In an age when a plane ticket can be bought for the price of a lipstick, it’s hard to convince anyone that a more leisurely route may be the best to pursue on holiday.
But if anywhere can benefit from the main draw of the railways – idyllic countryside slowly unfurling outside the windows – it’s Italy.
For those of us who spend our working lives commuting on unreliable British trains, choosing a vacation by railway would seem like a busman’s holiday. Why would anyone spend the best part of their day getting on and off trains to reach somewhere they can fly to in under a couple of hours?
The answer is that in many cases, the journey can become part of the holiday. As the Italian Tourist Board says, it’s a civilised way to travel. “The fascination of going by train is to travel at a completely different speed and enjoy the journey as well as the destination,” a spokeswoman said. “It’s a relaxed way to enjoy the countryside.”
Rod Maton is managing director of Hampshire-based International Rail, operator for Trenitalia in the UK. International Rail operates globally but Maton says Italy represents a large chunk of business – and business is going well. The company can install the Railbest software system for tour operators and agents free of charge, allowing them to print tickets on a commissionable basis.
“Any tour operator or rail agent can incorporate the Italian system to allow them to book a large part of mainland Europe,” he said.
The following itinerary would need to be dynamically packaged as far as hotels and transfers are concerned. Eurostar and Cresta both offer a wide range of rail and hotel packages to a number of European cities and a vast number of passes are also available. Visit Raileurope.com for more details.
Friday 12.09Board Eurostar to Paris, connecting with the SNCF/Trenitalia joint venture Artesia sleeper from Paris Bercy to Venice.
Eurostar’s London-Ashford leg has had its fair share of brickbats and the heart still sags a little when you’re overtaken by that damn Beckenham Junction train. But beyond London, sit back and enjoy the scenery, and above all, get into the holiday mood.
Try and sell clients one of those good-value upgrades to first class which Eurostar does every now and again. If not, packed lunches are advisable.
Friday 15.39Arrive at Gard du Nord for a few hours in Paris. Clients could spend the afternoon at Notre Dame. It’s not too far away from the station (in case they start enjoying themselves too much and forget to board the sleeper).
Friday 20.01Board the Artesia Sleeper from Paris Bercy to Venice via Milan, Padua and Verona (see box, right). Wake up about an hour before arrival as the train approaches Venice through the morning mist.
Saturday 08.15Arrive at Venice’s compact and bijou Santa Lucia station right next to the Grand Canal. If clients can afford it, they should jump in a water taxi right outside the station and speed down the canal to their hotel to avoid the trudge with suitcases around the back allies of Venice. Water taxis cost about £35 each journey, but a boat can take up to six people.
Saturday 11.00After checking in, head out to Piazza San Marco and the Doge’s Palace. True, Napoleon pinched plenty of treasure from here after his Venetian campaign, but he left the world’s largest painting on canvas, the world’s largest room without ceiling support, plus works by Veronese, Tintoretto and Tiepolo.
Saturday 15.00After lunch, time for a stroll. Sit on a bench outside the Metropole hotel on the waterfront near San Marco or stand on the Rialto Bridge and watch the world go by.
There may only be 60,000 Venetians now, but in the alleyways you can still find gaggles of students on orienteering projects, characterful backstreet barber shops and cheeky young Roberto Baggios banging a ball against an ancient church wall. Scratch away the tourist surface and Venice is still, and only, Italian.
Saturday 18.00Gondola cruise before dinner? Well, maybe. Bank on £40 for the shortest of trips. The odd thing is, no one on them ever seems to be enjoying themselves. Maybe it’s the coffin-like décor. No, it’s just the price.
Sunday 09.00Take a tour of a couple of the villas on the Brenta Riviera, a short drive from Venice. It was to these that monied Venetians came for six months in the summer after six months of carnival. Villa Widmann is all Rococco decoration and stucco chandeliers, but Pisani is the jewel. Finished in 1736 to rival Versailles, it housed Napoleon for a night and hosted the signing of the Mussolini-Hitler pact in 1934.
Sunday 16.30Board the hi-spec Pininfarina-designed train to Florence from Santa Lucia station in central Venice. While you’re sitting on it, remember he’s the one that designed Ferraris.
Sunday 19.30Arrive at Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station and head out to savour Florence at night. If you can face a trek up to the Piazza Michelangelo above the city, you’ll be afforded spectacular views over the river to the centre.
Monday 09.00Visit the Palazzo Vecchio, home of the ancient Florentine government. Again, some guided tours will take you to rooms not open to the public. Children can attend historical sequences presented by costumed actors.
Monday 12.00Just walking the streets and taking in the magnificent sights and sounds makes you understand how the French writer Stendhal suffered such a cultural overload to the brain he was unable to walk. Doctors treat a dozen similar cases of Stendhal’s syndrome a year.
Monday 20.30Board the Artesia sleeper back to Paris and connect with Eurostar at 10.19 the next morning, arriving in London at 11.54. If you want to sum up this holiday, just consider it a journey, not just a destination. Clients may pay a bit more for it but it’s worth it.
Gary Kitchener travelled on board the sleeper Trenitalia Artesia Train from Paris Bercy to Venice via Milan, Padua and Verona.
Pre-boarding?There is a business traveller lounge at Paris Bercy providing drinks, snacks and newspapers. But food is better and cheaper outside the terminal. The train left on time. 3/5.
What’s it like?Not the freshest of décor; the interior is all blonde wood and Bakelite-style. Its faded glamour will either appeal to your sense of adventure or disappoint. A few things – sink units, for example – moved when they shouldn’t have. 3/5
Sleep tight?Apparently, one couple broke a honeymoon suite’s ceiling so you can’t fault the romance factor. Beds are not for the six-foot plus, but comfy enough. It’s a fitful night’s sleep for the uninitiated – take earplugs. Toilets, for this two-berth option at least, were thankfully in-cabin. 3/5
Smiley service?Attentive without being obtrusive and also multi-lingual. A member of our party was welcomed by rail staff to crack open a post-shift bottle of wine. 4/5
Anything else?There is a small bar to slouch against but it could do with a little more atmosphere. Excelsior Class passengers get breakfast in bed. 3/5
Recommend it?The downside is passing through the heart of Europe at night – and missing it. The upside is the magnificent feeling of arriving at dawn at the heart of a wonderful new city. For the right client this train is the essence of European romanticism.
Sample product:Return prices with Trenitalia – bookable through International Rail – range from £54 per person for a small bed in a six-berth compartment to £308 per person for a single sleeper this June.
Total score: 16/25
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