Which would you prefer: exploring Europe in the lap of luxury, or adventure on a shoestring? We tried both, and came up with a surprising conclusion...
Water lapped the edge of the pavement with such a steady rhythm I was, temporarily, hypnotised by it. Tiny waves leapt up and down, slow and steady, as though peeking up at me to get a better look. It was only when a water taxi passed by, thrusting its frothy wake towards me, that the spell was broken, and I lifted my eyes to see the camera-wielding passengers inside looking back at me.
I was in Venice, Italy’s famous water-veined city, waiting for a traghetto – a stripped-down gondola that costs only a fraction of the price (€2 versus at least €80) – to take me across the Grand Canal. The excitement of crossing one of the world’s most famous waterways in a traditional skiff, with a punter wearing a trademark blue-and-white-striped shirt – albeit minus the cushions and serenading song, was palpable. Though it only lasted a few minutes, there was something supremely exciting about experiencing a travel classic the cheaper way. A student at the time, finding budget means to explore was my life’s mantra.
As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve often thought back to that experience and longed to try the real deal, to submerge myself (pardon the pun) in one of Venice’s most authentically unique activities – regardless of the cost. For, I reason to myself when looking at my dwindling bank balance, how can I truly appreciate the bargain without also experiencing the classic?
And it was with that thought that I found myself many years later, standing on the platform of St Pancras Station in London (having taken the train from the village in Berkshire where I live), about to embark on a budget versus classic adventure to Venice and back again.
I had planned my itinerary meticulously – with an Interrail pass in hand I would follow the route of the infamous Orient Express from here to Venice, passing through Paris and Basel in Switzerland, feasting on the local food (and sights) en route, before arriving at the canal-side city. Once there, I would head back via the official Belmond Venice Simplon-Orient-Express to experience luxury on my return – and really be able to compare and contrast the two. This trip would truly be all about the journey.
“You don’t need to rough it just because you’re Interrailing,” explained Amanda, who was arranging my tickets and helping me navigate my way through Europe’s myriad railway routes. “Upgrading to first class means you’ll get free meals on some routes, more space, more comfort, free wifi and – of course – the option to have a sleeper cabin. And it starts from just £80 more than a standard pass.”
I was sold. This wouldn’t be a student-style crossing of the continent, this would be low-priced luxury.
In keeping with the theme, I started in style with a breakfast at the platform-adjacent Plum and Spilt Milk restaurant – whose name aptly comes from the livery inside the dining cars of Britain’s Flying Scotsman. There I feasted on a hearty full English, drinking lashings of Earl Grey and toasting stereotypes.
I needn’t have done it, I quickly realised, when my first-class ticket for the Eurostar gave me access to the pre-departure lounge, where I was offered more tea, coffee and croissants than I could easily stomach. Boarding the train (fast track, naturally), I was once more offered breakfast, which of course I had to accept to fully review my experience, and watched in a food-indulgent stupor as we pelted through the English countryside and plunged into the tunnel under the Channel.
It was author and America’s favourite expat Ernest Hemingway who said that France’s capital is “a moveable feast”, and, having eaten my bodyweight in breakfast trimmings by the time I reached it, I felt that the one thing I would need to do when I did arrive – just over two hours later – would be to move.
After arriving into Gare du Nord I had around three hours in Paris before my next train departed for Switzerland at Gare de Lyon (following the OE’s two-day route, I was trying to make the journey as quickly as timetables allowed to make it a fair comparison). Grabbing a ticket for central Paris on the Metro, I – inspired by Hemingway – headed for Jardin du Luxembourg.
It was here in this statue-studded and fountain-rich green space that he would come and soak up nature, shading beneath the well-groomed trees. It’s also where, I read, the cash-strapped writer would sometimes hunt for pigeons to feed his wife and son. As I strolled past an artist spilling the image of the yellow-bricked palace onto his canvas I was amused to see the birds manoeuvre away from him nervously.
As it had been an hour or so since I’d eaten, after a brisk stroll with my wheelie luggage in tow (the downside of Interrailling) I headed for another Hemingway haunt, La Closerie des Lilas. In the 1920s and ’30s, many creative types – including F Scott Fitzgerald of Great Gatsby fame, Pablo Picasso and Paul Cezanne – would meet in this café to drink and talk art, life and love.
Prices here are not cheap. I chuckled to myself how very apt it was that I decided to have a starter as a main, along with a glass of wine to toast the penniless artists who had sat here before me. Clearly spotting a kindred spirit, the waiter seemed to take pity on me and brought over extra bread with a knowing wink. Still full from breakfast, I found the soup more than enough and sat happily scribbling notes while sipping my sauvignon, while the pianist played a jaunty tune and the world seemed to move by in a rush outside the full-length windows.
I could have sat people-watching for hours, but I had a train to catch. And so, wandering past Hemingway’s apartment on Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, where market vendors still sold less-than perfect produce at cut prices, I made my way to Notre Dame Metro station. Though the cathedral is undeniably captivating, it was the opposite bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, that I wanted to visit before I left. Picking up a coffee and a book for the next leg of the journey I failed to see how even a luxury train could offer any better experience than this.
Then I reached the Metro and was promptly told the train was cancelled due to a fault with the line. A helpful local, with whom I conversed in a mix of my GCSE French and his equivalent-level English, took me via another route. But it was no use. I had missed my connection.
Happily an Interrail pass means this isn’t the end of the world. Though I had to pay a €20 re-booking fee, I managed to get passage onto the next train to Basel.
“Vin blanc ou rouge, madam?” the guard on my three-hour journey said in a heavenly Gallic tone. After my whirlwind tour of Paris, sitting in this carriage, regarding the French towns in the dwindling sunlight, felt like the perfect, calming antidote. First class on this train meant more food and wine. On reaching Switzerland’s little border city, I decided that I didn’t really need to eat at the aptly named Le Train Bleu, and instead jumped on the next intercity to Zurich where I’d pre-booked a hotel that abutted the station.
“We’ve got you a room overlooking the train tracks,” said the receptionist in the newly opened Langstrasse where the bar drinks are listed on ever-changing boards like you get on the platforms. There’s even a Trainspotting Suite, gym and pool where you can watch the locomotives go by.
Lulled to sleep gazing at the mechanical behemoths arriving and departing like clockwork from my window, I woke the next day ready to get back on track. I had a slow start in the city, meandering around the streets in no particular hurry, idling in coffee shops and negotiating the cobbled streets of the Old Town, before taking a series of trains bound, ultimately, for Munich.
Though the next stage of the journey was not on the Orient Express route that I was roughly following, I’d wanted to experience an Interrailling sleeper. To this end, I spent a happy day moving through farmland and mountains, changing trains at the picturesque town of Lindau on Lake Constance – the mighty body of water bordered by the three countries of Austria, Switzerland and Germany – before making my way to Bavaria’s capital.
Once there I was whisked aboard my sleeper train and shown by the guard to a small private cabin where a bed, toilet – with shower – and some snacks and drinks waited for me. It was basic and a little cold, but more than I expected. I thought I’d sleep well but, with multiple early-hour stops en route and the high-speed passage through tunnels, I often found myself shaken awake and was glad to finally reach Venice.
After leaving my luggage in the storage room at Venice Santa Lucia station, I set out on foot, crossing bridges, taking alleyways and never once checking a map. The joy of this city is getting hopelessly lost, discovering unexpected squares after negotiating increasingly narrowing passageways, taking traghetti (or gondolas – finally) and weaving by water from place to place, discovering the cafés where only the locals drink. I stumbled upon one following a random turning away from the crowds where I sampled a proper Italian coffee and a freshly baked cornetto pastry sweetened with mouthwatering orange rind.
After a couple of hours I headed back to the station to sample train travel literally on the other side of the tracks. On the platform the royal-blue train stood, its name Venice Simplon-Orient-Express emblazoned in gold. Its crew lined up alongside in blazers and hats that matched the navy-gold paintwork.
I felt the eyes of other travellers on me as I made my way along a red carpet towards my carriage. “You must be Ms Smith,” said my smiling steward, offering out his white-gloved hand as an introduction. I felt like I’d stepped off the streets and straight onto a movie set.
As it happens that wasn’t far off the truth. The Johnny Depp-fronted film Murder on the Orient Express had been filming on this very train just weeks before my visit. My cabin was as A-List as the name of the train is famous. Burgundy carpets lined the floors, while the walnut-and-teak door and wall panels were adorned with mother-of-pearl stencils. The sofa was covered with plush maroon and platinum upholstery and a little lamp with a fringed fabric shade sat at the window, while hidden away in a cupboard was a wash-basin with shiny chrome taps.
“No toilet?” I asked, only to be told that, to keep the train as authentic as possible, these remain at the end of each cabin and that showers have only just been introduced to the most expensive suites. I was quite taken with the idea that we were experiencing luxury as it would have been back in 1883 when a Belgian entrepreneur designed this train to take the cream of society between the capital cities of Paris and Istanbul. Originally the journey to link Europe with Asia, it now only offers that crossing a couple of times a year, but this shortened European route is equally as popular.
We left the lagoons of Venice behind, sipping champagne and eating fresh fruit while watching the urban trappings of the outskirts give way to pockets of vineyards. We briefly stopped at Verona, Shakespeare’s legendary city where the star-crossed lovers of Romeo and Juliet gazed upon each other, but there was no getting off – instead our minds were left to imagine the scene as we headed to the dining carriage for a multi-course lunch of freshly baked bread, olive oil produced in the landscape through which we were passing, and a concoction of flavours such as butterbean mash and pineapple cooked in brown sugar with salted caramel.
I waddled back to my cabin then took time to sit and watch the fields morph into mountains as we wove between the jagged spires of the Dolomites, en route to Austria via the Brenner Pass – a Trans-Alpine route used since the Roman times. Despite the speed of flights, there’s something truly magical about travelling by train. Perhaps it’s the pace – slow and steady. Maybe it’s the views – for no one can deny that watching the world go by, constantly changing from the comfort of a carriage window, beats the squeezed perspective witnessed from an aircraft porthole on takeoff and landing. Or, very possibly, it’s the accessibility of the journey. It was funny to think that here I was navigating across borders into the ski town of Innsbruck and this had all begun by catching a train from the station 10 minutes from my front door.
As the “buongiorno”s turned to “Grüss Gott”s, the pianist in the lounge car began to play and, after changing into my finery (for you can never be overdressed on the Orient Express), I grabbed myself a G&T – all in the name of research – and listened as the musician’s fingers fluttered over the ivory as smoothly as the train pushed on towards Switzerland. Men were dressed in tuxedos; women had ornamented their hair with plumes of black feathers and wrapped sequined shawls around their shoulders.
The food and champagne kept coming as we sat down to another multi-course feast while the mountains turned pink in the sunset. Forget Paris, I mused, this was a moveable feast.
Back in my room the steward had transformed the sofa into a bed and I fell into it, drunk on food. I tried to stay awake, peering through the window to make out the tiny chocolate-box villages through which we’d pass, but before I knew it the gentle sway of the carriage rocked me to sleep as we bounded onwards in the night.
Breakfast came to my compartment as the sun rose over the outskirts of Paris the next morning. Once more we were back in France’s bewitching city, but now our arrival was with a bit more fanfare. Some passengers left, followed by porters with their luggage. But, heading home, I remained on for lunch, sipping and savouring my last glass of wine from this remarkable blue train.
At Calais, the train terminates and luxury coaches take you onto the Channel Tunnel train’s vehicle carriages before depositing you at Folkestone Station where the British Pullman is waiting.
It wasn’t only passengers who arrived at the red-bricked platform festooned with flowers. Trainspotters also came, notebooks in hands, to glimpse this locomotive stalwart. No matter where I travel, I find that the Europeans – and particularly the British – are most enamoured with trains. Perhaps it’s because we embraced rail travel first.
I regarded my own country now, through the large windows of this Victorian carriage, eating a hot scone and drinking tea, and saw it from a new perspective. After the fields and mountains of the continent I realised that we too have lush green beauty in bucketloads, and our towns with their cobbled streets, canals and waterways have history to match that found in Venice and Paris.
Continuing on to London, I marvelled at how efficient our tube network is to get me from Victoria station to Waterloo where I would catch my last train home. I had experienced two very different train journeys – from the grown-up Interrail experience to the ultimate in luxury on the Orient Express. I thought by the time I got home I would have decided which was best – the budget or the blowout. But I was further than ever from a decision.
When it comes to trains, I reasoned as the familiar towns I passed on my way home flashed by, the journey – no matter how comfortable or basic – is as much a part of the trip as anything else. And when it comes to low versus high-end travel I can’t help but feel that a little bit of both is the real ticket to adventure, and that each offers an experience that – regardless of the cost – is truly priceless.
The author travelled using an Interrail Global Pass obtained through Voyages-sncf.com (0844 848 5848) that allows 5 days of travel within a 15-day period. Passes are also available in other durations. Seat reservations are needed on high-speed and overnight trains, depending on route and carrier.
Highly recommended is the 25hours Hotel Langstrasse in Zurich which offers a special Trainspotting Suite and is just a 10-minute walk from the station.
The author travelled on Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (0845 077 2222) going from Venice Santa Lucia station to London Victoria. Solo travellers should call to get the best deal on single compartments as some options are not available online. Price includes all meals and selected drinks.
Without doubt, the Floating City is a highlight of any rail journey in Europe. Take time to get lost in its meandering streets and try a gondola or traghetto ride.
From following in the footsteps of Hemingway, to riding the Metro and watching the world go by from a street cafe, the French capital always inspires.
A trainspotter’s delight – take a seat and watch the locomotives come and go, so punctual you could set your watch by them.
Don’t forget to explore the city using our much-taken-for-granted Tube. After using those on the Continent you’ll realise how frequent they are and easy to navigate.
Because sometimes in life you just need to treat yourself to a true travel classic.