From brave little trains tunnelling through the mountains of Norway to luxurious vintage carriages trundling east to Istanbul, Europe is criss-crossed with romantic railway rides
Since its inaugural journey in 1883, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express has set the standard for super-luxurious train rides. Today, its magnificently restored 1920s Wagons-Lits carriages come with a tangible sense of history, right down to the plush but decidedly cosy sleeping compartments (there are no showers on board). The white-gloved service and five-star cuisine is faultless, and the company reminds all passengers “you can't overdress on the Orient-Express”. Popular with couples celebrating something special, the train is also enjoyable for a group of four, as you can have your own dining table. London to Venice is the best-known and most romantic ride, but Orient-Express (0845 077 2222, www.orient-express.com) also offer tours to such alluring cities as Rome, Vienna and Prague, while the truly nostalgic should book the train's annual commemorative run from Paris to Istanbul in late August.
Roof of Norway
Threading through the rollercoaster scenery of southern Norway, the 292 miles of track connecting the port of Bergen with Oslo presents a sensational procession of fjords, tunnels, austere mountains and dark, forested valleys. It takes approximately seven hours to ride the highest mainline railway in Europe, which opened in 1909 and must be protected in many places by snow sheds. At Myrdal station, at an altitude of 2,841ft, there comes a bonus track - the extraordinary Flåm branch line that spirals down to the fjord far below. Most of this rests at a gradient of 1:18 - the descent takes around 55 minutes and forms the high point of a popular day excursion known as 'Norway in a Nutshell', which includes a cruise through the towering Naeroyfjord. Taber Holidays (01274 875199, www.taberhols.co.uk) offers a variety of packages to Norway featuring train journeys.
Across the Highlands
Running for 164 miles between Glasgow and Mallaig, a gateway to Skye and the Western Isles, the single-track West Highland Line makes a determined progress through a soul-stirring landscape of Scottish mountains, lochs and moors. Tourists have been admiring the views - and a formidable feat of railway engineering - since 1894, when the first section to Fort William was completed. Today, the full one-way journey takes over five hours - railway buffs and Harry Potter film fans might want to break their ride at Glenfinnan to see its station museum and massive 21-arch viaduct. Tickets, including an overnight sleeper service from London to Fort William, can be booked through First ScotRail (08457 550033,www.scotrail.co.uk). In summer, West Coast Railways (01524 732100, www.westcoastrailways.co.uk) run a steam train on the line, and the luxury Royal Scotsman (0845 077 2222, www.royalscotsman.com) passes through on a four-day sightseeing round-trip from Edinburgh.
The train in Spain
Green and mountainous, with crowd-free beaches and a staid but engaging culture, the coastline bordering the Bay of Biscay is traversed by a network of dogged and delightfully scenic narrow-gauge railway lines. Spreading west from Spain's Basque Country to the wild Atlantic shores of Galicia, with a branch leading south to León, this inexpensive service has plenty of little stations where you can hop off to explore. It will appeal most to independent-minded travellers who like the idea of riding the slow train to El Ferrol. The lines are run by FEVE (www.feve.es), who also offer day excursions on Sundays between July and September (www.trenesturisticodelnorte.com), and operate the upmarket El Transcantábrico (www.eltranscantabrico.com), which makes an eight-day tour between Bilbao, León and Santiago de Compostela. Explore (0845 013 1539, www.explore.co.uk) offer guided group tours of northern Spain using FEVE routes.
Best of British
For a reminder that there is much about Britain that is still glorious, just hop aboard the British Pullman (0845 077 2222, www.orient-express.com). Decked out in a distinctive brown and cream livery, its classic carriages from the 1920s and 30s offer day trips to many top attractions including Bath, Chartwell House (the home of Sir Winston Churchill) and the gardens at Sissinghurst. A sister train, the Northern Belle, covers northerly routes to destinations such as Stratford-upon-Avon, Portmeirion and the Lake District. A champagne lunch or dinner is included and some trips coincide with events such as horseracing at Ascot, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in August or a chance to hear Christmas carols sung at Canterbury Cathedral. A good choice for a special celebration, the British Pullman also offers excursions hauled by steam train, as well as short breaks staying in hotels such as The Ritz in London.
The greatest wonder of Switzerland's railways is not their audacious scaling of snowy mountains, dramatic bounding over raging rivers or scenic skirting of mirror-bright lakes. It's the awesome punctuality. If it's Tiefencastel, it must be 12:47 - no need to look at your watch. While the Glacier Express, which follows the 181-mile narrow-gauge line linking the resorts of Zermatt and St Moritz, is its most famous panoramic train ride, the whole country is so beautiful visitors soon become glued to their carriage window. Roam at whim with a railcard from Swiss Passes (0844 585 8508, www.swisspasses.com), who can also book tickets for the steep cog railway lines, including one that climbs up to the highest station in Europe at Jungfraujoch. Great Rail Journeys (01904 527120, www.greatrail.com) offers escorted group tours to Switzerland, travelling by first class rail from London.