Tuesday 11 December. ‘Get ready for the coldest day of the year’, announced the ‘Daily Mail’. We weren’t leaving the cold weather behind, Venice will hover slightly above freezing point – ‘but it’ll be prettier’, joked the taxi driver. 7am, cold and dark, and we were on our way to London – the first leg of our journey. Boston train station is never a hive of activity – one track in, one track out. The waiting room was still closed; the platform deserted. But we were looking forward to our 25 hour plus trip.
A kind of semi-grand tour to start with, that was the idea. None of the indignity of being stripped of belt and shoes, body checked and made to stand in line for what can seem like hours. We’d booked the Eurostar from St. Pancras to Paris, and the overnight sleeper train to Venice. First, escape from cabbage-patch land – Lincolnshire’s flat ploughed acres – to London. The sun rose, hidden behind layers of fog, and a water-logged, muddy landscape passed the windows. Waiting at St. Pancras, excitement mounted. It felt like we were going somewhere – ‘the continent’ becoming ever closer. Travelling slowly weaves a narrative, breathes transition, encourages a feeling of distance travelled and effort put in to reach the destination. We headed for ‘Le Quotidian’ for lunch, but eschewed croissant and French pastries for a bowls of Scotch Broth and stodgy, steaming porridge with banana. We needed warmth and sustenance. A young man belted out a tune on the communal piano, his suitcases stashed to the side.
There is something thrilling about the idea of travelling on a train under the English Channel, but it passed by unnoticed. The Eurostar is smooth, fuss-free – the new flying – zapping through the French countryside at 186 mph. We slept, the early start catching up with us; alighting at the Gare du Nord a mere two and a half hours later. We crossed Paris on the RER, amidst a throng of commuters to the Gare du Lyon, rucksacks weighing heavy on our shoulders. French train stations are hard, cold places, miles of concrete – scattered tables and chairs trying hard to emulate pavement cafes, but lacking their grace and beauty. We sat outside ‘Le Train Bleu’ – a throwback from the glory days of train travel, all painted ceilings, stucco and gilt. Black-suited waiters, suave and sophisticated, stood by the door. We didn’t go in. Beyond our budget. Eventually we found a waiting room tucked away in a corner, big enough to seat a handful of people. Several of the city’s homeless had found it before us. It smelled of stale bodies and sweat. One woman had no shoes. Her big toe peaked out of a hole in her left sock and she walked on her heels, seemingly in a desperate attempt to keep her feet half-warm. I felt for them. We were waiting for a train; it was their life.
Finally, the platform was announced for the Thello. Next stop, Venice. The prospect of a night in a couchette provoked a mixture of dread and excitement. Coach 95 contained one window, two bench seats, two young Koreans and lots of luggage. They looked at us, momentarily stunned. I smiled and said hello and the ice was broken. ‘Honeymoon’, she said, pointing back and forth between herself and her new husband. I offered congratulations and she bought her hands together, bowed from the waist and said ‘thankyou’. They were sweet and terribly apologetic, even saying ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’ when he spectacularly fell from the ladder leading to the upper bunk, arms and legs flailing. ‘Sorry’, he said again, rubbing his shoulder.
Through out the night I awoke to the rhythmic rocking of the train, and allowed myself to be lulled gently back to sleep again. From Paris, the train follows the Seine up river, then travels through Dijon and Dole and across Switzerland. I only really awoke when the train paused in Milan; after that I stood outside the couchette and watched arable fields, vineyards, and farmhouses, backed by pastel-coloured mountain ranges. We passed the cities of Brescia, Verona and Vicenza. After Mestre, the train left mainland Italy, and rolled across the sea along the two-and-a-quarter-mile bridge that has connected Venice to the rest of the country since 1846.
Arriving at Santa Lucia station after such a journey was an experience to savour. We had crossed Europe from shore to shore. Gathering ourselves we walked out into bright sunlight and stood at the top of a broad flight of steps descending to the water of the Grand Canal. No tarmac, no traffic, just blue-green water and boats. Jaw-droppingly beautiful. Our month in Venice was about to begin.
For help in planning the journey see: www.seat61.com. Everything you wanted to know about travelling anywhere by train.