Planning a holiday to Venice is an exciting prospect at any time, but on this occasion we decided to make the visit memorable by travelling from London to Venice by train. We thought that this would give us a real sense of the distance that we were covering and make the holiday more memorable than a simple hop on and off a plane could provide.
I had often looked inside the sleeper cars of overnight trains with envy; brightly lit little carriages, the overhead lights giving a cosy feel as the occupants pulled their beds down and prepared to be rocked to sleep. The reality proved to be a little different!
Booking the train was easy; the seat61 website provided extensive information about the cost, the type of sleeping accommodation, and the route. It provided links to the online booking systems as well as insider tips on travelling with full colour photographs of the interior of the trains. Colour maps made it clear just how far we would be travelling during our 11 hour journey from Paris to Venice. The first half of the process was booking the Eurostar from London to Paris; the second half was a Trenitalia overnight train from Gare de Bercy to Venice on the Artesia sleeper train. My first decision was whether I should book the economy 4 berth couchette car, or splash out on the more expensive sleeper cars. Sleeper cars sleep 1, 2 or 3 persons, whilst couchettes sleep 4. As there were 4 of us travelling, a couchette seemed the more practical option. I could not book more than 3 months in advance, but the Rail Europe website sent me an email when the tickets were released so that I could get an early bargain.
Booking was easy once the tickets had been released. I chose to get my tickets to Paris from the automated ticket machines at St Pancras – an easy and fast process. At Gare de Bercy, I just showed the ticket office the email and the tickets to Venice were quickly ready.
~~the couchette ~~
After a problem-free Eurostar journey to Paris, we had the whole day to enjoy before catching the 8pm train to Venice. Gare de Bercy has no left luggage facility, but we were able to leave our cases in the nearby Gare de Lyon – a short 10 minute walk away. We returned at 7.45, and found the rather old fashioned Artesia train waiting. This very long train contained carriage after carriage of sleeper cars, with a restaurant car in the middle. This is no high-tech high-speed train; there are no led lights or flashy décor – it was a good, solid, old-fashioned train with a very drunk Italian family having a party in the neighbouring compartment. Our couchette was small but clean. A bottle of water was provided for each traveller, and pillows, sheets and blankets were folded on the benches. There was ample storage for our cases inside the couchette. We immediately pulled down the beds and made them up. They beds were hard but comfortable and had safety belts that reached from the ceiling and attached to the bottom of the bed, to stop people rolling out. If we had been less than 4 people travelling we would have had to share with strangers, but this is accepted practice in these trains and apparently not a cause for embarrassment. Luckily, the couchette was booked just for our own family, so we felt happy to undress and to get inside the sleeping bag style sheets. All the bedding looked and smelled clean.
The guard came to check our tickets and to take our passports, so that we would not be woken up at the borders. He demonstrated how the door could be locked from the inside so nobody could get in, how to pull all the blinds down for privacy from the corridor and the outside, and how to turn the overhead light off. Four rather ingenious bottle holders held our water bottles safely, high up on the wall but very close to our beds.
Down the corridor there were two small cubicles which contained a sink each. They were only really adequate for a quick toothbrush and handwash as there was not much room to turn around. Toilets were at each end of the carriage and were basic but fairly clean.
I walked down to see what the more expensive sleeper cars were like. They had more comfortable beds inside, which were already made up. They also had a small hand basin with towels and a coffee table. Our couchette had none of these, but we did have windows which looked out onto the corridor and gave us an outlook from the other side of the train. The sleeper cars had solid doors and walls to the corridors, so that the occupant had to stand in the corridor if they wanted to look out of the train.
The experience of sleeping in the couchette was not all that I had hoped. My children loved the cosiness of bunking down together, but the couchette was very warm. We opened the window wide, and this caused a pleasant draft, but the noise soon started to keep us awake. Overall, I slept well and really enjoyed waking up from time to time to look out of the window to see the grandeur of Milan station or the peaceful Italian countryside. I did not enjoy the promised sunsets and peaceful contemplation as we sped through the countryside but I enjoyed the feeling of travelling a great distance.
~~eating on the train~~
I would recommend spending time having a really good meal before you get on the train as the Trenitalia food leaves a lot to be desired. As soon as we sat down in our car, a uniformed restaurant guard came in and asked if we were eating. On the spur of the moment, we said yes, and he gave us the first table available – at 10.15pm. We checked out the takeaway buffet, but they had very little to offer us, so we duely sat down in the restaurant car at 10.15.
As soon as we sat down, the waiter thrust a basket of stale bread under our noses, shouting Mangiare? Mangiare? Taking the bread seemed to indicate some kind of acceptance, as he then rushed down the car, throwing a half bottle of wine at each adult, shouting Vino? There was no menu or price, so we just smiled as he moved on to the first course, dashing down the car, throwing gnocchi ragout on each customers plate with gusto. Most of it missed the target, but he was smiling as he wiped the spatters off his customers. Two minutes later, our plates were whisked away, and some pasta was thrown wildly in their place. No sooner had we eaten the pasta than a tray of beef stew was flung in front of us. Desperately trying to keep up the pace, we forced down the stew, just in time to see our plates whisked away and replaced with a slice of lemon tart.
The food issued forth from a small hatch in the wall of the carriage, where some anonymous woman was heating it up in trays. Reeling from the speed of delivery, we tried to keep up and eat our fair share, but failed miserably – only to find a bill for 120 Euros plonked on our table. Luckily we saw the funny side, and will always remember what is probably the worst and most expensive meal of our lives.
My ticket cost me £55 for the Eurostar from London to Paris, and £127 for the journey from Paris to Venice. The total of £182 seems a lot to pay, but seems better value if you deduct the price of an overnight stay in a hotel.
We arrived at Venice’s Santa Lucia station at 10am, around an hour late due to delays. It was a fantastic experience to walk out of the station and see the Grand Canal with all of its bustling activity laid out in front of us – and to know that we had the whole day ahead to explore and enjoy Venice. I would recommend this method of travelling to anybody who wants a memorable experience – the quirky and unusual journey gave us lots of laughs, and lots of memories to take away with us. I think my children will remember this journey for ever, but an ordinary flight would have merged into every other ordinary flight that they have ever taken.