Dear fellow travellers
The peculiar pleasure of the railway dining car is something we have sorely missed during the pandemic. Having lunch or dinner on a train is always fun, and all the more so if the meal is taken in an exotic restaurant car which has strayed far from its home territory.
A chance reference on twitter this week to a Tajik restaurant car that runs all the way to Moscow has prompted us to recall some unlikely meals on trains. A few years ago Czech Railways ran a daily train all the way through northern Germany to the North Sea island of Sylt (linked by a rail causeway to the mainland). So it was perfectly possible to enjoy a Czech-themed lunch while rattling north through the flatlands of Schleswig-Holstein.
Prior to the wholesale withdrawal of many international trains on account of the pandemic, the only direct train from Innsbruck to Nice had a Polish restaurant car. Let’s hope that one will be back before too long. We make common cause with Vitali Vitaliev who in his latest book remarks: “I don’t know about you, but I experience pangs of hunger the moment I board a train.” By way of backing up his thesis, Vitali quotes Russian satirists Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov who observed that “rail passengers eat a lot.”
So it’s no surprise that passengers making an evening journey from Cologne to Bremen may well be tempted to take dinner on the three-hour journey. Many trains on the route have a German restaurant car, but there are two departures (at 17.09 and 19.09) where there is the rare delight of dining in Swiss style. The restaurant cars on those two trains are Swiss rather than German, so it’s a chance to try an apéroplättli with a glass of Swiss chasselas while Germany’s Ruhr region slips by beyond the carriage window. And that’s just for starters.
Travellers from Hamburg to Berlin will find Czech and Hungarian interlopers adding culinary variety on that route, though we hear that the Hungarians have suspended restaurant car service during the pandemic. Too bad, but meanwhile the svícková on the Czech trains still goes down a treat.
There is, we think, no finer way to experience Austria’s Semmering Railway than from the comfort of a Slovenian restaurant car. We are clearly not the only travellers who tweak their travel plans according to the character of the restaurant car which might be found on this or that train. The legendary George Behrend, chronicler of the rise and fall of Wagons-Lits, knew the strengths and weaknesses of the wine cellars of the principal European railway companies, and would navigate his way around the continent in the sure knowledge that the evening departure from Lyon to Geneva would have one of his favourite Burgundies.
Fifty years ago, the European Rail Timetable - a wonderful monthly compilation which is still published - would often note the national affiliations of the restaurant cars of the main expresses, just as the timetable compilers helpfully advised the provenance of the sleeping cars on many routes. It was surely important to know that one would be sleeping in a Russian carriage but eating in a Yugoslav restaurant car when planning a journey through the Balkans.
So, as and when we all get moving again, we certainly plan to take the weekly night train from Berlin to Paris featuring Russian sleepers and a Polish restaurant car which rather strangely has often had kangaroo steak on the menu. And we’ll make time to enjoy Austrian schnitzel in Switzerland, Czech beer in Poland and German currywurst in Austria.
Meanwhile, if you are like us still staying close to home, let your imagination roam with our book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. Buy it from your local bookshop. Or we have a limited supply of copies which we are happy to sign and add an appropriate dedication. If purchasing directly from us, though, do just note that we can only ship the book to destinations in Europe (both within and outwith the EU).
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)
Vitali Vitaliev’s book mentioned in the text was published in January by Thrust Books. The "Bumper Book of Vitali’s Travels" recalls 30 years of globetrotting. The European Rail Timetable gets a mention too. It has been published monthly since 1873, just bar for occasional gaps during wars and pandemics.