Forget stale aircraft cabins, security checks and getting to the airport two hours early; the best way to cross Europe is by train. Not your gap-year-Interrailing kind of train, either, but in relative luxury (say schönen tag to strolling about and drinks in the dining car). It can all be done with a clear conscience, too, seeing as rail travel generates 30 times less carbon than flying. But the best part? The sheer sense of distance you get zipping through Europe’s most beautiful spots. And there are few routes more beautiful than the Arlberg Pass between Zurich and Vienna. Here’s our guide to one of the world’s most spectacular train journeys…
Portal to the Alps, Zurich is a central node for European train travel and the starting point on your route to Vienna (though the journey is equally impressive in reverse). Base yourself at mod-minimalist Marktgasse Hotel, a period townhouse in the cobbled Old Town, and spend a day exploring the city’s lakeside lidos, forward-thinking art museums and (make this a priority) the Lindt and Sprüngli chocolate factory.
Zurichsee and Walensee
See-ing is believing
Two things to check before you depart Zurich: that your route goes via Innsbruck (you don’t want to find yourself hurtling towards Munich on a journey that entirely swerves the Alps) and that your window seats are on the left side of the train. This guarantees the best view as you skirt the southern bank of idyllic Zurichsee (Lake Zurich) and Walensee, whose opposite bank rises steeply to an impenetrable wall of mountains.
At the far end of Walensee the train swings northward and, for 30 kilometres or so, passes through Europe’s fourth-smallest country: double-landlocked Liechtenstein. Look out for the turreted castles in this fairytale land, still ruled by the first-born male princes of a stubborn imperial dynasty. If you’re planning to explore, alight the train at Buchs across the Swiss border or Feldkirch in neighbouring Austria and take a bus into Vaduz, the diminutive capital perched on the banks of the Rhine.
Arlberg and the Flexenbahn
In the winter months, we’d hop off at St Anton am Arlberg for the après alone, but with some planning you might arrange to spend a week here, especially now that the Flexenbahn has been completed, a loop of lifts and cable cars connecting St Anton with Lech, Zürs, St Christoph and Stuben. Completed in 2016, it makes this one of the five largest ski regions in the world – renowned for its 300 kilometres of downhill and top-notch off piste. Lech may have been a favourite of Princess Diana, but these resorts are far from a preserve of the elite – most have retained their traditional farming-village atmos, and most still centre around an onion-domed church.
The Flexen Pass
Man vs mountain
Across the valley between St Anton and Landeck, keep an eye out for stretches of the Flexen Pass, a seemingly impossible roadway that carves its way through mountains, straddles gorges, and peeps out from the zipper-like seams of avalanche tunnels. Closed during winter, these tunnels were constructed over a century ago with not much more than ancient oak beams that continue to defy the weight of the rocky mass above.
One of the most iconic moments en route is crossing the iron arch of the Trisanna Bridge, just outside Landeck. Raised 87 metres over a river valley, the bridge is watched over by its neighbour, Schloss Wiesberg, a 13th-century Austrian castle set on a woodland cliff edge. The photogenic pair are best Instagrammed, however, from the roadside of the famous Silvretta-Hochalpenstraße. This mountain road features 34 panoramic but nerve-shredding hairpin bends (and only opens in the summer).
Some 50 minutes beyond Landeck your train pulls into colourful, snow-coated Innsbruck. Skiing is very much the order of the day, with plenty of famous resorts dotting the surrounding mountains. However, Innsbruck’s old town has a few highlights, such as the Goldenes Dachl, a fire-gilded, copper-tiled roof under which Emperor Maximilian I observed jousting 500 years ago. Browse the lederhosen and dirndls at Tiroler Heimatwerk before making your way to the foot of the Zaha Hadid-designed Hungerburgbahn, a series of cable cars that’ll whisk you to the summit of the Nordkette range for one of Europe’s most impressive vistas.
The hills are alive…
As the train clears the last of the Alpine valleys and speeds its way through the Technicolor pastures and hillsides outside Salzburg, you might have to fight the urge to burst into song. The Sound of Music was shot here and at several locations across the city. It’s no surprises Hollywood chose the city for its most famous musical: sure, it was home to the real von Trapp family, but it’s also as cinematic today as it was 50 years ago when the film was first released.
Be ready to press play on Beethoven, Mozart or Strauss – or Ultravox if you’re 80s-inclined – as you pull into Vienna. The city’s Baroque townhouses and jugendstil cafés are doubly refreshing when you’ve reached them by train through the mint-fresh Alps and the country’s picturesque farmland. Classical music and architecture are big attractions here, but Vienna is more than a museum piece. The city has a blossoming contemporary arts scene, and institutions such as the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) are refreshingly forward-thinking. Stay at art-inclined Altstadt Vienna, too, for a colourful interpretation of the city, or the Grand Ferdinand, a minimalist gem hidden behind a stylish Ringstraße façade.
– Railjet provides a stopping service all the way from Zurich to Vienna. Business and first class tickets offer great seats and large windows, and dinner is served to your seat. It’s not quite the Orient Express, but it’s certainly comfortable.
– The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is your blow-the-budget, once-in-a-lifetime option. It leaves London roughly once a week between March and November. The train travels overnight between Paris and Zurich, meaning you’ll likely wake up at the outset of the Arlberg Pass. However, the route deviates south towards Italy just after Innsbruck on its way to Venice.
Featured image via Getty