Winning tip: S-bahn around Freiburg, Germany
You’d usually only find an S-bahn network (commuter train) in a big metropolis in Germany, but just outside Freiburg im Breisgau in the Black Forest, a small S-bahn network connects the medieval towns of the Kaiserstuhl hills. The S-bahn grid across the Kaiserstuhl runs in a circle, with stops in Riegel, home to malty Riegeler Landbier helles beer, and Breisach, a hilltop town with views across the Rhine into France. Brightly coloured Alsatian-style houses greet visitors in each town along the route, and winding Kaiserstuhl vineyards provide a magnificent backdrop. Tickets valid for 24 hours start at €6.70.
The local train from Ljubljana Central to Kranj (on the Jesenice line, which extends into Austria) is well-worth it for a day trip: it takes around half an hour and costs about €3.50 for an adult return (book at the station on the day). Kranj, Slovenia’s fourth-largest city, is at the foot of the Julian Alps and on a clear day the view from the train is stunning, complete with snow-capped mountains and gorgeous scenery. In Kranj itself, be sure to sample the local coffee and beer, and talk a stroll in the Kokra river canyon, which can be reached easily from the station.
Tatra Electric railway from Poprad, Slovakia
We spent a week travelling by the Tatra Electric railway around the small towns, resorts and walking trails of the High Tatra mountains in Slovakia. A seven-day pass is only €14 per adult. It’s clean, simple and cheap with beautiful views in a stunning environment. It’s not fast travel; it’s slow and atmospheric and we loved it. We arrived in Poprad by “normal” train, which was scenic enough, then used the electric train to take us into the mountains and for all travel while there for a week. It links on to equally lovely cog railways too. Could not recommend it more highly!
We travelled on the line from Ragusa to Scicli last October to connect two of the locations – both superb baroque towns – used in Inspector Montalbano. The return trip for two was under €12, a bargain given the glorious countryside we travelled through and the walkability and character of the destination. Yes, the train itself needed a refurb, but that didn’t matter as we’d had good food, beer and coffee in town and been in a certain policeman’s office too.
After a few days indulging myself in Bilbao’s pintxos bars and visiting the Guggenheim Museum I took the hour-long train trip to Guernica. The direct narrow-gauge service passes through lush countryside and is a window on the region’s attractive small towns. Guernica, which is in the Urdaibai biosphere reserve, and immortalised by Picasso, is now a place dedicated to peace, with sculpture by Eduardo Chillida and Henry Moore. Visit the Guernica Tree, and the ceramic tile mural of Picasso’s warning to the world about the suffering caused by war. Take the Euskotren E4 from one of four Bilbao stations bound for Bermeo. It takes about an hour and costs €3.
Yellow train, Pyrenees, France
Le Petit Train Jeune crosses the eastern side of the Pyrenees, up into the beautiful Cerdagne Valley. It goes from Villefranche-de-Conflent to Latour-de-Carol and was completed in 1927 after 24 years of toil. Among the many highlights is the traverse of Pont de Gisclard (France’s first metal railway bridge), 80 metres above a precipice, and spectacular Sejourné Viaduct above a plunging gorge. It is an incredible feat of engineering: the views are stunning over the mountains and valleys, though not for those with a fear for heights. Travelling on this route certainly gets you thinking about all those who built it so long along ago.
For only €21.60, you can enjoy just under four hours of quaint and occasionally bone-rattling travel on Corsica’s old-fashioned narrow-guage lines. The views are to die for. Crossing the mountainous rugged interior of the island, journeys start within sight of the azure Med, before winding and climbing between the peaks. Take a stopover in the ancient fortified town of Corte, once the capital, now alive with cafes and bars thanks in part to its reopened university, before descending again to the sea. En route, be assured of breathtaking scenery: it’s the only way to see parts of the interior inaccessible by road.
Only last December was this remote single-track line granted its latest reprieve from long-threatened closure. Rejoice then, because its intriguing journey through the Massif Central is one of continuously glorious countryside embellished with outstanding engineering. Gasp as your view switches instantaneously from terra firma to thin air as the train launches out over the Truyère gorge, borne on Gustave Eiffel’s Garabit Viaduct, near Ruynes-en-Margeride. Gape while, by the Tarn, the train ambles diminutively below the monumental Millau Viaduct, carrying the A75 autoroute so extraordinarily high above. A one-way ticket is about €15 and takes nearly five hours. There’s one direct train a day, leaving Neussargues at 2.36pm.
I found this little railway line by chance when I was 19 and escaping for the weekend from the tyrannical boss of the bar in Switzerland where I was working for the winter. As the little train climbed higher and higher through the most amazing scenery with great views of Lake Maggiore, all my woes seemed to evaporate and I arrived in Locarno calmer, happier, more resilient. It costs from €26 each way though … these railways must be pricey to maintain!
Using the local line from Opole to Łambinowice was emotional for me. In the second world war there was a huge prisoner-of-war camp here, Stalag VIII-B, home to thousands of soldiers and airmen. My father was one of them. The railway line from Opole to Łambinowice is the way most prisoners arrived. The old station is still there, much as it was in 1942, although now they’ve upgraded the line of course and the trains are comfortable and modern. Travelling along the route, arriving at the station, walking to the remains of the camp and museum in the forest is an emotional and thoughtful journey. Nearby is the fascinating Central Museum of Prisoners of War. The journey, much of it through quiet, pleasant countryside of fields and woods, takes about 30 minutes and only costs £3.
Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.