Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Europe has so many very comfortable train services, but it's really hard to trump the top-of-the-range Russian trains used on routes from Moscow to many cities in central and western Europe. For inner-EU journeys, these trains are often great value. Hop on board for Russian style.

article summary —

The subterranean platforms at Berlin’s main railway station are neither chic nor glitzy. The interior designers evidently worked from the top down as they decorated this great palace devoted to transport. The highest tier of the station is a crystal cathedral which keeps window cleaners busy from dawn till dusk. By the time you reach the lowest level, the decorators had run out of glitz. The result is a rather clinical subterranean space that has all the charm of a typical dentist’s waiting room — but without the magazines and children’s toys.

Trains come and trains go, though before dawn on a chilly March morning there are nicer places to be than here in the nether regions of the Hauptbahnhof. “The cold air sinks, so it’s often cool down here,” says the man with a mop who has for the last hour or two been making sure that Platform 5 looks perfect. Not that there are any crowds waiting to board the next train from Platform 5. For the 06.23 to Paris will leave Berlin without so much as an announcement.

The EN452 to Paris is one of Europe’s ghost trains. It does not feature in the timetables of German rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB), nor is it listed on the departure boards at Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Most Berliners know nothing of what is now the sole surviving direct train to the French capital. DB axed its own Berlin to Paris service late last year.

These trains from Moscow to France, like other RZD services that run to EU capitals in central Europe, often offer excellent value — not just for journeys to and from Russia, but also for shorter hops wholly within the EU.

On Platform 5 the electronic departure board cautions against boarding the 06.23 to Paris. ‘Bitte, nicht einsteigen’ it reads. ‘Please do not board this train’. There is a terse addition in smaller font indicating that the train now arriving comes from Moscow.

“That’s enough to deter the crowds,” says the man with the mop, reflecting the general mood towards all things Russian in the European Union (EU) these days. Western sanctions against the Russian Federation do not include, however, any restrictions on passenger rail travel.

In late January this year, Russian Railways’ boss Vladimir Yakunin was in Nice attending celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the first rail link between Russia and the French Riviera. The event coincided with the arrival in Nice of the regular Russian Railways (RZD) train from Moscow — a journey which traverses the territory of eight countries. The Nice service is one of two direct routes from Russia to France — the other runs from Moscow to Paris via Warsaw, Berlin and Strasbourg.

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About the authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.

This article was published in hidden europe 45.