International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
This is no ersatz reconstruction. The carriages are the real deal, most of them dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, and lovingly restored. London-origin passengers board the umber-and-cream British Pullman to rumble down through the Garden of England before transferring to the rake of navy-blue Wagons-Lits that are drawn up alongside the platform at Calais, each with its own crest and polished metal lettering.
Inside, the wood-panelled cabins are covered in marquetry, with floral motifs delicately crafted from polished veneers of boxwood, sycamore and walnut. The dining cars are decorated with opalescent Lalique glass panels of sculpted small-breasted nymphs with bunches of grapes. The chairs are upholstered in velvet and the tables are glittering with Limoges china and crystal wine glasses. Dinner – four courses, fine French cuisine – is a big event, with everyone gathering in the piano bar beforehand, elegantly dressed.
Breakfast next morning is served in the cabin, while the train ploughs across valley bottoms like a slicer, drawing its handsome blue blade across rivers and orchards, before clambering up through the foothills of the Alps. Lunch comes with the last of the long Alpine tunnels and the beginning of a descent through the vineyards of Italy and, ultimately, down to the lowlands again, then out to the lagoon and finally to Venice.
Your journey starts in London, ends in Venice and takes 31 hours (£1,690 one way; orient-express.com).
Oslo to Bergen
The 308-mile feat of engineering that crosses Norway’s rugged spine, linking the capital of Oslo to the coastal city of Bergen, gateway to the fjords, took some 150,000 men 34 years to complete (in 1909). It is a journey that really merits two attempts, in winter and in summer, to fully appreciate quite what they achieved.
The Bergensbanen train climbs up to a 1,200-metre plateau that is almost as high as Ben Nevis, so in winter it fills up with cheerful skiers, seemingly unconcerned by how inhospitable the landscape becomes on the other side of the window as the caterpillar of carriages makes its ascent. The stations are draped in icicles as long as your arm and the landscape becomes a blanket of white out of which emerge skidoos and dog sleds, but the Bergensbanen moves through it all unconcerned; in Norway there’s no such thing as the wrong kind of snow. Geilo, about midway through the journey, at 800 metres altitude, is one of the country’s biggest ski resorts.
The summer journey is a complete contrast. It begins in pleasant agricultural land, but the greenery soon loses ground to gneiss in varying shades of grey as the train climbs onto the barren, rocky, desolate Hardervigga plateau above, where bikers and hikers have taken the place of wintersporters.
You know instinctively once the train has passed the highest point because it starts to descend into a new, more humid, milder coastal climate, and suddenly there are waterfalls and forests all around. At Myrdal a lot of travellers change trains onto the Flåm Railway for the spectacular ride down to the Aurlandsfjorden, on one of the world’s steepest tracks. But the Bergensbanen has its fair share of dramatic scenery, too, as it descends to sea level, and scythes along the edge of beautiful, mirror-calm, mountain-lined fjords to finally reach Bergen.
Your journey starts in Oslo, ends in Bergen and takes seven hours (£23 one way; jernbaneverket.no).