Step onto a train at London St Pancras and later that day you could be tasting the crop of The Loire Valley, wandering the grounds of a schloss or tucking into chunks of cheese in Gouda. All these experiences are within reach without the hassles of air travel – which have only become more pronounced during the pandemic.
Journey by rail and you can watch the landscape evolve, sip champagne as you ride and perhaps even stop for lunch along the way – all while feeling a little smug about your less cumbersome carbon footprint.
On the continent, more than a third of the 150 busiest short-haul flight routes have a suitable rail alternative with journey times of less than six hours, according to research by Greenpeace. The environmental group is calling on the European Union to ban flights on routes where there’s an alternative train journey of six hours or less. This comes days ahead of COP26 (the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties), which begins in Glasgow on October 31.
Britons who already understand – where possible – train travel to be more pleasant and comfortable than flying, or those who fancy giving it a try, may find inspiration here.
The Eurostar, via continental connections, opens up tens of cities that can be reached from London within a day. Options with journey times of six hours or less include capitals, quaint villages and scenic tracts of countryside. We’ve selected a few to consider.
Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
Battle the crowds of central London in the morning and by late afternoon you are transported to Holland in the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, the more practical plan would be to enjoy an evening in Amsterdam, enjoying a leisurely morning, then boarding a 20-minute train. A kind of living museum, Zaanse Schans is a residential neighbourhood as well as an area in which the traditions of baking, cheese-making and metal casting (at the pewter foundry) are still in action. Take a long stroll past statuesque – thanks to the football-pitch-flat land – windmills, wooden houses and workshops, building your appetite for a break at the pancake restaurant.
Journey time: approx 4hr 50mins
Namur, capital of the Namur province, has an intricate back story. It sits on the confluence of the Meuse and the Sambre, which made it a strategic base for past rulers. The Medieval citadel looms over the city and within its walls and underground passages it charts some 2,000 years of European history. You can even taste some of the local brews in its subterranean rooms. Wallonia is known for its trappist breweries and there are plenty of local varieties to sample, such as Blanche de Namur, Gauloise Blonde and Chimay Gold. Hop on a Eurostar to Brussels-Midi and from there take a train of around one hour to Namur.
Journey time: approx 3hrs
If you’re partial to its namesake cheese, or are simply intrigued by the cheese-making process, then you’ll find much to recommend this city famed for its fermented milk. You will have, in fact, landed in cheese valley – an area comprising four regions: Gouda, Bodegraven-Reeuwijk, Woerden and Krimpenerwaard. Begin at the Gouda Cheese experience, before sampling the Gouda Cheese Market where wheels of the product are delivered by horse and carts before being stacked up in front of the old city hall. Once you’ve had your cheesy fix, take a turn around the Saint-Jan church, which reaches high above the city and admire its vibrant stained-glass windows. A Eurostar to Rotterdam Central is followed by a short connection to Gouda.
Journey time: approx 4hrs
‘Tis (almost) the season for mulled wine, gingerbread and colourfully-lit city squares. Strasbourg’s Christmas market is France’s oldest and biggest. Stalls stretch out in front of the cathedral, the heft of which dominates the city, as well as springing up in pockets among the traditional half-timbered houses of Petite and elsewhere throughout its cobbled streets. To escape the crowds, layer up and join a boat tour around the city, on the River Ill, then perhaps retreat to the bars of Marché-Gayot. Join a Eurostar to Paris, transfering to Gare de L’Est for a train onto Strasbourg.
Journey time: approx 5hrs
The Loire Valley
Plan a spring trip tour of grand chateaux for something to look forward to in 2022. The delights of the Loire Valley are around an hour from Paris, which (on the fastest Eurostar service), is around two and a quarter hours from London St Pancras International. Take the Metro to Paris Montparnasse where you can pick up a connection to the city of Chartres. Include a stop at the Medieval Cathédrale Notre Dame, perhaps venturing into its crypt, before taking a bus onto the vineyards.
Beyond the city, castles, vineyards and villages await. Local buses are one way in which to hop between chateaux, without relying on a car. Plus, of course, more than 1,000 vineyards are open to the public – wait for spring, or summer and fit in longer days of trying and buying your favourite vintages. Hire a bike and cycle between a carefully selected few, therefore further limiting your carbon count.
Journey time: approx 3hr 45mins
Winter is a fitting time in which to explore Germany’s grand villas, palaces and castles – the chill, with the prospect of a smattering of sleet or snow, adds to the atmosphere. Schloss Dracnehburg, perched above a valley with rounded spires and a pink-tinged exterior, could be lifted from the pages of an 18th-century fairytale – and can be reached from London, via Cologne, in about half a day. It began with Stephan Sarter (born 1833), the youngest son of an innkeeper in the city of Bonn. He became a duke in 1882 and had soon laid the foundation stone of his dream residence – a concoction that combined villa, mansion and castle. Sarter was never to live there, but it did go through a range of eras, including as a summer resort and a boarding school. The park, terraces and towers are now open to visitors.
Journey time: approx 5hrs