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Fast, scenic and the downright dirty: 5 European Interrail journeys I'll never forget

Aug. 02, 2020
9 min read
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Traveling around Europe by train is a great alternative to flying, which many are looking to avoid given the current pandemic. Interrail is a company that provides passes for travel all across Europe for a set price, meaning you can explore to your heart's content.

Passes vary and can have certain limits on the number of countries you can visit and the number of days you can travel. For example, one of the most popular "one country" passes is Italy, which allows from three to eight days of travel in one calendar month.

During a vacation, I wanted to see as much as possible, so I paid $500 (2013 price) for a pass that allowed unlimited travel across 30 countries during a month.

My route wasn't the most conventional and spanned from as far west as Lisbon to Corfu, Greece, in the east. I took a couple of flights to save time (and money) and even slept on the floor in Geneva Airport twice. All in all, it was an absolutely unforgettable trip and I would highly recommend ramping up your sense of adventure and exploring Europe by train.

Here is a selection of some of my most memorable journeys.

1. Bari, Italy, to Corfu, Greece, by ferry

One of the great things about Interrail Europe is that depending on the pass you buy, you get discounted rates on some ferry travel. Because I had a global pass, I was able to get a discount on Superfast Ferries to get from mainland Italy to Corfu, just off of the coast of Greece.

Thanks to a few rather traumatic boat trips, I'm not the biggest fan of sea travel, but the overnight sailing from Bari to Igoumenitsa was smooth and it was beautiful waking up to the sunrise over Greece. From there, there was a small wait for the hourly ferry from Igoumenitsa to the port of Lefkimi in Corfu. There isn't a discount for Corfu Ferries, but it only cost $13 each way.

Related: 11 things I wish I knew before visiting Greece

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Corfu Ferries leaving Igoumenitsa on its way to Corfu (Photo by Tamboly/Getty Images)

Sailings are notorious for being canceled or delayed for hours on end, so be sure to leave as much time as possible before your next boat, plane or train to avoid unplanned expenses.

2. Naples to Sorrento on the Circumvesuviana

The Circumvesuviana was not the introduction I expected to the idyllic Italian Amalfi Coast. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

In total, there are six lines — all starting at the Napoli Porta Nolana station in Naples, including the route I took to one of the line's final destinations, Sorrento. If you're staying in Naples, then this is the train you would take to visit Pompeii -- the ancient Roman city buried by a volcanic eruption in 79 A.D.

There are two express services to Sorrento that run every half-hour or so, taking either 50 minutes or one hour and 10 minutes, depending on the schedule.

This train ride made it into my most memorable five journeys not because of how impressive it was, but rather because of the way it epitomized backpacker and student travel. The first thing I noticed was the graffiti that covered almost every inch of the carriages.

Related: 11 of most scenic train rides on earth

(Photo by Patrick1977Bln/Flickr)
A graffiti-covered Circumvesuviana train at Sorrento station. (Photo by Patrick1977Bln/Flickr)

I arrived at Naples Porta Nolana station from Milan around 5 p.m.-- just in time for the evening rush hour. The lack of air conditioning in carriages crammed full of Napolitanos making their way home after a long day's work made the already-dirty and uncomfortable train almost unbearable at times during the 50-minute journey.

Napoli circumvesuviana train to Sorrento (Photo by Salvator Barki/Getty Images)
Inside a Circumvesiviana carriage. (Photo by Salvator Barki/Getty Images)

As the train meandered its way slowly through the 36 stations, which were for the most part just as decrepit as the trains, it gradually emptied out leaving some of the sweaty plastic seats unoccupied and the air finally started to circulate.

I was so hot and bothered that I opted to stay standing but soon got distracted by the stunning views of the ocean that appeared between the tunnels and buildings of the tiny hillside towns.

Journeys on the Circumvesuviana are included in the price of Interrail tickets and no advance reservations are required.

3. The Lusitania sleeper train from Lisbon to Madrid

There's something magical about going to sleep in one country and waking up in another. With overnight sleeper trains, you get to experience exactly that. The Lusitania sleeper train -- operated by Spanish rail company Renfe -- is a train that departs from Lisbon at 9:25 p.m. and heads to Madina del Campo, a Spanish village around 30 miles southwest of Valladolid, where it splits into two trains. One goes to Hendaye in France, arriving at 11:33 a.m., and the second, which I took, goes to Madrid Chamartin station, arriving at 8:40 a.m.

Related: 5 lesser-known spots for a summer vacation in Spain

It was the only overnight train that I took on my six-week trip around Europe and I would have taken more if I could. The cabin and bedding were simple but plenty comfortable enough. That, plus the gentle movements of the train made for a solid night's sleep despite it stopping at 15 stations along the way.

Related: Top hacks for visiting Spain like a local

The train heads northeast for several hours before it crosses the border into Spain at Vilar Formoso, and for much of that time, in the distance, I could see the forest fires that ravaged the Portuguese countryside in 2013.

With the Guadarrama Sierra in the background (Photo by Gonzalo Vázquez Hidalgo/Flickr)
With the Guadarrama Sierra in the background (Photo by Gonzalo Vázquez Hidalgo/Flickr)

This route is one of the most-popular night trains that Interrailers take, so it's advisable to book as far in advance as possible. With an Interrail pass, some journeys require that you buy tickets separately — sometimes with a discount. Reservations can be made up to three months in advance, and the price ranges between $8 - $138 depending on the seat or bed you choose. Because I was a broke student, I opted for the four-bed sleeper in turista (economy) class, which set me back $35.

4. Geneva to Milan

The EuroCity train from Geneva to Milan should definitely be added to your list of train journeys in Europe, as the scenery is out of this world. The train skirts around the edge of Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman) and the views across the lake and of the snow-capped mountains in the distance are breathtaking.

As you get nearer Lausanne and onward to Montreux, the views get more impressive -- make sure your camera is fully charged. From there, the train heads slightly south before going east toward Brig, the last station before crossing the Italian border. It's highly likely that your camera will be out for the entire journey anyway, but make sure not to miss out on the views as the train heads south alongside Lake Maggiore before arriving into Milan almost exactly four hours after leaving Geneva.

Lausanne is near the lake Geneva, there have beautiful hills (Photo by
(Photo by luxiangjian4711/Getty Images)

Ticket reservations are advised and are free when made at Swiss stations. I decided to get my ticket delivered so that I had everything I needed before I left. The delivery itself only cost me $8 but the reservation was free.

5. Madrid to Barcelona

The super-high-speed AVE train from Madrid to Barcelona is the quickest train I've ever been on. The world outside whizzes past the window at blurry speeds of over 186 mph -- the train even displays the speed it's traveling at, which many tourists (and even locals) take pictures of.

Related: 6 things you should know before your next trip to Barcelona

From the barren emptiness of the beige Monegros Desert to the luscious green of the Catalunyan wineries -- you can let your mind wander with the changing landscape.

AVE train with Montserrat in the background (Photo by Miquel González Page/Flickr)
AVE train passing through Catalunya with Montserrat in the background. (Photo by Miquel González Page/Flickr)

The AVE is a train operated by Spanish rail company Renfe and covers Europe's largest high-speed rail network. It can reach speeds of up to190 mph, meaning you can travel from Madrid to Barcelona in less than three hours. Reservations are required and cost from $8 for a reservation in regular economy class to $28 for first-class (preferente) where a meal and drink service is included (except Saturdays).

Related: Second Cities: Destinations to add onto a trip to Barcelona

Bottom line

Interrailing around Europe is an entirely unique experience and a great option for anyone with a sense of adventure -- whether you're a student, family or retiree. The best thing is, thanks to the countless destinations across more than 30 countries, the journey and adventure possibilities are endless.

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto