It can be risky taking a bus in uncharted territory, especially if you have no sense of direction. Once I took the wrong bus home and ended up, perplexed, at Heathrow Terminal 5, and one night in France, thanks to the lack of designated stops and pitch darkness, I earned a Lift of Shame back from the depot. Thankfully, there’s no such trauma with a rigorously labelled rail network, so here is my respective nod to train travel – three train journeys I enjoyed the most.
#3: Swanage to Wareham
Seeing plumes of smoke chugging past the window is usually a bad sign, but on a steam train, it’s mandatory.
Another childhood favourite, the Swanage steam railway runs several times a day through fields of gorse, cows, “long-necked sheep” and the unassuming ruins of Corfe Castle sandwiched between the hills. Of course, on our most recent visit, both steamers broke down and we had to settle for the bog-standard diesel. This resulted in the conductor, in full regalia, walking the length of the train to personally apologise to any steam train aficionados.
If that wasn’t proof enough of the locals’ love of steam, the Swanage to Wareham line was relaid almost entirely by volunteers over the best part of 30 years. And who can blame them, when it’s book-ended by quaint, timeless villages with sumptuous cream teas?
Standard Return: £11.50
Route: Swanage to Norden
Journey Time: About 25 minutes
Railway Website: Swanage Railway
#2: Oslo to Trondheim
This was the first leg of our northern lights cruise. Most of the guides touted the reindeer, musk ox and other stupendous wildlife that could be spotted en route, but they were obviously on their break. Fortunately, the excitement of journeying to see the top of the world and its cosmic fireworks dampened the disappointment somewhat.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Norwegian landscape in winter has a minimalist, art deco feel to it with its severe contours of blaring snow, black rocks and mirror lakes, reflecting neat dark mountains haloed with blue mist. Every so often you would see stabs of red, maroon, purple or beige from little wooden houses, or blue animal footprints in the snow.
The latter part of the journey took us gradually skyward, through smoky, bobbly cliff faces and pine forests adorably fluffy with snow, until we emerged on a plateau somewhere in Oppdal, flanked by low open woodland.
In the distance, the last remnants of sunlight were melting away as we headed further and further north, leaving behind a trail of gilded trees.
Standard Return: 899 NOK/£90
Route: Oslo to Trondheim
Journey Time: About 7 hours
Changes: 0 (cheaper routes may change at Lillehammer)
Railway Website: NSB
#1: Turin to Montpellier
This trip was a hyper-reality of happiness. The scenery was as underplayed and glorious as the relief I felt at escaping Italy (before we kissed and made up), and on this particular day I could finally flee back to France and into the arms of a waiting beau.
The sun was roaring, the frothing clouds were impossibly tall and the sky was so blue it was cartoonish. Near the border we chugged past tiny villages peeping between rock faces as shiny and golden as freshly baked rolls, and among them spattered coarse, invisibly clear waterfalls.
The landscape flattened out and became greener for a time as we headed down towards the Cote d’Azur. Grass began to recede in place of scrubland and primordial-looking plants, until the glimmering ocean suddenly yawned open to our left.
At the end of the journey, the low mountain of Pic St. Loup, near to Montpellier, sat like an errant tortoise shell on the horizon and seemed to move with just as much speed, much to my frustration, but eventually we pulled into Montpellier station where yellow stone, frothy fountains and a beaming French boyfriend greeted me.
Standard Return: 104 EUR/£86
Route: Turin to Montpellier
Journey Time: About 7 hours
Changes: 2 (Cuneo and Nice/Chambery and Lyon).
Railway Website: RailEurope
There’s no doubt that a sense of nostalgia, adventure or freedom make the best travelling companions.