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Some train journeys get you from A to B in the blink of an eye. Others are more relaxed affairs, where your ticket doesn’t just provide transport to a destination but offers hours of meditative entertainment, watching the world slip by outside your window. You could take a plane, but where’s the fun in that?
MEMPHIS TO NEW ORLEANS
[img]https://cdn.newsapi.com.au/image/v1/9f104484726776300d1725aa91029f6c?width=650[/img]The dining car in Amtrak's Chicago to New Orleans train. Picture: AlamyThose Amtrak schedulers are killjoys. At least, that’s our first thought as we tumble out of our beds in Memphis in the pre-dawn to make the City of New Orleans train. The overnight service snakes over 1500km, joining the dots on the country’s musical heritage, chugging out of Chicago, the home of the blues, bound for New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. The entire journey takes 19 hours but even a relatively short segment, like the one we’re taking, is a pleasure, meandering as it does through the hazy, lazy landscapes of Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana that are dotted with simple shacks with porches out the front. If you’ve been out and about in Memphis enjoying late-night blues in clubs along Beale Street, it might be wise to book sleeping accommodation to catch up on rest for the first few hours before enjoying a meal, which is included in the price of a sleeper ticket. The dining car offers regional specialties such as red beans and rice, a typical Creole dish. In New Orleans, get stuck into other waist-expanding fare, such as beignets and deep-fried catfish, explore the fabled French Quarter and Bourbon Street, and pause to enjoy the street-corner buskers who keep the city’s musical history humming.
PARIS TO NICE
[img]https://cdn.newsapi.com.au/image/v1/2214c7cace57e03011630ed5c7a9fe8d?width=650[/img]A TGV from Paris runs along the French Riviera, before its arrival in Nice.
Before jumping on the TGV for the almost six-hour journey from Paris to Nice, treat yourself to lunch at €49 ($77) for two courses in Le Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon’s magnificent belle epoque restaurant. Soon you’ll be whizzing south through the vineyards of Burgundy and past the skyscrapers of Lyons, following the route of the Rhone River. You’ll know you’ve arrived in Provence when the landscape becomes yellower; broken up, in June, with the odd lavender field. On arrival into Avignon TGV station, look to the east and there’s the impressive sight of the walled city surrounding the Popes’ Palace in the distance. Then it’s Marseilles, France’s gritty second city, where the fast TGV tracks end. From here the journey takes a more leisurely pace, allowing travellers to savour the views as the train travels (mostly) along the coast. If the sun’s out, you’ll see why artists flocked to this area for the light. Stopping at workaday Toulon, France’s second-largest naval port, the train heads inland through the wooded Massif des Maures and red rocks of the Massif de l’Esterel. Tanned bodies on the beaches of the French Riviera may provoke envy as you glide towards Nice Ville via Cannes.
ISE SHIMA LINER, JAPAN
There are waltzes playing on the public address system on the Kintetsu rail route between Nagoya and Kashikojima. I am aboard the Ise Shima Liner and it feels like a holiday on wheels as weekenders head south to the boat-filled bays and forested walks of Japan’s most beautiful peninsula. Unlike the Shinkansen bullet service, our little train stops at just about every station. Shima Shimmei has one central platform and no sign of infrastructure. No one gets on or off and the conductor’s deep bows of welcome and farewell are in vain. Toba, however, is a busy entry point to Mikimoto Island, which celebrates the region’s cultured pearl industry. Many passengers have brought bundles of food and flasks of tea to share and I accept their generosity as we pass uniformly green scenery and snatched views of Ago Bay. It is a relaxing journey, at odds with Japan’s fixation on high-speed trains. Nozomi Shinkansen whoosh at up to 320km/h; the new Chuo Shinkansen magnetic levitation trains set to run by 2027 will crack 505km/h. We have taken two hours and 11 minutes (on the dot) to chug about 100km, ample time for my seat-mate, Akio, aged 12, to teach me how to fold an origami frog. Ise Shima Liner operates one round-trip a day from Osaka, Kyoto or Nagoya; Kashikojima is the end of the line.
CHIHUAHUA TO LOS MOCHIS, MEXICO
[img]https://cdn.newsapi.com.au/image/v1/e2b98c6927fd18a5d6c2c81d64c852d7?width=650[/img]The Chihuahua al Pacifico railroad rounds a bend. Picture. Getty Images
Mexico’s Copper Canyon is famously larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon in neighbouring Arizona, but it also has another winning dimension — a rail service that shuttles sightseers between the 2400m-high canyon peaks of Chihuahua state to the sunbaked Pacific Coast. Inaugurated in 1961 and recently given a swish makeover, the Chihuahua al Pacifico train (known to all as El Chepe) traverses 86 tunnels and 37 bridges over a 653km route from the Chihuahua ranchlands through the oak and pine forests of the Sierra Tarahumara mountains and then winding down, down through increasingly tropical vegetation, past settlements of the native Raramuri, the so-called barefoot runners, famous for their cross-mountain sprints. Along the way the locomotive and its six cars (with a restaurant and bar attached) pass few landmarks of note, apart perhaps from Sierra Azul, the Blue Mountain where Mexican revolutionary general Pancho Villa hid from US troops a century ago. But expect scenery in overdrive. Riding alongside giant knuckles of stone crusted in vegetation, perhaps with clouds tucked into their granite creases, and summits soaring more than 3000m into the heavens, this remarkable journey is best viewed from El Chepe’s observation car with its drop-down windows for no-filter photography. If you’re lucky, the conductor might even serenade you along the way.
BERNINA EXPRESS, SWITZERLAND
You can ride the rails right across Switzerland and gasp at scenery at just about every turn. But as far as turns go, few beat the deliciously slow spiral around the famous Brusio viaduct loop. To experience the spiral, book a seat aboard the Bernina Express; the classic four-hour route runs from Chur in the southeast to Tirano, just over the border in northern Italy, but in summer it also departs from Davos and St Moritz. Inventive railway engineers forged a route through a spectacular region that’s home to 937 mountain summits, 615 lakes and 150 valleys, earning World Heritage status for the section of line connecting Thusis and Tirano. Ospizio Bernina station marks the red train’s entry into the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland while Alp Grum station offers a front-row view of the Palu Glacier and the brilliantly blue Palu Lake. Make sure there’s plenty of charge left in your phone or camera, though, for the nine-arched circular stone viaduct. Hang out of the windows, if you dare, for the best angle on the train corkscrewing around the loop. You can also feel the air warm by the minute as the train descends to Tirano, a city of wine overlooked by terraced vineyards.
MAE KHLONG-MAHACHAI RAILWAY, BANGKOK
Thailand’s shortest train route hardly fits the slow-train bill, but this is a true working railway used by locals, and it provides a fascinating insight into the way some Thais make a living. The 65km Mae Klong-Mahachai railway is in fact two lines interrupted at midpoint by a river and an extraordinary local market. You board the little, non-airconditioned service at west Bangkok’s Wongwian Yai station for a roughly one hour, 32km ride southwest to Samut Sakhon port, also known as Mahachai, on the Gulf of Thailand. Here the train rolls through the middle of a busy market that Thais know as talad rohm hoop, or “umbrella pull down market”, but which for good reason foreigners call Risky Market. As the train approaches, the market stalls part like the Red Sea before Moses, with vendors rapidly pulling back their canvas awnings and shoppers scrambling clear of the tracks. Most passengers and shoppers lunch at the market’s food stalls before rejoining the train to Bangkok. But you can press on, taking a local ferry across the nearby Tha Chin River to Ban Laem station. The second leg of the journey, of similar duration, is aboard a less frequent service to Samut Songkhram at the mouth of the Mae Klong River. The little-known line, built privately in 1905 to transport the gulf fishing catch to Bangkok, is now part of the State Railway of Thailand but remains uniquely unconnected to the national rail network.
MORE TO THE STORY
SHORT AND SWEET
MAINZ TO KOBLENZ, GERMANY
[img]https://cdn.newsapi.com.au/image/v1/b2e9e13048402d34b5a153158d54a41f?width=650[/img]Marksburg Castle, in Braubach, Germany.
For 2000 years the Rhine River has been the main trade route between central Europe and the North Sea. It has provided inspiration for great German writers Goethe and Heine, and its shores are said to be the home of the legendary Nibelungen race of Wagnerian opera fame. While many choose to travel the 100km by cruise ship, a 76-minute train ride along the Middle Rhine’s west bank reveals the river’s best scenery and offers a glimpse into the region’s storied history. As the train pulls out of Bingen, the river narrows into a series of gorges, interspersed with rolling vineyards and immaculate villages punctuated by church spires and golden weather vanes. Then past Mouse Tower, a 13th-century tax-collecting island castle, before travelling downriver, where cliffs rear and more castles loom, some splendidly ruined. The town of Oberwesel still has 16 of its original 21 fortified towers. Just before the island-fortress of Pfalz, the river valley narrows dramatically, squeezing the rail line against cliffs opposite Lorelei Rock, named for the beautiful mythical maiden who lures sailors on to the rocks here. Marksburg is a whopping fortress on a crag across the river just before Koblenz, where the Rhine and Moselle merge.
NANJING TO SHANGHAI, CHINA
The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway runs the world’s fastest train, snub-nosed and white, with an interior more aeroplane than train carriage. The livery is light grey, the seats dark blue (red in posh class) and cabin attendants wear natty uniforms. The train has reached 487km/h in trials, but expect to travel at 300km/h. The Nanjing-Shanghai section brings you to interesting towns, though you sacrifice some speed, travelling about 300km in 70 minutes. Nanjing is a lively university city with a relaxed air, good museums, leafy cafe-lined boulevards and riverside promenades. Purple Gold Mountain is a favoured local retreat and features the splendid, blue-roofed mausoleum of modern China’s founder Sun Yat-sen. Next stop is Wuxi, an ancient port on the Grand Canal facing often misty Tai Lake. Ferries run sightseeing trips, or climb the hills of Xihui Park for pretty pagoda outlooks. Nearby Suzhou is another must; its museum showcases artworks from Suzhou’s great Ming-dynasty flowering, including ceramics, jade, textiles and statues. The city’s several classical gardens are World Heritage listed; among the most famous is the 12th-century Master of the Nets Garden, where lotuses bloom and dragonflies flit in a series of courtyards.
This article first appeared on www.theaustralian.com.au
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