My Italian Adventure started with my first experience of a European sleeper train. Last year I did the Night Riviera from London to Penzance, which was a pretty relaxing overnight journey. This was much more of a ramshackle affair, but a lot of fun!
A routine journey down to London and on the Eurostar to Paris saw me arrive at Gare de Lyon at about 5pm, with plenty of time to enjoy a couple of drinks outside a cafe before my departure time of 7.15pm.
I booked the Thello three months in advance and got a fare of £110 for a cabin to myself. That seems pretty damn reasonable for a room for the night and the huge distance travelled.
It is not, however, a luxury experience. The sleeper carriages were built in the 1970’s and have had no more than a suggestion of refurbishment. The staff are friendly – when you can find them – and the air conditioning needs a lot of persuading. On the plus side, you get a complimentary toilet kit, and more importantly a small bottle of Prosecco.
With this in hand, I wandered down to the dining car for a bite to eat. The carriage itself is quite smart, and the views excellent as we sped through South-Eastern France.
My waitress, who was not in the first flush of youth, was very obliging – for someone who spoke almost no English. I understand the hypocrisy of an Englishman criticising a lack of language skill, but it did seem strange that on an international train full of travellers from across the globe, the front of house staff spoke so little English.
Her enthusiasm, however, could not be faulted as she flamboyantly went through the menu while I smiled obligingly and understood nothing. I thought I heard the word “pollo” though, so I said “si” to that and hoped for the best.
Sure enough a short time later I was presented with some chicken and Parma ham croquettes which were rather tasty. After polishing those off, swilled down with my Prosecco and a couple of birra’s, I headed to bed.
The steward had converted my sofa into a bed which, while fulfilling the definition of the word, did little else. It was small and narrow and rather hard. That, coupled with the noisy old carriages and a 5.30am stop in Milan where my neighbours noisily disembarked, left me with precious little sleep.
The journey did feel like an adventure though – you may not get the best nights sleep but as I enjoyed my complimentary juice and croissant in the dining car the following morning, everyone seemed to be in good spirits.
Shortly after 9am, the train crossed the causeway from the mainland onto the islands of Venice – what a fantastic way to arrive at this unique city.
In summary, don’t expect a luxury experience – but if you accept the limitations, remember the bargain price and throw yourself into it, you’ll have a great time.