Across Europe, by train: planning our honeymoon tour

Being the travel geek that I am, it took a long time to settle on a plan for our honeymoon – more than for the wedding day itself, which fell into place with surprising ease. As always, the trick was to find a hook, and in this case the first seed of what would blossom into an elaborate itinerary came from the man in Seat 61‘s website. Italy had already been a promising candidate, thanks to our fond memories of a trip to Rome, love of the food, and the reliably sunny weather. Knowing that trains were an excellent way to get around the country, I had been considering a multi-city tour, when I discovered an oddity of services to Sicily – in order to advertise the Naples – Taormina route as direct, the trains are loaded onto a boat and sailed across! Neither my partner nor I could resist this oddity, and Sicily looked like a great destination (as we’d previously worked out, we really like islands).

However, it seemed a bit strange to take a flight most of the way, only to complete the last section of the journey via seven hours of trains and boats. The sensible choice would be to fly direct to Sicily, but we found ourselves drawn to a different idea: could we do it entirely by rail? Since we were getting married in Rotterdam, that meant finding a route from The Netherlands to Italy. Although I’ve happily racked up journey times nearing 36 hours aboard the same train, we figured this should be a lazy series of stops across Europe, rather than a point-to-point epic. Whilst Europe’s excellent high speed trains would be there when we needed them, we’d also happily take a slow route or outright detour if it let us sample another destination of interest.

Exploring this train of thought – and a map of Europe – lead us to a second irresistible option, thus confirming our crazy plan as the way to go. I’d imagined that including Switzerland would require a route around (or perhaps under) the Alps, but once a day it’s possible to travel over them, on the Bernina Express narrow gauge scenic route. With these two key components in place, it was just a case of completing the puzzle. I added in a few rules: no back-to-back days of long journeys; travelling in as comfortable a class as the budget allowed; and each major stop along the way to be a new experience for at least one of us. With those in mind, here’s what I managed to put together (journeys of over four hours in bold):

Day Travel Stay in
1 Rotterdam – Brussels Brussels
2 Brussels – Frankfurt – Zurich Zurich
3 Zurich
4 Zurich – Chur Chur
5 Chur – Tirano – Milan Milan
6 Milan – Verona Verona
7 Verona – Naples Naples
8 Naples
9 Naples – Taormina Taormina
10 Taormina
11 Taormina
12 CTA – LGW Slough 🙁

To help others planning a similar route I’ve given a rough idea of actual costs, since I find the headline figures on Seat61 wildly optimistic. Obviously these will vary based on both travel and booking date; our adventure ran from May 28th to June 9th, with ticket purchases ranging from February to day of departure. Prices are given for two people, in the appropriate local currency (since these were turbulent times for sterling); I also indicate where we booked when doing so online. I’ve not specified our accommodation choices since there are (generally) many more options and choices should depend on personal preference and budget. The precise selections from timetables are also not given here as I doubt the schedules will stand the test of time – they didn’t even apply for all of our run! – although you can find the details in this post-trip summary.

Travel Phase 1- Positioning to Switzerland

Rotterdam, The Netherlands – Brussel-Zuid, Belgium
Intercity 2nd class, €65 at station (cheaper in advance online at
Overnight stay – Brussels
Bruxelles Midi, Belgium – Zurich HB, Switzerland (via Frankfurt(Main)Hbf, Germany)
ICE 1st class, €281 from SNCB (purchased approx. 3 months in advance)

Although one of our first trips together was to Brussels, and we have plans for a proper return, on this occasion it would just be an overnight stop. Similarly, we only passed through Frankfurt on account of it being the quickest route to Switzerland, pausing there only to change trains. A more leisurely tour could start with some time in either, although we found the prospect of Zurich more exciting.

To recreate the bulk of this trip from the UK, one could simply swap the first leg for a direct Eurostar service from London to Brussels. Alternatively, the German detour could be dropped in favour of a London – Paris – Zurich routing using the excellent TGV; as usual Seat61 is the indispensable guide.

First major stop – Zurich

I first visited Zurich almost five years ago, and have been keen to return ever since; showing Alaina around seemed like an ideal reason to. This was one of the few locations where I was able to put our hotel points or status to work – fortunately so, given the price of Switzerland in general and summertime in particular.

Travel Phase 2- Zurich to Verona, the scenic route

Zurich HB, Switzerland – Chur, Switzerland
RE 2nd class, CHF82 at station
Overnight stay – Chur
Chur, Switzerland – Tirano, Italy
Bernina Express 1st class, CHF252 from Rhaetian Railway RhB (purchased 90 days in advance)
Tirano, Italy – Milano Centrale, Italy
Regional 2nd class, €23 at station
Overnight stay – Milan
Milano Centrale, Italy – Verona Porta Nuova, Italy
Frecciarossa Executive class, £68 from Loco2 (purchased approx. ten weeks in advance)

There seemed to be no price advantage in booking either of the domestic regional services – Zurich to Chur, and Tirano to Milan – online or in advance; plus trains depart frequently enough that there’s no need to commit to a particular time. Nonetheless, the websites of the operators – and Italia Rail, respectively – give the timetables and fares. (Watch out for SBB’s tendency to assume you have a half-price card!)

Booking the Bernina Express, however, is very much the opposite – with only one service a day and few seats in first class, I marked my calendar for the precise date 90 days in advance of departure when tickets would be made available. Even so, there was only one pair of facing single seats to select by that afternoon! Still, being such a crucial part of the journey, I’d have rearranged the rest of the itinerary around it if need be. You can read about our experience here.

Finally, the otherwise routine journey from Milan to Verona got a lot more interesting when, in the process of booking, I saw that it was a Frecciarossa service. These feature four classes, with the top end Executive seating looking more like something from a plane than a train. Even more excitingly, it was pricing up similarly to standard class for a similar length journey in the UK. So naturally I booked us a pair of seats – equivalently, 25% of the carriage – I’d definitely advise searching the schedules for similar bargains. Although the Italia Rail site was fine for timetabling, I found Loco2 more convenient for actually booking (but check whether their conversion to sterling is sensible). Either way, the electronic paperless ticketing for these services could not be simpler.

Second Major Stop – Verona

Arguably we should have allocated more time to Milan, but I imagine it’s a big enough destination that we’ll pass through again some day. We were also keen to maximise our time in Verona, and although this meant three consecutive days of travel, both Zurich-Chur and Milan-Verona are relatively quick plus Chur – Tirano felt like an attraction in its own right. This stop was the opposite of Zurich – an old favourite of Alaina’s that would be a new discovery for me.

Travel Phase 3 – To Naples

Verona Porta Nuova, Italy – Napoli Centrale, Italy
Frecciargento First class, £90 from Loco2 (purchased approx. ten weeks in advance)

At over 700km, Verona to Naples is the longest leg of this itinerary by far- fortunately a ‘Silver Arrow’ is able to cover the distance in a little over four hours. Not only is that faster than anything the UK could muster on, say, the comparable (but shorter) London – Edinburgh route, the fares continued to amaze too. Whilst I had felt a bit guilty booking first class for Brussels – Zurich, here the choice was obvious.

Third Major Stop – Naples

Sandwiched between the longest ride by length, and the longest by time, it was clear we’d need a decent amount of time in Naples. Neither of us were familiar with the city, nor was it a particular draw in and of itself. However, it put us within reach of somewhere that has long been on our bucket list – Pompeii.

Travel Phase 4 – To Sicily, by boat!

Napoli Centrale, Italy – Taormina-Giardini, Italy
InterCity Standard Class, £54 from Loco2 (purchased approx. 2 months in advance)

Given the length of the journey, we’d have booked this in first class if we could, but only standard class carriages run to Taormina-Giardini. But as the original inspiration for this whole trip, we were willing to trade luxury for novelty. After all, you get plenty of space to move around on the boat.

However, services to Palermo do feature first class, so if you wanted to finish the trip in style, you could switch to a destination along Sicily’s northern coast. If like us Taormina is where you want to go, then you could simply complete the mainland portion via the Palermo train, then switch to a Syracuse-bound (and hence passing through Taormina) service. But this seemed to defeat the purpose of the ‘direct’ trains – you could just as easily disembark, take any boat across to Sicily, then rejoin the rail network wherever was convenient. Having now completed the trip, though, I can propose another option… It turns out the services to Palermo and Syracuse depart Naples as a single, long train, featuring both first and standard class. When it reaches the end of the line, the carriages naturally have to split for loading onto the ferry. But having completed the crossing, they are reassembled into two trains, which make their separate ways north or south. So you could in principle purchase first class tickets to Messina, and standard class tickets from there to Taormina; then simply swap carriages when its time to re-board at the end of the boat ride. Whilst I can’t be certain this is encouraged or allowed – I wish I’d figured it out in advance so we could have tried it…

Fourth Major Stop – Taormina

Having traveled all this way, we built in an extended (by the standards of this trip) stay at our final stop. Taormina was again a novelty for both of us, although it came highly recommended by my family. Inevitably though we’d want to explore a bit more of Sicily than just a single town, with Etna top of our wish-list.

Travel Phase 5 – To the UK, by air

Economy class, £217 from Easyjet (purchased approx. 2 months in advance)

We of course considered returning to the UK by train, effectively completing Rotterdam to London via one enormous Sicilian detour. But apart from the option of adding France to the trip, we’d have been covering much of the same ground. So we decided to maximise the time at our chosen stops, and simply fly back. Travelling with BA to Heathrow was only possible from Palermo, and Catania is the much more convenient airport from Taormina. BA also operate from there to Gatwick, but Easyjet was the better option: they could offer exit row seating, speedy boarding, and a more convenient departure time all for a lower fare, even with my staff discounts. Not the most glamorous ending, then – a low cost flight and a taxi ride around London to Slough – but this trip, we are sure, will just be the first of many adventures in married life together!