Night Train.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

"Loaded like a freight train...flyin' like an aeroplane...feelin' like a space brain..."

Okay, not that night train.

Earlier this year when Rach and I were planning our great Euro-venture, we had a bit of a dilemma. While we could have spent weeks exploring the corners of mainland, jobs and school only allowed us about 10 days to stretch our legs. We had set ourself the goal of 3-4 different locations, none of which we had either been to before with the exception of Paris. Aside from the city of lights, we went back and forth trying to figure out the best routes to see as many places as we could without simultaneously exhausting ourselves. Additionally, we didn't want to waste massive chunks of time sitting on a plane or train when we could be out there exploring! We nixed destinations that were a bit further away like Spain and Croatia as much as they tempted us, and settled on sticking to central Europe. Neither of us had ever been to Germany,so Munich became our absolute must, and we picked it as our end-stop where we would fly out of to London, where Rach would continue on back to the states and I would head West to Bristol.

Staring at maps for days on end, we pinpointed cities in between Paris and Munich that we could fill our trip with. Austria had drawn us in with the likes of Innsbruck and Salzburg, and after much debate and internet research we wound up choosing the Sound of Music capital, but we were still stuck on destination #2 following Paris. We were also concerned about getting all the way from Paris to Salzburg without sacrificing an entire day to sitting on trains, but weren't sure what to do regarding Switzerland and Italy standing in our way. Eventually I stumbled upon the Thello website thanks to Seat61 and my attention piqued at the idea of taking an overnight train.

The idea of a night train is so romantic to me, something really unique and of the past - not to mention it reminds me of one of my favourite movies, White Christmas! It seemed pretty perfect: not only would it get us from Point A and B, but would do so while we were sleeping! Knocking out both the need for a hotel and the worry of wasting a day on travel, it was the perfect solution. Randomly picking Verona as our destination of choice as we had both already been to Venice wound up being one of the best decisions we made. Italy has slowly become one of my favourite travel destinations and Verona is no exception - all the joys of Italy without the stress! After a few lazy days gorging ourselves on pasta in Verona we would catch the train up to Salzburg via Innsbruck and be within spitting distance of Munich to round off our adventure.

Tips for the Thello Paris -- Venice Overnight Train.

Like most things, the earlier you book, the better. When looking at your budget, remember this knocks out both a night of accommodation and a day of travel.

We didn't book early enough to justify the price tag for a cabin compartment, but those are definitely the way to go if you book ahead of time and if it's in your budget. Opting for an all-female 4-couchette, we shared a compartment with two lovely French women who met when they were studying and were still friends to this day! The first few minutes getting into our cabin and getting settled was the classic a bit too hot/cramped/uncomfortable moment-of-panic, but as soon as our luggage was stowed away on the sides of the upper bunk and we opened the window for some cool air, we were able to relax. The two women we were bunking with were headed to Milan and we spent the first few hours sitting and chatting away as we munched on our packed dinners. Just so I can humblebrag on my best friend, they said that Rach's French accent was "very good" which I'm pretty sure is the highest compliment you can get from a Parisian.

Even if there are 6 of you in your group, go for a smaller couchette. While roaming the hallways I saw inside a 6-couchette and it made me feel claustrophobic just looking at it, they were stacked so closely together that if you were lying down in one of the bunks you would not be able to sit up. Shudder.

Ticketing for the Thello trains was simple. When booked online, you print out your confirmation pages and one of those (clearly marked) acts as your ticket. Once or twice throughout the journey, someone will come by to check your tickets to ensure you are in the right cabin, and to look at your passports as well since the train goes through Switzerland.

Gare de Lyon do luggage storage so if you drop off your things in the morning, you have the rest of the day to play in Paris before boarding your train that evening!

Your cabin includes a bottle of water for each passenger, as well as a dining car and a snack bar equipped with dinner and pastries + coffee in the morning. Gare de Lyon in Paris is a bustling train station with plenty of food options, so we ate a big dinner at Pret before our departure and picked up a few snacks as well. I need breakfast to function so I snagged a croissant and banana for the next morning. We got hot coffees from the dining car in the morning which were as expected, a bit overpriced and not amazing but hey - coffee is coffee. We alllllsssooo may have brought along a few small bottles of wine to help us..uh...relax? Bringing onboard your own wine or beer is allowed and I highly recommend it! Spotted here are a set of plastic travel wine glasses I got as a Christmas gift (from Rach, coincidentally!) and they are so handy, the stem fits neatly inside the main bit and screws into the bottom when you're feeling thirsty!

Each cabin provides you with a "bedding kit" and varies depending on what level you go for. The couchette came with a blanket, similar to an airline blanket, and the bed was narrow and firm. I'm average sized in pretty much all aspects - not tall, not short, not skinny, not curvy - and was able to rotate around on the top bunk without fear of falling off (there's a bar on the side to keep you rolling away). Since the couchettes don't come with a pillow you do need to bring your own or at least have some sort of travel pillow, which is what we did.

In each car there are a handful of bathrooms, and as I'm not one to ever fall asleep in makeup, I made myself right at home. Armed with a wash bag and pajamas, I took my usual night time ritual to the bathroom and went to bed squeaky-clean.

Depending on the time of year, your cabin may be hot or cold. There is a/c in the cabins but with four people in a tiny space, it still managed to get really warm at night. I would have left the window open if it was up to me and my earplugs, but the high-speed train chugging away made for a bit of noisy for those who didn't have any. Bring ear plugs!

The train jostles you about as you sleep, which some find comforting while others hate it. I can usually fall asleep in minutes on a seated train and it wasn't too hard falling asleep on this train, but the heat was definitely the worst part for me. All in all, not my best night's sleep, but not the worst.

Something I noticed in the evening when we made our first stop in Dijon is that there was no loudspeaker announcement of any arrivals or departures. I made a note of the timetable beforehand and made several alarms warning us of when Verona was coming up, otherwise we would have never known. I guess worst case scenario is if you oversleep, you wake up in Venice.

"Attitude is the difference between an adventure and an ordeal" This overnight train is not a 5* stay at the Ritz. If you get on expecting wide open spaces, a feather-down king sized bed and room service, you're in for a nightmare. If you're open and flexible, you get to have the adventure of falling asleep in the countryside of France, chugging through the Swiss alps at night, and waking up to the rolling mountainside and lakes of Northern Italy then a night train is an amazing option for you. Rach and I have been best friends for over 15 years and have had many sleepovers in our time, but this was one for the books!

Bonne nuit Paris...Buongiorno Verona

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