Travel

From Transylvania to Santa’s village: eight of Europe’s best winter train journeys


Bernina Express: Chur, Switzerland, to Tirano, Italy

Listed as a Unesco world heritage site since 2008, the Bernina line is one of the highest railways in the Alps, promising four hours of panoramic views from its glass-domed carriages: frozen lakes, rivers crashing down canyons and forests heavy with snow.

Departing from Chur, the oldest city in Switzerland, the red train descends the mountainside, its sleek body gliding past snowdrifts the height of its roof, before crossing bridges over rivers that wind like black belts around naked woods. The Bernina Express slips in and out of 55 tunnels, plunging passengers into a roar of darkness before emerging into cantons and townships that look as though they’ve been shaken out across the slopes: a church here, a farm there and clusters of wooden chalets in between.

It’s worth sitting at the tail-end of the train to take photographs as it curves along the six-arched Landwasser viaduct at Filisur, a limestone construction built 65 metres above apple-green waters carrying chunks of ice and snow. On the approach to Tirano, the scenery softens into valleys with vineyards and farms, before the train curls on to the Brusio viaduct, a stone spiral that brings the train down to ground level and parallel with the main road.

Tirano is small, home to fewer than 10,000 people, and its cobbled streets can be walked in under two hours. Most visitors then board a connecting train to Milan but it’s worth stopping longer in this pretty spot, to roam the castle ruins to the sound of church bells pealing through the evening air before sitting down for dinner at Parravicini , which serves rich dishes such as pork fillet in dark beer, and pizzoccheri Valtellina, ribbons of local buckwheat pasta with garlicky cheese, potato and cabbage.
From about 65 Swiss francs (£59) single. Book at Swiss operator Rhaetian Railway

The Bergen line: Oslo to Bergen, Norway

Old houses on Bergen’s medieval harbour, lit up in the evening.
Old houses on Bergen’s medieval harbour. Photograph: Vychegzhanina/Getty Images

Indigo in the pre-dawn light, Oslo’s skies start to crack open as this commuter train begins its seven-hour journey, slipping past the backs of terrace houses and giving passengers a glimpse into the morning routines of Norwegians cleaning teeth, opening curtains and pottering in kitchens. But soon the city is gone and lakes emerge like mirrors, with armies of snow-dusted spruce lining their banks.

Following the Drammenselva River upstream, the route curves along Tyrifjorden and on to the town of Hønefoss. From here the buildings begin to thin out, with wilderness between each tiny village cluster. Through blizzards it’s just possible to make out ski runs worming down mountain sides, and cabins so deeply buried that only a spiral of smoke betrays their existence.

This is a train for meditation and calm, but as the route crosses Hardangervidda national park it’s worth keeping a lookout for the flash of red and roe deer darting for cover.

Bergen has a strong maritime history that still lingers. Most visitors to Norway’s second city are drawn to the medieval harbour of Bryggen, home to about 60 protected gabled buildings painted in autumn shades. In the lead-up to Christmas, these wooden houses, home to galleries, restaurants and jewellers, shimmer with golden lights.

There’s a real festive feeling at Bryggen Tracteursted restaurant, one street back from the harbour. It serves traditional Norwegian cuisine, including spiced herring with sour cream and reindeer tartare with pickled cucumbers, beetroot and capers.

At this time of year the weather can be wildly unpredictable, but it’s always worth taking a fjord tour. From the beginning of November to the end of January there are two departures a day from the quay on the fish market. The three-hour cruise heads up the Osterfjord to Modalen and the Mostraumen strait, where waterfalls slalom into the fjord’s black waters, with great sheets of ice colliding across the surface.
One way from about 299 Norwegian krone (£22). Book at Norway’s national rail operator, Vy

The Dacia: Vienna, Austria, to Bucharest, Romania

A snowy street in Bucharest in the evening.
A snowy street in Bucharest. Photograph: Ionut Petrea/Alamy

Departing Vienna a little before 8pm, the Dacia takes passengers on an epic journey through eastern Europe. It’s wise to dine before boarding, as there’s little in the way of food available on the train. (Most passengers are commuting and go to sleep early, with no desire to party or drink.)

The morning views are what this trip is all about: the train rolls through the heart of Transylvania, with views to the snow-topped Carpathian mountains. Threading alongside the Olt River, it barrels through tunnels obscured by woods hung with daggers of ice. Some cash (in euros or Romanian leu) is useful, as attendants who come round with black coffee and ham salad sandwiches don’t take cards – and this is the only sustenance on offer until the train draws into Bucharest just after 2pm.

Its postwar communist past makes Bucharest a city of wildly clashing architecture: grey and depressing in places, but old and charming in others. In the old town in winter, shop awnings are hung with bare lightbulbs and the cobbled streets lined with bubble tents to keep diners cosy.

Cărtureşti Carusel on Strada Lipscani is one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops. Built in 1903, it’s spread across three floors with a tea shop, an art gallery and book lovers thumbing pages until midnight. From there, it’s a five-minute walk to the clang and heat of Caru’ cu Bere, a traditional restaurant in a fabulous neo-gothic building, with skylights, stained-glass windows and mosaic floors. There are always shouts and slams and bangings from the kitchen, but it serves the epitome of comfort food in cast-iron pans: confit pork “like in the old days”, glazed pork ribs in beer sauce, and mixed mushroom stew with polenta.
From €45. Book at Austrian state rail operator OBB

Santa Claus Express: Helsinki to Rovaniemi, Finland

An aerial view of the Santa Claus village in Rovaniemi, Finland, with Christmas lights and snow.
The Santa Claus village in Rovaniemi, Finland. Photograph: Carlo Alberto Conti/Getty Images

No train journey embodies the spirit of Christmas like the Santa Claus Express. A bright green double-decker beast, this sleeper service departs seven nights a week from Helsinki, charging 500 miles into Finnish Lapland, the “home of Father Christmas”. As well as families with young children, the train, also popular with Finns lugging snowboarding and ski gear to resorts, and dog-owners in designated canine carriages.

At 7.45pm the train glides out of the Finnish capital, with good views of the city’s festive lights. It’s wise to stash luggage and head straight to the tinsel-decked dining car for warming meatballs and mash. There aren’t many tables, so it soon gets crowded, the snow-sprayed windows steaming up from the heat of passengers sipping beer and swapping stories.

Upstairs, en suite compartments have berths wide enough for parents to top and tail with smaller children. Once the little ones are asleep, adults can sit on pull-down window seats to watch fat snowflakes swooping at the glass. Homes strung with fairy lights, and lakes as black as ink can be spotted through snowy branches. There’s no sound but the thump-thump of the train speeding north.

At 7.20am the following morning, the train pulls into Rovaniemi, whose street plan mimics a reindeer’s head. It’s at the edge of the Arctic Circle, where the sun currently rises at about 10am, setting again at 2pm. This is enough time to embrace the outdoors on husky sleighs, reindeer trips across frozen lakes and snowmobile rides – all of which can be found at Apukka, a family-friendly resort with igloo-styled rooms, perfect for glimpsing the neon-green twists of the northern lights from bed.

A 10-minute shuttle bus ride takes visitors to Santa Claus Village, where elves with rosy cheeks and striped knee-socks herd queues to meet the big man in his wooden grotto.
One way in a cabin for two people from €99. Book train tickets at VR, the Finnish railway

The Harz narrow-gauge railway: Wernigerode to Brocken, Germany

A steam train on the Harz railway, travelling through snowy countryside.
A steam train on the Harz railway. Photograph: Blickwinkel/Alamy

One for true railway fans, who love engines, steam and whistles, the Brocken railway is a branch of Germany’s narrow-gauge network that runs around the Harz mountains. Alongside train aficionados, it carries regular commuters, who hop on and off over the two-hour journey to the summit of Brocken mountain – the highest peak in northern Germany.

With a whistle that pierces the chilly air, the train chuffs out of the town of Wernigerode, the smell of its smoke rushing in through open windows. As the train works its way up through the dense, woody landscape, fir-tree fingertips trace its sides, so close passengers can reach out and touch them.

There’s a spooky stillness to the surrounding forests: the look almost black-and-white, with bare tree branches stretched out like skeletons’ arms. Just before arrival, passengers can look down across a sea of spruce before the train hoots to a standstill.

A barren plateau, often foggy, windswept and damp, the summit of the Brocken mountain was a Soviet-era spy station and has long been associated with witches, devils and folklore. For those not put off by that sort of thing, there’s a hotel in the old TV tower. It’s the only hotel within the Harz national park, so it’s handy for those who want to hike the area. Rooms are cheap and cheerful with comfortable beds, and there’s also a cafe and a canteen-style dining hall, ideal for those who only want a snack before returning to Wernigerode, where there are far more charming hotels, with big fireplaces, beer and schnitzel.
Round trip adult €53, child €32 with Harzer Schmalspurbahnen

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West Highland line: Glasgow to Mallaig, Scotland

Rannoch Moor and a frozen Lochan na h-Achlaise.
Rannoch Moor and Lochan na h-Achlaise on the West Highland line. Photograph: Alamy

Taking five and a half hours, this service departs from Glasgow Queen Street, clinging to the edge of the River Clyde before it veers north-west, passing loch after loch gleaming like glass in the low winter sun.

A highlight of the journey comes just after Tyndrum, when the train curves around a horseshoe bend at the foot of Ben Doran before belting through Rannoch Moor, a wilderness of heather (purple in late summer) and tall grass stiff from frost.

If the weather is clear enough, Ben Nevis may be visible near Fort William, followed by one of the most recognisable sections of railway track in the world – the 30-metre-high Glenfinnan viaduct at the top of Loch Shiel, made famous by the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films.

On the final stretch, views of the white beaches known as the Silver Sands of Morar can be enjoyed from seats on the left-hand side, before the train slows into Mallaig.

Winter in Mallaig is quiet, with many restaurants closed and residents hibernating. However, it’s only a 30-minute crossing by ferry to Armadale at the southern end of the Isle of Skye – a playground for hikers and climbers. An hour’s drive north from Armadale is the Cuillin Hills hotel at Portree Bay, which overlooks the sharp peaks of the Cuillin mountain range. It’s an ideal base for exploring the trail around the iconic Old Man of Storr on the Trotternish Ridge, a 15-minute drive away.

But for those who prefer an amble, the two-mile Scorrybreac circuit loops around the area, and visitors often spot dolphins, otters and seals putting their silky heads above the waters of Loch Portree. Returning red-cheeked and wind-whipped, guests can warm up at the hotel’s restaurant, with dinners of pan-roasted sea trout or slow-roasted beef shin with port and bramble jus.
From £22.55 one-way with ScotRail

Stockholm, Sweden, to Narvik, Norway

Traditional cabins painted in red on a small rocky outcrop with a mountain in the background.
Traditional cabins in the Lofoten islands, Norway. Photograph: Naris Visitsin/Getty Images

There’s a sense of adventure from the moment passengers board this train, jostling one another as they locate berths, pull on bed socks and pat the heads of dogs lying in the aisles. With a daily 6pm departure from Stockholm Central, this service takes 18 hours to curl up Sweden’s backbone, before it terminates in the Norwegian town of Narvik, 140 miles inside the Arctic Circle.

Once on the move, it’s wise to head straight to the dining car where families and groups of friends on ski trips will be cracking open cans, dealing cards and sharing slabs of paper-wrapped salmon and cheese. Over bowls of smoky reindeer stew, passengers gaze into snowy forests as they flit by.

In the morning, most disembark at Kiruna for cross-country skiing and aurora hunting in Swedish Lapland, but they miss out on the final and most spectacular stretch, when the railway climbs on to clifftops above the mighty fjords, wrapping itself around mountains of clean, blue ice.

Lying between two main fjords, Narvik is popular for trekking, sailing and off-piste skiing at the resort of Narvikfjellet. It’s also the gateway to the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago of peaceful fishing villages, peaks and beaches at the edge of the Norwegian Sea. A four-hour bus ride will bring you to Svolvær, where traditional fishers’ cabins – rorbuer – look like a collection of red Monopoly houses and are available as holiday lets. The best ones are on the island of Svinøya, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Lofoten mountains on the other.

The truly bold can take a dip in the breath-catching waters, before heating up in the floating sauna and finishing the evening with dinner at Børsen Spiseri, a beamed, warmly lit lodge that specialises in stockfish – cod that’s air-dried for about three months.
One-way from about 1,200 Swedish krona (£92) with Swedish rail company SJ (hsj.se)

SJ EuroNight from Berlin to Stockholm

Multicoloured buildings in Stockholm’s old town with a blue cloudy sky.
Characterful buildings in Stockholm’s old town. Photograph: Francesco Riccardo Iacomino/Getty Images

Departing at 6.37pm from Berlin’s Gesundbrunnen station, the EuroNight service to Stockholm heads west out of the city, through scenic Spandau. It then follows the bends of the frosted River Spree, before the countryside of Lower Saxony flattens out and opens up into fields covered in snow.

There’s no dining car on board, but an attendant serves hot food from a hatch, handing out steaming meatballs and mash while passengers hover at open windows, bracing against the freshness. It’s a fun-filled corridor, with passengers leaving doors open, chatting and watching the winding River Elbe, where lights from boats twinkle in the darkness.

Overnight the train crosses the spectacular bridges that link the Danish archipelago – it’s a good idea to set an alarm to get up and watch the crossings – before it reaches Sweden and pulls into Malmö station for a long rest.

It clanks out again at 5am, with the Rörsjökanalen canal shifting quietly alongside. It’s then a glorious five hours of farms, lake houses with pontoons, woods and winter sun bouncing off canals before Stockholm.

Just a 10-minute walk from the station is Downtown Camper (doubles from about €100 a night room-only), a super-cosy, eco-friendly hotel with fabric walls, baby-soft throws and reading seats in the bedroom windows. Filled with greenery, it also has huge communal spaces for working and reading, and hires out bikes, kayaks and skateboards.

The mighty breakfast buffet includes 10 types of plant milk and vats of lactose-free porridge, perfect fuel for riding a rented bike over the bridge towards Gamla Stan, the city’s old town.

Here the cobbled streets are lined with boutiques selling handwoven tablecloths and wooden toys, and medieval churches play lengthy tunes on the hour. Housed in a 17th-century vault, Movitz pub and restaurant on Tyska Brinken in the old town is a merry spot for toast skagen – topped with pink shrimp, dill and sour cream – followed by sole roulade with lobster béarnaise.
Berth in cabin and seat from about 500 Swedish krona (£38) with SJ

Monisha Rajesh is the author of Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000 Mile Journey, published by Bloomsbury (£10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardian.bookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply



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