Southern Italy by rail? popcawn May 2024

Southern Italy by rail? popcawn May 2024

I used to think views like this came at the price of flight, but this photo was taken without me getting above 3000ft above sea level (and that was through a magical alpine pass). This is the view from Sorrento across the bay of Naples towards Vesuvius on my family holiday in April this year. It’s probably my favourite of a number of stunning views we witnessed from the train window as the landscape transformed along our rail journey south across Europe.

Many people are curious about switching planes for trains in Europe, given the immense carbon cost of flying. A number of my friends and family have asked for details of the journey so here’s a short account in case you too are curious about long distance rail travel in Europe.

The first step was to tap into the invaluable resources from the Man in Seat 611. His is a fascinating website and gave us the confidence to embark on the adventure with our two children. We chose to travel to Italy via Switzerland, taking two days to get to Rome first and then on to Sorrento. There are alternative routes and you can get between London and Rome in a single day1, but we allowed generous connection times and aimed for child-friendly bedtimes and teen-friendly wake up times (within reason – but definitely not before 6am).

As it was quite a detailed itinerary (unlike our rail trip to Barcelona a few years back) we opted to book train travel through a travel agent. Except for Eurostar, none of the tickets were available to book until 3 months prior to departure. The agent recommended a 5 day inter-rail pass and booked our seat reservations (these are mandatory in some countries and recommended in others). As there can be several flights of steps when changing trains (especially between inter-city and local or metro trains) we opted to bring two large bags, both of which could be carried on shoulders if necessary and one of which could be wheeled. I dealt with the ticketing and passports etc while my husband did the heavy lifting. Baggage isn’t really restricted on trains like it is when flying – as long as you can lift it to put in the racks it’s generally fine (but check out Man in Seat 61 for further details). It doesn’t matter if your passport is at the bottom of your main bag, nor does it matter if you bring 500ml of suncream in your hand luggage!

Our first proper day of travelling began with the 8.01 Eurostar from London to Paris. Unlike train travel within mainland Europe there are baggage and border checks before boarding the Eurostar so we had to arrive at the station before 7am; we’d stayed overnight on Euston Road so it was only a 2 minute walk until we were in front of the magnificent façade of the historic St Pancras station.*

By 11.30am local time we were in Paris Gare du Nord, with plenty of time to get across the city to Gare de Lyon, where we would catch our next train. It’s just two stops on one metro line and we’d bought a carnet of 10 tickets on the Eurostar beforehand so we were all set. We enjoyed a relaxing lunch at the station before boarding our double decker train that would whisk us south, through the picturesque countryside around Dijon, past the Jura and over the Swiss border into Basel in just over 3 hours. A quick change at Basel and then we were on our hour-long trip to Zurich, catching our first glimpses of the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Alps. Arriving in Zurich we dropped our bags at our hotel then went off to complete the trilogy of having each meal of the day in a different country.

I was so excited for the next leg of the journey and getting up close to some mountains! We caught the 8.33 to Milan, having arrived at the station just after 8am, giving us time to grab a coffee, fill in the inter-rail tickets and trick my husband into thinking I was sat apart from them (the seating plan on this train is a bit quirky!). Shortly after leaving Zurich the views rolled in – expansive lakes, looming mountains and snow on the ground as we went over the Gotthard pass. Needless to say I didn’t get much reading done on that trip – it was pretty much 4 hours’ worth of views! We had our passports checked at our seats as we crossed the border into Italy, so when we reached Milan it was a case of getting off one train then finding the platform for our next train, to Rome. Three hours of watching the scenery change through Tuscany and we arrived in Rome late afternoon relaxed and ready for a few days of sightseeing.

We set off for Sorrento via a mid-morning high speed train to Naples and then catching the very slow, very basic circumvesuviana train that shuttles around the area connecting Naples and Sorrento. Both train journeys that morning took just over one hour, but covered very different distances! We couldn’t use our inter-rail tickets on the circumvesuviana nor make seat reservations. Being a main mode of transport serving Pompeii and Herculaneum it was understandably busy and a wholly different experience from the comfort and space on the inter city train from Rome into Naples. Nonetheless it was enjoyable and humbling to trundle around the base of one of the most renowned volcanoes in the planet.

When our fabulous time in Sorrento came to an end, we essentially re-traced our steps up to Milan arriving there in the early afternoon. From there we travelled direct to Basel, taking a different but equally stunning route through the Alps. We spent the last night of our holiday in Basel, setting off from there mid-morning after a short walk around the old town. We headed back to Paris, had a lovely lunch near Gare du Nord then caught our Eurostar back to London. We stepped off the Eurostar at 7.45pm and were on the train waiting to depart for Wellingborough by 8pm.

Travelling across Europe by train may require a bit more planning, with a longer journey time than hopping on a flight, but my husband and I agreed that we really can’t quantify the benefits of the rail journey. Comprehending the distance travelled, watching the landscape transform, experiencing multiple languages, cultures and the variety of food. It certainly didn’t feel like we were missing out by not flying – in fact the journey was one of the highlights of the whole trip and I’m still buzzing from it!

I’d love to hear about any long distance journeys you have made – please do feel free to share in the comments below!



1.        The Man in Seat 61 | The train travel guide This is an excellent resource for anyone planning a rail trip

 *Otherwise it’s a 10 minute walk from Euston Station (destination for trains from Northampton) or 2 minutes from the domestic platform if you are arriving into St Pancras from Wellingborough.