Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

This summer marks the 80th anniversary of the launch of one of Russia’s most famous trains, the ‘Red Arrow’ fast overnight service between Moscow and St Petersburg. hidden europe editor Nicky Gardner has been taking a look at some of Europe’s most memorably named trains — and a few less memorable ones.

article summary —

Train names can be very powerful brands, and some names — such as the Orient Express and the Flying Scotsman — have been part of the European railway scene for a century or more. Named trains have inspired art. Thus the luxurious Train Bleu which ran overnight between Calais and Nice in the heyday of the Riviera inspired Sergei Diaghilev’s 1924 ballet of the same name.

And of course art and music have inspired trains. Until 1987, the daytime train from the Dutch port of Hoek van Holland to the Swiss city of Basel took its name from Das Rheingold, the first of the four operas in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. No doubt images of Wagner’s Rhine maidens helped market the train, which for much of its route ran along the banks of the River Rhine. All good romantic stuff, and perhaps it helped cheer up passengers from England who found themselves riding the Rheingold through Holland’s dreary estuarial landscapes at dawn after a sleepless night on board the packet boat from Harwich to the Hook. I just hope that the train crew knew the opera well enough to remember to distribute complimentary golden apples when, a few hours later, the train cruised past the Lorelei on its journey up the Rhine gorge.

If the train names of yesteryear were impossibly romantic, some of those I come across nowadays are prosaic in the extreme. I made a short early morning journey in the Austrian Vorarlberg region a year or two back. My EuroCity train was named after a particular brand of Tyrolean ham, which quite encouraged me to take up the vegetarian cause. Let’s face it, I could never see Diaghilev cooperating with Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Coco Chanel (as he did in Le Train Bleu) to stage a ballet named after a piece of salami. I am quite pleased to see that Handl Tyrol Speck has disappeared from the latest Austrian timetables, presumably because the eponymous company terminated the sponsorship agreement.

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Nicky Gardner is editor of hidden europe and also the principal author of the magazine. Where a text is not specifically attributed to an author, it is the work of Nicky. Below, you’ll find a small selection of her articles in hidden europe magazine. Nicky also writes regularly for other media. She is co-author (with Susanne Kries) of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide, the 17th edition of which was published 2022.

Nicky Gardner was liberated from a life enslaved to performance indicators and business plans to become a travel writer. She gives thanks for that daily. Nicky writes about culture and communities, about memorable landscapes and also about journeys. Over the years she's picked up a thing or two about product life cycles, the book trade and publishing, ticketing APIs, how libraries work and the high theology of grant giving.

Nicky reads geography books, railway timetables and maps entirely for pleasure - and lots of real books too! She loves nothing more than a slow meander by public transport around some unsung part of Europe. Nicky is particularly interested in issues of identity and culture in eastern Europe and the Balkans, in linguistic minorities and in island communities. Her pet loves are public libraries, Armenian food and anything coloured purple. Nicky cannot abide suburban sprawl, supermarkets and fast trains. Nicky has since 2007 been a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Nicky is especially keen on historical travel writing: Edith Durham, Gertrude Bell and Isabelle Eberhardt are among her favourites. Nicky can be contacted at editors [at] hiddeneurope.eu.

This article was published in hidden europe 34.