I’ve had the fortune to go on some pretty excellent holidays over the last few years. Last summer we took the best trip of the lot, travelling from home in Colchester to Italy, Switzerland and France — all on a train.
We had a pretty good idea of where we wanted to visit but no idea how to get there. This is where we stumbled upon the first thing I came to love about European train travel:
You can get pretty much anywhere in the world by train from the UK
Example: There are only 5 changes needed to get from Colchester to Vladivostok (yes, Vladivostok in Russia).
Deutsche Bahn’s bahn.com is simply outstanding for planning your route. It gives you chapter and verse on journey times, connections and so forth. Booking with them is a little tricky, but fortunately there’s a splendid solution for that particular problem.
These guys are simply fantastic. Once I’d worked out my route I gave them a call. Nothing was too much trouble. Every leg of the journey was booked with cost and convenience in mind. Tickets arrived promptly and with a clear itinerary.
Put simply, if you’re considering booking a train adventure, book with Rail Europe.
When you’re there
I would thoroughly recommend getting the DB Navigator app. Its a great way of keeping a log of your day’s journey, and if you’ve got a connection it will usually tell you which platform you need to get to.
We settled upon a long first leg, heading straight from Colchester to Rome using the Eurostar and Thellio Sleeper service from Paris to Rome. We’d then go from Rome into deepest Switzerland and then back out to Paris. A vaguely circular route of around 2,500 miles.
The sleeper train from London to Rome on the Thellio.
If you’re going to take a lengthy trip across Europe on the train you’re pretty likely to encounter a sleeper service at some point. We picked the Thellio, which goes direct from Paris Gare du Lyon to Rome. Word is this service has recently been withdrawn which is a massive shame.
Paris was hot. 32c when we arrived. The train had been sat in the siding all day. The air conditioning was off and the windows closed. We’d booked a two ‘bed’ sleeper compartment. A step up from the couchettes which are little more than a bunk bed. The compartment was very comfortable, but don’t expect too much in the way of luxury. It was like camping but on a fast moving train.
None of this matters though, because less than 24 hours after stepping on a train in Essex we stepped off a train in Italy!
Swiss trains are the best
The goal of our trip was to visit Switzerland. My wife’s grandfather collected and built model Swiss trains, and we wanted to see them for real.
All the stereotypes about Swiss trains are true: On time, beautifully comfortable, smooth. Imagine the UK but if we’d never listened to Beeching.
One of the longest legs of our journey was from Basel to Paris. 3 hours on the TGV-Lyria. This is a French/Swiss joint venture and one of the most amazing trains I have ever been on. 300 km/h through the French and Swiss countryside, non stop, no signals.
Coming home: Eurostar and Liverpool Street
After Switzerland and Paris it was time to come home. On the Eurostar.
The Eurostar has always felt rather romantic to me. Where you can skid under the Channel and emerge in France in the blink of an eye, with the giddy excitement of different electricity pylons, louchely spoken French and the social acceptance of shandy as a pre-dinner drink.
That giddiness was burnt away quite quickly. Once you’ve tasted ambrosia anything else tastes like a shrink wrapped sandwich. Eurostar looked old. 1990’s decor and Parisien customer service.
Liverpool Street was even worse. I have the worst kind of pavlovian reaction there. 10 years of commuting has taught me to seek out Platform 9, 10 or 11 with laser guided precision. Its almost pointless to say that this was the only leg of our trip which was delayed. But we didn’t care, we’d just been to Europe and back on the train.
Let the train take the strain
Until last year, I’d never ever considered taking a holiday where I’d rely entirely on a train. Right now, I can’t think of a better way to vacation. One where you can enjoy the journey as much as the destination. Give it a go.