Europe by rail: The romance of the railway

From London St Pancras, Anthony Lambert sets off on a grand tour around Europe, enjoying Art Nouveau in Antwerp, monumental Milan and the French Alps along the way

The champagne bar at London St Pancras has to be the most uplifting place to begin a rail odyssey around Europe. It's impossible not to feel the romance of rail travel at its best, sitting beneath William Barlow's brilliantly restored roof of sky-blue ironwork and flanked by pristine courses of decorated red Butterley bricks. Feet away is the type of train that intelligent governments across Europe have long seen as the way forward for inter-city transport in the 21st century, avoiding the need for flights. But in Britain there's only one option so it's under the Channel we go, to Brussels.

In Eurostar's Leisure Select class, the champagne continues before lunch at 186mph, an appropriate speed for some of the less lovely parts of Kent and Hainaut in northern France, where a book may be preferable to the scenery. Zola's La Bête Humaine, perhaps, or the indispensable Thomas Cook's European Rail Timetable – and before a gibe about anorak tendencies, remember that Proust called timetables "the most intoxicating romance in the lover's library", reflecting his passion for railway travel.

No change of station is necessary at Brussels Midi to continue to Belgium's equivalent of St Pancras at Antwerp Central, which plays a major role in WG Sebald's extraordinary novel Austerlitz. The station serving the city of diamonds and Rubens has undergone a 15-year transformation to create tracks on three levels and restore the eclectic building put up between 1895 and 1905. Designed by Louis Delacenserie with touches of Art Nouveau, it uses 20 different kinds of marble and stone and is topped by a huge metal and glass dome. Even the cafeteria feels like a palace.

Continuing north through the flat landscape of the Netherlands, I alight underneath the Derby-made roof of Amsterdam Central and stand in awe outside the station. The 1880s façade flanking the central neo-Renaissance towers is one of the longest in the world. It was designed by the same architect as the Rijksmuseum, Pierre Cuypers.

Once past the multi-storey bike parks outside the station, there are jetties for boat trips through the city's tree-lined canals, paralleling streets of elegantly gabled 17th-century brick town houses with the occasional aggressively modern but same-scale infill. The pleasure of exploring cities without the pointless encumbrance of a car is nowhere more obvious than Amsterdam. Everyone cycles or walks in the central areas, and if you want to see some of the imaginatively designed developments of reclaimed land, there is an excellent tram or bus service.

No epic train circuit around Europe would take in the full experience without an overnight journey. These days that needn't mean a trek down the corridor at 3am when you need a pee; the Kopernikus from Amsterdam Central to Dresden (and on to Prague) has the latest CityNightLine sleeping cars with en suite showers and toilets. Sadly, there isn't a dining car despite its 7.03pm departure, but there is at least a buffet.

By breakfast the flat, sparsely settled North European Plain of the former East Germany has ended and the first vines appear on the hillsides. The last mile before arrival in Dresden offers fine views over the "Florence of the Elbe" and the magnificent civic buildings that were restored after the 1945 bombing, most recently the Frauenkirche.

The late 19th-century two-level station, unique in its layout of elevated through tracks astride the terminal platforms, has recently been restored to its former glory by Foster & Partners. Besides its cultural treasures, Dresden has the world's largest surviving fleet of steam-powered paddle steamers with nine vessels, the oldest dating from 1879. These graceful old ladies operate a variety of excursions to historic places along the Elbe as well as evening jazz and gourmet dinner cruises.

Sit on the left leaving Dresden for Prague to enjoy the best views of the Elbe, river and railway running side by side through forested hills and dramatic rocky outcrops. The railway passes Pirna and high above the river the fortress at Königstein, both of which were painted many times by Canaletto during his time in Dresden; some remain in the city in the public State Art Collection. Delightful views over broadening landscapes continue across the border with the Czech Republic and into Bohemia, before arrival in the Art Nouveau station of Prague Hlavni Nadrazi.

Tilting Pendolino trains with buffet only now operate some services to Vienna Südbahnhof, making the journey in under four hours, but if you would prefer to soak up the scenery from a dining car, there are slower conventional expresses. Trains on to Venice cross the Semmering Pass, overlooked by Klamm Castle, improbably perched on a pinnacle of rock. The train runs along the shore of Wörthersee before distant views of the Dolomites and the expectant approach across the causeway to Venice Santa Lucia station. As exits from stations go, this has to be one of the most astonishing sights for first-time visitors, for the station fronts right on to the Grand Canal and its tumult of gondolas and vaporettos weaving between the sweep of palaces and churches.

It's a great temptation to make the journey on to Milan last a fortnight, passing as it does through some of northern Italy's finest cities: Padua and its vast elliptical square lined with statues; Vicenza and its cluster of buildings by Palladio; Verona and its Roman Arena; Brescia and its circular Romanesque cathedral. Milan Central station has none of the finesse of these earlier creations, but it's impossible not to be impressed by the sheer monumentality of its grandiose halls with their mosaic floors, columned lanterns and relief carvings, completed in 1931.

Second-generation Cisalpino tilting trains will gradually take over services between Milan and Geneva from December, traversing one of Europe's most delightful international routes. It follows the shores of Lake Maggiore before a spiral of track in its climb to the Simplon Tunnel to gain access to the Rhone Valley.

The late politician Alan Clark was so entranced by views of the French Alps with the lakeside castle of Chillon in the foreground, sometimes enlivened by a paddle steamer, that he described the railway through Montreux to Geneva as his favourite journey. And last year Unesco made the hillsides of vines that make up the Lavaux Terraces on the northern shore of Lac Léman a World Heritage Site for their beauty and unspoilt character.

TGVs from Geneva to Marseille stop at Avignon, an architectural jewel for the defensive Palace of the Popes, on which each of the seven exiled pontiffs made their mark. A change of trains in Marseilles brings you to Nîmes where the use of classical references in the design of many railway structures reaches its apogee, for the station serving the city founded by Augustus is modelled on its most famous Roman monument, the Maison Carrée. This unlikely home of denim (de Nîmes) is remarkable for the well-preserved state of its 20,000-seat amphitheatre and the Maison Carrée, one of finest surviving temples. Smollett thought it "ravishingly beautiful" and the intrepid 18th-century traveller Arthur Young "the most light, elegant, and pleasing building I ever beheld".

The route north to Paris takes you through the countryside of the Cévennes immortalised by Robert Louis Stevenson in his account of what must have been one of the most lucrative 12-day journeys in the history of travel writing. His 1879 Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes remains a classic, and so is the railway journey, though you would never know it from the disinterest of SNCF in promoting what could be the equivalent of England's Settle & Carlisle line. As the train forges north, vineyards give way to barren limestone hills followed by thick forests of ash, rowan and oak as the line climbs through tunnels and across immense viaducts towards the summit of the line at La Bastide, at 1,023 metres. The views from the plateau are panoramic before the railway begins its descent of the Allier valley through woods of pine and larch to St Georges d'Aurac where a branch goes off to Le Puy and its bizarre volcanic plugs.

Black volcanic rock provided the material for Clermont Ferrand's cathedral, the finest Gothic building in the Auvergne, but there is little else to detain one before pressing on to Paris Gare de Lyon and its tall clock tower. A short journey on RER Line D and it's back on Eurostar under the great iron roof beyond the Neoclassical edifice of Gare du Nord, built in 1861-4.

I arrive back at St Pancras after dark when the genius of the restoration's lighting designers takes on a different dimension with the twinkling of "stars" in the roof's glass. Romantic or what?

All aboard: the modern ferry experience

Once the boat train arrived at Parkeston Quay, the trick was to sprint to the front of the queue for boarding the ship to Hook of Holland. That way, you stood a reasonable chance of being first in the bar of the overnight ferry, whereupon you could stake out enough territory on the beer-stained, tobacco-infused seating to stand a chance of at least some sleep.

That, thankfully, was 30 years ago. This month I made my first trip on the overnight ferry from Essex to the Netherlands in three decades, and found the experience transformed.

The port is now Harwich International; the ships, the Stena Hollandica and Stena Britannica, are modern and well-designed. Sleeping in the bar is no longer acceptable, but that does not matter because everyone on board has a berth. We tried both outside and inside cabins – the former a little more spacious and with the added bonus of a window, but the latter just fine and a lot better than trying to doze off with the drinkers.

Plenty of time is allowed for the crossing; you can go to sleep as soon as you board, and wake up well after the vessel has tied up at the other end. As mobile hotel rooms go, it is unbeatable. If you want more to a journey than sleep, there is a calibrated catering offering – fast food or a slow buffet – and a remarkably civilised bar, at least compared with three decades ago. One drawback: on the return journey, the 5.30am alarm call seemed excessively early to make sure everyone was ready for disembarkation an hour later.

The price of the stress-free alternative to flying is far from excessive. It works out about the same as the lowest-budget air fare to Amsterdam, and with the equivalent of two nights in a budget hotel thrown in.

With fuel at all-time high prices, some ferry routes are ending next month: Rosyth to Zeebrugge and Newcastle to Bergen are casualties. But as the airline business goes into decline, other ferry operators are expanding. P&O Ferries, the biggest player between Dover and Calais, has just ordered the two largest vessels ever to be constructed for the route. The first of these 49,000-ton flagships will not enter service until 2010. Before then, the theme of steady improvements continues. Norfolkline is expanding capacity on the remarkably successful Dover-Dunkerque route, and Britanny Ferries will be challenging P&O's Portsmouth-Bilbao service next summer with a new link from the Hampshire port to Santander in northern Spain. Drifting away has never been easier.

Traveller's guide

Rail passes

For multi-country travel, the range of InterRail (IR) passes offers convenience and economy. The countries are organised into four bands, though you cannot include your country of permanent residence. National systems are covered, but generally not private operators. Supplements and/or reservations are required for some trains. Most countries offer national and regional passes, some of them cross-border. Some confer additional benefits: the Swiss Pass, for example, includes all public transport in 38 cities and towns and free admission to most museums.

More information

European Rail Ltd (020-7619 1080; www.eRail.co.uk). Ffestiniog Travel (01766 772050; www.festtravel.co.uk). Rail Choice (0870 165 7300; www.railchoice.co.uk). Rail Europe Ltd (0844 848 4064; www.raileurope.co.uk). Trainseurope Ltd (0871 700 7722; www.trainseurope.co.uk).

Simon Calder paid a total of £305 return by rail and sea for a family of four from London to any station in Holland via Harwich-Hook of Holland through Stena Line (08705 70 70 70; www.stenaline.co.uk)

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