For anyone in love with the romance of train travel, a journey by rail across Russia, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine, through cities that have affected the course of European history for more than a millennium, is an eye-opening experience. This vibrant region of Europe, which for the greater part of the 20th century has been inaccessible, is buzzing with a sense of hard-won freedom and a youthful appetite for the future.
From the fabulous imperial city of St Petersburg, take a train down to Moscow then travel westwards through the eerie haunting beauty of the Belarus steppe to Minsk, an old-style Soviet city that now has a certain nostalgic charm, and then to Brest on the Polish border to visit the stupendous Soviet World War II fortress.
Travelling southwards into Ukraine, the largest country in Europe you cross a timeless land of black-earthed wheat fields, copses of silver birch, flower-strewn pastures, and ancient villages to stop at the wondrous World Heritage City of Lviv.
Carry on heading south through the startlingly picturesque but little-visited wine country of Moldova - a landscape of rolling hills, tranquil lakes and whitewashed villages - to Odessa, a magnificent Black Sea city founded by Catherine the Great. Next stop is Yalta, a delightful resort on the beautiful Crimean coast and site of the Livadia Palace where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin held their fateful 1945 conference to discuss the post-war shape of Europe. Go to the naval base of Sevastopol, steeped in the history of the Crimean War, and visit Bakhchysaray, the 16th century capital of the Crimean khanate.
Finally catch a train northwards to bring your journey to an end in the beautiful ancient city of Kiev in the heart of Ukraine.
WHEN TO GO
May, when the spring flowers are at their height.
TIMES IT TAKES
St petersburg - the Hermitage.
Moscow - the Kremlin and Red Square.
Lviv - Ploshcha Rynok, 16th century market square, a World Heritage Site.
Odessa - Potemkin Steps.
Yalta –Chekhov’s house.
YOU SHOULD KNOW
A private tour train, The Crimea express, takes the above route. The advantage of travelling on it rather than ordinary scheduled services is simply the convenience of having the stops organized for you and luxurious accommodation. If you prefer to travel more spontaneously, planning your own itinerary, train services in Eastern Europe are cheap and reliabte, especially in Ukraine.