Review: London to Venice by Train
Specialist Holiday - Rail travel
London to Venice by train, plus Switzerland
If you mention travelling from London to Venice by train just about everybody assumes it will be on the iconic Orient Express and Agatha Christie’s name is certain to come up.
The amazingly luxurious Venice Simplon-Orient-Express still runs a weekly scheduled service between March and November – to Venice and other several other European destinations.
But this is not the only rail option from London to Venice – you don’t have to be royalty, a spy, a villain or a famous authoress to travel this route. I booked a train and accommodation package with London based Railbookers using regular daily scheduled trains departing every hour from London.
I love Venice and have been there six times before and this rail route worked out cheaper than flying and booking accommodation myself; but best of all the train is the only way to arrive in style and in the heart of Venice and directly on the Grand canal.
We boarded a Eurostar at St Pancras station clutching all our rail tickets and pre-booked accommodation vouchers. Within half an hour we were speeding through Kent before diving under the channel, emerging 26 minutes later in France.
Pulling into Paris’s Gare du Nord I calculated that we would still be in the security queue at Heathrow if we had chosen to fly.
There was just enough time for a glass of wine in a street cafe before our high speed TGV left Paris for Switzerland. The border free crossing is only marked by the houses – the bright blue and purple of France giving way to grey, pointy chalet style houses of Switzerland.
Our Hotel du Theatre was just a five minutes walk from the station. It was in the atmospheric cobbled streets of old town Niederdorf – buzzing with nightlife and the best place in town for informal eating and drinking.
Next morning, after a good breakfast, we were travelling south and just beyond Lake Zurich the Alps begin rearing up – sharp snow-capped peaks fringed with bright green valleys and dotted with black and white cows – wearing bells. Sometimes clichés really are true!
Alpine roads twist and swerve through valleys, others tower spectacularly above us on stilts, disappearing into tunnels half way up the mountainside. Several tunnels and bridges later the train descended to Lake Lugano, and then Lake Como – marking our crossing into Italy. The lakes are beautiful but these iconic lakeside towns didn’t live up to their celebrity magazine image – from the train they are a disappointing vision of hundreds of boxy apartment buildings.
Finally the train rolled into the massive Romanesque station at Milan in time for lunch. But with only one hour before the Venice train departs there’s just enough time for a peek outside and sip a real Italian coffee.
The afternoon train races east across rich farmland of orchards, cereals and vines and the Italian Alps can still occasionally be glimpsed on the horizon. The snack trolley on the train was amazingly poor, luke-warm coffee from a thermos and unappetising snacks, so make sure you eat in Milan or take a picnic.
Journeys end is in sight as we cross the lagoon to Venice’s Santa Lucia station. A cruise down the Grand Canal on a vaporetto, passed tantalisingly illuminated windows of palazzos, and we’re at our hotel – the Giorgione.
Off-season Venice is always a delight, we never tire of the sights although we don’t bother with repeat visits to the Basilica San Marco or the Doges Palace.
The artwork in Florence is better and Rome’s historic buildings are more impressive but Venice is even more special. The city is an historic work of art itself – an artistic creation that you experience and actually live in rather than merely look at. Its ambience is utterly unique; the absence of motorised vehicles, the canals, hundreds of bridges, the Dickensian alleyways, vast Campo’s (squares), little bars and cafes and the haunting echo of bells.
But a word of warning – Venice makes its living from tourists and half the twelve million visitors are day-trippers. They’re not repeat customers, so tourist rip-offs, shops full of tourist tat and overpriced restaurants serving embarrassingly poor food are not uncommon. But it doesn’t have to be like that:
Top tips for a faultless Venice experience: Visit during the shoulder seasons, in high summer the crowds are a nightmare, its insufferably hot, canals can whiff and mid-winter is bitter cold. Avoid restaurants and cafes near St Mark’s or the Rialto plus any offering a tourist menu, i.e. showing pictures of food or those with door touts. Take an evening vaporetto (number 1) trip down the Grand Canal peeking into palazzo windows. A bargain at 6 euro for an hour. Forget gondola rides (unless you’re on honeymoon) and cross the Grand Canal on a traghetto (gondola) for half a euro per crossing.
Places I always eat at: Ai Barbacani in Calle del Paradiso (off Salizada San Lio) for classy but not snobby dining at sensible prices. Alla Vedova in Calle del Pistor, (off Strada Nuova) for the best bar snacks at their wood and marble bar and simple wooden tables; their polpette (spicy meatballs) are fantastic. The Zanzibar beside the canal in Santa Maria Formosa, serves the best spritza (campari, sweet white wine, soda and a fat juicy green olive) in town. The Brek restaurant in Lista di Spagna, (near Scalzi bridge) is the best place for cheap local eating, its self-service but hot food is cooked to order at an open kitchen. Pushing the boat out: Harry’s Bar is a Venetian institution so is a must for most newcomers. Its classic but overpriced Bellini (fresh peach juice & prosecco) is excellent but don’t expect to many meet many Venetian’s drinking there. Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco for an expensive but memorably elegant breakfast or afternoon coffee accompanied by classical music.
There’s no option but to walk around Venice although the extensive vaporetto network will get you back to your hotel when you’re tired. Most street maps are fairly useless & street signage is erratic so expect to get disorientated in the back streets. But don’t worry, wandering around is part of the joy, get lost in the byways & alleyways; you’ll eventually come out somewhere recognisable. It’s perhaps the only city in the world that doesn’t have a dangerous No-Go quarter that visitors should avoid.
Three days is just the right amount of time for getting lost in back alleys, finding new places for coffee and spritza, riding the vaporetto, watching city life working perfectly without motorcars and just revelling in Venice’s crumbling fabric.
My tailor made rail and accommodation package with an overnight in Switzerland and a return flight with BA cost £520 per person, booked with Railbookers (www.railbookers.com). But there are dozens of alternative combinations including more luxurious hotels, overnight sleepers trains, stopovers in Paris or Lucerne and even returning on the train via the Riviera.
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This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.
Silver Travel Advisor Recommended Partner: Railbookers