Lots of us have traveled by train occasionally. But have you ever done a really long train ride? Trains in Europe are perfect to quickly explore the beautiful cities. They’re fast, comfortable and most importantly: A very sustainable way of travel which is now more important than ever. Living in Amsterdam, the Netherlands I’ve done my fair share of traveling by train in Europe. But I’ve never crossed many countries combined in one train ride.
That recently changed as I was invited to join the Connecting Europe Express . This train is an initiative by the European Commission to promote train travel. Because (did you know?) 2021 is the European Year of Rail . So basically, the Connecting Europe Express is a press train. It’s a one time train that crosses Europe within 36 days and covers 20.000km! It started in Lisbon and eventually ends in Paris. I ‘only’ stayed on the train for 9 days but I was able to experience the start in Lisbon and went all the way to Bratislava. Even though the train had a sleeping coach we stayed at different hotels in every city during the night, all located at a walking distance from the station we arrived.
Route that I traveled on the Connecting Europe Express. Cities I stayed along the way:
Lisbon - Madrid - Bordeaux - Turin - Milan - Rome - Bolzano - St. Polten - Bratislava
For the full route, check the website
I received lots of questions from people who were interested in booking this particular train but unfortunately that’s not possible, for now at least! But crossing through Europe by train is not that hard and there are many ‘rail planners’ online that show you the connecting cities, railway lines and timetables that makes it a breeze to plan a city trip through Europe by train. But in this article, I want to tell you about my own trip and show you lots of photos from along the way.
10 cities, 9 days
Like I mentioned before I started in Lisbon Portugal. I love Lisbon. It has beautiful architecture, both old and modern. I was really intrigued by the trams that ran through the city. They really fit the architecture well. I had one early morning before the Connecting Europe Express departed to photograph these trams with with first sunlight. During the day it was impossible as it was very crowded with cars and people, but in the morning it was beautiful.
The Lisbon trams in the golden morning light
After the early morning we made our way to the beautiful Estação do Oriente station from where the Connecting Europe Express started its departure. I should mention there was lots of press on every station as it was really an event that united countries from the EU to work together to promote European rail.
The spectacular Estação do Oriente station
What followed was an intensive but super exciting trip where I tried to photograph a glimpse of every city.
We first passed through Portugal, stayed the night in Covilha and made our way into Spain, where we stayed the night in Madrid. I had the afternoon to walk around and enjoy Madrid and explored the streets and beautiful architecture and buildings of the city.
Madrid has some really nice colourful streets.
Palacio de Cibeles
Puerta de Alcala
Little temple in Parque de El Retiro.
After Madrid we went straight to Bordeaux, France. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the city of Bordeaux. It was full of beautiful streets and spectacular buildings like ancient gates and churches. And it was just very lively on the streets in the evening with lots of terraces on the streets, good wine and nice food.
I did everything on foot in Bordeaux. Everything was close to each other and close to the hotel and the train station. Plus I really like to just walk around in the streets and see if there is anything interesting to photograph. I always made sure to prepare and I kind of knew where I wanted to go. I checked the ‘hot spots’ of the city through Google and I did this in the train on my laptop. Most of the time the train had a good wifi connection so it was very pleasant to work while looking at the nice sceneries out of the window. So like I mentioned: I would simply check the ‘hot spots’ through google, make a little map for myself to walk, and in between I would see if there was anything interesting to photograph. And if the spots were too far from each other I would use the electric scooters that they basically had in every city! Very convenient to get around fast.
As I would often sit for many hours in the trip I also started to take photos from the train itself. Not only the window views but I found it also very interesting to photograph ‘abstract’ images with slightly longer exposures from the window of the train. By moving the camera and the moving train, I could get very abstract patterns which almost look like paintings. I met a girl named Jennifer (@landscapeinmotion) on the train who was ‘specialised’ in that, you can see her work from the trip on her Instagram. Here are some of my abstracts from out of the window.
The line in the middle is actually the rail track next to the train. The image is 90 degrees flipped.
By using slower shutter speeds and shooting while tilting the camera I could create a wave effect.
Photographing different landscapes with different colours had endless possibilities.
After Bordeaux we had a long train ride of almost 16 hours (small stops included) all the way to Turin in Italy. Turin was another city that was very pleasant to walk around in. It instantly reminded why Italy is one of my favorite countries in Europe. I just love the architecture and the relaxed atmosphere. I walked around a bit in the morning and enjoyed spending time finding interesting angles and details in the city along with the famous buildings.
Little courtyard I found after entering a little street from a main shopping street. Typical yellow houses covered by green plants was a pretty sight.
Turin’s main square.
The Galleria San Federico is an amazing little gallery with pretty plants and architecture combined.
Another little courtyard I found while exploring. And with an extreme wide angle lens looking up, this courtyard looked very interesting and abstract.
A few days into my trip and I already discovered that even though I packed light, I was still carrying too much. As it was summer it was quite warm every day with a minimum of 25 degrees. My winter coat and extra vest I brought were useless during the first days and I enjoyed the nice weather every day wearing shorts and a t-shirt.
The Connecting Europe Express was represented by Italy very well as we had 3 overnight stays in different cities in Italy. The first one being Turin, next up was Milan. And let’s be honest: Milan is not the most photogenic city of Italy with competitors like Rome and Venice. But Milan has some spectacular modern architecture, and of course the amazing Duomo!
Modern architecture around the business district of Milan.
Duomo di Milano and the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II on the left.
In the morning I decided to wake up really early to be at Duomo 1 hour before sunrise. Sunrise was a bit before 7 AM so I was there around 6. When you want to photograph main sights in popular cities without any people, you have to sacrifice your sleep for it. I was greeted by a beautiful morning with nice colours in the sky.
Completely empty Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II at 6:30 in the morning.
During the days I would often spend many hours on the train and while I was working and often talking to lots of interesting people I also got to enjoy the window views of so many different countries in such a short time. Here are some impressions:
You may be curious how I shot these. I had my wide-angle lens on a tripod pointing at the window next to me, using a shutter speed of around 1/1000s. The shutter speed had to be very fast as the train was often traveling quite fast as well. Then the most important thing was simply timing. I had to press the shutter button exactly at the right time to get a building or mountain in the middle of the window for example.
After Madrid the Connecting Europe Express brought me to Rome. I arrived later afternoon, about 45 minutes before sunset. My hotel was right next to the train station so I quickly checked in, grabbed an electric shooter and made my way to the Vatican where I was just in time to catch the last sunset light! The great thing about trains and train stations is that they often arrive right in the middle of a city. That’s mostly different with airports. Arriving right in the middle of Rome with the hotel next to the station allowed me to act super quick and be in time for my sunset shoot.
The famous Vatican. It was a beautiful atmosphere that evening nice colours in the sky, rowers in the river and the sound of birds.
The next morning I decided to wake up early for sunrise yet again. Like I mentioned earlier: If you want to photograph spectacular cities with empty streets, you need to sacrifice your sleep! I decided to go to the Colosseum before the sun came up.
After that I really enjoyed wandering around in the empty streets of Rome. Because besides the many beautiful buildings and hot spots, it also really has photogenic streets especially combined with the soft morning light.
One of my favorite shots from Rome as it’s something something you don’t see very day. The first ‘life’ on the streets during an early morning when people walk to work in the golden light of the sun.
After Rome it was time to say Goodbye to Italy. After 3 days of pizza it was time to move up north again. We stayed the night at Bolzano, but a late arrival and early departure didn’t really give the opportunity to explore and take photos. The next day we went into Austria where were first had a 2 hour stop. I decided to hop off the train and do a quick city tour on the electric scooters that were right at the station. After having seen all the beautiful old architecture in Italy I decided to mix things up a bit in Vienna and to check out some more modern architecture.
Our final stop for the day was the city of Sankt Pölten, the capital of the lower part of Austria. I really enjoyed walking around there. With a small city center and beautiful buildings it was very nice to immediately see the switch of architecture between countries. And about ‘switching’, it was also very interesting to find the language barriers while traveling in the train. Every day new people would get in and out, and I would hear different languages. Its very interesting to see and hear some invisible barriers the train simply crosses, but that have a big impact on basically everything except the inside of the train.
I grabbed a nice Austrian schnitzel and explored the small city center which was again right at the hotel and the central station. The buildings were all very maintained and simply looked beautiful.
And then it was already time for my final stop on the Connecting Europe Express: Bratislava (Slovakia). That went fast right? 10 cities in 9 days!
I really enjoyed strolling the streets of Bratislava. I didn’t really know what to expect as I haven’t been much to this part of Europe, but I was again impressed by the beautiful architecture of the city. The churches and especially the castle on top of a hill that you could basically see from lots of different angles in the cities.
I met up with Pedro Kin, a friend from Portugal that lives in Bratislava with his wife. He showed me around a bit and treated me with the typical Slovakian Goulash as a dinner. It was so nice to see how involved lots of people and friends were with me on this trip. I occasionally met friends I didn't see for a while as they contacted me through social media when i was in their city, even though it was only for a short time. I met my good friend Francesco Gola in Milan, Marco de Maio in Rome, and a kind local photographer named Jesus in Madrid. He contacted me on Instagram and was very helpful with some spots so we did some photographing together. It’s so nice that the train combined with social media can connect us in such a fast and easy way.
In Bratislava I hopped off the train and it continued without me. You can see the whole route at www.connectingeuropeexpress.eu .
Besides the abstract and window shots, I also took a bunch of images along the way of the trains and train stations:
The beautiful small train station Vilar Formoso in Portugal, the last station before we entered Spain.
Train arriving in the station late evening. I took a long exposure with the station lights on the sides.
The Connecting Europe Express changing locomotives in Brenner Austria
Early departure from Bolzano Italy
A short stop at Genoa Italy
Short stop near the Italian Alps. Fun fact: this was the only time I saw some rain during my whole trip.
Arrival at Rome Central Station. Photo is a zooming slighter long exposure and a short exposure combined.
Afternoon light hitting the tops of the trees in Austria
So what did I bring on my trip? As we were changing locations a lot I decided to travel really light. I only brought my camera (Sony A7RIV) and 2 lenses: The 12-24 GM wide angle lens (perfect for cities and in the train itself) and the mid-range zoom (24-105mm G). I didn’t feel the need to bring more things. Next to my little camera kit which also included some daily snacks and my laptop, I brought a small suitcase that contained my clothes and toiletries for the week. And that was basically enough.
Some fun facts about my trip with the Connecting Europe Express:
51 hours in the train spent
Around 4300 km traveled by train (total route of the whole Connecting Europe Express covers 20.000km)
stayed in 10 different cities in 6 different countries over a period of 9 days
Saw 6 sunrises in total. 2 in the cities (Rome and Milan), 4 in (or before departure of) the train.
Most beautiful part on the rail was Austria with spectacular mountain views and beautiful green hills.
Slept in 10 different hotels, all walking distance from the railway station.
Traveled with just 1 train.
To close of this article I’d like to mention that EU Residents of 18 years old can apply for a free travel (mostly rail) pass to travel Europe. This is an initiative from the #DiscoverEU.
If you want to check much more of my content, be sure to check the ConnectingEurope Highlight on my Instagram profile with many more videos and impressions from this trip!
Hope you enjoyed the story and photos!