Visiting Europe’s somber destinations
Most Eurail trips are about the good times. All day sightseeing, late night parties, spontaneous detours and dramatic scenery. But many European countries have complex pasts punctuated by war, famine, natural disaster and genocide. Some of these sites are still open to the public, either as a memorial or as a way of educating visitors about the dire history, or humankind’s ability to overcome adversity. If you approach them in the right manner — with the necessary respect and sensitivity — these sites can leave a lasting impression and add significant depth to your Eurail journey.
Nazi Germany built many concentration camps throughout Europe during World War II. Auschwitz, built on Polish land annexed by the Nazis, is perhaps the best known of these. It’s possible to visit both Auschwitz and nearby Birkenau on a guided tour with a knowledgable guide. The experience is understandably jarring, but serves as a valuable reminder of just how horrendous this period of history was for Jewish populations across Europe and the world.
How to get there by train: The nearest city to Auschwitz is Krakow. You can reach the site by rail by taking a Polish Railways train to Oswiecim, which takes 1 h 45 min. Many people also choose to take day trips from Krakow with tour operators.
In June 1944, a Nazi Waffen-SS company massacred 642 inhabitants of the French village Oradour-sur-Glane. There is a now a new village close to the original site, but then president Charles de Gaulle ordered that original site remain untouched as a reminder of the massacre. There is currently a museum and memorial at the site.
How to get there by train: There are regular trains from Paris Austerlitz to Limoges that take approximately 3 hours. From there, a regional bus that takes 40 minutes runs several times a day to Oradour-sur-Glane.
When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD it buried most of the surrounding region in up to 20 feet of volcanic ash and pumice. The event was a natural catastrophe that killed thousands of people living in nearby villages. Though the final death toll is unknown, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of approximately 1,500 people at Pompeii. The ancient town became a popular tourist destination in modern times, and visitors can tour the remains unaccompanied.
How to get there by train: The nearest big city to Pompeii is Naples, and there are trains every half hour that take approximately 40 minutes.
Anne Frank House, Netherlands
During World War II, the young Jewish diarist Anne Frank took refuge in a hidden room in a 17th century Amsterdam canal house. German police stormed the house and captured the young girl in 1944. Though Frank did not survive the war, her diary went on to become one of the most important books about the German occupation of the Netherlands. Anne Frank House is now a popular tourist attraction that offers insight into Frank and that period in European history.
How to get there by train: Amsterdam is a major rail hub in the Benelux region, and there are regular direct trains from throughout the Netherlands and many neighbouring countries.
NATO Bombing Ruins, Belgrade
Part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia involved heavy bombing of the Serbian capital. Air strikes between March and June in 1999 targeted several key buildings in Belgrade, including the Yugoslav Ministry of Defense. The present day Serbian government chose not to demolish or rebuild these ruins. Instead, they remain as a shocking reminder of the region’s war-torn past.
How to get there by train: Belgrade is a major rail hub in Serbia. There are also overnight trains from several neighbouring international cities, including Zagreb and Budapest.
The small Spanish village of Belchite was decimated during the Spanish Civil War. 3000 people perished in the battle, and though there is a new village nearby, General Franco ordered the original site to remain as a memorial. Tourists can now visit the surviving buildings, many of which date back to the late 18th century, and reflect on this bloody time in Spanish history.
How to get there by train: Belchite is easy to reach from both Madrid and Barcelona. Trains from both destinations require a transfer to bus at Zaragoza.
Somme battlefields, France
The Battle of the Somme was a devastating war fought by Britain and France against Germany, in 1916. An estimated three million men fought in the war, one million of which died or were wounded. It is one of the bloodiest battles in history. Present day visitors can explore various elements of the region’s dramatic history, including the battlefield, a remembrance trail, and memorials.
How to get there by train: There are regular trains from Paris to the Somme region and its capital Amiens, that take between one and two hours.
Tyne Cot, Belgium
Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, in West Flanders, is the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world. There are just fewer than 12,000 burials at the site, the vast majority of which are unnamed. This sombre graveyard attracts regular visitors looking to reflect on the devastating history and sacrifices of World War I.
How to get there by train: Trains from Brussels Central will get you to Roeselare Station in 1 h 45 min. From there, a short bus ride connects you to Tyne Cot.
House of Terror Museum, Hungary
The Hungarian capital of Budapest has a sombre history that’s difficult to ignore. The city survived two terror regimes, at the hands of both Nazi and Soviet rulers. Both regimes used the current location for the House of Terror Museum for official operations, and today it stands as a museum offering insight into the city’s past. The downstairs basement, which forces used for torture and imprisonment, is open to visitors, and is a shocking reminder of human evil.
How to get there by train: Budapest is a major rail hub in Hungry. There are also regular trains to the capital from most neighbouring countries.
Though visiting places of death and suffering is not a new phenomenon, recent publicity of visitors leaving insensitive comments in guest books, or posting inappropriate pictures to social media, have made their visit more controversial. Though for and against debates offer equally important points about respect, remembrance and sensitivity, if done to gain deeper insight rather than out of morbid curiosity, a visit to one of these sombre destinations can leave you with important insight and a profound understanding of a country’s torrid past.