The 9.32 to VeniceJanuary 29th, 2011
After my two recent attempts to fly to Venice were thwarted by volcanoes and strikes I decided to try my favourite mode of transport and bought train tickets from London to Venice.
Maybe those able to pay extortionate first class airfares might disagree but I’ve never experienced a moment’s joy whilst flying and the flight is only a fraction of the total journey time. Recent research has calculated that 80% of the average European short-haul journey is spent on the ground hassling to, from and inside the airport.
I was originally just making the trip to Venice but because it was so simple to arrange I decided to detour on the way home for couple of nights on the French Riviera.
Friday: 09.32 departure from London
London’s St Pancras station is a busy place but checking in and security is a swift affair because they’re only dealing with one or two international trains at a time instead of tens of dozens of flights.
I boarded a Eurostar train clutching all my rail tickets and accommodation vouchers and within half an hour the new high-speed track was whisking me through Kent before diving under the channel emerging 26 minutes later in France.
12.47 (11.47 GMT) arrival in Paris
Pulling into Paris’ Gare du Nord I calculated that I’d still be in the security queue at Heathrow if I had been flying. I had to change stations and was surprised to find a Paris Metro ticket in my pack but the Gare de l’Est is just a few minutes walk and less hassle than the Metro. There’s plenty of time for a glass of wine in a street café before boarding.
14.24 departure from Paris
The high speed TGV left Paris for Switzerland just after lunch and after some grim suburbs an attractive rural landscape rolls passed – dotted with small towns and villages until Mulhouse where half the train uncouples and the rest continues on to Zurich. There are no border controls but the houses give it away – the bright blue and purple of France giving way to the grey, pointy chalet style of Switzerland.
19.14 arrival in Zurich
Zurich is a vast & pleasantly spacious station. I counted sixty taxis outside but never discovered if they’re so cheap everyone uses them or so expensive that nobody uses them because our Hotel du Theatre was just a five minutes walk from the station. It was well located in the old town, a minute from the atmospheric cobbled street of Niederdorf. This German speaking part of Switzerland buzzes with raucous bier kellers, clubs Asian, German & Italian restaurants and is a great place for casual eating and drinking. Zurich is pricey with a couple of pizzas and a couple of drinks costing 75 euro at La Pasta.
Saturday: 11.09 departure from Zurich
We could have opted for a nine o’clock train but the next morning we were glad for the leisurely start after a good breakfast. The station departure boards were just the same as any big station in the UK so there was no difficulty finding our train. We were heading south and it wasn’t far beyond Lake Zurich that the Alps begin rearing up – sharp snow-capped peaks fringed with bright green valleys dotted with black and white cows – wearing bells. Sometimes clichés really are true!
Towering mountains over shadowed Lake Luzern, trees clinging precariously to its sheer sides and waterfalls cascading into the lake. There were a surprising number of little boats in a marina and pottering around on the lake. Plenty of people drive this route and Alpine roads snaked their way through valleys, others towered spectacularly above us on stilts disappearing into black arches half way up the side of mountains.
Several tunnels and bridges later the train descended to Lake Lugano, and then Lake Como – indicating we’ve crossed into Italy. The lakes were beautiful but these iconic lakeside towns didn’t live up to their celebrity magazine image – from the train it was a disappointing vision of hundreds of boxy apartment buildings. I suspect it would have been a day or two well spent to get off the train here and explore these famous lakes in greater detail.
14.50 arrival in Milan
The train rolls into the massive Romanesque station at Milan in time for a late lunch. But with only an hour before our train departs for Venice there’s only enough time for a peek outside the station to taste some real Italian coffee. There’s nowhere convenient outside so a good place for a drink and a bite to eat is a balcony café above the platform departure gates. Annoyingly the lifts were locked so we had to lug our bags up the stairs.
16.05 departure for Venice
The afternoon train raced east across rich farmland of orchards, cereals and vines and the Italian Alps were still occasionally seen on the horizon. The service trolley served the worst lukewarm powdered coffee in Italy and had nothing decent to eat so buy some water & a panini at Milan before this leg of the journey.
18.40 – Arrive in Venice
Journey’s end is in sight as we cross the lagoon to Venice’s Santa Lucia station. The vaporetto stop is right outside so it’s a simple 6.5 Euro cruise down the Grand Canal, passing tantalisingly illuminated palazzo windows, to the Ca D’Oro stop and then a five minute walk to our hotel – the Giorgione. The train journey has been great but it feels good to settle for a few days.
The artwork in Florence is better and Rome’s historic buildings are more impressive but Venice is even more special. It’s an historic work of art itself – an artistic creation that you experience and actually live in. Its ambience is utterly unique; the absence of cars, miles of canals, hundreds of bridges, the Dickensian alleyways, vast Campos, little bars and cafés and the haunting echo of bells make for an unforgettable experience.
After three days of getting lost in back alleys, visiting familiar places and finding new ones for coffee and spritza, riding boats, watching city life working perfectly without motorcars and just revelling in Venice’s crumbling fabric – it was time to move on.
Tuesday: 10.50 – depart Venice for Nice
We backtrack on the train to Milan on route for the French Riviera.
13.25 – Milan to Ventimiglia
The train is the old fashioned style with separate six-seater compartments & a corridor running down the side. Our compartment companions from Nice have also come from Venice and say the train is the only sensible way to travel this route.
The rolling farmland gives way to wooded mountains towering up on both sides of the train and I spot a wild boar rooting amongst the trees. Rivers are gushing down the mountainside after heavy rain and clouds shroud the peaks.
The train passes through several short tunnels and is travelling slower than usual due to heavy rain washing debris onto the track & we’re running late as we leave Genoa.
17.05 – Ventimiglia to Monte Carlo
Arrived later than expected at this little station on the Italian/French border. Had to change trains & there’s just enough time to pop across to the station café for some takeaway pizza before boarding a small commuter train. Initial planning indicated this would be direct to Nice but we had to change again at Monte Carlo.
19.07 – Monte Carlo to Nice
The heavy rains had caused rocks to fall onto the line so there was an hour’s delay while they were cleared off. Unfortunately Monte Carlo is an unappealing underground station. Another little commuter train eventually took us into Nice arriving at 21.45 – about 2 hours later than expected.
Wednesday – stopover day in Nice
What should have been a spectacular journey along the coast the previous evening was at night so this morning we took a 20-minute train ride back to Monte Carlo. The train hugs the spectacular palm fringed coastline and the light does seem to have a special quality, which explains why so many painters have been attracted to the area. I expected to dislike the extravagance and haughtiness of the Riviera but I didn’t. It really was glamorous and the November weather was fantastic.
In the afternoon we strolled along the five-mile palm tree lined promenade of Nice, which was so cinematic I almost expected Cary Grant and Grace Kelly to tootle past in an open top sports car. The old town flower market was a joy – surrounded by grand Italianate buildings that concentrate the heady aromas of Provence – spices, lavender, roses and fruit presented like art rather than food. In the evening it transforms into an al fresco dining haven surrounded by bars, cafés and milling crowds of locals.
Thursday: 10.28 – Nice to Lille
This train was a double-decker so the views were excellent as it pottered slowly along the Mediterranean coast to Marseilles before turning north. This must be a high-speed line as it picks up speed and raced the entire length of France from south to north, bypassing major towns and cities. The countryside was stunningly beautiful – hills, mountains, forests, lakes and devoid of significant human habitation until near Paris.
18.36 Lille to London
The train was spot on time and the final leg from Lille to London is a more convenient route for the Eurostar because you don’t have to change stations, as you have to when routing through Paris. The departure area is miserable affair with just a couple of grim vending machines – so get a bite to eat and a drink before entering the Eurostar departure zone.
19.03 – Arrive back in London
Arriving back in London I feel that I’ve been travelling and exploring instead of being delivered like an airfreight package to my destination. The only change I would have made would be to spend longer at each stopover destination. I felt a bit like a nineteenth century traveller on a Grand Tour of Europe – much quicker and more comfortable of course – but it’s a completely different world compared to flying and one that I can’t wait to visit again.