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London t o Venice

by train

Skip the plane and take the train from London to Venice instead cross mountain ranges and

borders, stopping to stretch your legs in some of Europes most beautiful cities on the way
WORDS OLIVER SMITH

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Lonely Planet Traveller October 2015

@OliSmithTravel l PHOTOGRAPHS JUSTIN FOULKES

@justinfoulkes l ILLUSTRATION NIK NEVES

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LONDON TO VENICE BY TRAIN

Above, from left St Pancras station,


completed in 1868 as the London terminus
of the Midland Railway, now home of the
Eurostar; a Eurostar train awaits passengers
at St Pancras; the setting sun silhouettes
the Eiffel Tower and Mtro Line 6.
Opposite Jules Insian at Le Train Bleu

DAY 1

LONDONPARIS
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
just two weeks previously, and much of my
journey was spent waiting for the ceiling to
crack, at which point I would reach for my
inflatable armbands as cod and eels peered
through the window.
It wasnt long before we disembarked at
Pariss Gare du Nord station at the end of a
seminal journey. We were among the first
people since Stone Age hunter-gatherers to
travel from England to France without
leaving terra firma; they had walked the
Channel before it filled up with saltwater,
some 9,000 years earlier.
Boarding a Eurostar service one summers
morning 20 years later, its clear that this
journey is no longer quite so extraordinary.
Commuting businessmen and French
tourists carrying Beefeater teddies shuffle
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en masse beneath the cathedral-like ceiling


of St Pancras International. Britain is now
hooked up to the great cobweb of world
railway lines. We are part of an everevolving network that makes it possible to
travel from the UK to Vietnam, Tibet and
even North Korea without leaving two rails.
You can catch trains from Peterborough to
St Petersburg or from Barry Island to Bari,
and from London to Venice.
The Eurostar hauls out of St Pancras into
the sunshine and soon the industrial estates
lapse into green fields. Flying from Gatwick
to Venice takes just two hours, but by
travelling to Venice by train you experience
small thrills that are illegal or fatal on a
plane: hanging out of the window, altering
your destination on a whim, the peculiar
excitement of flushing the loo and seeing
the ground below. Whats more, you can
watch the landscape changing from Kentish
weald to French oak forest, from Swiss
mountain meadow to Italian olive grove.
The train is plunged into darkness as it
enters the tunnel, and everyones ears pop.
The first blueprints for the Channel Tunnel

go back as far as 1802, and imagined horses


clip-clopping through tunnels while
molluscs drifted overhead. Other daft ideas
followed, involving steel tubes dropped on
the seabed or artificial islands. Generations
of the British public feared a secret tunnel
invasion from the continent be it by
Napoleonic troops or Nazis.
Our train emerges into daylight and
eventually we roll into Paris, trundling
among the wide boulevards of the capital.
Leaving Gare du Nord, I catch Metro line 8
southbound, popping out at ground level by
the Seine before rattling beneath the iron
feet of the Eiffel Tower.

DAY 2

PARISZRICH
The British invented railways, but the
French perfected them: they made them
faster, more glamorous and with better
sandwiches. The case in point is Le Train
Bleu in Gare de Lyon, the grandest station
caf in the world, and the place to stop for
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STRAP

LONDON TO VENICE BY TRAIN

Clockwise from far left


Zrich is set at the meeting
point of a river and lake; the
Swiss railway clock in
Hauptbahnhof station the
second hand is in the shape of
a guards signalling disc; Rolf
Gremlich at the helm of the
Bernina Express. Opposite
The Bernina Express passes
Lago Pal, as seen from Alp
Grm station

breakfast before catching a train to Zrich.


You have to be rapid when youre serving
people, says Jules Inisan, a waiter dashing
between tables. Customers have to run to
catch their trains. It has happened that
people run off without paying their bill.
Le Train Bleu has a menu that spans foie
gras, veal cutlets and 600 bottles of wine.
But this is nothing compared to the dcor:
a mini-Versailles of columns, gold paint and
frescoes of holidaymakers men sporting
mutton-chop moustaches, ladies with
parasols. Le Train Bleu takes its name from
the luxury sleeper service that transported
clientele from the Gare de Lyon to the
Mediterranean. Passengers included Charlie
Chaplin, Churchill and F Scott Fitzgerald,
but sadly the sleeper train is no more.
A glance out of the caf window explains
why: the TGVs. The fastest trains in Europe,
they barely allow time for a snooze, let alone
eight hours sleep between crisp sheets.
Where British trains shamble and scuttle
around the network, the French TGVs slice
through the landscape like a knife through
brie. They can reach 357mph (faster than
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the take-off speed of a Boeing 747). Onboard


a TGV service to Zrich, the shortcomings
become apparent as landscapes flash past
like a movie in fast-forward. Every so often,
theres just time to subliminally take in
countryside scenes like a village square,
silent but for the gentle clunk of ptanque
and the loud whoosh of the regular TGVs.
Arriving in Zrich, its clear this is a town
of clocks. Theres the clock on the spire of
St Peters church (the largest clock face in
Europe), whose bell booms on the hour.
There are the tweetings of Swiss cuckoo
clocks, and there are watches inlaid with
crystals, all ticking in shop windows.
The most important clock is the first one
you notice on arrival at Hauptbahnhof
station. Its a design that makes barely any
noise at all, yet it keeps time everywhere
from Zrich to Zanzibar not least because
Apple borrowed its design for use on
iPhones and iPads. Designed in 1944, the
Swiss railway clock is a timekeeping classic
with a second hand that doesnt tick-tock
but glides smoothly around the clock face.
Zrich, too, seems a city that ticks along

as assuredly as a well-made timepiece. Blue


trams putter the avenues, funiculars climb
the surrounding hills and rowing boats cast
off onto the Zrichsee the lake around
which the city huddles, and across whose
waters the Alps can be seen on clear days.
By the time the station clock shows six,
Zrich is stirring with evening life, as city
workers amble riverside promenades and
tables fill at cafs. By nine, the shadows of
the surrounding hills swallow the city. And
by the time the clock strikes eight the next
morning, its time for me to set out on the
most beautiful railway journey in the world.

DAY 3

ZRICHTIRANO
Look at the list of Unesco World Heritage
sites and there in amongst Machu Picchu,
the Pyramids of Giza, the Taj Mahal and
other triumphs of civilisation youll find
a small Swiss railway. The Bernina Line is
a railway that can convert anyone into a
militant trainspotter: travelling through
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LO N D O N T O V E N I C E B Y T R A I N

Above, from top Sylvie Kissling


takes in the view on the Zrich to
Tirano line; a cobbled street in
lakeside Varenna. Right The village
of Varenna on the eastern shore of
Lake Como. Opposite The train to
Milan, with Varenna in the distance

Alpine scenery so exquisite, every camera


battery onboard is drained.
Soon were climbing above church spires
and treetops, crossing rushing rivers and
passing meadows where wildflowers sway
and cowbells clang melodically. The
Bernina Express is, it seems, a train with a
rather confused personality. Sometimes its
a rollercoaster: storming up steep gradients,
shimmying along cliff edges and plunging
into tunnels. At other times, it pretends to be
a car, barging down the middle of main
roads and halting traffic. It twists and turns
constantly, giving the impression of a train
thats making up its route as it goes along.
You have to be prepared for anything on
this railway, explains Rolf Gremlich, a train
driver of 36 years, fond of humming AC/DC
tunes. Sometimes, I have to stop the train to
chase away cows sitting on the line. And,
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once, a driver turned a corner and found a


bridge had been washed away by floods.
Runaway bridges are not the only cause
for concern. Midway through the journey
the meadows turn to rocky passes as we
reach Lago Bianco, the highest point on the
railway, a spot visited only by shivering
winds and lost goats. In winter, this is one of
the wildest corners of the Alps: there are
archive photographs of trains half-buried by
avalanches here. But in traversing these
wild passes, the Bernina Railway was
regarded as a miracle of engineering when
work was completed in 1908 serving
remote mountain communities which at
that time were cut off from roads.
At lunchtime, we grind to a halt by the
stone station at Alp Grm, a place still only
accessible by rail in winter. Residents have
groceries and furniture imported by train.

In return for this mild inconvenience,


they have one of the finest vistas in the
Swiss Alps: tumbling waterfalls, hulking
glaciers and forests hugging the slopes. To
the south, Italian mountains are visible,
standing proudly beside their taller Swiss
comrades. Beneath them is the modest
border town of Tirano, where the Bernina
Express terminates beside a tricolore flag
and a square lined with pizzerias.
Presiding over the scene is the Bernina
range, home to the highest point in the
Eastern Alps at 4,048 metres; the equivalent
of two Ben Nevises, a Snowdon and an
Arthurs 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, says Sylvie
Kissling, a teacher from Zrich. Even as a
Swiss person this journey is amazing.

DAY 4

TIRANOMILAN
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) are
announced with the solemnity of a doctor
breaking bad news. But in Italy, each stop
sounds rhapsodic and poetic. Even an
announcement 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, make loud creaking
noises that sound possibly like the death
throes of a T-Rex. Outside the window,

LONDON TO VENICE BY TRAIN

Above, from left The Gothic,


marble faade of Milan Cathedral;
Milans Stazione Centrale.
Opposite A view across Venices
Grand Canal towards the church of
Santa Maria della Salute, as seen
from the Ponte dellAccademia

pine forests make way for shady orchards,


log cabins for 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 fondness of
someone on their deathbed remembering
former lovers.
These towns are every bit as lovely as they
sound: lofty belvederes, piazzas, and houses
with lavender-swathed balconies, squished
between the mountains and 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.
Before long the light fades, the lake tapers
to its end. Soon, a great orange glow lights
the southern horizon, and the thrum of
Milanese traffic can be heard through the
open window.
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DAY 5

MILANVENICE

The last leg of the journey takes me across


the plains of northern Italy from Milano
Stazione Centrale to Venezia Santa Lucia,
two stations that couldnt be more different.
Boarding at Milan feels like catching a
train from inside a Roman temple, a vast
space where stone lions growl and mythical
beasts threaten commuters on the escalators;
an over-sized Pantheon designed for the day
when Neptune comes to collect his trident
from left luggage. Built in the 1930s, it hogs
the skyline, is bigger than Milan cathedral
and grander than the citys palaces.
Two hours puttering across the farmland
of Lombardy, past the cities of Verona and
Padua, and the train hauls into Venezia
Santa Lucia. Standing on the forecourt, its
hard not to feel sympathy for Virgilio Vallot,
the architect who, 80 years ago, stood in this
spot, blueprints in hand, confronted with
the same heartbreakingly beautiful prospect.
All around, palaces straddle the banks of
the Grand Canal, barnacles clinging to the

foundations, flowerboxes on the balustrades,


their reflections wobbling in the water. On
the opposite shore rises the copper-green
dome of San Simeone Piccolo, and beyond,
the terracotta rooftops of the city.
Tasked with building a gateway to the
most beautiful city on Earth, Virgilio Vallot
did the honourable thing and gave Venice a
shoebox for a station: a lump of concrete that
neither competes with nor distracts from the
glories around it. It makes stepping out into
the city all the more sublime for locals
returning home, for tourists, for the drunk or
sleepy 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 bound for St Marks
Square and, for the first time since London
St Pancras, leave terra firma behind.

Oliver Smith is senior features writer at


Lonely Planet Traveller. He has also covered
rail stories in Kenya, Australia and Russia.

October 2015 Lonely Planet Traveller

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