Escape Mzansi’s winter with these 5 luxury European train experiences

The Glacier Express meanders through the Alps. Picture: Instagram

The Glacier Express meanders through the Alps. Picture: Instagram

Published Jul 14, 2023


The sun is out and its summer on the other side of the world. If you’re planning on escaping South Africa’s frosty conditions, it’s not too late for a blissful summer holiday soaking up the sun on one of Spain’s pristine beaches or a romantic picnic on the lawn with a view of the Eiffel Tower.

Rail travel is a wonderful alternative to getting around Europe and your ticket to a tranquil and stress-free getaway.

According to Antoinette Turner, general manager of Flight Centre South Africa, rail travel is easy, affordable and recommended if you’re travelling domestically while exploring Europe, especially if you are planning to visit more than one city or country.

“Even some of the world’s most notable rugby stars opt to ride the rail while playing in Europe, highlighting the reliability, comfort and luxury of train journeys,” she said.

Turner said another benefit of rail travel was that it was the most environmentally friendly mode of motorised passenger transport in Europe.

“It emits 6 times less greenhouse gas emissions on average compared to air travel, making it a top choice for optimising sustainability.

Along with general rail travel designed to take you from point A to B quickly, some locomotives and routes promise once-in-a-lifetime experiences and often, the journeys are just as memorable as the destinations themselves,” she said.

So if you’re ready to skip Mzansi’s freezing temperatures, here are 5 luxury European rail experiences you can enjoy.

Switzerland’s Glacier Express

Enjoy a gourmet meal inside the Glacier Express. Picture: Website

According to the Glacier Express, it provides a window into the Swiss Alps. The locomotive takes you on a leisurely seven-and-a-half-hour journey from Zermatt to St Moritz.

The trip is suitable for young and old and travellers get to experience uninterrupted views of the region’s beauty.

The train travels at an average speed of 38km/h, making it the world’s slowest express, providing access to the scenic views of snow-capped peaks, valleys, and alpine forests.

Travellers can soak up the landscape while enjoying culinary delicacies made from locally sourced ingredients.

You can also extend your trip in Zermatt by taking Europe’s highest cog railway to the top of Gornergrat (3 089m), where you can enjoy an unforgettable view of the iconic Matterhorn.

A second-class ticket starts from 73 Swiss francs (about R1 540) depending on the journey and first class starts from Sf129 (R2 720).

The Venice Simplon Orient-Express

When you travel on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, jaw-dropping views are a given. Picture: Instagram

The two heritage trains of the Venice Simplon Orient-Express not only take you from London to Folkestone and Calais to Venice in 24 hours, they also transport you back to the rail’s golden age. The trip is perfect for those looking for a luxurious experience in the train’s opulent carriages.

Travellers can also enjoy entertainment and signature drinks on the train’s Bar Car 3674, which sports restored 1920s and 1930s carriages.

When on board these masterpieces, you can enjoy martinis in the piano bar, indulge in five-star dining in the restaurant cars and immerse yourself in the romance of the trip.

The cabin fare starts from £4 700 (about R112 500) per passenger.

Sweden’s Inlandsbanan

Enjoy a journey on the Inlandsbanan where mountains, fjords, national parks and cities are in focus. Picture: Instagram

If you’re interested in experiencing the north and Swedish Lapland, then this trip is for you. The Inlandsbanan is a 1 300km scenic train route from Kristinehamn to Gällivare.

You’ll move through Swedish Lapland past the Arctic Circle, with scheduled stops to explore attractions like Lake Siljan and abundant reindeer herds. You’ll forget all about the destination and revel in the journey as you marvel at moose and enjoy the midnight sun (June to early July).

A tour package on the train, north to south – Gällivare-Mora, starts from 8 595 kronor (about R15 000) for 6 days.

France’s La Ligne des Cévennes

The Chamborigaud viaduct. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

La Ligne des Cévennes in France offers a captivating train ride from Clermont-Ferrand to Nîmes, covering 304km in 6⅟₂ hours.

This remarkable railway route boasts impressive engineering feats, including 106 tunnels, more than 1 000 bridges, and the magnificent Chamborigaud viaduct, towering at 46m high.

Plus, an early summertime visit practically guarantees you’ll see the region’s beautiful wild flowers in bloom.

Train fare from Nîmes to Clermont-Ferrand starts from €1 (about R20).

Portugal’s Linha do Douro

The Linha do Douro runs close to the Douro River for much of its route, offering scenic views of the river and valley. Picture: Facebook

If day cruising doesn’t quite float your boat, you can travel the 160km from Porto to the quaint rural village of Pocinho on the Linha do Douro railway.

While there’s an opportunity to get to know the locals and emulate their laid-back lifestyle when you reach your destination, it’s all about the journey and the enchanting valley views.

A single ticket to Pocinho costs €13.55 (about R280).

What you need to know about general rail travel in Europe

According to Turner, it is possible to buy a rail pass online and at many stations that allows you to travel to various European countries at a discounted rate.

“For example, Eurail lets you traverse 33 countries using a single pass. You can also usually select a travel class and reserve your preferred seat ahead of time.

While there are reservation-free routes available during the shoulder season, it’s vital to book your seat early during summer when the trains fill up fast,” said Turner.