London to Venice by Train

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE OCTOBER 2015 EDITION OF LONELY PLANET TRAVELLER MAGAZINE (lonelyplanet.com/magazine)

DAY 1.

LONDON – PARIS

One summer morning in 1994, I did something historic. Aged seven, carrying a Game Boy and a headful of nits, I travelled through the Channel Tunnel on a family holiday to France.

The tunnel had opened two weeks previously, and much of the journey was spent waiting for the moment when the ceiling would crack and I would reach for my inflatable armbands as cod and eels peered through the window. But the journey passed without event. Soon everyone disembarked at Paris’ Gare du Nord station, confronted by a departures board that skimmed through the alphabet to spell out strange words like ‘BRUXELLES’ ‘AACHEN’ and ‘DUNQUERQUE’. It was historic because we were among the very first people to travel from England to France without leaving terra firma since Stone Age hunter-gatherers. They had walked the Channel before it filled up with saltwater, some 9000 years earlier.

A Eurostar at St Pancras

A Eurostar at St Pancras

Boarding a Eurostar service from London to Paris one summer morning some 20 years later, it’s clear that making this journey is no longer quite so extraordinary. Passengers shuffle beneath the cathedral-like ceiling of St Pancras International – commuting businessmen, French tourists carrying Beefeater teddy bears.

But what remains extraordinary is Britain being hooked up of the great cobweb of world railway lines. We are part of a ever-evolving network that makes it theoretically possible to travel from England to Vietnam, Tibet and even North Korea without leaving two rails. You can catch trains from Peterborough to St Petersburg; from Barry Island to Bari (Italy) – or – like me – from London to Venice.

We haul out of the station into the sunshine, and soon the industrial estates of the Thames Valley lapse into rolling green fields. Flying from Gatwick to Venice takes just 126 minutes – the same time it takes to watch first Star Wars movie (i.e. the good one). But by traveling to Venice on trains you experience small thrills that are illegal or fatal on a plane: hanging out the window, changing your destination on a whim, the peculiar excitement of flushing the loo and seeing the ground down below. Moreover, by staying on terra firma you can measure the landscape changing: from Kentish weald to French oak forest, from Swiss mountain meadow to Italian olive grove. And rarely does anyone ever wave at a passing plane.

Our train is plunged into sudden darkness as it enters the tunnel, and everyone’s ears go pop. The first blueprints for the Channel Tunnel go back as far as 1802 – early plans imagined horses clip-clopping through tunnels while molluscs drifted about yards overhead. Years passed, other daft ideas followed – steel tubes dropped on the seabed; artificial islands in the Channel. Meanwhile, generations of the British public feared a secret tunnel invasion from the continent – terrified they might be picnicking among the hop fields of Kent, and bump into Napoleonic troops or Nazis squinting at maps and covered in mud.

Bir Hakeim Bridge, Paris

Bir Hakeim Bridge, Paris

Our train re-emerges into daylight and eventually we roll into Paris, trundling among the wide boulevards of the capital. Leaving the Gare de Nord, I catch Metro line 6 south to my hotel – the subway train emerging from of the ground by the Seine to rattle triumphantly beneath the four iron feet of the Eiffel Tower.

DAY 2.

PARIS – ZURICH

The British may have invented railways, but the French perfected them – made them faster, more glamorous and with better sandwiches. The case in point is Le Train Bleu in Gare de Lyon – the grandest station cafe in the world since 1901, to which I pay a visit before catching a train to Zurich, Switzerland.

‘You have to be rapid when you are serving people here’ says Jules Inisan – a waiter, balancing cups of coffee on his sleeve as he dashes between tables. ‘Customers have to run so they can catch their trains. It has occasionally happened that people run off without paying their bill.’

Jules in Le Train Bleu, Paris,

Jules in Le Train Bleu, Paris

Where most station cafes serve waterlogged sandwiches and room-temperature coffee, Le Train Bleu has a menu that spans foie gras, veal cutlets and £600 bottles of red wine. But this is nothing compared to the décor: a mini-Versailles of soaring columns, gold leaf paint and frescoes of holidaymakers at the seaside – ladies with parasols, men sporting mutton-chop moustaches and silly swimming costumes. Le Train Bleu takes its name from the luxury sleeper service that transported this clientele from Gare de Lyon south to the Mediterranean. Passengers at various times included Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and F. Scott Fitzgerald – but sadly this sleeper train is no more.

A glance out the café window explains why: the TGVs – the fastest trains in Europe, so rapid they barely allow time for a snooze, let alone eight hours sleep between crisp linen sheets. Where British trains shamble, wind and scuttle their way around the network, the French TGVs slice through the landscape as effortlessly as a knife through soft brie. They can reach 357mph (which is faster than the take-off speed of a Boeing 747).

Jumping aboard a TGV service to Zurich, their shortcomings quickly become apparent: these are not trains for admiring the scenery. We pick up speed among the forests of Burgundy and the landscape flashes past like a movie in fast-forward playback. Every so often, there’s time to subliminally take in a countryside scene: a village of cobbled squares and creaking shutters, silent but for the gentle ‘clunk’ of pentanque games and the ear-splitting WHOOSH of a TGV every three minutes. This is of no concern to most passengers on board the train, all content reading Le Figaro and eating croque-monsieurs at half the speed of sound.

Zurich, Switzerland

Zurich, Switzerland

Zurich is a town with many clocks. There is the clock on the spire of St Peter church (the largest clock face in Europe, in fact) whose bell sends a deep ‘boom’ travelling along the narrow alleyways of the Old Town every quarter hour. Then are the twitterings of various Swiss cuckoo clocks for sale, chirruping at passers by from shop windows. There are also crystal-encrusted watches ticking in shopping arcades (Zurich is a watch-making town, and Zurich-based FIFA has a habit of involving gifts of expensive watches in its corruption scandals).

But the most important clock of all is the first one I notice arriving in the city’s Hauptbahnhof station – a design that makes barely any noise at all, and which keeps time everywhere from Zurich to Zanzibar. Conceived in 1944, the Swiss Railway Clock is a timekeeping classic – so accurate, it doesn’t actually tick-tock from one second to the next, but rather glides at a steady speed around the clock face (so elite passengers can judge the precise nanosecond at which to sprint for their trains). Swiss railway clocks keep time around the world – not least because Apple borrowed its design for use on its iPhones and iPads.

By the time the station clock shows six, the city outside is stirring with evening life – bankers ambling the riverside promenades, rowing boats casting off onto the waters of Lake Zurich for a twilight paddle. By nine, the shadows of the surrounding hills swallow the city, and by two almost everyone is fast asleep. And by the time the station clock strikes eight the next morning, it is time for me to set out on the most beautiful railway journey in the world.

DAY 3.

ZURICH – TIRANO

Look at the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and there – in amongst Macchu Picchu, the Pyramids of Giza, the Taj Mahal and other triumphs of civilisation – you’ll find a small Swiss railway.

The Bernina Line is a railway that can convert anyone into a militant train-spotter: travelling through Alpine scenery so exquisite, every camera battery is drained and every passenger secretly prays for delays. I hop aboard a morning service south to the Italian border, and soon we’re climbing above the church spires and treetops, passing meadows where cows clang cowbells in chorus with the toot of our horn. The Bernina Express is, it seems, a train with a rather confused personality. Sometimes it’s a rollercoaster: storming up steep gradients, shimmying along cliff edges and plunging into tunnels. Other times, it pretends to be a car: barging right down the middle of main roads and halting traffic. It twists and turns constantly – giving the peculiar impression of a train that’s making up its route as it goes along.

The Bernina Railway at Alp Grum, Switzerland

The Bernina Railway at Alp Grum, Switzerland

‘You have to be prepared for anything on this railway’ explains Rolf Gremlich, a train driver of 36 years, fond of humming Led Zeppelin and ACDC tunes while he’s at the controls. ‘Sometimes I have to stop the train, get out and chase away cows that are sitting on the line. And about ten years ago a driver turned a corner and found a bridge had been washed away by the floods.’

Runaway bridges are not the only cause for concern. There are archive photographs of trains half-buried by avalanches in winter (everyone was escorted to safety, though not before the driver found time to pose by his train with a proud grin). Nonetheless, the Bernina Railway was acclaimed as a miracle of engineering when work was completed in 1908 – serving remote mountain communities who at that time were cut off from roads.

Me on the train

Me on the train

About lunchtime, we grind to a halt by the station at Alp Grum – close to the highest point on the line, and one last place that’s still only accessible by rail. It means residents have to call up the railway company to have groceries imported by train – tomato ketchup, paracetamol, underpants – even items of furniture. In return for this mild inconvenience, they have one of the finest vistas in the Swiss Alps to themselves – tumbling waterfalls, hulking glaciers and dark forests hugging the slopes. Presiding over the whole scene is Piz Bernina – the highest point in the Eastern Alps at 4048 metres – the equivalent of two Ben Nevises, a Snowdon and an Arthur’s Seat stacked on top of each other. Wispy clouds are snagged on its summit, and little red trains trundle along its foot.

‘You never get tired of this’ explains Sylvie Kissling a teacher from Zurich, travelling along the Bernina Railway to visit relatives in Campocolno. ‘Even as a Swiss person this journey is truly amazing.’

Bernina Railway near St Moritz, Switzerland

Bernina Railway near St Moritz, Switzerland

DAY 4.

TIRANO – MILANO

One of the great pleasures of crossing Europe by rail is listening to automated announcements. On French TGVs, the tone is brisk and cheery. On Swiss trains the announcer is serious – certain stops (‘Kloten’; ‘Spinas’; ‘Rabius-Surrein’; ‘Bad Zurzach’) are announced with the solemnity of a doctor breaking bad news (‘it’s Bad Zurzach I’m afraid sir’). But in Italy, each stop sounds rhapsodic and poetic – even a notice to stand-behind-the-yellow-line-on-the-platform is spoken like it might be a stanza from Dante.

From Tirano I board an ancient local train to Milan – the carriages covered in graffiti and gasping for oil, making loud creaking noises that sound like the death throes of a T-Rex. Outside the window, pine forests make way for shady orchards, log cabins to mustard-yellow villas. For one magic hour, the train skirts the shore of Lake Como in the dwindling afternoon sunshine, and it is here the stops sound most beautiful – ‘Varenna’ ‘Piona’ ‘Chiavenna’ – names the announcer recites with the futile fondness of a someone remembering former lovers on their deathbed.

Lake Como

Lake Como

These towns are every bit as lovely as they sound: lofty belvederes, piazzas and houses with lavender-swathed balconies, squished between the mountains and little pebbly beaches. For one fleeting moment outside Varenna the train sweeps right beside the shore. In the distance, yachts glide through waters ablaze with the reflection of the setting sun, and below us are gardens where statues of classical Gods stand ankle-deep in the ivy, their backs turned to the train and their stone eyes fixed on the lake.

Varenna, Italy

Varenna, Italy

DAY 5.

MILANO – VENEZIA

The last leg of the journey takes me across the plains of northern Italy from Milano Centrale to Venezia Santa Lucca – two stations that could hardly be more different.

Boarding at Milan feels a bit like catching a train from inside a Roman temple – a vast space where stone lions growl and various mythical beasts threaten commuters on the escalators – a sort-of Pantheon on steroids, seemingly designed for the day when Neptune comes to collect his trident from left luggage. A symbol of Fascist might when it was opened in the 1930s, it still hogs the city skyline: bigger than Milan cathedral, grander even than any of the city’s palaces.

Milan Station

Milan Station

Two hour’s puttering across the lemon groves of the Lombardy countryside, and the train hauls into Venice Santa Lucca. Standing on the station forecourt, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Virgilio Vallot – the architect who, eighty years ago, stood in this same spot, blueprints in hand, confronted with the same heartbreakingly beautiful prospect.

All around, palaces huddle along the banks of the Grand Canal – barnacles clinging to the foundations, flowerboxes on the balustrades – their reflections wobbling in the water in the wake of every passing boat. On the opposite shore rises the great copper dome of Sant Simeone Piccolo – and beyond, countless other domes and spires, nudging above the terracotta rooftops of the city. And then there are smaller canals – still but for the shouts of passing gondoliers and the gentle gurgling of the lagoon.

Tasked with building a gateway to the most beautiful city on Earth, Virgilio Vallot did the honorable thing and gave Venice a shoebox for a station – a squat little lump of concrete that neither competes with nor distracts from the glories that surround it. It makes the surprise of actually stepping out into the city all the more sublime – for locals returning home, for tourists, for the drunk, sleepy and/or distracted who overshot their destination and woke up at the end of the line, stumbling bleary-eyed and confused through a city which (even to the wide-awake and sober) can seem like a daydream.

I catch a Vaporetto waterbus bound for St Marks’ Square – the boat bobbing beneath bridges and rolling with the swells of the lagoon – and, for the first time since London St Pancras, leave terra firma behind.

Venice

Venice

PHOTOGRAPHY BY JUSTIN FOULKES