Seasoned train traveller and freelance travel writer Victoria Trott tells us about her stress-free foodie adventure to the Adriatic coast. She also shares her tips on booking and surviving overnight train travel….
On Thursday evening I was sipping a fruity Sangiovese watching the world go by outside Gran Bar on Via d’Azzeglio in Bologna and by Friday lunchtime I was tucking into pork medallions drizzled with goats’ cheese sauce in the oldest restaurant in Paris, A La Petite Chaise (www.alapetitechaise.fr). Crossing Europe by train offers travellers so many varied and interesting experiences, especially culinary ones.
It’s official: not only is travelling by train ten times more environmentally friendly than air travel but it’s better for your health too. Recent research by life assistance company CPP* has discovered that about four million passengers have stopped flying because they find the airport experience more stressful than moving house. A long-time convert to rolling along, it was an obvious choice for me to take the train on a recent trip to Ancona.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” said Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu. For me, it usually begins with a good meal. Although last check-in for Eurostar is 30 minutes before departure, I got to St Pancras a few hours in advance to enjoy a leisurely lunch – Aberdeen Angus beefburger with triple-cooked chips – amidst the refurbished grandeur of the Booking Office Bar in the new five-star St Pancras Renaissance Hotel.
If you’re watching your weight, Italy probably isn’t the country for you – even the place names make you hungry. After a sound night’s sleep in a solo first-class compartment on the Artesia overnight train from Paris to Bologna (mmm, minced-beef sauce), the conductor woke me well in advance of arrival with a breakfast of brioche-textured croissants and strong coffee. We sped through Parma and then Modena; I couldn’t help wondering what dry-cured ham and balsamic vinegar tasted like together as the urban sprawl blended into yellow fields.
From Bologna, a two-hour ride on a rickety regional train brought me to Ancona, the largest port on the Adriatic and the capital of the Marche region. On the hill overlooking the harbour lined with Greece-bound ferries, I could see the 18m (59ft)-high Arch of Trajan, one of the finest Roman monuments in the region, and, further to the right, the 12th-century cathedral – but all I could think about was lunch. Conveniently situated opposite the station was Ristorante Gino (26 Piazza Rosselli), the best place in town to try stoccafisso, a local speciality of rehydrated air-dried cod layered with tomatoes and potatoes; I washed it down with a crisp white Verdicchio.
One of the best things about travelling by rail is being able to break up your journey. So a week later, since my return train from Bologna to Paris wasn’t leaving until 11pm, I left my belongings in ‘left luggage’ and spent an afternoon exploring the capital of Emilia-Romagna and the home of Bolognese sauce. At Ristorante Teresina (4 Via Oberdan), I discovered that in Italy this British favourite is known as ragù, contains very little tomato and is eaten with tagliatelle not spaghetti – and it goes very nicely with a glass of full-bodied Sangiovese.
Dessert was a creamy vanilla gelato from La Sorbetteria (44 Via Castiglione), which I savoured as I wandered around the narrow streets, looking up to admire the due torri – two medieval towers that shoot up above the honey-coloured historic centre. My last port of call was Majani (5 Via de Carbonesi), the oldest sweet shop in Italy, to buy chocolates in the shape of a Fiat car to take home. Thankfully, you don’t have to worry about baggage allowance when you travel by train. It really was a grand tour.
RAIL TRAVEL TIPS FACTBOX
Eurostar: The journey London to Paris Gare du Nord takes 2 hrs 15 mins and there are three classes of travel: Standard, Standard Premier and Business Premier.
Tips: For added comfort, choose Standard Premier where you can while away the journey browsing the complimentary magazines, quaffing the complimentary wine and eating the snacks provided (save them dinner if you’ve already eaten).
Paris Metro: Trenitalia’s overnight Artesia service leaves from Bercy. Take the RER to Gare de Lyon and then change to Line 14.
Tips: Buy two tickets for the metro so that you can use one for the return journey. Travel light so you can negotiate steep station stairways with ease. Warning! Bercy – bare, cavernous and with one sandwich stand – isn’t the kind of place you’d want to spend too long. Make sure you have an emergency snack and something to read to help while away the time.
Booking tickets: For the best prices, book rail travel in advance. Different train operators have different booking windows. Eurostar is 120 days in advance, Trenitalia and most French trains are 90 days in advance but Spanish and some Swiss trains are 60 days in advance.
Tips: For added comfort book a first-class single compartment, but, depending on your budget, there are sleeper compartments for two to six people. Previous experience showed me that the latter is snug and has little room for luggage.
RECOMMENDED FOODIE TREATS
London, St Pancras Renaissance Hotel (stpancrasrenaissance.co.uk)
Paris, A La Petite Chaise (alapetitechaise.fr)
Ancona, Ristorante Gino (26 Piazza Rosselli)
Bologna, Ristorante Teresina (4 Via Oberdan)
Bologna, La Sorbetteria (44 Via Castiglione)
Bologna, Majani (5 Via de Carbonesi)
HOW TO GET THERE
Return fares from London to Ancona on an overnight Artesia service start from £223 with accommodation in a six-berth couchette. The route: London to Paris (2 hrs 15 mins), overnight train from Paris to Bologna (11 hours) and a two-hour local train from Bologna to Ancona. All prices are per person and subject to availability. For bookings visit www.raileurope.co.uk or call 0844 848 4070. Personal callers are welcome at the Rail Europe Travel Centre, 1 Regent Street, London SW1.