01.08.2015
09:35

Five major London museums

Emily Barber, author of Blue Guide London, recommends five main museums: 

1. "V&A" - the Victoria and Albert Museum - for its architecture and varied content. It is also home to the National Art Library which is a peaceful place to read or study overlooking the courtyard. And the V&A houses one of best collections of jewellery in world. Blue Guide review, details and website »

2. National Gallery - as the best place just to wander and see some of the finest paintings in the world. Details »

3. National Portrait Gallery - where the galleries aren't too large so feel personal. The brilliant portraits are stunning as art and fascinating as history. Details »

4. The Tower of London - where the Norman White Tower still retains a sense of its impressive ancient past. The pure austerity of the Chapel architecture gives a peaceful sanctity (if there aren't too many tourists). The gems in the Crown Jewels are legendary. Have a chat with the famous ravens who are excellent mimics. Details »

5. Hampton Court - a perfect palace in gorgeous setting by river. It still conveys a sense of wonder as you approach and see twisted Tudor chimney stacks. The Stuart part of the palace has one of the finest 17th century interiors in the UK. Details »

Napoleon and Paris: Dreams of a capital

Napoleon and Paris: Musée Carnivalet"Paris shaped Napoleon as much as Napoleon transformed Paris: during the Revolution Napoleon realised that public opinion could be manipulated and that power was to be seized in the capital."

The excellent (though often crowded, this is a small museum beloved by Parisians) Musée Carnavalet dedicated to the history of Paris hosts this exhibition that "explores the complex relationship between a remarkable man and one of the world's most beautiful cities" to coincide with the two hundredth anniversary of Napoleon's defeat* at Waterloo.

The museum and its permanent exhibition tracing the history of Paris are covered in Blue Guide Paris, for opening times, ticket prices (including online purchase) see the museum's own website.

(* - or was it really a defeat? Surely a defeat that "shines with the aura of victory"?)

Whither Tate Britain?

London is thriving, museum attendance is higher than ever.  Here are the numbers (visitors) for some of the main museums:

 

2014 2004
1 British Museum 6,695,213 4,868,176 +38%
2 The National Gallery 6,416,724 4,959,946 +29%
3 Tate Modern 5,785,427 4,441,225 +30%
4 V&A South Kensington 3,180,450 2,010,825 +58%
5 Somerset House 2,463,201 n/a
6 National Portrait Gal. 2,062,502 1,516,402 +36%
7 National Maritime Mus. 1,516,258 1,507,950 +1%
8 Tate Britain 1,357,878 1,733,120* -22%
9 Imperial War Museum 914,774 754,597 +21%
10 Hampton Court Palace 560,513 498,278 +12%
11 Churchill War Rooms 472,746 306,059 +54%

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source ALVA (* Tate number is for 2005, 2004 not given.)

William Hogarth 1697–1764

So what's going on with poor old Tate Britain?  Its stunning collection of many of the best-known works from the greatest names in British painting—Hogarth, Turner, Blake, Constable—seems underplayed on the website, and yet this should put Tate Britain at the top of the list for the London visit of every British school child, foreign tourist, NADFAS day tripper or urban intellectual. And indeed shows on subjects such as the Pre-Raphaelites or Turner do well. The exhibitions with challenging themes maybe less so: irrespective of their quality, this may not be where Tate Britain's competitive advantage lies?

And what about the legacy of its modern art mission, thoroughly eclipsed by the arrival of its altogether more modern—right down to the name—sibling, Tate Modern, in 2000?

All questions for the people who run 'Tate'.  And very relevant now, as a replacement is sought for Tate Britain's chief Penelope Curtis.  Hard decisions and major changes may be needed, but, asks Martin Oldham in Apollo Magazine, is her successor being handed a poisoned chalice (Tate Britain: A Poisoned Chalice)?

The new Blue Guide London covers all the museums in the table above, and many more, extensively. And all are listed in the older Blue Guides Museums and Galleries of London, given too here on our website, with contact details and opening times.

16.06.2015
14:56

The many lives of Nasreddin Hoca

Nasreddin Hoca is the darling of the souvenir shops. More or less all over Turkey one can find the figure of the rotund sage with his outsize turban and huge prayer beads, on books, statues and statuettes and a variety of objects. His philosophy, with its touch of the absurd and at the same time faultless, infuriating logic, is alive and kicking—so much so that to this day new Nasreddin objects are invented to supply a market that is clearly thriving. The last on the list is a clock that goes backwards while still telling the time correctly. Nasreddin himself was fond of playing with the subjective idea of direction. He would not be faulted for riding backwards on his donkey since, according to him, it was the animal that was facing the wrong way. And so the legend grows and grows. Generation of children have been brought up on his moralising tales while the saucier stories feature in adult conversations with innuendoes that all, at least all Turks, can follow.

 

The man himself is a bit of a mystery. It is not even sure that he ever existed. Experts have pored over all the stories that are attributed to him and agree that he must have lived somewhere between the 13th and 15th centuries. Tamerlane, the man from the east who plunged Anatolia into chaos towards the end of the 14th century, features in one of his tales. The general consensus is that Nasreddin is the expression of the popular wisdom of the Anatolian peasant caught up in the conflicts between embattled Byzantines, insurgent Turks and conquering Mongols. The battlefield was always the same: Anatolia. Its peasants bore the brunt of the havoc created by the clashing armies. Humour was one answer, possibly the only one available. Today the Byzantines are no more, the insurgent Turks have been tamed and the Mongols have gone back home. The Anatolian peasant is still there.

 

Over time the legendary Hoca has been given some flesh and bones. The Ottomans started the ball rolling in 1905 when a kiosk was built enclose the so-called tomb of the sage in Akşehir. The town developed as a Nasreddin destination complete with a 'centre of the world monument' and more recently a park containing lifesize images of his stories, including a gigantic cauldron that featured in 'The Cauldron that Died'. The giant trestle enabling tourists to be photographed wearing the Hoca's trademark outsize turban is unfortunately no more. Akşehir, a town otherwise of little interest, did well by the tourist trade until a nearby rival, Sivrihisar, entered the scene. There is nothing to link Sivrihisar to Nasreddin Hoca (at least nothing that can be historically proven) and the same applies to Akşehir. Yet now they claim to have a tomb with his and his daughter's bones, proof positive that he was born there when the town was called Hortu, as well as his house, still standing 800 years on (quite a feat for a wood and mudbrick structure).

 

Recently yet another contender has thrown its hat into the arena, giving the Hoca's story a complete new twist. In Ankara, as you leave the railway station, you are welcomed by a statue. There is something uncannily familiar about it. The huge turban, the backwards riding position: we have seen this before. But Nasreddin is not on a donkey. Instead he is riding a Zincirli neo-Hittite lion, genetically twinned with a sphinx, hence the wings. The tail is that of a snake. Suddenly the sage has been pushed back a couple of thousand years, if not more. The sphinx is an Egyptian connection and harks back to the Hittites who had close contacts with them. Those were the good old days, when the king of the Hittites could look the pharoah in the eye, call him 'my brother' and give him his daughter in marriage. Suddenly the Turkish presence in Anatolia lays claim to stretch back that far, though historically it is known that Turkish tribes began infiltrating the Byzantine Empire from the East in the early 11th century. It is entirely appropriate that this pastiche of a monument should be in Ankara, the city from which Atatürk made his bid to supply the emerging Turkish nation with a glorious past dating back to the dawn of time. He was not interested in a merely Islamic past. Instead he bent the archaeology and the historical evidence to his aims—and although recently Ankara has somewhat reneged on this legacy, as the disagreements over the city's emblem show, the rejection of it is clearly not one hundred percent.

 

by Paola Pugsley. Paola is the author of three ebooks on Turkey, published by Blue Guides. Her Central Anatolia with Cappadocia is currently in preparation.

02.06.2015
14:41

Lesley Blanch: On the Wilder Shores of Love

The name Lesley Blanch drifted into my consciousness in Italy in the late sixties. I cannot remember whether it was her book The Wilder Shores of Love or someone who knew her that came first but I had soon dug out her book, by far the most famous of several she wrote, and was absorbed by it. Blanch tells the story of four 19th-century women who sought emotional fulfilment in the Orient and it is a masterpiece, not only for the vigour and sensitivity of the writing but also in the way that Blanch’s own yearnings for exoticism and mystery travel with her subjects, from the penniless Isobel Arundel, obsessive lover and later wife of the scholarly vagabond Richard Burton, to the racy Jane Digby, escaping scandals at home and eventually marrying, as her fourth husband, Sheikh Abdul Medjuel El Mezrab, whose family controlled the land around Palmyra in the far east of modern Syria.

 

Few in the early 21st century would have imagined that Lesley Blanch was still alive but she lived until 2007, dying in the south of France at the age of 103. A devoted god-daughter, Georgia de Chamberet, has now put together fragments of the autobiography and memoirs that Blanch never published and, as one might expect, it is an extraordinary story. The single child, who appears to have arrived much to her parents’ surprise, began an apparently unexceptional life in Chiswick in west London, then still undeveloped, with marshland and a miscellany of fishermen’s huts and grander houses along the Thames. Yet an exotic visitor to her home, Theodore Komisarjevsky, a theatre designer, always known as ‘The Traveller’, inspired her fascination with travel to the East. ‘The Traveller’ became her first lover when she was seventeen, seducing her when she was supposedly being chaperoned in Paris. She was now on her way, studying at the Slade and earning a living from painting before she began her writing career as Features Editor at Vogue in 1937. Several of her pieces are included here, from the specific nature of British ‘cold’ to the versatility of Noel Coward.

 

The most extraordinary part of her memoir describes her marriage to Romain Gary. Of somewhat mysterious Russian birth but brought up in France, he had distinguished himself as an aviator in the circle of De Gaulle. The couple met in London during the war at a party given for the Free French. Gary was irresistible to women, un grand coureur, and their relationship could hardly have been anything but volatile. Hypochondriac, prone to self-dramatisation, an égoiste enragé, all too ready to withdraw into himself, he was simply impossible. Yet his diplomatic career took them from Bulgaria and Switzerland to New York and Los Angeles, eleven postings in all, while he sustained a highly successful career as a writer—alone in having won the Prix Goncourt twice. Only someone of extraordinary tolerance could have sustained him as long as Blanch did. He eventually deserted her after seventeen years of marriage for the actress Jean Seberg, but her frank account of their tortuous relationship is fascinating.

 

Blanch had a passion for objects. Already, aged seven, she had acquired a painted box, perhaps of Persian origin, to keep her sweets in. ‘The Traveller’ gave her a Fabergé egg and by the time she ended up alone in the south of France, her house was drenched with silks from Afghanistan and rugs from Aleppo. A library of early travel books on Russia and the Islamic world filled her shelves alongside icons and manuscripts. A small wooden frog, later identified as the tobacco-holder of a Baltic sea-captain, captivated her. And then in April 1994, fire swept through her house destroying almost everything. Bizarrely one of the few survivors among the ashes were photographs of Gary as a boy and his mother, entrusted to her when they first met and kept by her after their divorce. ‘Romain was once more demanding the limelight.’ The photographs are reproduced here.

 

This is an affectionate and engaging collection of pieces. From Marlene Dietrich cooking Blanch omelettes and conspiring with her (unsuccessfully) to obtain a burial plot in a little Russian cemetery outside Paris, to a gossipy relationship with Cecil Beaton and a scene with Truman Capote lying across her knees, there is much to feast on. It certainly should get us reading or rereading The Wilder Shores of Love.

 

On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life, edited by Georgia de Chamberet, London, 2015. Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity.

The Middle Ages on the Road

16th-century French tapestry of the story of Laureola and Leriano with, in the background, mules being saddled and packed for a lengthy journey.

At the Bargello museum in Florence a small and delightful exhibition in the two rooms off the medieval courtyard is running until 21st June. Il medioevo in viaggio is the result of collaboration between four European museums (the Bargello, the Musée du Moyen Âge in Paris, the Museu Episcopal of Vic in Catalonia, and the Museum Schnütgen of Cologne). The exhibition has already been shown in Paris and will move on in the summer to Vic. Here in Florence it also celebrates the Bargello's 150th anniversary and it is the last exhibition to be held under the excellent curatorship of Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi, who has now retired as Director.

It has much of interest for Blue Guide users, and for all those who love travel.

 

The exhibition begins with a fascinating portolano (or portulan) of c. 1440. This is a parchment map showing coastal harbours (with the rulers of the day shown sitting in their tents). Also on show is the oldest nautical chart known, dating from the 14th century, which illustrates the behaviour of the winds. These precious parchments are both preserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale and the Archivio di Stato.

 

The history of pilgrimage is illustrated with more intimate artefacts, including a codex from Lyon showing a bishop blessing two pilgrims’ bags and staffs before they set out on their journey. Early medieval leather shoes and badges and brooches worn on hats and cloaks are on display, and tiny portable altars in porphyry (used when Mass was celebrated on the road) include one probably made in Winchester in the 11th century. Even baptisms could be performed en route, and a  little 13th-century wooden salt cellar, in the form of a church with a bell-tower, was evidently used to produce Holy Water for such a ceremony. One of the very few paintings in the exhibition (loaned from Vic) shows a 15th-century Flight into Egypt, clearly referring to contemporary travel, since the Holy Family are accompanied by a maidservant carrying their luggage on her head and a cow is being led along beside them so milk would be available for the Child, and there is another group of travellers in the background.

 

Crusaders and their horses are recorded with 13th-century bits and stirrups. A beautiful very well preserved 14th-century miniature from the Bargello illustrates a city being besieged by land and sea. An ivory plaquette is of twofold interest: its smooth back with traces of wax has proved it was used by a traveller to take notes, and its recto is carved with a scene of two crusaders holding their noses to block the stench emanating from the bodies of Christian soldiers killed in the Seventh Crusade to the Lebanon in 1253 after they had been exposed too long in the sun, but which the conscientious St Louis IX is happily burying. This saintly king of France reigned for 44 years and was a great reformer and founded the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris for his collection of relics: but he was no good as a crusader and died of dysentery on a voyage to Tunis.

 

Another extraordinarily precious possession of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale of Florence is a 1392 edition of the Il Milione of Marco Polo, one of the most famous travellers of all time. The ring with an engraved ruby, thought to have belonged to the Black Prince himself, made in England in the 14th century (lent by the Louvre), is appropriately displayed above a brooch made in France in the same century and now in the Bargello. They both have very similar enamel and gold decoration as well as identical inscriptions from St Luke, which indicate that they were considered talismans designed to bring luck to the wearer.

 

Caskets for valuables, trunks and bags and portable folding furniture are also part of the display. An octagonal table with Gothic carvings, dating from the late 15th century, was evidently taken on trips by its wealthy owner since it could be 'closed up' so it fitted snugly against a saddle. The exhibition closes with a wonderful tapestry made in France in the early 16th century illustrating a popular medieval legend but chosen for this show because it includes a charming detail of a mule being loaded with trunks as a group of travellers prepare to set out on a journey.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

Hellenistic bronzes in Florence

The Boxer, lifelike portrait of a pugilist.

“Power and Pathos. Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World” is the penultimate exhibition to be held under the mandate of James Bradburne, Director General of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi. Bradburne has succeeded in turning the palazzo into Florence's most important exhibition space.

And no more fitting show could have taken place to mark the end of his tenure: it is filled with great masterpieces, and accompanied by a scholarly catalogue. When it closes in Florence (on 21st June) it will travel first to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles  (until 1st November) and then to the National Gallery of Art in Washington (until 20th March 2016).

Perhaps the most striking feature of the exhibition is the consistency it reveals in the styles of masters working in the Alexandrine world of Greece and during the later Roman era. A map (also reproduced in the catalogue) records the extraordinarily wide geographical area where the pieces have been found, either underground or underwater. The exhibition has deliberately concentrated on the “explicitly ‘un-ideal’: the innumerable contingencies of real-life physiognomy” which are the feature of Hellenistic art. But the curators of course were faced with the fact that so little bronze sculpture (as opposed to marble sculpture) survives because it was so often melted down. A tragedy because the skill (and technical ability) of the sculptors was never again equalled until the Renaissance.

To set the tone of the display (which is not chronological), the first room has just two exhibits. The first is a bare limestone base with its statue missing, which is here because it bears the signature of the greatest Hellenistic sculptor, Lysippus of Corinth, who was Alexander the Great’s court sculptor and who is reported by Pliny to have made no fewer than 1500 bronze statues. Not one of these survives, but other statue bases like this one can still be seen in Greece. The other exhibit is the splendidly-displayed Arringatore, or Orator. Because it normally forms part of the collection of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Florence itself, it seems appropriate that it should be here to greet visitors, its right hand stretched towards us in a gesture usually interpreted as a call for silence. The Etruscan inscription on the toga tells us that the statue was made in Chiusi and it is dated to the late 2nd century BC.

The next room has another magnificent piece from the same museum, the Medici-Riccardi Head of a Horse. Examination of its copper-tin alloy during its restoration for this exhibition has confirmed its date of the second half of the 4th century BC. It belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent and is to this day perhaps the most important classical bronze in Florence. Beside it is displayed a very well-preserved statuette (found in Herculaneum) of Alexander the Great mounted on his famous steed (the mane worked in just the same way as the larger head), with silver trimmings (one of many important pieces from the Archaeological Museum in Naples loaned to this exhibition).

Two very different but memorable portrait heads dating from the 3rd century BC are also in this room: that of Queen Arsinoë III of Egypt, and an unknown man, much less regal, wearing a flat leather cap (known as a kausia). He was fished up in the Aegean sea in 1997 and it has been lent by the local museum of Pothia on Kalymnos, in the Dodecanese. This is one of numerous underwater finds which have been made in recent years, and it is always good to learn, as in this case, that they have remained close to where they were found. This piece is an almost miraculous survival: its flashing eyes, made of alabaster and faïence, are still intact and it takes an honourable place alongside works of much greater fame and from much more accessible museums.

In the third room we come face to face with the famous, over life-size Boxer (from the Museo Nazionale in Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome), as he sits to regain his strength, his hands strongly bound up in leather and with clear signs (made with copper inlays) of combat on his scarred face with its broken nose. Dating from the 3rd century BC and unearthed in the 19th century on the Quirinal hill, this would have been brought back to Rome as war booty and exhibited in a public place as an example of the highest expression of art known at the time, an accolade it holds to this day.

Close by, in strong contrast, is a little brown statuette from the Metropolitan Museum of Art of an elderly man in a short tunic with a notebook tucked under his belt: he only has one leg and an arm is missing but he is thought to represent an artisan. Also from the same museum comes an exquisite statue with a green patina of Eros fast asleep: depicted as an infant with exquisitely carved wings, this is the forerunner of many depictions of cupids, cherubs and putti in Western art. A statuette of Hermes in his flat hat is a beautiful work lent by the British Museum, somehow typical of that museum’s extraordinary collection of masterpieces, not all of them as well known as one would expect.

The ‘pathos’ of the exhibition’s title is summed up in the portrait of a man from Delos, one of the best-known of all Greek portraits, lent from the Archaeological Museum in Athens. He has a furrowed brow above piercing eyes made of glass paste and black stone. It is exhibited near two other portrait heads: one from an Etruscan votive statue thought to have been found on an island in Lake Bolsena in 1771 (and now in the British Museum) and the other from the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, an extraordinarily refined work which retains even its eyelashes and its unshaven chin, also found in Italy (in 1847), and a very early example of Etruscan/Italic/Roman art (late 4th century BC).

The famous Greek bronze Apoxyomenos (the athlete scraping himself down with a strigil) from Ephesus is represented by a replica from Vienna (spectacularly restored in 1902 after it had been found in 234 pieces) and the head of an athlete purchased through Sotheby’s by the Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth in 2000 (with a long pedigree including its presence in an 18th-century collection in Venice). A Roman marble statue the Uffizi here is also derived from the Apoxyomenos (wrongly restored in the Renaissance to hold a marble vase instead of a strigil).

Two more statues come from Florence’s Archaeological Museum: the Minerva of Arezzo, derived from a statue of the Praxiteles school (of which numerous copies have survived); and, in the last room, the so-called Idolino, which dates from around 30 BC and would have served as a lamp-stand at banquets. Its very beautiful head shows great similarities to that of the lovely small bust of an Ephebe from Benevento (lent from the Louvre and exhibited beside it) with red copper lips: this is dated a few decades before the Idolino.

Florence’s Archaeological Museum have been involved as partners in this exhibition and in fact have produced their own little show in conjunction with the main one (it also runs until 21st June). Entitled “Small Great Bronzes: Greek, Etruscan and Roman Masterpieces from the Medici and Lorraine Collections”, it shows some of the museum's most precious possessions, arranged by type

by Alta Macadam. Alta is the author of Blue Guide Florence and Blue Guide Tuscany, available in both print and digital format.

16.05.2015
16:41

Europe by rail - an introduction

See all rail travel articles »

Latest update: May 2015

See the updated trans-Europe services for 2015 »

If you are intending to travel by rail in Europe, Mark Dudgeon, Blue Guides’ resident rail expert, offers advice about where to start and suggests some of the most useful internet resources to help in your planning:

Eurostar at St Pancras, London ...

GENERAL PLANNING

Seat 61 is an ex-railway manager’s personal but comprehensive guide to travelling by train in Europe and the rest of the world. Once considered to be rather too anglo-centric (“How to get from London to….”), it has since expanded to include more detailed information about travelling by train within and between almost any country which has a rail network. Regularly updated, this site is a good starting point for organising a journey by rail in Europe.

Deutsche Bahn‘s website is, they claim, “Europe’s biggest online travel booking tool”. Certainly, it is generally considered to be the best timetable planner for train journeys throughout Europe. When planning journeys, exercise care, however – except for within Germany, this site does not show temporary or last minute timetable changes: national rail websites are better for this. Weekend journeys in Britain, for example, are frequently disrupted by engineering work on the line.

If you enjoy poring over maps when planning journeys, the Railways through Europe site has comprehensive rail maps for each country, although you may find the design of the maps more of interest to the rail fan rather than the independent traveller.

EUROSTAR

For many British citizens, at least, Eurostar has offered them their first experience of international train travel. Despite being 20 years old now, and looking rather jaded in parts – standard class seating is cramped and the bistro cars are particularly dismal – the Eurostar experience still can captivate the imagination in a way that short-haul flights cannot. London’s St Pancras station is a particularly impressive place to start a journey: until you get past check-in, that is - the Eurostar waiting lounge can get overcrowded very quickly. The experience should regain its glamour factor over the next few years, however, with Eurostar introducing new trains, and a new service from London to Marseille, which started in May 2015. Unfortunately, Deutsche Bahn, which had announced plans to introduce through trains between London, Cologne, Frankfurt and Amsterdam, has now put those plans on indefinite hold.

EUROPE-WIDE RAIL PASSES

One of the big decisions, when planning to do some serious train travel in Europe, is whether or not to buy a rail pass. The two principal types for extensive travel, which have a variety of geographic options (for one or more countries) and several validity periods, are Eurail and Inter-Rail. The basic rule is that Inter-Rail passes are available for anyone resident (for at least six months) in Europe, and Eurail passes are available for everyone else. The best sites for checking the details, including advice on planning trips, and buying passes, are the official sites operated by the Eurail.com company: Eurail and Inter-Rail.

It is important to note that – with some exceptions - Eurail and national passes can generally only be purchased before you arrive in Europe (or the specific country). Inter-Rail passes can be purchased in your country of residence, but they do not allow free travel in that country.

NATIONAL RAIL PASSES

Several countries also issue their own national passes independent of the Eurail/Inter-Rail scheme, and sometimes these offer a better deal. Most passes are available to anyone not resident in the country of travel.

The ever-popular Swiss Pass and Swiss Flexi-Pass cover most types of public transport in Switzerland without extra payment, or at a discount. There is also the useful Swiss Card, offering a visitor a round-trip transfer from the Swiss border (including airports) to any Swiss destination and back, plus unlimited tickets (including boats and some cable-cars) at 50% discount for one month.

The German Rail Pass is only available for non-European residents. Passes are available for a number of days-of-use (from 3 up to 10) within a period of one month - the days do not have to be consecutive.

Renfe’s Spain Pass operates in a different way: you can select passes offering from 4 to 12 long-distance journeys within one month. Connecting local train services at each end of your journey are included free of charge.

The range of BritRail passes is available in several variations, from the London-Plus Pass to the Britrail Pass itself - covering England, Scotland and Wales - with another version including all Ireland. BritRail also offers various discounts on the standard pass prices: for example for low-season travel (November to February), and – unusually – for a British resident travelling together with a visitor.

LOCAL RAIL PASSES

If you are visiting one country, and want to explore a smaller area by train, there is also a variety of local and regional train pass offers available to all travellers. Some countries are better than others for this: Germany, for example, has the excellent one-day Länder-Tickets valid on regional and local trains in each German state, for up to five people travelling together. These have the added advantage of being available on local transport in towns and cities – for example, the Bayern-Ticket is valid on Munich buses, trams and U-bahn (subway) as well as local trains.

Britain has a wide range of regional passes valid for one or several days, although you will need to dig around a bit on the Rangers and Rovers page to see if one would suit you.

BUYING TICKETS

While European train travel has become generally faster and more comfortable over the past couple of decades, it has also become more fragmented – rather than government-owned megaliths operating all the rail services within each country’s borders, privatisation has begun to make its mark in some countries (notably Britain), and several private operators run cross-border services (Eurostar from London to Paris and Brussels, and Thalys from Paris to Amsterdam and Cologne being prime examples).

Twenty years or so ago, you could roll up at the International Travel Centre on platform 1 at London’s Victoria station, and ask for a one-way ticket from London to Budapest. The clerk would dutifully consult a very large tome – the international ticketing manual - you would agree with him the route you intended to travel, and he would calculate a price – all worked out by the distance travelled in each country you passed through. The ticket would be issued, and you were all set – you could stop off anywhere en route, without formality, within the two-month validity of the ticket.

So nowadays, if you decide a rail pass is not for you, or you simply just want to purchase a one-way point-to-point ticket, where do you start?

If your journey is straightforward and involves only one operator, in most cases you can simply visit the operator’s website and book online, print your ticket off (or have it mailed to you).

However, things can get more complicated very quickly. It can be a challenge finding a travel agent able and willing to issue an international train ticket for a complicated routing. (It involves a lot of manual work). If you want to book online, some websites make a brave attempt at pan-European ticketing. Loco2, for example, is relatively new and gets some good reviews. For our London – Budapest journey, it will quote you a price - or rather two or more prices for separate tickets on specific trains – but the options it will offer you are limited. If you want to stopover in Cologne, say, on the way, you’re going to have to split the journey into two, and even then you will only be offered a small number of options.

Alternatively, in Britain, for example, Deutsche Bahn’s UK booking centre can be very helpful in pricing and ticketing more complicated journeys by phone.

Here are our tips for purchasing rail tickets:

1. Flexibility or specific trains? On most websites, you will be offered tickets for flexible travel (check the operator’s conditions) or cheaper tickets for travel on specific trains, which are often not refundable and not changeable (so if you don’t travel or you miss your train, you’ve lost your money). The choice is yours; you need to assess how important flexibility is to you. If your journey requires more than one non-flexible ticket, do ensure that you leave plenty of connecting time between trains, since it is not guaranteed that one operator will be understanding, and let you travel on a later train if you miss a connection because of another operator’s delay.

2. Journeys within one country: it is usually best to use the national operator’s website to book tickets, for example Deutsche Bahn for Germany or Trenitalia for Italy. You are likely to be offered the best range of tickets, and the booking experience should generally be smooth. However, do check if a smaller private operator runs trains on your planned route. For example, you might consider Westbahn if travelling between Vienna and Salzburg (instead of the Austrian national operator, OeBB); or Italo between Rome and Milan (instead of Trenitalia).

3. International journeys: many countries have bilateral or multilateral agreements with nearby countries for ticketing for specific rail journeys. In this case, check for the ticket you require on the website of the operator in either the departing or arriving country. (So, for example SNCF and DB for a Paris to Frankfurt ticket.) In some cases, you may find that the ticket is cheaper on one site rather than the other.

 

Here is our list of the principal national rail sites, useful both for up-to-date timetable information and booking tickets:

Germany: Deutsche Bahn (DB) for booking rail tickets within Germany, and for international journeys starting or ending in Germany. There is the odd additional quirk: for example, you can book a London to Salzburg ticket, since DB considers Salzburg to be within Germany for ticketing purposes; or the night train from Amsterdam to Prague (which is operated by City Night Line, a Deutsche Bahn subsidiary). Their London-Spezial tickets - for journeys between London and Germany - can be particularly good value.

France: SNCF in its various guises can be a bit clunky. Try Capitaine Train instead – also useful for some international tickets.

Italy:  Trenitalia is quite user-friendly; usefully, train pass holders can also book and change reservations-only on high-speed trains.

Other national operators' websites include Spain: Renfe; Austria: OeBB; Switzerland: SBB; and the Netherlands: NS.

In Great Britain: National Rail represents the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC). To find out the specific train operating company (TOC) for your journey, consult either the online timetable or the maps section. Refer to the individual operator’s website to buy tickets.

 

Other major operators on specific routes include:

City Night Line: the largest operator of night trains in Europe, mainly for journeys originating, ending or passing through Germany.

Eurostar – London to Paris and Brussels

Thalys - Paris to Brussels, Cologne and Amsterdam

Thello - Night trains between France and Italy, and daytime trains between Marseille, Nice and Milan

TGV Lyria - Trains between Paris and Switzerland

 

And the most beautiful rail journey in Europe? Perhaps this one:

 

See all rail travel articles on blueguides.com»

Archive

follow us in feedly