Dear fellow travellers
You’ll surely have seen that there’s a lot of hype around the return of night trains across Europe. The legitimacy of flying as a social norm was hardly questioned a decade ago. Nowadays we can no longer be oblivious to our carbon footprint. Addictive hypermobility, often regarded as a symbol of status 20 years ago, has slipped out of fashion. Travellers who might once have flown are having second thoughts.
All this has rekindled interest in night trains. But there’s something else. Attitudes towards personal space have changed dramatically during the COVID pandemic. Night trains often offer the security of a private compartment, be it a single berth sleeper for a solo traveller, or a compartment with four couchettes for family use. Suddenly, the overnight train has a new competitive edge.
We’ve seen a plethora of new routes this past year or two. Night trains returned to Amsterdam in 2021, after a gap of many years, so it’s now possible to board a train in the Dutch city, sleep through the night and awake refreshed in Zürich, Innsbruck or Vienna.
Other new routes which started in 2021 include Paris to Vienna, Berlin to Stockholm and Vienna to Cluj-Napoca. There has been a lot of colourful prose about ‘the romance of the night train’ and we’ll be the first to admit that we do love the idea of an overnight train journey. But we are a bit picky about where and when we hop on a night train.
Call us old-school if you will, but in our book a night train isn’t a proper night train if it doesn’t have proper sleeping cars. A night curled up in a seat isn’t very comfy - and couchettes have their limitations. For us at least, sleeping on a train means crisp, clean sheets and the comfort of a real sleeping berth.
Making time for the journey
A key issue is timing. Our checklist includes time on board (no less than ten hours, please!) and sensible departure and arrival times. Salzburg to Venice sounds like a decent proposition, surely a route which might attract good overnight traffic in the tourist season. But Venice-bound travellers cannot actually join the train in Salzburg until well after midnight. Some carriages are ready for boarding at 00.20, the rest not till about 45 minutes later.
The pleasure of the night train is having some daylight hours on the train, and not being forced to wake unreasonably early. One wonders if passengers who ride the night train from Vienna really do find any hint of romance on the railway platform in Verona when they alight at 05.51 on a winter morning.
No surprise perhaps that we’ll not be booking the new Amsterdam to Berlin night train which looks likely to start this summer. Departure from Amsterdam at 22.34 is okay, but arrival in Berlin at 05.52 is just too early for many travellers. That train continues beyond Berlin to Dresden and Prague. What we could see ourselves doing is booking through to Dresden where arrival is two hours later than Berlin. After a leisurely breakfast by the Elbe, we could take a slow train back to Berlin.
Making an occasion of a journey is all about making time for a journey. The decadence of a leisurely evening on board, sleeping well and enjoying time on the train in the morning are key factors. In an ideal world, every night train would depart around 19.00, have a proper restaurant car for a relaxed dinner, and no-one would be turfed off the train until well after breakfast next morning. The same applies to overnight ferries.
It doesn’t always work out thus. A pragmatic compromise is “board by 20.30, alight after 09.30.” It’s a good rule of thumb which works for us. The new thrice-weekly Paris to Vienna night sleeper fits the bill perfectly. As will the new route from Berlin to Graz which starts in June – that one will allow well over 15 hours on board. The Caledonian Sleeper from London to Fort William gets full marks with boarding from 20.30 and arrival in its Scottish Highland destination at 09.57.
The other key thing in our decision to take or avoid a night sleeper revolves around the scenery we might miss while sleeping. Does it not make more sense to cover long hops through less scenic areas by night and then reserve the more scenic stretches for daytime legs? A night train from Hamburg or Amsterdam to Zürich might become even more memorable if on the morning of arrival one continues on by slow trains through the Alps. Sleeping through the Alps by night just doesn’t quite seem right.
You can see that we are on the hunt for perfect night train journeys which we might feature in future issues of hidden europe. Meanwhile, we hope these few thoughts might help you decide if any particular night train option really is the right one for you.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(Editors, hidden europe magazine)