Living the last year car free has given us the chance to explore some travel options that we had previously only thought about in terms of vague “somedays.” In the past, it would’ve been only too easy for us to say, “oh no, it’s so much easier to drive for 10 hours,” when we were starting to plan our Tuscany trip.
Truth is, it probably wouldn’t have been easier. When we drove there last time, we traveled with friends, so the two gents traded off driving duties. Since I still can’t/don’t drive here, BV would’ve been the only one behind the wheel. That would have meant instead of a 10-hour trip (assuming the best conditions), we more than likely would’ve needed to schedule in an overnight stay somewhere (losing valuable Tuscan time), or sleep in the car (in December), and it would’ve been more like two lost days coming and going. But as we have no car, we had no choice… to the train!
I’d been curious about doing an overnight train for quite some time. I had taken one before on our high school France trip, but BV never had. Strangely, in the 11 years I’ve lived in Europe, I have never managed to repeat the experience. The Js and I did try, once, on our ill-fated roommate Krakow trip, but were brutally rebuffed.*
So how was it? Pretty good, as far as I’m concerned. But I have to say, the experience was sliiiiightly different nearly 20 years (oh God) on.
It was the summer of 2001, I was 17. We’d been tooling around France for about a week and a half, shepherded on and off of our coach bus by my delightfully loopy French teacher, Madame Coe, and our tour guide. Madame was a school tour veteran, and had the whole thing down to a science. When she learned that we’d be taking an overnight train from Paris to Nice, she had her whole strategy in place. She didn’t count on us though.
The girls on our trip outnumbered the boys, but she distributed us throughout our sleeper cars so we’d have at least one male in each of the 6-person compartments “for protection.” Our compartment was to have four girls and two boys, but we immediately folded up the upper bunks and packed about twelve people in there for a night full of playing cards and drinking the provisions that the guys had picked up in the train station. Madame stopped by our bunk a few times before she retired, wine glass in hand, advising us not to stay up too late.
Needless to say, she was right and we probably should have listened. All these years on, I have no idea how late we stayed up, being 17 and 18, probably unforgivably loud**, but having an excellent time.
What I do remember, is the next morning. The train had metal shutters for the windows, which we had wisely pulled down when we went to sleep. When one of the guys slid out of his bunk in the morning and cracked open the door, OH GOD THE LIGHT.
We were in the South of France. The sun was BLINDING. We were all awake now, and he stumbled into the hallway and slammed the door shut. I assume he felt his way to the restroom, because it had to have taken a few minutes for his eyes to adjust.
When we rolled up the shutters a bit later, the train was rolling along the coast. The endless blue of the Mediterranean and that blinding sun was gorgeous… once we had chugged some water and located our sunglasses. I almost wish I had my France photo albums here so I could see if the evidence of the night before was visible on any of our faces.
At 36, the experience was a little bit different.
Our train was scheduled to depart Munich at 8:10pm, which allowed for a very relaxed day. We finished up packing, and were ready to go in plenty of time. Though I did once again bring too much stuff, I thought this was decent for both of us for ten days:
The biggest hassle was the ‘carry-on’ bag under my purse. It contained an extra coat, my camera bag, and a pile of books. It was manageable, but awkward to carry.
BV and I met with our cat-sitting friend in Nürnberg to pass off our keys, and then boarded our train to Munich. We opted for a few trains ahead, just in case, and had more than enough time to spare. Since the Augustiner Keller is just up the street from the Munich Hauptbahnhof, we went there and had a relaxed, early dinner.
Back at the train station, we picked up some completely unnecessary train snacks, a mini bottle of ‘we are on holiday!’ prosecco, and found our platform. Bang on time, there she is!
Pardon the blurriness of a moving train, and a moving Heather as BV says, “you’re going to miss it! It’s coming… awwww, I thought it would be an ÖBB train!”
Yep, despite the fact that this train was operated by the ÖBB, (Österreichische Bundesbahnen= Austrian Federal Railway), it had a DB engine. Tragic.
We spotted our car easily, and climbed aboard. The price difference between sleeper cars and seated compartments had been WILD when we bought our tickets, so we went with the seats. I doubted I’d sleep either way, so why pay twice as much?
About thirty minutes later, again, bang on time, the train pulled out and we were on our way. By some miracle, we had the 6-seater compartment to ourselves for nearly the entire 11 hour trip. Look how comfy I am!
In Salzburg, we were joined by a family for an hour or so until the next stop. That was mostly fine, even if the woman did de-shell peanuts and crinkle plastic for the entire hour. But they got off, and we were alone again.
BV managed to doze off and on, but I hardly slept. We wound our way through the Austrian Alps, and all I could see was a bit of white snow, pine trees, and then blackness again. Occasionally, there were the lights of a town spread out in the valley far, far below us, making me really want to take this trip during the day sometime as I suspect it’s spectacularly beautiful.
Crossing into Italy, we sped downhill through tunnels at a slightly alarming rate. We were briefly joined in our compartment between Bologna and Florence, but after that, we were alone again until we got off in Arezzo.
As we rolled through Tuscany towards our final destination, the sun was just starting to come up. Light bits of fog and cloud hovered over the hills around town as the sky brightened. It was lovely.
We reached Arezzo ten minutes behind schedule at 7:20am, which let’s be honest, is nothing. Apparently those trains are regularly fairly late, so much so that G, our host, wasn’t picking us up until 9:30. We grabbed some espresso, and wandered around town until she collected us. Was I loopy at that point? Absolutely. Would I do it again? also yes.
Was the experience a hair bit different almost 20 years older? You bet. But I can’t argue with this trip. We will most definitely be taking an overnight train again. I just hope it doesn’t take another 20 years, and also, I hope I can sleep a bit the next time!***
Have you taken an overnight train? Any trips to recommend?
*TM Cher Horowitz
**Thank goodness our large group took up the majority of the car, if not the whole thing.
***I did manage to sleep a bit on the return trip, even though we had to share our compartment and had less space to sprawl. Go figure.