Insights from Europe’s Sleeper Trains
The Paris – Venice Treno Notte has advanced my insights into the special ways that so-called sleepers help me, and maybe other seekers for truth.
The France – Italy sleepers are now run by an outfit called thello. As the name already suggests, this is a new private venture, and guess what, it’s the same run-down carriages, with a thello badge stuck on them. You can probably imagine the gimmicky graphics on the website: I could put up with that, but the site doesn’t work. I had to book our tickets via The Trenitalia website, and all they had left were couchettes.
A couchette is like sleeping on a lightly upholstered park bench, with a tiny cushion and a few rags for bedding, in a space the size of a walk-in closet, shared with several strangers, who may cough, snore or worse. It’s a very surreal situation. For example, how and when do you undress and put on your night clothes?
Not only do you get a rare chance to lie awake for hours in the middle of the night, you can also be inspired by a unique range of bumps, groans and rattles, intrusive lighting, airlessness, and noises from fellow-travellers.
Somewhere in the night, I found a useful comparison between sleeper trains and national leaders. The German Nachtzugs are like Angela Merkel: blandly modern, efficient, and they clearly know what’s best for you. Whereas the Treno Notte are like Berlusconi: ancient, a bit sleazy, erratic, but trying to look modern; blow hot and cold, dodgy sanitation, but somehow keeping a touch of Mediterranean style.
Those long hours gave me time to extend this model to UK sleepers and David Cameron: modern-looking, shiny, but doesn’t deliver on some of its promises, expensive, trying to be superior, liable to sudden delays and failures.
My couchette night on the Paris – Venice sleeper wasn’t great for sleep, but good for insights, and Venice remains one of the best railway destinations anywhere. You walk out of Santa Lucia station, and in front of you is medieval Venice: the Grand Canal, the palaces, the churches, the light, the colours...