Travel the European Countryside

From France to Finland, traveling by train is still the most romantic way to see the European countryside.
By: 
Michele Meyer

There is nothing in the world quite like Europe’s romantic cities, but if you’re ready for a different kind of experience, hop on a train and head out to the countryside. We found four fantastic day-trip destinations—all within two hours by rail. From Paris, you can take a trip on a high-speed train to the Champagne region; from Florence, you can escape to serene Siena; from London, you can zip off to the elegant estates of the Cotswolds; and from Helsinki, you can take off for a spruce-filled park or a town devoted to art. All aboard!

The Cotswolds, England

Orient-Express

The Orient-Express British Pullman winds through the pastoral countryside.

While London promises to keep you busy with trendy shops, nightclubs and skyscrapers, the Cotswolds seem unmarked by time. Towns with charming names (including Stow-on-the-Wold) feature antique buildings that overlook herds of sheep grazing on soft, green hills. Thatch-roofed cottages, apricot-hued limestone manors and winding rivers complete the pastoral scene.

Distance from London by train: Moreton-in-Marsh, the town central to the Cotswolds area in the county of Gloucestershire, lies just 90 miles northwest of London; the Paddington Line takes you there in 90 minutes.

By Day: If you’re a horseback rider or a distance walker, you’re on the right path; the Cotswolds offer more than 3,300 miles of footpaths and bridle paths. For a fabulous tour, consider taking the first-class Orient-Express British Pullman leaving from London, which once carried the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, French President Charles de Gaulle and Sir Winston Churchill. The day journey includes a Bellini brunch, guided tour of the Cotswolds and a four-course supper with champagne and wine served aboard the returning train. Be sure to dress appropriately: jeans and sneakers won’t pass inspection (orient-express.com).

Cathedral

Construction of the Gloucester Cathedral was completed in 1541.

If you’d rather explore the area on your own, head to Moreton-in-Marsh’s High Street, which is lined with elegant 17th- and 18th-century manors, including the White Hart Royal, where King Charles I was sheltered during the English Civil War. Nearby you’ll find Chastleton House, one of England’s finest Jacobean homes, where the rules of croquet were written. Occupied by the same family for nearly 400 years, it is now owned by the National Trust (nationaltrust.org.uk). Within hiking distance is Broadway Tower, called a Gothic folly, for its decorative style. Built in 1799 by the Earl of Coventry, it provides views of numerous surrounding counties. Pre-Raphaelite artists William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones painted landscapes here (broadwaytower.co.uk). Harry Potter fans will want to see the Norman-era Gloucester Cathedral (in the county seat of the same name), which appeared in the movies Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The cathedral also houses the tomb of King Edward II(gloucestercathedral.org.uk).

Where to Eat: Diners at Hick’s Brasserie, located in Cotswold House, a hotel in Chipping Campden, receive complimentary transfers from the train station to the limestone-brick hotel. Signature dishes include gravlax salmon with lemon crème fraîche (cotswoldhouse.com). Or dress in your finest and have tea, scones and finger sandwiches of cucumber, smoked salmon or egg and watercress at the Lords of the Manor, a veddy British rectory turned hotel in Upper Slaughter. Advance booking is required (lordsofthemanor.com). If you’d rather go bend an elbow at a “boozer”—that’s slang for pub, mate—try Kings Arms, housed in a 500-year-old stone building in the market town of Stow-on-the-Wold; the cozy spot serves up the best beer-battered cod and chips (aka French fries.) Wash them down with a pint of Cotswolds Brewing Company’s lager. If you want to go full-tilt Brit, ask for it warm (kingsarmsstow.co.uk).

Berkeley Hotel


London’s hip and happening Berkeley Hotel.

At Night:For a night on the town, head back to London. At The Blue Bar at the Berkeley Hotel, you may spot stars like The OC’s Mischa Barton among the chic set that frequents the fashionable watering hole. Choose from 50 kinds of whiskeys and various tapas selections in a setting of blue lacquered walls and a black crocodile-print leather floor (the-berkeley.co.uk).

Where to Stay: London’s Draycott Hotel seems more like a grand Edwardian residence than a hotel. Its 35 beautifully appointed rooms and suites are decorated with antiques, and most have fireplaces. Special touches include complimentary afternoon tea and biscuits; chilled champagne is also served, as well as yummy hot chocolate at bedtime. There’s complimentary WiFi too, 24/7 (draycotthotel.com).

Siena, Italy

Mart

A grocery mart, Siena style.

Founded by Julius Caesar in 59 B.C., the city of Florence in Tuscany was home to Italy’s greatest Renaissance painters and sculptors, including Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Donatello, and now the country’s finest museums. In the nearby city of Siena, the alluring setting is as much a part of the romance as the area’s history. Contained by its medieval walls, Siena is a Gothic masterpiece, which you can view without entering a single museum. Today, the town has a pastoral beauty with its backdrop of vineyards and cypress-draped hills, but, originally, it was founded by the Romans in 30 A.D. as a military outpost. Located on Via Francigena, a pilgrimage route that connected Rome and Canterbury, the city thrived. But Tuscany was big enough for only one capital—Siena or Florence—and between the 13th and 15th centuries the cities duked it out, with the latter finally winning the prize. Still, Siena flourished as artists adorned it with beautiful buildings, including the Palazzo Pubblico and the Duomo, a cathedral.

Distance from Florence by train: Located just 37 miles from the Firenze Santa Maria Novella train station, the journey to Siena takes less than two hours.

By Day: With all that pizza, wine and art on offer, it’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t be charmed. But if you’re on a leisurely schedule, you’re in luck, because Siena is meant to be explored on foot. Stroll around the stone piazzas, which are shared almost exclusively by pigeons and stately 14th-century buildings. Be sure to visit the Piazza del Campo, famous for its shell shape, and the Battistero di San Giovanni. Located behind the cathedral, the 14th-century baptistry’s interior boasts detailed carvings by Renaissance master Donatello. Arguably the most impressive building in town, the 12th-century cathedral, or duomo, was intended to be the largest church in existence. The hulking Romanesque structure boasts a marble facade, enormous bell tower and an octagon-shaped dome above the nave. Inside, you’ll find looming marble columns and a large stained-glass window that dates back to 1288, one of the earliest remaining examples of Italian stained glass. The ceiling of the hexagonal dome, yet another amazing sight, has a gilded finish enhanced by blue and gold stars.

Four Seasons


Rich interiors are a hallmark of the new Four Seasons Florence.

Where to Eat: Head over to the university area, Campo, for good food at nice prices. At Due Porte Pizzeria, snag a table on the veranda overlooking the city and choose from the menu’s fresh fish, barbecued meat and pizza made in a classic wood-burning oven. For a special meal, do as the locals do and linger over lunch at Osteria le Logge. Its taglierini al tartufo (black truffles) is sublime, especially when paired with the owner’s homemade wine, Brunello di Montalcino.

At Night: Before returning to Florence, join in a Sienese tradition of a passeggiata, or evening walk, and stroll around the piazza, admire window displays and try a tasty gelato. You also might want to stay late to enjoy a jazz or classical concert. (Look for announcements posted around Piazza del Mercato.)

Where to Stay: The Four Seasons restored two grand Renaissance palaces to create the new Four Seasons Florence. Over the years, the 15th-century Palazzo della Gherardesca and the early 16th-century Conventino served as home to a Pope, five centuries of Florentine nobility and a viceroy of Egypt. Now guests can view rare 15th- to 19th-century artworks in their original context and relax in the city’s largest private garden, the 11 acres of Giardino della Gherardesca. Pierre Yves Rochon designed the rooms and suites, and Italian perfumer Lorenzo Villoresi fashioned the soaps and lotions in the guest rooms (fourseasons.com/florence)