4 of the Best Rail Journeys in Central Europe
You don’t have to be an anorak-wearing train spotter to harbour a passion for train travel. After all, how else can you really get to see the countryside without having to hold tight to a steering wheel and focus on the traffic around you, or strap yourself into a bus seat with limited leg room while rocketing along sunken four-lane motorways with no view in sight? Europe contains the oldest railroads in the world and Central Europe is where the art of alpine rail engineering was perfected, opening up some of the most astonishing landscape on the continent to public view. Here we list 4 of the best rail journeys in Central Europe to make your travel from city to city that much more interesting.
1/ Vienna to Ljubljana Railway (Austria and Slovenia)
This route is part of the Südbahn railway that runs between Vienna and Graz, continuing on to Maribor, Ljubljana and eventually to Trieste, but while the entirety of the route from Salzburg to the Slovenian capital offers a rich diet of romantic alpine scenery, heavily forested hills, vivid green valleys, vibrant mountain glades and idyllic country villages, it’s the Semmering line that hogs all the attention. The Semmering Railway between the stations at Gloggnitz and Mürzzuschlag has had more internet space dedicated to it than any other rail journey in Central Europe, and after experiencing the route ourselves we feel disinclined to argue otherwise.
What makes Semmering particularly special is that it’s the first mountain railway in Europe built with a standard gauge track and is often therefore referred to as the world’s first true alpine rail line. The need for the railway grew out of concerns over the extremely dangerous gradients of the old pass road over the mountains built in the 18th century. A second road was completed in 1841, but further pressure to link the new lines from Vienna to Gloggnitz, and Mürzzuschlag to Bruck an der Mur led the Austrian Emperor to issue an edict for the construction of a Semmering rail line in 1844. Worries about the difficulty of tunnelling resulted in the plans being shelved, but the revolution of 1848 in Vienna increased the political pressure once again to construct a line that connected the Hapsburg capital with the Adriatic port of Trieste; this was the only sea port the Austro-Hungarian crown had access to.
Finally constructed between 1848 and 1854 by over 20,000 workers and featuring 14 tunnels, 16 viaducts (some of which are two storeys high), over 100 curved stone bridges and 11 iron bridges, the line represented a modern technical miracle at the time. The track had to rise up over a kilometre-high mountain pass, which required it to have a maximum gradient five times that of previous railways. It was such a feat of engineering that afterwards it was boastfully claimed that there was nowhere that a railway could not be built.
And it was designed to be not just the highest, but also the most beautiful, with special attention paid to harmonizing the railroad with the natural surroundings it passes through. The railway was supplemented with 57 two-storey attendants' houses built from coursed rubble masonry with brick trimmings to help them blend into the landscape. These were later converted into more impressive structures as tourist traffic increased, followed by purpose-built villas and hotels at the turn of the 19th century which were also harmoniously inserted into the rugged Alpine landscape. When recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, the railway earned especial praise for making the rugged beauty of the mountain scenery more accessible than otherwise possible while at the same time maintaining its structural and architectural integrity over the past 160-odd years.
The Austrian Railways company is currently building one of the world’s longest railway tunnels (27.3km) to connect Gloggnitz to Mürzzuschlag to relieve the pressure on the Semmering line, which is one of the busiest routes in Austria with 70,000 freight and passenger trains per year. The new tunnel will have a much smaller gradient than the existing Semmering line, which means that even heavy goods trains of up to 1,600 tonnes can be hauled by just one locomotive. The base tunnel will also enable speeds of up to 250 km/h and thus reduce travel time between Vienna and Graz by 30 minutes, to just 2 hours. The tunnel is due to be completed by 2026.
2/ Munich to Innsbruck via Garmisch-Partenkirchen Railway (Germany and Austria)
You can get to Innsbruck from Munich in less than two hours if you go to the east of the Bavarian Alps via Rosenheim and Kufstein, but it you want to take the scenic route with really spectacular views then take a slow train the via the alpine resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen; this route takes a little under three hours and the Mittenwald Railway between Garmisch and Innsbruck encompasses glittering lakes, views of Germany’s highest mountain, Zugspitze, and glorious mountain landscapes.
The Mittenwald Railway, popularly known as the Karwendelbahn, was built as an electric local railway from 1910 to 1912. A highlight is the numerous tunnels that run along the edge of the Martinswand (Martin’s wall), a perpendicular rock face between the Kranebitten and Hochzirl stations, including the nearly 2km-long Martinswand Tunnel through the rock wall.
The highest point at Seefeld is situated at 1200m above sea level (the highest-lying Intercity-Express stop in Europe), so the train needs to make a steep descent of 650m to Innsbruck below at an elevation of 550m through a number of tunnels and sharp curves and over several viaducts offering wonderful views of the Inntal Valley. Looking up you’ll see jagged cliffs and precipitous rock faces, looking down you’ll see sheer drops down toward ancient mountain ravines and later the fertile valley floor. Then finally as you roll into Innsbruck you’ll be met by the commanding white castle of Schloss Ambras.
The Mittenwald line was originally proposed as far back as the 1880s, but disputes over financing because of the many tunnels required delayed it for decades. Since it was planned as an electrified railway, a hydroelectrical power station was constructed especially for it near Stephansbrücke on the Austro-Hungarian side of the border, while another one was built at Walchansee on the German side. However, the first locomotives to service the line in 1912 were steam driven since the electric locomotives weren’t ready.
Part of the line was bombed during the Second World War when the allies decided it was of strategic importance to the Nazi regime, although in reality its steep gradient made it useless for the supply of heavy military equipment. The railway attracted more positive attention in 1976 when the winter Olympics were held in Innsbruck and Seefeld.
3/ Munich to Venice via the Brenner Pass Railway (Germany, Austria and Italy)
This route plies the region from Munich to Innsbruck via Kufstein, i.e. it doesn’t connect with the Mittenwald line, but it makes up for that by chugging on from Innsbruck over the Alps toward Italy through the historic Brenner Pass. There’s a direct train once a day (otherwise you have to change in Innsbruck), and although it’s not a designated scenic train it nonetheless provides spectacular views from your window of the Dolomites with their snow-capped peaks, verdant mountain valleys and glacial rivers.
The train begins from Munich by edging around the north of the stunning Bavarian Alps and crosses seamlessly into Austria, as noted above, at Kufstein, where you should keep an eye out for the imposing fortress guarding the River Inn which dates back to the 14th century. The train then heads west through the Austrian province of Tyrol, following the course of the Inn. After lapsing briefly into darkness through a tunnel, you'll emerge in the regional capital, Innsbruck, with its incredible alpine views. The section from Innsbruck up to Brenner is the main highlight of the journey. The train heaves itself up over 915m (3000ft) as it twists and turns alongside the motorway connecting Innsbruck with Italy. If possible, head to the very back of the train, behind the cycle storage area, for dazzling views out of the rear window of the train as it traverses the mountain up to the summit.
From the highest point the train then eases itself effortlessly into Italy, stopping for 15 minutes at Brenner, where you might be able to jump off and stretch your legs (don't stray from the train though!).
Once on the Italian side of the pass, you begin a smooth and placid descent through the region of Süd Tirol (Alto Adige in Italian). This is an autonomous region of Italy that was once part of the Austrian Crown, so you might notice that station signs and train announcements are bilingual. The region is majority German-speaking and so you might even receive a cheerful "Grüß Gott" from your Italian ticket inspector! The train then wends its way through some further stunning scenery as it keeps pace with the Isarco River, a watercourse that faithfully accompanies your journey for the next 80km (50mi) or so.
After a brief stop in Balzano, the dramatically jagged mountains begin to give way to more gently undulating landscape as you trundle out of the bilingual Alto Adige and into "Italy proper". When you stop at the stations of Trento and Rovereto, Lake Garda is only a few kilometres to the west.
Slowly, the train swings around to the left and Verona rolls into view ahead of you. Here the train joins the Milan-Venice mainline as it makes a brief stop in the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet before continuing onward to Venice.
The topography becomes a lot flatter after Verona as the train rushes across the northern plains of Italy from Provincia di Verona and crosses into the state of Veneto. Passing through the city of Padua, the anticipation builds as the train draws closer to Venice, passing over the long causeway (Ponte della Libertà) from mainland Venice Mestre right onto the ancient island city itself.
As you walk out of Venice's bold new modernist Santa Lucia station, you couldn't possibly be anywhere else in the world, with those unmistakable gondolas working their way up and down the Grand Canal that stretches out before you.
4/ Prague to Dresden Railway (Czech Republic and Germany)
We have to give a special shout-out to the Czech Republic and not only because we’re based here and know the railways like the backs of our hands. A little known fact about the Czech Republic is that it has the densest railway network of any country in the world. With 9,467km (as of 2015) of railway lines and a total land mass of 77,2102, that gives it a railway network density of 122.61m per km2 – far ahead of second-placed Germany with 95.53m per km2 or tenth-placed USA with 24.95m per km2. This is partially the legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Bohemia essentially acted as the workshop of the entire Hapsburg realm.
You can go almost literally anywhere in the Czech Republic by train, and while there are routes with great scenery to enjoy, there’s none of the dramatic alpine landscape to compete with rail lines in Germany and Austria. There are, however, picturesque routes that follow larger waterways and one of these is the line from Prague to Dresden along the Vltava (Moldau) and Labe (Elbe) Rivers.
There are fast direct trains between the two cities, although you could do a lot worse than board a slow ‘osobní’ train to the north Bohemian city of Děčín. As you copy the course of the rivers along the way you can enjoy views of the chateau in Nelahozeves where you’ll find the family home of Antonín Dvořák and a museum dedicated to his memory.
As you pass Roudice nad Labem you’ll get an unadulterated view of Říp, the hill that forms the great symbol of Czech nationhood where Father Čech foresaw the land where the Czech tribes would settle. As you get further north you’ll eventually come to Porta Bohemica, the gateway to the striking Elbe River valley canyon and the surrounding Bohemian Uplands. As you continue along next to the river you’ll then come to the provincial capital of Ústí nad Labem guarded by the Gothic castle of Střekov, followed by the last Czech city prior to crossing into Germany, Děčín, where the exquisite natural beauty of the Bohemian Switzerland National Park is located.
If you would like to experience one or more of these wonderful train journeys and get to know Central Europe in more detail than would be otherwise possible from a car or bus, then one of our travel consultants at Go Real Europe will be more than happy to create a customized travel itinerary for you.
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