Why you should travel Europe by train

Josh Ferry Woodard

What could be more romantic than trundling through the differing landscapes of Europe by train?

My European adventure starts the moment I receive my Interrail pass in the post. 

Excitedly, I flick through the map of Europe and start filling in my travel itinerary in the journey log. You may not get European passport stamps anymore, but chronicling my expedition in ink conjures a real sense of romance.

I’m travelling by train from London to Dresden, and then onwards to Ostrava in the Czech Republic and Kosice in Slovakia.

My journey is influenced by the idea of sustainable travel. Data from ecopassenger reveals that my route from London to Dresden emits six times less carbon emissions than if I travelled by plane, while my passage from Dresden to the Czech Republic emits three times less carbon.

With the Swedish concept of flygskam or ‘flight shame’ spreading, I want to follow in the footsteps of other travellers and see what it’s like to travel more slowly, and with a reduced impact on the climate.

 

London to Dresden via Frankfurt

My first class Interrail pass entitles me to a delicious breakfast of organic yoghurt, butter, cherry jam, a croissant, coffee and orange juice. A glance out of the window reveals I’ve entered France even before finishing my petit dejeuner. And it’s not long before I’m saying goodbye to the Eurostar and making my first connection at Brussels.

Rocketing along at 300 km/h, I read a few chapters of my book, attempt to focus on the rapidly disappearing countryside and glimpse the famous Gothic spires of Cologne Cathedral before stopping for a homemade pork schnitzel in Frankfurt. Sitting in a traditional German tavern, with hanging lanterns, red and white table runners and bronze etchings on the wall, I really appreciate the freedom to explore different destinations during my journey.

The last leg takes me to Dresden, where I check in at the excellent Hotel am Terrassenufer and make my way to Der Loewe restaurant to meet my travel companions and tour guide over a dinner of sour soljanka soup and breaded coalfish.

 

Bohemian Neustadt

“During the GDR times it was very difficult for young people to get their own flats,” our guide Christoph says as we walk along a street of five-storey Willhleminian terraces with decorated facades.

“One way was to have children. But those anarchists and liberals who didn’t want to have children moved into the dilapidated buildings of the Outer Neustadt. It was agreed that if they renovated the derelict buildings, they could live in them.”

The area became an enclave for Dresden’s alternative communities during Soviet rule and remained the city’s main bohemian quarter when the wall came down. 

Fairy lights sparkle in beer gardens, musicians perform on the streets and students sip caipirinhas at the intersection of Louisenstrasse and Alaunstrasse as they engage in the local tradition of touching the street car as it drives past. 

On our Outer Neustadt night walk we pass colourful street art murals, intimate bars, global restaurants, the biggest drag theatre in Europe (Carte Blanche), falafel vans and the Scheunecafe cultural centre on the way to the brilliant and bizarre Kunsthofpassage.

The inside of this unique courtyard is adorned with quirky sculptures from local artists. There are bright yellow walls with mythical mosaics, pastel green walls where monkeys leap from the head of a tall giraffe and the bright turquoise walls of the singing drains–a series of trumpets and trombones that actually play musical notes when it rains.

 

Historic Altstadt

On the other side of the River Elbe lies the Altstadt, Dresden’s historic old town.

Although the city centre was devastated by the Allied bombings of February 13-15th 1945, renovation work has allowed Dresden to retain its magnificent Baroque buildings and iconic cultural institutions.

Left in ruin for over 40 years the city’s emblem, Frauenkirche church, was restored in 2004 and is once again the main centre of music in the city. Beneath the spectacular dome many concerts are held in honour of Johann Sebastian Bach, who gave the Frauenkirche’s first performance on December 1st 1736.

Dresden Castle, with its Neo-Renaissance turrets and towers, is another example of stunning architecture that was rebuilt after being destroyed in the Second World War. The Royal Palace, as it is also known, is home to a number of extravagant museum collections.

“The collection began in the 16th century but things really started to grow during the Baroque period and the reign of Augustus the Strong,” museum guide Paula-Susanne says as we pass a portrait of Augustus in one of his silver coats of armour.

“At this point in time it was fashionable for rulers to show off their prestige and power with impressive collections of fine arts and cultural artefacts.”

We marvel at the decadent exhibits of the Green Vault, such as the largest green diamond in the world, a golden Ottoman-influenced coffee set and an intricate Ivory frigate, before taking lunch on a pleasant steamboat cruise along the River Elbe.

Another interesting transport option in Dresden is the Trabi Safari. With a fleet of striking leopard print and rainbow striped Trabants, the company allows you to drive around the city in the most iconic of relics from Dresden’s Soviet occupation.

In a convoy of four colourful Trabis, I manoeuvre the strange gear stick, which is mounted on the steering wheel, as we rumble along Sophienstrasse, with the Statue of King Johann on the right and Dresden Cathedral, the resting place of Augustus the Strong’s heart, on the left. The ride may be slow, and bumpy, but it’s an exhilarating experience nonetheless.

 

Dresden to Ostrava via Olomouc

The air is cold and crisp and a sliver of peach light appears on the horizon as we wait for the early morning train to Prague. 

Our journey takes us along the scenic Elbe valley, where early morning mist rises from the surface to obscure the greenery on the other side of the river.

30 years ago, in September 1989, peaceful protests in Dresden and Leipzig changed the political landscape of the area completely. Bowing to pressure from the local population, borders were opened and German refugees in the Czech Republic were finally able to reunite with loved ones in West Germany. They passed through Dresden on this very train route.

We change trains at Prague, deciding to explore the less crowded city of Olomouc rather than the capital. It turns out to be a great decision as Olomouc’s quaint cobbled streets, replete with Baroque fountains, are a joy to stroll through–plus the Czech national train serves us welcome flutes of fizz!

 

Post-Industrial Ostrava

It’s said that in its days as an industrial powerhouse, Ostrava was a dark, grey place where the air was so full of ash and soot that a white shirt would turn black in just a few hours. It was known as the ‘Black Heart of the Czech Republic.’

8 - post-industrial ostrava - lower vitkovice

Nothing symbolises the positive changes taking place in Ostrava since the turn of the century better than the gargantuan Lower Vitkovice industrial plant. Before shutting down production in 1998, the 300-hectare site hosted six coke furnaces, a coal colliery and a huge ironworks. Furnaces reached temperatures of 1,500 degrees Celsius and it was the only plant in Europe where coal was processed from start to finish. 

Today, Lower Vitkovice is home to a 1,500-seat auditorium, various cafés and music venues, a wine and tapas bar and, once a year, the biggest music festival in the country (Colours of Ostrava). 

We walk towards the 71-metre high Bolt Tower underneath gigantic rusted pipes and conduits held together by yellow, brown, black and faded grey stanchions. The scale of the structures is humbling. Soul-searching art murals accentuate the dystopian atmosphere.

Panoramic views from the top of the tower reveal a surprising amount of lush green spaces popping up between the city’s roads, residential areas and abandoned factories. 

9 - post-industrial ostrava - Bolt Tower views

“A lot of work has been done over the last two decades to renovate public spaces and improve the city,” our guide Daniela says. “Ostrava was even a candidate for the European Green Capital 2020.”
 
As we leave the site, heading towards the New Town Hall lookout point for more panoramic cityscapes, the syncopated beat of a jazz drummer meets the warm sound of a saxophonist outside one of the cafés.

Over a delicious dinner of aged beef rolls with risotto rice and rich consommé at Hogo Fogo Bistro, Daniela tells us about her favourite haunts in the city.

“Hogo Fogo roughly translates as ‘something posh,’ and this is one of the places where people go for special occasions like birthdays. There’s a place called Café Daniel, which is actually situated on the third floor of a residential apartment block. Another secretive venue is U Gustava, it’s a hidden absinthe bar on the main square where you need a password to enter!”

After dinner, we leave Hogo Fogo and its exposed brickwork, living walls and hanging lightbulbs for the lively atmosphere and free-flowing Pilsner of Stodolni Street, known throughout the Czech Republic as the ‘street that never sleeps.’

 

Ostrava to Kosice

I wake up the next morning in a spacious suite at Hotel Club Trio with a tall yucca plant for company. A yummy continental breakfast of scrambled egg, sausages, cold meats, salads, bread and coffee gives me the energy to explore the town a little before catching the train. Among the public art exhibitions, stylish cafés and independent fashion boutiques I find a trendy charity shop called Moment selling pearlescent porcelain crockery.

10 - Ostrava to Kosice - dining carriage

It takes around an hour and a half to cross the border from the Czech Republic into Slovakia. The second leg of the journey, from Zilina to Kosice, is simply stunning. We zoom past verdant green valleys, fast-running rivers, the dramatic peaks of the High Tatra Mountains and even an ancient castle or two from the comfort of the dining carriage.

The first place we visit in Kosice is a local craft brewery located in a Gothic style Medieval pub. Hostinec opened its doors in 1542 and is the oldest restaurant still in service in Slovakia, 7th oldest in the world. Passionate owner Peter gives us a tasting tour of the cellar, explaining how the different beers are made.

“This is my all-time favourite,” Peter says, refilling our glasses with a bright pink beer. “I brewed this for my wife to celebrate our wedding day.”

Upstairs the historic bar is buzzing. A DJ plays tunes on a veranda, chalices clink beside stained glass windows and punters dine on refined pub grub beneath gorgeous Gothic wooden beams.

We try yet more of Peter’s experimental brews alongside an accomplished sharing platter of braised beef, crispy cod, grilled vegetables, home fries and breaded cheese–a local specialty. 

 

Cultural Kosice

There’s so much to squeeze into my short stay in Kosice that I don’t have time to unwind in Hotel Bristol’s luxury spa complex. Luckily, the hotel is located right in the middle of town so I do manage a couple of rounds of the breakfast buffet before our city tour begins.

Classical music fills the air as we stroll through the city park and perch on a bench to admire the fountain of the singers.

“When there are performances in the State Theatre the fountain moves in time to the music, which is also broadcast outside for all to hear,” our guide Veronika tells us.

12 - cultural kosice - singing fountain and st elizabeth cathedral

Even when there is not a performance on, the Neo-Renaissance State Theatre is a grand spectacle inside and out, with its glorious 145-petal chandelier, 24-carat gold gilding and Shakespearian ceiling decorations. 

“The prices are so reasonable that you could catch a flight, stay in a hotel and watch a performance for less than the price of a show in many European cities,” Veronika says as we exit the theatre towards St Elizabeth’s Cathedral.

A mixture of Gothic and Baroque, the towering monument is the biggest church in Slovakia and dominates Kosice’s city centre. We climb 126 claustrophobic stone steps to examine the landscape from above before visiting Villa Regia for an unforgettable feast of traditional cuisine.

13 - cultural kosice - villa regia restaurant

Styled like a rural restaurant, with patterned tablecloths, stacks of wood beside the fireplace and decorative ceramics on the walls, the tavern creates a warm and jovial atmosphere. We pick at a fine selection of rich duck liver paté, cured sausage, smoked cheese, salty crumbly sheep cheese, soft gooey sheep cheese and gorge on bryndzove halusky, a popular Slovak dish of potato dumplings in sheep cheese with bacon bits. Garlic soup, lavender lemonade and flaming Slivovica shots are served before I tuck into a divine plate of grilled chicken breast with sprouts, mushroom sauce and spherical potato croquettes.

We pick up perfect cappuccinos from nearby San Domenico Caffe and sip them on the enchanting cobbled streets of Craft Lane, Kosice’s hub of independent craftspeople. 

From the traditional to the contemporary, our next destination is Kino Usmev, a trendy retro cinema where people go to discuss the local art scene over a craft beer or cocktail. A literature festival happens to be taking place during our visit.

Not far from here lies the multidisciplinary Tabacka Kulturfabrik. This former tobacco factory hosts over 1,000 different cultural events each year, ranging from experimental theatre and live gigs to art exhibitions and educational programmes.

14 - cultural kosice - tabacka kulturfabrik

“I really like the Language Café they hold,” Veronika says as she orders a bottle of the famous local mustache beer. “People sit on tables with a flag displaying their nationality and you are free to practise chatting with them.”

“Another of my favourite events is the Living Library. People with specific identities, those who are often misunderstood like Roma or transgender people, stand in the studio and you can approach them to ask questions about their lives.”

 

Gold coins and wine cellars

The region of Kosice is home to many subterranean treasures. In the basement of the East Slovak Museum a security vault holds a spectacular display of 2,920 Medieval gold coins from over a dozen different European countries. The priceless hoard lay hidden for hundreds of years from the 17th century until a casket was discovered during a house renovation on the high street in 1935.

Outside of the city I find myself in a candlelit underground tunnel, surrounded by a different kind of treasure. The humid air reeks of vinegar and behind metal bars I spot dozens of wine bottles, covered in a peculiar spongey mould. The Tokaj wine region of Hungary and Slovakia is renowned around the world for its topaz-coloured sweet wines and this mould is said to protect the precious product during the aging process.

14 - cultural kosice - tabacka kulturfabrik

Described by King Louis XIV as the “Wine of Kings, King of Wines” Tokaji wine is made with berries that have undergone a natural process known as noble rot, which gives the wine its characteristic sweetness. Enjoyed by great writers and composers such as Goethe, Bram Stoker, Beethoven Schubert and Voltaire, it really is a noble wine. 

Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, King of Hungary had a tradition of sending Queen Victoria Tokaji wine as a gift on her birthday, one bottle for every month she had lived. In 1900, on her 81st and final birthday he sent a total of 972 bottles on a grand tour across the continent.

I toast a glass of the sweet nectar with my travel companions and wonder whether Emperor Franz Josef’s shipment travelled along any of the same train tracks that took me to Tokaj.

My European adventure is coming to an end but, from the longing in my heart for the next connection, I can tell my newfound love of train travel will endure.


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