Zen and the art of long-distance European train travel

After blowing every last iota of potential misfortune and train travel trauma on the “worst night ever” aboard the Thello overnight sleeper from Paris to Milan, the next leg of the journey was bound to be a breeze.

And indeed it was. The ten hour stopping service from Milan to Bari in Southern Italy was an absolute delight. We lucked out with a 6-seat car for the most part all to ourselves. The seats pulled out into a handy kingsize double bed kind of arrangement (most welcome after the previous night’s sleepless sleeper). The aircon worked just fine, thank you very much. And there was not a mozzy in sight. Basically, it was everything last night’s journey had not been. Plus, it was a perpetual motion picture of effortlessly stunning scenery: lush Italian countryside, tumbledown farmhouses and glorious coastal vistas.

View of an old farmhouse from a train: Lessons on long distance European train travel

One of the tumbledown farmhouses we passed on route from Milan to Bari in southern Italy

We arrived in the port city of Bari relaxed and refreshed having whiled away the day in turns napping, snacking, laughing, joking, writing, drawing, playing choo-choo trains with ‘Thomas’ and ‘James’ and wandering up and down the carriages.

"Bari Centrale" sign at station: Lessons on long distance European train travelThe Milan-Bari calm after the Paris-Milan storm also offered ample time for reflecting on lessons learned about European train travel, a few of which I’ll share below:

1) It’s all about the journey, silly
Attempting to combine one’s commitment to the environment with a family holiday may be laudable but unless you’re also up for a bit of an adventure, you’re in danger of finding yourself in the midst of a long-winded, inter-continental detour. Remember, expectations are everything. Prepare for a two-day audacious extension to your holiday and you’ll have the time of your life.

coastal view: Lessons on long distance European train travel

View from the train window, East Italy coast

2) Break it up
Travelling from London to Corfu in one go, stopping only for an hour or so to change trains sounds like the quickest way to the beach, but it’s actually a fair old way. It’s worth thinking about breaking up the journey if you have the time. Next time we make this trip (and yes – there will be a next time) we’ll probably stop for a night in Bari before making the ferry journey over to Greece. That way we’ll get a chance to rest and recuperate a little, and do some sightseeing in Bari, before the last burst to the beach.

3) Smartphones change everything
The interacting with fellow travellers aspect of European train travel that I had so enjoyed on previous trips six or seven years ago has become unrecognisable since the advent of smart phones. It’d be unfair to suggest this applies to everyone, and at the risk of revealing quite how much I’m not at all ‘down with the kids’, I’d say the proportion of people not consumed in screenland and actually willing to engage with other voyagers has diminished significantly over the last decade.

4) Get some rest the night before
As with any long journey, make sure you’re well rested prior to setting off. Never, I repeat, never, start a 45 hour train and ferry journey on a hangover (Nathan Ball this one’s for you).

TrenItalia train waiting at Milan station: Lessons on long distance European train travel

Trenitalia train from Milan to Taranto via Bari

5) Secure your space
There are ways and means of securing a 6-person train car to yourself. A lively toddler would work in some cultures I’m sure, though not in child-loving Italy. The presence of camembert, roquefort, brie and a well-chosen stinky goats cheese on the other hand will surely deter the majority of travellers whatever their origin. On a similar note, I also learned that 4 baguettes + 4 different types of cheese + a bunch of grapes + a couple of bottles of vino can sustain 2 adults and a child for 36 hours.

6) First class facilities
Facilities on European overnight trains are (broken aircon excepted) pretty damn good. Of particular note is the “restaurant” carriage which, unlike any I have experienced in the UK, is open to all passengers – not just those purchasing food and drink on the train. We joined several other voyagers availing of the comfy four-person booths and free paper plates, cutlery and cups. We were also overjoyed to discover that the café/bar staff happily corked our bottles of wine, free of charge and without question. There is NO way that is happening on Virgin trains.

a train at Bari Centrale train station:Lessons on long distance European train travel

Bari Centrale train station

7) Free alarm service
When the train guard comes round at the start of the journey and insists on taking your passport off you, it’s not because he’s the mastermind behind an elaborate transnational identity fraud. It’s actually so that he can take care of the necessary border checks while you (in theory) slumber on. And to make sure you don’t miss your stop, he will even come by to wake you up – and return your passport – half an hour or so in advance of the first destination of the morning. Now, that is service.

8) Unlucky without aircon
If you’re travelling during the summer months and the aircon goes in your couchette, it’s quite possibly game over. At least in terms of a reasonable night’s sleep. Depending of course on your capacity to sleep in an environment not dissimilar to a one-person tent at a festival at 10am on a hot summer’s morning when you’ve been up far too late at the all night bar. I’ve travelled by overnight train several times before and have always found it to be a pleasant experience – special even, on account of the unique sensation of being lulled to sleep by the sound of train on track. It just so happens that on this occasion – the very occasion that I chose to blog to the world about our eco-friendly trip – the aircon failed miserably. I cannot stress how unlucky this was. This is not usual and should not be taken as a typical night on a sleeper train. I repeat: it is not usual and should by no means deter you from travelling by train to your European summer holiday next year.

9) Get a bed for your toddler
Children under 4 travelling for free is great as long as you have a spare bed in your couchette. We were lucky in that one of our fellow couchetters decided to move carriages. Whether it was the small size of the lower berth she was allocated, the full to capacity couchette or the presence of a toddler, we’ll never know. But boy were we glad she did. Had she not, an already uncomfortable night’s sleep would have been positively unbearable! Lesson: book a bed for the wee one for the overnight leg.

10) Remain zen-like at all times
Even if one leg of your journey falls short of your expectations, there’s always another one around the corner ready to make up for it all. Certainly, maintaining a zen approach to long-distance European train travel is advisable. It will stand you in good stead for when you reach your final destination and is good practice for family holidays in general. In fact, a zen approach to parenting as a whole is not a bad thing to aspire to and will surely help level the most turbulent of journeys.

man looking out of train window: Lessons on long distance European train travel

Nathan remaining zen-like from Milan to Bari

This post is the third in a series detailing our adventures traveling by train and ferry for our family holiday to Corfu and Italy. Read part 1 and part 2.

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8 Responses to Zen and the art of long-distance European train travel

  1. Lucy Day says:

    Some great real advice here Kat, and an interesting read.
    Starting a journey on a hangover is definitely a mistake many of us have made in the past! Fascinating that smartphones have really, truly altered the way people communicate when in proximity to each other. It’s so sad.
    Enjoy your holiday – you deserve it. Xx

    • Thanks Lucy 🙂 Nathan was definitely regretting the previous night’s boozing by the time the aircon situation had revealed itself! And yes, I felt the smartphone thing was really noticeable but then we were in a car full of twenty-somethings. Other age groups would be different me thinks. Love to you three xxx

      • Mike Grenville says:

        Last year I traveled to/from Barcelona and to/from Austria my tip from those trips is to book the quiet carriage if one is available. With a toddler may not work so well.
        Also don’t automatically assume that First Class will be beyond your pocket as sometimes it can be remarkably cheap.

  2. Trudie says:

    Loved reading this.
    Really got a feel of your experience.
    Loving the stinky cheese idea though with my kids I don’t think I will ever go need to go to those lengths

  3. Olly Perry says:

    Thanks for a great blog about your trip, Kat. Despite the occasional inconvenience and unwelcome hassle, I still think that train/ferry is the best way to travel. I went on the Paris – Milan sleeper back in 1975 when I was a teen with my brother and a friend. My Dad’s last words to us were: “Don’t lose each other.” Shortly afterwards, in Paris at the Gare de Lyon, we lost each other. My brother decided he needed to get some water for the trip just minutes before the train left. The train started pulling out of the station and we were hanging on the step looking out for him (trains still had doors that could be opened while moving). Not seeing him and having his rucksack, we made a decision to throw our bags out of the moving train and then jump out ourselves. We’d made friends with a young Swedish girl by then and we threw her bag out by mistake. I jumped first and then my friend Leo and finally Cecilia, who jumped onto the tracks! Leo and I found a luggage trolley and collected our bags and then a tearful Cecilia appeared down the platform. Somehow, we were all OK. But there was no sign of my brother. We took another train with Cecilia and made tea in the loos since we still didn’t have any water. Cecilia parted from us (we met up later that trip in southern Spain) at some junction in the middle of nowhere and we took another train to Milan. Eventually my brother turned up having got another train almost immediately upon seeing our first train moving out of the station. He would have beaten us to Milan but unfortunately for him, when we realised he wasn’t in the station, we got a station inspector to relay a message down the French railway system asking for ‘Marcus Perry to please get off the train’. He heard the message in Dijon and got off the train and waited. In vain. Meanwhile, Leo and I, doing our best to impress Cecilia and make her laugh, completely forgot about him. Those were the days and I’d love to take another long train trip one day. Bless your travels and much love to you all <3

    • What a fantastic travel tale Oli! Certainly with train and ferry travel the increased length of the journey and greater number of changes does leave plenty of room for unexpected twists! Much love to you and Andi xx

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