Europe's Greatest Railway Journeys - Verona to Innsbruck
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
Standing utterly perplexed in front of Verona train station’s gargantuan departures board will not go down as one of my most cherished moments. The city this station serves so proudly is globally seen as a relaxed city and a cultural icon, famously being the centre of the Romeo and Juliet story – yet Verona Porta Nuova station plays a blinding role as the city’s antagonist. With transport links to the Italian giants of Milan to the west, Rome to the south and Venice to the east, the station is incredibly important to the function of Italy’s 12th largest city. In this blog post, I will take you on a journey north to the world-renowned Austrian city of Innsbruck.
Setting off from the frantic hustle and bustle of Verona often beckons a sigh of relief in the mind of a traveller – usually resulting in a relaxed 2 hour period of shut-eye. However, you would be mistaken to miss the enchanting views from your window as you scythe through Italy’s extravagant north.
In the duration of this sensational commute, you can expect to witness the jagged peaks of the Dolomites, the tumultuous flowing rapids of the adjacent Adige River, the quaint vineyards of Trentino along with a plethora of other outstanding features. So, sit back, relax, and embark on the first of Europe’s greatest rail journeys…
From the outset, you are immediately flung into the wizardry that is southern Trentino. After just 37 minutes of travel, you enter this intriguing region steeped in both tradition and character. Acting as the battlefield for the clash between the Mediterranean culture to the south and the heavy Germanic influences of the north, this unique region plays host to some of Europe’s most alluring assets. Mountains. The European Alps have forever been the continent’s showstopper, with the straddling mountain range attracting over 120 million annual visitors. That is a whopping 6 times more than London, the most visited city in Europe. With the majestic mountain range covering a substantial 7.5% of mainland Europe and providing everything from sheer cliff faces to luxurious chalets, this statistic doesn’t come as a surprise. Here at the gateway to the Alps, there seems to be beauty around every bend.
Located in the Adige Valley, forged out by the ominous and cascading waters of the river of the same name, mountainous terrain is around every kink in the rails. This can play host to some rather spectacular scenery. Either side of the valley, vineyards straddle the steep slopes of the mountains – thus propelling one of the most enticing delicacies of northern Italy. Wine. Dating back over 3 millennia, Trentino’s vineyards has been manufacturing stunning wines longer than most other Italian regions. Throughout the past 3000 years, the regions dedicated winemakers have discovered exquisite new blends and tastes resulting in some of the finest red and white wines worldwide. Due to this, millions upon millions of litres of these revered blends are exported around the globe every year. However, does this prosperity face an abrupt decline? For the time being the answer would drift towards no, however conflicts on the Brenner Pass may make it increasingly difficult for exports to travel on the only route to the north. Despite the Austro-Italian disagreements, Trentino’s future does look bright. With increased tourism and a brighter spotlight to the province, the region’s wine-fuelled wealth looks to continue…
We will visit the Brenner Pass later in the frankly exceptional second half of this journey, however first we are making our first stop of the trip in the charismatic city of Trento. Serving as the capital of the region, Trento has sat on the banks of the fast-flowing Adige since 49 BCE – with the city constantly switching between Austrian and Italian allegiance. Being the 3rd most populous city in the Alps, being beaten to 2nd place by our final destination Innsbruck, entering the city by rail often tricks a traveller into believing its small exterior.
Once you disembark the train after just under an hour and a half of travel time, Trento’s refreshing appeal greets you immediately. Leaving the aged station can you only deeply appreciate the region’s astounding glory. Mesmirising mountains annex Trento from all 4 corners, thus creating a mystical atmosphere around the city. Walking into its historic centre, I felt astonished by the rich culture and outstanding natural beauty that traverses the region, let alone Trento. The Piazza del Duomo is the true crowd-puller in the city, with the medieval frontage of the Cattedrale di San Vigilio drawing the vast majority of the acclaim. Whilst being stalked by the imperious peaks above and dating back to the early embers of the 6th century, this ravishing cathedral sits on the square like a candle on a birthday cake. Trento screams out for enticement, and once the vast alpine sky turns to a deeper blue hue can the isolated city really flex its muscles.
Leading on from this, an evening in Trento is certainly not a wasted one. The golden glimmer upon the square’s disjointed cobbles from the many streetlamps make for an unforgettable and inclusive aura, all alongside the gushing waters of the central fountain providing the perfect, relaxed soundtrack to your northern Italian experience. Throughout many of my blog posts, I feel inclined to describe the special effects of how special and unique cultures culminate in certain places – I am jubilant to say this is especially accentuated in this eminent city. Due to the complicated fluctuations in its sovereignty, Trento is one of the few cities where you can witness such a vivid concoction of the sophisticated and sun-kissed Italian influence of the south with the harsh yet magical Germanic undertones from the north. With mostly Italian cuisine and Austrian style appearances, Trento’s selection of exquisite eateries possibly exhibits this best. With their respective al fresco dining areas and inviting aromas, the city’s restaurants are a great insight into the local way of life – with tourists often being a rarity in many establishments.
I believe that to understand the true magnetism of this alpine slice of splendour you must actually leave the confinements of the city. On the eastern bank of the Adige’s raging torrents lies the brilliant Trento-Sardagna cable car – one of the few ways to see the alpine city from a unique mountainous perspective. With a population of only 903, Sardagna only has one main mountain road running through it thus making it the ideal secluded location. Seen as the cable car is the quickest as well as only way to the small hamlet excluding a car, the unique mode of transport can become rather crowded. However, once you reach the spectacular, panoramic observation deck at the top you will understand the funicular’s popularity. To both sides unobstructed views of the natural leviathan that is the Adige Valley bask gloriously in the blinding sunlight, subsequently allowing one to truly relish Trento’s fantastic personality. The mountains are just as essential to Trento as the architecture and the people are – with the meandering walls of the Adige Valley acting as the sole artery in which Trentino’s lifeblood runs so eloquently. As an outsider, a trip to the observation deck can feel like a blessed detachment from life’s errands and problems, transporting you to a state of serenity and awe. But unfortunately, this serenity must come to an end at some point, as we still have another 111 miles until we reach our final destination – the wonderful city of Innsbruck.
Getting back on the train and leaving the city is certainly a melancholy occasion; however, the pure brilliance still on the agenda should act as the perfect antidote to your dejection. Heading into the far northern reaches of Trentino, and Italy for that matter, does this sensational commute bolster its arsenal. As you edge closer to the Austrian border, the rugged landscape grows greater and intensifies drastically. The rolling hills to south transform into sheer cliff faces – this is the beginning of one of the most dramatic mountain ranges worldwide. Crossing from the idyllic watercolours of Trentino to the dramatic and cantankerous pinnacles of South Tyrol, the next stop on our fabulous journey looms into view.
Whilst standing proudly as the South Tyrolean capital, Bolzano is the 2nd northernmost of Italy’s 8000 cities. Similar to Trento just 34 miles to the south, the fast-flowing Adige pierces through the city’s industrial core – with the historical significance of the metropolis resembling its southern counterpart. Bolzano was the centre of some of most titanic tussles of the Second World War, as battles between the allied and Nazi powers provided an unnerving soundtrack to one of Europe’s most tranquil regions. Looking deeper into the region’s tempestuous past can we finally understand the distinct relationship between this city and the deadliest conflict in history. It all began in 1927, when the city became the capital of Bolzano state with even the mention of ‘South Tyrol’ being punishable by imprisonment. This was the notorious Benito Mussolini’s concept of ‘italianisation’ in full swing. Mussolini’s fascist followers were petrified that Hitler’s Germany were to invade and take control of South Tyrol, thus leading to an unimaginable influx of Italians from other regions in the nation. Over the course of these two decades, italianisation transitioned from subtle changes to full blown brutality, with many objectors feeling the full wrath of Mussolini’s power. German passports and identities removed as well as the prohibition of the German language were just some examples of this radical approach. As time drew on so did the serrated tensions surrounding the area, with this catalysing until war was raging through continental Europe. Despite these historical terrors, Bolzano was named as the city with the highest quality of life in the entirety of Italy in 2014. From guns to glory, Bolzano has been on an upward spike ever since…
Bolzano also marks the start of one of Europe’s most iconic roads. Since the imperious days of the Roman Empire, the Brenner Pass has been fundamental to trans-European trade – with its modernised incarnation acting more as a winding ribbon of asphalt perfection. Technically speaking this is not the actual Brenner Pass, as that is how the 850 metre flyover above the Austro-Italian border is described; however, the road is known as the Autostrada del Brennero. Regardless of its name, this 77 mile commute into the beating heart of Austria will remain with you for eternity.
Despite its exquisite frontage, the tarmac is tainted with yet more political dispute. For many years now, the Austrian and Italian governments have been at loggerheads – mainly because of the highly contentious matter of immigration. The first piece of this political game of chess comes in the form of a lorry. In mid-2019, Austria sparked fury from the German and Italian governments as a strict bans on lorries were imposed - thus making trans-European haulage an immense challenge. And to make matters even worse, the Austrian authorities have deployed troops in and around the border town of Brenner in the last 3 years – a move which signals the first military presence in the region since the Second World War. Now is the time I should clarify that this presence does not mean violence, far from it in fact. In reality, the troops are in place to mitigate the flow of migrants – with many Austrian news outlets predicting the border force will reduce migrant numbers by 1000 every month. This bodes a rather important query, however. Does this make the EU’s free movement policy defunct? It’s a difficult question with an abundance of different answers – with many Italians saying yes it does, but many important Austrian diplomats disagreeing entirely.
These rising tensions should not distract you from the stunning surroundings of Brenner (or Brennero for Italians), the location of our one and only train change on this magnificent journey. With a population of just over 2000 and sitting a stone throw south of Innsbruck, Brenner is often observed as a border town and nothing else. You could not be further from the truth. Whilst sitting quietly and reminiscing of your journey through Italy’s stupendous northern clutches, take a moment to familiarize your weary, well-travelled bones with the thing both Italy and Austria share - the scintillating Alps. Despite their respective governments disagreeing constantly, both nationalities can come to a consensus regarding their unanimous pride for their surroundings. Often the smaller towns boast the most pride – with Brenner being an extraordinary example of this.
After waiting a pleasant half-hour for your connection up north, sadness surprisingly befalls upon you when leaving the centuries-old border settlement. Before long though you are back up to speed on one of Austria’s sophisticated ÖBB trains, being gently whisked through the glory that is southern Austria. The contrast of cultures from the outset is outstanding. Back in Italy, tinges of Austro-Germanic influence were a rather common sight; whereas, in the first smattering of Austrian miles, there is no hint of Italy even existing – let alone it being the region’s nearest neighbour.
There is no alternative way to proclaim this, Austria’s Alps are simply brilliant! The endearing subtlety of Italy’s offerings are imminently eradicated, thus paving the way for miles upon miles of Austrian unpredictability. This is the resounding allure of this journey, it just keeps on getting better and better, larger and larger, greater and greater. Travelling through the heavily patriotic hamlets en-route to the urbanised A-lister of Innsbruck paints a thousand evocative images in the visitor’s mind – still to this day I have immersive dreams of the snow-capped peaks that line the renowned steel tracks. With the beacon of urban brilliance shining so brightly at the end of our journey, make sure you are not blinded enough to miss the selection of quaint, chocolate-box villages that come between you and Innsbruck. 9 times out of 10, this is where you want to invest in that nights’ accommodation. With prices being a fraction of the city, these smaller and lesser known towns can offer far more bed for your buck – allowing you to spend more cash in and around the city of Mozart and mountains. Like with all city breaks, sourcing your nights sleep outside the traditional tourist flow is risky – with this being especially true beneath the towering alps. Limited public transport and rare taxi ranks often make for an embarrassing moment when you reach the station, with many being fooled by the short distance on booking.com only to find they are the wrong side of Austria’s 3rd tallest mountain. Yes, that did happen to me!
Trundling into Innsbruck raises hairs on your arms, with an unequivocal, buzzing aura of excitement brewing throughout the spacious carriages. Innsbruck, which has been Austria’s fifth most populated city for many decades now, is a truly special city. Being the childhood city of Austria’s greatest composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Innsbruck is a haven for fascinating and diverse history. Sweeping pedestrian streets cooperating beautifully with timid backstreets grace this fabulous metropolis. The mountains will dazzle you to your already-inspired core, thus making you feel the five hour voyage through Austro-Italian perfection was more than worthwhile. Two countries, four regions, endless superlatives…