget community, but sadly there was not.

It’s an exciting point in the #EUYearOfRail – in many ways, with coivd starting to calm down, it feels like it is only just starting. Perhaps there’s scope for increasing the EUYearOfRail into 2022?

In the meantime, it’s great that companies are starting to roll-out services, and maybe this service will act as a catalyst to announcements for last September’s announced TEE 2.0 network?

A combination of fast trains, and night train services, feels like the future of 2 week tourist travel to those at 196Destinations. It feels like it has to be. But at the same time the industry needs to compete with RyanAir and EasyJet to do it.

And this isn’t just a question of price. It’s about providing destinations people want, and at the right departure and arrival timings in the day, as well style of accommodation and other facilities on board. Perhaps the industry will need to build new rolling stock to cater for new demand, and to encourage the modal shift from air to train to help with the climate emergency.

Time will tell. Lots of work to do. In the meantime, lets enjoy what travel we can do (safely), when it’s possible.


M – “I hear this is quite expensive though?” Well, due to the covid situation at the moment, you have to book a whole couchette, but in theory you can get on the train for as little as 49 Euros one way.

Mo – “Does it go through the Oresund link via Copenhagen?” Hey, yes it does cross ‘The Bridge‘ 🙂

Snalltaget Night Train.

Book Berlin to Stockholm by train

18:54 – Depart – Berlin Gesundbrunen or Berlin Hbf (check!)
14:20 – Arrive – Stockholm (the day after)

Daily from June 28 until September 5 and Wednesdays and Saturdays 8 until October 2. Further variations on Sundays.

Book Stockholm to Berlin by train

16:20 – Depart – Stockholm
08:52 – Arrive – Berlin (the day after).

Daily from June 27 until September 5 and Wednesdays and Saturdays until September 29. Further variations on Sunday.

Book This Service wants to sell tickets and make it easier for people to book tickets on the top 30 flight routes, and long-distance night services. Join us on this adventure by following us on facebook, instagram, or twitter. Do message with queries, or if you would like to contribute. Lets help people fly a little less.