Paris to Belgrade by Train: 10 Highlights with Eurail
Paris was unbearably hot. It was already simmering at 9am, which was when I popped my head up from the metro into Parisian air for the first time in 2016. This was the starting point for an epic Eurail journey. The trip would come to an end two months later and 2000 kilometres away in another famous European capital, Belgrade. As with any Eurail journey, the Paris to Belgrade trip was full of highlights. Here are 10 of them.
Paris to Belgrade
1. Returning to the Sacré-Cœur
There’s something quite magical about the only real hill in Paris. Even if Montmartre wasn’t topped by the extraordinary Sacré-Cœur Basilica, the outlook over this impressive city would be worth the steep walk up. But consider the surrounding neighborhood – the street artists, sidewalk cafés, quaint cobblestoned streets, the dozens of informal vendors peddling wares to the thousands of engrossed tourists, the occasional busker, and the vibrant Pigalle just a few dozen stairs away – and it’s no wonder why I find myself returning to this attraction time and again.
2. Tranquility in the Rhône-Alpes
I needed nature to help me cool off from the sizzling French capital. I looked for trains heading east, which was my general direction of travel. Several towns appeared in my cursory search results – Strasbourg, Dijon, Mâcon, Lyon… But there was something about the look of Annecy, and its beautiful tranquil lake set at the foot of soaring peaks, that had me boarding a mid-morning train from Paris Gare de Lyon towards the Rhône-Alpes. And later that evening as I sat on the edge of a pier with my feet in the water, watching the water change color with the sunset behind me, I knew I’d made the right decision.
3. At the foot of Monte Rosa
There comes a time in many rail journeys when you have to leave the tracks and resort to other modes of transports, if only to see a part of the continent you might have otherwise missed. A small village called Alagna was beckoning, and I took trains as far up the valley as possible before resorting to a bus for the final stretch. Over the course of the two-hour bus ride I watched all but one passenger alight from the vehicle. When I eventually stepped out at the roadside bus stop somewhere close to the top of the valley, I was met by a deafening silence. There was a stunning mountainous backdrop that would be my home for a week.
4. Crossing the Alps
My base in the Italian Alps was just a stone’s throw away from the Swiss border, though not even cars or motorbikes can traverse this rocky terrain. In the middle of winter, apparently, it’s possible to ski across the border. But I had a backpack to consider, and it wasn’t yet winter. So one bus, three trains, and the better part of a day later, I found myself winding along the tracks through the narrow valley on the other side of the mountains. I was rapidly approaching the idyllic destination of Zermatt, the home of the mighty Matterhorn.
5. The Best Scenic Train Rides in the World
After just three days amongst the glaciers of Zermatt, I boarded one of Europe’s slowest express trains in the direction of St. Moritz. Not that the sedate pace was a problem. The Glacier Express wound its way out of the Matter Valley, carved its way along the Matter Vispa River, and traversed seemingly impassable terrain as it climbed towards my final destination.
Early the next morning, after a sunrise jog around the picturesque Lake St. Moritz, I boarded the Glacier Express’s closest competitor – the Bernina Express. The shorter but equally dramatic train ride is the best way to cross the Alps. It climbs to 2,253 meters above sea level, over 196 bridges, and through 55 tunnels, until it spits you out on the Italian side in Tirano. From there, an idling Bernina Express bus waited to transport me back to Swiss territory, via Italy’s Lake Como.
6. Switzerland to Austria
I allowed myself two days to catch my breath in Lugano, before hopping aboard a train to Lucerne. I almost immediately cut east towards a small town in Austria, with a single night’s stop en-route in charming Innsbruck. Chosen because of its proximity to Hallstatt and ease of access by train, Bad Aussee turned out to be the perfect cost-effective retreat. There I caught up on sleep lost to the previous week’s intense schedule, took long walks through isolated forests, and explored the region’s numerous unspoilt rivers, lakes and mountains.
7. Return to Budapest
At some stage during the journey I decided to return to Budapest – I’d first been there in 2014. A long but easy train connection via Salzburg put me on a direct path to the Hungarian capital. I paid a €15 supplement in order to live the high life in RailJet’s business class. Here I watched the Austrian countryside whip past the windows as I sipped a German beer, all while almost horizontal in a leather seat. I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to a week in Europe’s finest capital.
8. Slovenian Silence
There’s a silence and tranquillity in the Slovenian wilderness unlike any other. Even the small capital city of Ljubljana seems to have a touch of it. Though Slovenia’s Lake Bled often steals the limelight, the lesser-known Lake Bohinj still packs all the scenic punches, perhaps more. The Slovenian capital is as charming as ever, with new coffee shops, restaurants and museums complimenting the pedestrianised inner city. But it was the coastal town of Piran – a short but dramatic train ride (and quick bus connection) away – that stole the show for me this time.
9. The Croatian Coastline
The Croatian coastline has a spellbinding beauty that is difficult to leave. The rich sunsets, crystal clear waters, fresh seafood and fascinating history combine in every city to leave you wanting more. I knew from personal experience that traversing the country by train is not easy, especially if you’re not starting in Zagreb. So instead I hopped aboard a bus to Rovinj, then a tiny plane to Split, boarded a ferry to the island of Hvar, and finally, found another cheap flight to Dubrovnik, where I ended my time in this magical country vowing to return.
10. The Magic of Montenegro
After two months traversing the continent by train, I found myself in the small old town Kotor. Set on an idyllic bay with fjord like mountains, there could be no better place from which to wind down a lengthy journey. Though time was of the essence, and after just a few short days in Black Mountain country, I made my way towards the coastal town of Bar. There, seemingly waiting just for me, three days before I was due to leave, was the most dramatic train ride of all – the Montenegro Express all the way to Belgrade.
To create your own epic rail adventure, start by looking at the Eurail Passes on offer.