Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Night Train Experience

Way back earlier this Spring, when Brit and I were planning our glorious European Adventure, we called Rail Europe to ask some general questions about travelling by train, and discovered the existence of the "Night Train". The train that takes you from A to B whilst you slumber. What a genius idea!
We signed up for 3 long distance trips (Paris-Florence, Venice-Munich, Prague-Amsterdam) right then and there, agreeing that it was more economical for our wallets and timetables than booking hostels and taking long day trains.
In my mind these trips were going to be something like "Murder on the Orient Express", with the minor exception of the murder, and being in the Orient. Comfortable bunks in cozy compartments, interesting people from across the world, and beautiful scenery out the windows, were the main features of this particular flight of fancy.
Of course, the very small compartment in the dusty corner of my brain called "Practicality" was warning me that the reality would be a bit different, but as often happens...I paid it very little attention.
To begin with, our train from Paris was about an hour late to arrive.
While in France we ate a lot of these: fresh baguettes slathered in butter, and 1 or 2 toppings.
When it did arrive there was very little signage or staff to ask about whether we were in the right compartment or even on the right train (inexperienced backpackers that we were).
No one else appeared to speak English.
The booth sat 6 passengers, squeezed tight together like sardines in a hot, humid, tin can.
There was a bit of storage in a cubby above the door, and 2 shelves above our seats. We joined our companions in stuffing our bags wherever possible, and trusting that everyone was honest...after we fell asleep, there would be no way to keep an eye on our stuff!
By the time the last passenger squeezed their luggage and person into our wee compartment, I was feeling mildly claustrophobic and apprehensive about this whole idea.

Brit and I pulled out our crossword puzzles, and hunkered down.
It was going to be a very long trip!
(10-12 hours, I think...)

On a side note, Brit pays way more attention to that Practical part of her brain, and her expectations were much more reasonable. She was not at all phased by the way things were shaping up.

Brit looking eager for another train ride! (Venice-Munich trip)
This was not to say I wasn't at all excited about the idea of going on a long train ride...I just was dealing with some disappointment and serious misgivings!

The train was noisy, and the lurching was more violent than I expected, but the most troubling aspect for me was just the serious lack of knowing what was going on! There was little to no information given on where we were arriving next, or when, or what was available on the train, or what was expected of us as passengers. We took our usual stance at such times, and simply waited to see what would happen :)

Around 10pm, a fellow passenger realized we were all newbies and instructed us in the art of transforming the seats into bunks! It was quite ingenious, but you'll just have to experience it for yourself because I'm bad at explaining it. Brit took the very top, and I was sandwiched between her and an old French lady, who...smelled...very strongly...and to put it delicately, needed a bath quite urgently.

I had made peace with the train by this time! (Venice-Munich trip)
In my haste and inexperience, I had not realized I would not be able to access my backpack (easily) whilst on the train, so my earplugs and flashlight were out of reach for the duration of the trip. I curled up on the narrow bunk, wrapped in a sheet, topped with a small blanket, and nestled in a thin pillow, and hoped sleep would come quickly.

It was not to be.

Between the lurching, the strange noises, smells(!), and lights, I found it impossible to relax. I was also severely stressed about somehow sleeping through our stop (scheduled for 7am), and heading straight on down to Rome!
I was not the only one. Mdme Stinky was also very worried, and told everyone about it every five minutes. Even though she knew her stop was scheduled at 6:30am, she would get up every time the train slowed, opened our compartment door and asked, "Is this Bologna?"

I'm not sure I mentioned it before, but there is one golden rule in my life and that is, "Never come between Jill and her sleep". This woman violated that rule in a most displeasing manner. When she was not asking where we were, she was snoring loudly, and when she was not snoring loudly, she was grabbing my bunk to pull herself up and go outside to ask where we were.

Regis did not find the trains cramped in the least.
It was not long after I fell asleep that the entire cabin was rudely awakened by violent banging on our door, and he lights were flicked on, leaving us blinking in confusion.
"Passaporteh! Passaporteh!!" There were 2 men shouting at us, reaching out for our documents.
I couldn't believe it. A quick glance at my iPod told me it was 3-in-the-frickin-morning.
Everyone grudgingly dug out their passports, which were studied quickly and brusquely handed back. It was all over in a matter of minutes, but I knew sleep would be a much longer wait....

Once we hit about 6am, there were more frequent stops. Milan, Verona, Bologna...
Our cabin began to empty, and once it was light out we transformed our bunks back into seats so we could look out the window.

That's when things began to look up.

Italy is beautiful!
Picture perfect.
Things don't seem so bleak when you are about to arrive at a place that you have only read about, and suddenly you are right there in it.

We arrived in Florence an hour late, around 7:55am. The station was already bustling, we were haggard, sleep-deprived, and disorientated. And it was time to find our hostel...

Not Firenze Santa Monica Novello, but an Italian train station nonetheless!
But we were in Italy! (Tuscany, to be specific.That small detail was the source of much joy for Brit and I)

And I had survived my first night train! Only 2 more to go :)


Aneta said...

Great details (and pics), Jill! I can't say I envy you and your night train experience, though. I don't think I would sleep a wink!

Maureen said...

Tuscany...ahhhh. One day...That picture makes me drool.

Jill.and.Regis said...

Tuscany was VERY beautiful! Can't wait to show you more pics of Florence :)

Rachel said...

I think sleeping trains are all bad....the one we took in Egypt was the worst ever! But you're right, Tuscany is gorgeous and totally worth it:)

Jill.and.Regis said...

The Italian train was the worst one we went on. The German ones were not nearly as bad, so our experiences got slightly better as time went on :)