Call me a trains guide, and blow a whistle when I walk past, but I love the magic associated with train travel. From the grandeur of the stations themselves to the routes the tracks follow – what other mode of transport winds down precipitous mountain slopes, courses along windswept coastlines, and speeds through tunnels under the sea – rail journeys are an experience, rather than just a way of getting from A to B. So this week, in homage to the locomotive, we’ve picked out a few rail journeys that inspired us. They may not have the elegance of South Africa’s Blue Train or the history of the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, but they certainly got us scribbling in our notebooks.
The malabar express.
The journey through the old Raj, the jewel in the crown of India, begins in Mangalore, Karnataka and follows the coastline of the Arabian sea till its final destination in Ernakulam, Kerala. It’s a new line connecting Goa and the south, so hasn’t yet made it into the guidebooks, or onto the circuit of the Ashram-seeking backpackers. With the call of the chia-coffe-chia Wallah, the conversation in countless different dialects, and the breathtaking scenery outside the glassless window frames competing with the breath-holding stench on the inside, you can’t mistake being anywhere other than in an Indian train. The vistas can be absorbed at will as Indian trains take on no speed on their travels, express or no express. The left-hand side of the train is the best place to sit, as the Malabar uplands strike up from the flat of the coast, and jungle-covered hills appear in the background. In early August, once the monsoons have moved on, everything is a deep lush green. The train buzzes along, past huts, coconut groves and palm trees, and occasionally, people break into song – the latest Bollywood smash single or a song for the gods. The ride is a long one – nearly 12 hours – but the memory stays with you for the rest of your life. Getting on board: Train tickets can be brought from government run ticket offices at any train station in India. A 2nd class sleeper costs the equivalent of €1.40 per person.
The Flam Railway, Norway
Whether you’re fascinated by dramatic scenery, Nordic legends or feats in engineering, a trip on Norway’s Flam Railway is certain to get a mention in your memoirs. The journey kicks off at Myrdal, a snowy mountain station 866 meters above sea level. In fifty minutes the train winds beneath white-tipped mountains, past thundering waterfalls, through 20 tunnels, and down into Sound Of Music-esque valleys dotted with colourful wooden cottages. The train finally comes to a stop in the tourist town of Flam, just 2 meters above sea level at the edge of the breathtaking Sognefjord. The Flam Railway is considered one of Norway’s leading innovations (after the invention of velcro of course), and engineering junkies will be fascinated to know that during construction, one of the biggest challenges (next to dodging avalanches) was figuring out how to get the train to stay on the steep mountain sides. Their solution was to carve hairpin tunnels into the mountain – 18 of the tunnels you pass through were excavated by hand. Those clever Scans.
Finally, if you’re a mythology buff, you can get your fix en route at the Kjosfossen waterfall. According to an old Nordic legend, an enchantress of men would appear to travellers, using her wily ways to woo them into the mountains for a bit of slap ‘n’ tickle, never to return again. In true tacky tourist style, when the train stops for a spot of sightseeing, a dark haired Norwegian beauty appears beneath the cascades, enticing Japanese tourists ao toss down their Nikons and run away with her forever. Getting on board: A single ticket on Flam Railway costs 195. However, most tourists end up on the train as part of the Norway In A Nutshell day trip (540). Tickets can be purchased at all manned railway stations and at most travel agents in Norway.
Avignon to Marseille, France
Don’t say you heard it here, but most short trips through the South of France (under an hour) can be taken free of charge – no one checks fares. Naturally, it will be on that one daring occasion you brave the trains sans ticket that you get stopped by the French rail authorities. So as I said, you didn’t hear it here. Beginning in the verdant, wine-growing Cote du Rhone delta and ending in the blinding white deserts of the Ð toile Chain – part of the Hills of Provence at the tail end of the Alps – it’s difficult to drift to sleep on this trip. Leaving Avignon means waving goodbye the crisp, dark blue waters of the Rhone.
The first half hour of the ride is a peaceful roll through pastures spotted with cows and horses, and vast, endless rows of vineyards. Soon, the greenery is replaced by powder sands, covered with sporadic sprouts of sparse, dry grass. Jagged, rocky peaks stand out in the distance throughout the journey. Before you know it, houses start to appear, jutting out from cliff tops next to the giant aloe-shaped cacti. The ocean comes into view. You find yourself in an urban centre. The architecture is your standard Mediterranean fare of whitewash, pastel-painted stucco and terracotta roofs, with clothes and linen hanging out the windows to dry. You’ve arrived, cherie. Getting on board: Tickets cost 112 per person and can be purchased from the local ticket office.