Train adventures #1: heading south

I’d planned a couple of train trips this year — one for others, one for myself that I ended up cancelling, but I’d actually never done a ‘proper’ Interrail trip myself. As I was getting to the end of the summer, I felt like a holiday and booked this at fairly short notice.

This is the first of a series of blog posts covering:

  • the trip itself
  • my planning process
  • tips for keeping costs under control

This one’s about my outbound journey.

Overall route

My overall route was from London to Genoa — but through a slow, scenic journey over 3 days, including the incredibly scenic Bernina Express route through Switzerland. It’s definitely not the fastest way of doing this route (more about why I chose this route in my later post about the planning process!), but here’s the approximate route I took:

Map of Europe showing a route from London, through Paris, Strasbourg, Basel, Zurich, a winding route through Switzerland and the North of Italy, through Milan to Genoa.
My outbound route from London to Genova (from DB Navigator app)

Day 1

Interrail covers travel in your country of residence on the day that you take your first international journey. This is useful in countries like the UK where rail travel is expensive, especially if you have a longer journey to start in London.

I still find getting a train under the sea to Europe a novelty. And Eurostar’s service is brilliant too — good quality trains, staff etc. Eurostar’s pricing has increased dramatically in the last two years — but the quality is a cut above most of the other trains on this trip.

Thankfully, I didn’t get caught up in any of the reported long queues at St Pancras — I got there around two hours in advance, but arriving 45 minutes before the train would have been fine too.

Eurostar train waiting at a platform. A few passengers are walking by wheeling suitcases.
Eurostar at St Pancras

I had just 38 minutes to change in Paris, but it’s less than a 10 minute walk from Gare du Nord to Gare de l’Est. An efficient connection like this makes the overall journey from London to Strasbourg less than 5 hours, which is pretty impressive, and I think makes pretty Strasbourg a good destination for a short trip from London.

A river in a city, with old buildings on either side of it. Buildings have exposed beams on the outside. A cloudy day. A few trees in the background, and some flowers in some of the buildings.
Strasbourg

Day 2

I spent a bit of time looking around Strasbourg and ended up taking a later train than planned. None of my trains on this day required reservations — this is where you really benefit from the flexibility of Interrail, since you can hop on any train you like.

The regional train to Basel was a bit of a change from the previous high speed trains — it felt much more like a local service. Nevertheless, these are pretty comfortable trains and this was a beautiful train ride through the Alsace.

(Picture taken through a train window) White clouds and sun shining through them. Mountains in the background, a few buildings, and fields in the foreground.
View from Strasbourg-Basel train

You can travel on most trains in Switzerland without a reservation, and this includes the TGV Lyria services running between Basel and Zürich, which continue across the border from France, even though the TGV Lyria services crossing the border require reservations. Confusing, I know — but useful in this situation!

I’m not a huge fan of the TGV Duplex sets used on this route, or many of the TGV trains to be honest — I find them a bit dated, and dark inside for daytime trips. But I’m just being picky!

The first bit of line east from Zürich towards Chur (and, eventually, Austria), running along the Zürichsee, is really beautiful in my opinion. Being on a great SBB train added to the experience!

Wide expanse of a lake. Sunny day. Land with houses on the other side of the lake. A big plant in the foreground.
Zürichsee from the train to Chur
Inside a train. Two seats facing towards the aisle of the carriage, and another seat facing across a table. The interior is bright and spacious. The walls of the train curve in slightly and there are large windows.
SBB InterCity train, with a mix of seating layouts

After 4 hours of train travel, it was time to stop off in Chur. I spent a couple of days here in some beautiful mountain scenery, which was well worth it and was incredibly relaxing.

View from the top of a mountain across a valley. In the bottom of the valley there is a very built up town. The lower hills have lots of vegetation and grass, and the tops of the mountains are much more barren and rocky.
View of Chur from the mountains

Day 3

Today was the real highlight of this trip. I specifically included this very picturesque route when I planned this holiday.

Both regular trains (included with your Interrail ticket) and the scenic Bernina Express trains (which require a supplement) run on this route. I took a regular train to St Moritz, and then the Bernina Express from there to Tirano. Even the regular trains have large windows, maps and announcements pointing out the scenery on the route — so I think the route is still well worth doing even if you don’t spend the extra to travel in the Bernina Express carriages.

4 seats across a table on a train, with a large window in the background. There’s another train across the platform which you can see out the window, and a screen with information about the journey.
“Non-scenic” train
In a valley, with green fields and mountains on either side. Clear skies and a sunny day.

For this part of the journey, I travelled on the Bernina Express train. I do think the Bernina Express is worth it — the announcements are more frequent, and you get even better views.

This part of the route is also the most impressive — winding and climbing until you reach the highest point of the route and cross the Alps. The descent is even steeper on the other side, and you feel like you’ve moved from the North to the South of Europe in just that journey.

Snow capped mountains in the background. Barren slopes in the foreground.
Not often I get to see snow in September…

The train travels just a few miles across the border into Italy to Tirano for the next leg of my journey.

An imposing mountain in the background, with two station buildings on the left and right.

I had about 35 minutes in Tirano. There are two stations — one for the Rhätische Bahn, which I arrived in on, and one for the Trenord trains onwards in Italy, just across the square from each other.

My train to Milan left on time, but sadly picked up delays as the journey went on. No real explanations were given for the delay, but I arrived into the bustling Milano Centrale almost exactly an hour late.

Although this train travels along Lake Como, you don’t get great views of the lake from the train, as there are lots of buildings between the railway and the lake itself.

The trains between Milan and Genoa are pretty regular, so I just took a train an hour later than originally planned. This train, like most long-distance services in Italy, requires reservations. As I was travelling on an Interrail ticket, I should have been able to get my reservation changed free of charge due to the delay, but I was tired at the end of a long day, so I just bought a new reservation for €3. Luckily, the rest of my journey went smoothly!

Conclusion

This was a really special trip, with some train journeys that were an experience in themselves as well as a way of getting me to my intended destination. As I get used to travelling by train in Europe more, I’m enjoying taking these opportunities to travel to places I otherwise might not go.

Watch out for future blog posts covering one of the quicker ways of getting back from Italy to the UK, and to hear about some of the planning constraints that led me to take this slightly unusual route.

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