From Rotterdam to Taormina, by ten trains

In an earlier post, I sketched out an itinerary for a honeymoon tour by train, running from The Netherlands down to the very end of Italy and across to Sicily. In this post, I’ll give a quick overview of each of the individual journeys; but first, here’s how the route looks when you put them all together:

(NB: This map shows the station stops for each train we used, rather than the exact route of the rails – European trains turn out to be a bit too solidly constructed for GPS logging.)

Day 1: Rotterdam to Brussels

Train 1: Rotterdam Centraal to Brussel-Zuid

NS International Intercity, Standard Class
2017-05-28 Train 9264 Dep: 20:00 Arr: 22:15 (2 hours 15 minutes)

This first leg was a gentle start – Rotterdam Station is of course a familiar location for us, and buying tickets on the day presented no problems. Although we were headed for another country, the trip would only take a couple of hours. Standard class therefore seemed fine, particularly as we expected a Sunday evening departure to be quiet. Sure enough, the carriage was mostly empty, so we were able to sit together and keep our luggage close to hand. Arrival at Brussel-Zuid / Bruxelles-Midi (same place!) was right on time, and our hotel turned out be a 30 second walk from platform to reception. An entirely stress-free start to the trip!

Day 2: Brussels to Zurich

After the Brussels warmup, this would be the first real test of our plan: spending most of a day on a pair of trains; starting in one country, travelling through a second; and ending in a third.

Fortunately the seven or so hours this would take would be spent on a pair of high speed ICE trains, and better still, in first class.

Train 2: Bruxelles-Midi to Frankfurt(Main) HBf

Deutsche Bahn ICE International, First Class
2017-05-29 ICE15 Dep: 10:25 Arr: 13:30 (3 hours 5 minutes)

We picked up breakfast and travel snacks at the station before searching for the train; it was as early as we are, already aan perron forty minutes before scheduled departure. However, that meant 30 minutes admiring it from the platform before doors opened… Surprisingly there didn’t seem to be a dedicated luggage space, just overhead racks. But as some of the first on we were able to wedge our case behind a seat at the end of the carriage. Our seats were already assigned an ‘airline’ style pair with no table, but thus no facing seatmates either – and came with free newspapers and a menu detailing an extensive buy-on-board offering. Complimentary chocolates were also handed out twice – at Aachen, and just before Frankfurt airport.

The party piece of these trains is definitely speed: before we’d even left Brussels we were pushing 190km/h, rising to 225 by Liege, and topping out at 300km/h further along. Unsurprisingly we therefore made our second on-time arrival, into Frankfurt’s impressive terminal. Although we hadn’t noticed much in the way of air-conditioning on board, the station was humid by comparison, so clearly the train had been quietly keeping us comfortable. As the duo of chocolates had turned out to be the only free food, we restocked our snack supply before making our way to the next train.

Train 3: Frankfurt(Main) HBf to Zurich HB Basel SBB

Deutsche Bahn ICE International, First Class
2017-05-29 ICE75 Dep: 14:00

Train 75 turns out to be a service all the way to Chur, but we’ll be getting there at a more leisurely pace over the next few days. Again there was no luggage space, so I had to heft the case into an overhead. WiFi should have been available on the previous train but hadn’t been working; this time we were in luck, and the speed turns out to be solid enough for actual browsing rather than just an email check.

Unfortunately the five minute delay we picked up on departure steadily grew throughout the journey. At 16:50 a long announcement involving Zurich was made – but only in German. However, it was clear that we weren’t making enough progress, as by then we should have been five minutes along from Basel Bad., a stop we eventually reached 25 minutes behind schedule. We only made it one station further along the line, to Basel proper; where were informed that the service would be terminating.

Train 4: Basel SBB to Zurich HB

SBB Intercity, First Class
2017-05-29 IC581 Dep: 17:33 Arr: 18:26 (53 minutes)

Thus we quickly added a tenth component to our itinerary… Conveniently there would be a direct train to Zurich departing Basel about ten minutes after we eventually arrived, albeit a less fancy regional service for which we didn’t have seat reservations. Fortunately we were able to find a facing pair in first class, and come ticket check there seemed to be no issue with our having transferred to a different company’s trains. This last stretch turned out be less than hour, along an enjoyably scenic route, so all told we arrived in Zurich only 40 minutes later than expected. This was actually the only part of our journey that experienced significant disruption – who would have expected it to be a German train to Switzerland that failed?

Day 4: Zurich to Chur

Train 5: Zurich HB to Bahnhof Chur

SBB Intercity, Standard Class
2017-05-31 IC929 Dep: 16:07 Arr: 17:22 (1 hour 15 minutes)

Two options to Chur

We purchased tickets for Zurich – Chur at the station; cheaper rates could have been obtained online, but we didn’t want to be tied to any particular plans – especially as the forecasts continued to threaten a thundery finish to the 30ô+ temperatures we’d been experiencing. There seem to be several options for this route: as well as the ICE we’d used from Frankfurt, local services came in two flavours. RE trains are impressive, modern, air-conditioned double-decker units; InterCity are old-fashioned hauled carriages. We (ok, I) had picked the IC.

This turned out to be the right choice. We had assumed this leg (and the overnight stop) would simply be a means to an end, namely the Bernina Express. But Zurich – Chur turns out to be a stunning route; following first the Zurichsee / Obersee and later Walensee lakes, through rolling farmland, all with an increasingly dramatic backdrop as the storm remnants hung around the mountain tops. Each time the train dived into a tunnel, there would be a stunning reveal on the other side. The light passenger load meant we effectively claimed an eight seat block, flitting from one side of the carriage to the other like excited children to sample the competing views. Instead of aircon, we had windows that could be opened to enjoy fresh air and take better photos. There was even a proper luggage rack; and a minibar service shortly after departing Zurich. For sheer surprise factor, this was one of the highlights of the trip! But better was to come…

Day 5: Chur to Milan

Train 6: Bahnhof Chur to Tirano

Rhaetian Railways Bernina Express, First class
2017-06-01 BEX951 Dep: 08:32 Arr: 12:45 (4 hours 13 minutes)

The Bernina Express

As you can probably tell, I am endlessly enthusiastic about the Bernina Express. So it gets its own post, which you can find here.

Train 7: Tirano to Milano Centrale

Trenitalia Regionale Standard class
2017-06-01 Train 2571 Dep: 15:08 Arr: 17:40 (2 hours 32 minutes)

We had an enjoyable lunch stop in Tirano, at one of the many restaurants barely a minute’s walk from the station. We had no plan beyond that, and in retrospect should have proceeded to Milan on the 14:08 after a leisurely meal. Instead, we set off to try and explore some more of the area the train had (quite literally) driven through. With intense heat, and dragging our luggage, this was not particularly successful (although we did console ourselves with gelato). Whether attempting our entire route, or some other one-way itinerary that features the Bernina Express, I’d suggest being better prepared for this stop than we were!

Still, we weren’t under any time pressure, and comfortably made the next departure. This was by far the cheapest leg of the journey (despite purchasing at the station immediately before travel), but still offered a modern train with plenty of space and (thankfully) decent air conditioning. It couldn’t compete with the German trains on speed, or the Swiss ones on scenery, but it got us to Milan on time and in comfort, and what more do you need for less than £10?

Day 6: Milan to Verona

Train 8: Milano Centrale to Verona Porta Nuova

Trenitalia Frecciarossa, Executive Class
2017-06-02 Train 9723 Dep: 11:45 Arr: 12:58 (1 hour 13 minutes)

Frecciarossa Executive Class

Next up was the most impressive hard product I’ve ever experienced on a train. Frecciarossa services have an ‘Executive class’ carriage with just eight seats – the rest is set up as a conference room should there be any actual executives looking to hold a high-speed meeting. The result is a remarkable sense of space. We were first aboard, stepping into air conditioned bliss and dropping off our case in the largest luggage compartment we encountered on this trip (despite catering to the fewest people). As seems to be a general requirement in Italy, you have to register (with verifiable credentials) for web access through the wifi portal, which additionally included a music service with some free downloads, a news feed, and a moving map. The latter two were also available from overhead screens, which occasionally switched to a live feed from a camera pointed out the back of the train.

Departure was on time, and ten minutes later there began a procession of complimentary items, each handed out by a white-gloved attendant: newspapers; bottled water; a choice of coffee (Americano or Espresso) or orange juice; a trio of Madeleines; a refreshing towel; and a jelly sweet. All of this was made practical by an airline-style folding table built into the arm of the seat – since the back of the next one would be impossibly far away!

Also surprisingly distant are your travel companions, which ruled out our usual pass-time of board games. Instead, we each put the seats into recline and settled into our own comfortable bubble of podcasts and enjoyment of the scenery rushing past. By now both landscape and architecture were firmly Italian, with fields of impossibly green crops punctuated by terracotta-roofed buildings. There were just two stops as we raced through the sun-soaked countryside; the second, Desenzano, offering great views of Lake Garda. This steady evolution of the world around you, gradual from stop to stop but increasingly obvious with time and distance, is one of the things I love about travelling by train.

Day 7: Verona to Naples

Train 9: Verona Porta Nuova to Napoli Centrale

Trenitalia Frecciargento, First Class
2017-06-03 Train 8527 Dep: 18:52 Arr: 23:07 (4 hours 15 minutes)

After the surplus of space in Executive class, slumming it in mere First inevitably felt a little cramped – in particular, with facing seats legroom would be a little tight if you don’t know your opposite number. There were no at-seat items, but the cafe bar can keep you well-stocked via hot and cold first and second courses; craft beer, wine, spirits; plus the usual snacks and coffee. The Frecciargento is a tilting train, which proved perilous on occasion for any stray items on the table. But they’re also capable of clearing 240km/h, so even though by Rome we’d collected some delays, our arrival in Naples was only 5 minutes behind schedule – impressive considering the length of the journey!

Unfortunately, this was the only positive part of our arrival. As the centre of gravity – be it economic or cultural – of a city shifts through the years after the tracks were laid, a station can find itself on the wrong side of town. Falling passenger numbers can make it hard to maintain an anachronistically grand terminal; or the host city itself may simply not be all it once was. Whatever the reason, Napoli Centrale is not a pleasant spot. Our experience was not helped by arriving late at night on a humid summer evening; getting lost in a maze of internal walkways; or emerging from a side exit to aggressively noisy traffic trapped in multi-lane construction works. The lowlight was a (presumably) drunk bare-arsed local of indeterminate gender relieving themselves on the pavement. Our hotel was in principle just across the Piazza from the station. But dragging a suitcase removes the kind of agility needed to safely navigate its wide side-streets, where pedestrian crossings were either absent or simply ignored by cars. Disinterested groups of taxi drivers at least meant enough eyes around to not feel actively unsafe, but the general atmosphere was distinctly hostile, and we made our exit as swiftly as possible. I’d suggest anyone following our route to do the same!

Day 9: Naples to Taormina

Train 10: Napoli Centrale to Taormina-Giardini

Trenitalia Intercity, Standard Class
2017-06-05 Train 723 Dep: 09:50 Arr: 16:34 (6 hours 44 minutes)

and so we had reached the final leg, the original inspiration for the entire trip. But there was still a substantial chunk of the total travel time ahead of us, and in less luxurious surroundings than we’d become accustomed to. We cut through crowds of smokers on the platforms to board around 9:35, finding our way to our assigned seats, or near enough; as part of a table of four, we settle for the facing aisle seats rather than dispute with the couple who have claimed the windows. The seats are better than I imagined, with even a smidge of recline available. There’s no official catering, but a guy is roaming the carriages with a call of ‘prego prego panini, biscotti, aqua, cafe’ (the latter in a thermos). Since we never saw him again once the journey got underway, I assume he was an enterprising local rather than along for the ride…

It takes a while to extract ourselves from Naples’ urban environs, but by 11 we’re getting our first glimpses of beautiful blue coastline. This would appear and disappear as we weaved through surprisingly hilly – even mountainous – terrain; often running through gorges and tunnels, or finding the shore tumbling away suddenly to empty sea. As we progressed further around the wide sweep of the coast, this terrain would fill the horizon, distant hills hazy in blue as we looked back from Italy’s boot to its shin. Inland stretches, too, were attractive, albeit parched; yellowing grass, scrubland, rivers that were more riverbed than water. Towering grey rock-faces revealed churches nestling in their folds; terracotta towns perched on hillsides. Sadly, with our carriage at full capacity, our seats being on the wrong side, and the windows locked shut in preference of air conditioning, there was no real opportunity for photos. But this final stretch definitely delivers scenery-wise!

Our fellow passengers were generally old, asleep, or both. Our table-mates also had not a hint of English, communicating locations of bins or warning of perilously positioned water bottles through pantomime or prodding. At around 1 we have reached Lamezia, where they leave us; but we gain replacements. The first insists on the window on my side; the second the aisle on Alaina’s – the resulting diagonal arrangement does not lend itself to conversation, let alone board games. Our latest companion also has a baffling amount of luggage, having been helped onto the carriage with two hefty suitcases and a pair of backpacks.

It takes less than an hour to reach Villa San Giovanni, the next stop, and the last on the mainland. The views across to Sicily are great; less enjoyable is the fact that the air conditioning gets shut off in preparation for the crossing. Although the carriages will be travelling over, there’s no reason to take the engines, but its those which supply the necessary power. Around 14:10 a decent-sized ferry bearing the train company logo pulls into view, throwing its nose open before it docks. Sadly our seats once again prove to be the wrong side for the best views, so the unloading / loading process isn’t entirely clear.

What is clear is that it’s time consuming… it takes 30 minutes for us to roll up to the boat, only to roll straight back again. Rather than require an absurdly long vessel, we decoupled from the front half and retreated to return a few minutes later on a set of parallel tracks. This splitting of the train also conveniently allows it to serve two destinations – once the crossing is complete, our half will head South for Syracuse, whilst the other continues North for Palermo. (Unhelpfully, announcements throughout the journey had only mentioned the stops served by the Palermo-bound carriages).

The ferry made a very welcome change from the train, especially once I realised there was an open air deck where we were free to stretch our legs and catch some sun. There’s also plenty of interior seating in the unlikely event of bad weather; a cafe; and comparatively decent bathrooms (the facilities on the train being… not great).

The crossing turned out to be smooth and short, at around 45 minutes – we spent considerably more time getting the trains on and off than we did actually transporting them, and I can’t help but wonder if it would be easier to just send the passengers… At 15:20 we rejoin our carriage, but it takes fifteen minutes before our sister train rolls away, another five for us to be in motion, and five more for the air conditioning to mercifully kick back in, nearly two hours since it last offered any comfort.

We depart Messina station (as opposed to the harbour) just after 16:00, and now the end really is near. Although the announcements are still for Palermo, we’d clearly en route to Syracuse, and it’s less than a 45 minute run to Taormina-Giardini. But this turns out to be another beautiful coastal run, with the tracks often being the last feature before the rocky shore gives way to shallow pools of green-blue water. We’re also treated to views of Taormina itself, atop the cliff face towering above. Finally, we reach the end of our journey at 16:44; almost seven hours since we left Naples, and nearly eight days since we left Rotterdam. I recommend almost every minute of it!

Taormina – Giardini Station