Review: London to Venice by Train
Specialist Holiday - Rail travel
Why you should take the train to Venice
162 people found this review helpful
Venice is easily my favorite city – what's not to like about Venice?
Well, there are the crowds, the smell, the rip-off prices, grumpy locals, heat, humidity, mosquitoes and an additional bedroom tax for each nights stay.
Sadly, all these gripes can be true – but only if you go in the high summer season. If you make an off-season visit (November to March, except during early February's Carnival) most of them are blown away by the sometimes chilly winds off the Dolomites.
Providing you go at the right time of year Venice is a dream destination that should be on everyone's European bucket list and there is only one way to arrive in style and that's by train. No railway station in the world beats the spectacle at Santa Lucia where you step straight out onto the Grand Canal (no undignifed baggage and coach transfer scramble here).
Nothing could persuade me to visit Venice during the summer when cruise ships alone can disgorge 30,000 additional day trippers onto the already crowded tiny main island. My favorite time is October to November when it's cool but not too cold. This time I'm drawn back to a wintery Venice because of a new high speed rail route that started in December 2014.
Mention the train from London to Venice to anybody and they invariably think of Agatha Christie and the Orient Express; 80 years after its first publication it is still imbedded in our cultural consciousness. But the iconic and expensive (£2,050 one way) Simplon Orient Express is not the only way to take the train to Venice. I made a similar trip on scheduled trains with good hotels for £449, booked with Great Rail Journeys (www.greatrail.com/grj-independent/) albeit without the glamour and sophistication of Hercule Poirot.
I took London's Eurostar to the French town of Lille instead of Paris, which is a brilliant alternative because it avoids the significant hassle of crossing that traffic choked city to the onward railway station. At Lille I simply changed platforms and boarded the new TGV service to Geneva and was soon hurtling along at 300 km/hr. It took just 4 hours and Switzerland has never seemed so close or accessible.
Geneva was a pleasant and elegant stopover, nestled around the southern edge of Lake Geneva where the River Rhone slices it in half as it flows out of the lake and southwards to the Mediterranean. On a cold but dazzlingly bright December day the surrounding Alpine peaks glint with snow as little boats weave back and forth between the old and new towns and the lake's startlingly tall, Victorian era lake fountain (Jet d'Eau) still impresses as the world's tallest fountain.
When travelling around Europe by train my top tip is always to stay in hotels close to the station. This means that on arrival you're quickly settled into your accommodation and can be out exploring in no-time. Even more important, when departing, there's no need to get up exceptionally early or worry about missing your train as you're not dependent on taxis or bus transfers. I stayed at the very nice and perfectly located Warwick hotel in Geneva, which was within sight of the station and just a 5 minute stroll to the Lake and the heart of the city.
My train to Venice left at 07.40 taking a stunningly picturesque route through forest and snow capped mountains with waterfalls, rivers, lakes and isolated villages perched on Alpine meadows. The train hugged the shore of Lake Geneva to Lausanne and Montreux then turned east to the ski resorts of Visp and Brig. The spectacular scenery continued through winding Alpine valleys and mountain tunnels and on into Italy with more snow clad peaks and vineyards sloping down to the edge of Lake Maggiore. You couldn't want for a more scenic trip.
After a brief stop in Milan, where most of the passengers alighted, we continued across northern Italy following the line of the Dolomites to the north and miles of vineyards to the south and arrived in Venice at 14.30. When travelling overland, and passing through fascinating place I've never visited, I invariably berate myself for not allowed more time for the journey. So as my train stopped at Montreux, Milan, Verona and Padua I found myself wanting to get off explore each of these enticing places.
A 10 minute stroll from Venice's railway station brought me to the Papadopoli, my Venetian hotel on the Tolentini canal. The marble floors, over-the-top Murano chandeliers and elegant furniture is the classical 18th-century style that's exactly what you want in Venice.
Winter is when Venetian's reclaim their islands, when boys kick footballs against ancient walls, when restaurants are all tucked up indoors with cosy lights spilling onto alleyways, it's when you can walk around an almost empty St Mark’s Square and stroll straight in to the Basilica or Doge's Palace without having to queue.
What I really enjoy about Venice is it's truely medieval scale, the Dickensian alleyways, the quiet emptyness and it's elegant sense of history – built for people not vehicles. Off the main throughfares it's a marvellously eerie place of crumbling buildings and footsteps echoing along misty alleyways. The beauty and frailty of the city's architecture is breathtaking – lace-like stone balconies, gateways to secret gardens, stairways and arches opening into wide public spaces of Campi and Piazza. Some are deserted and others thrive like Campo San Polo with its winter ice rink. Dozens of children were skating in the afternoon before the adults have it to themselves in the evening. All around the rink food stalls were selling hot snacks, sweets and cheeses, around the edge bars and cafes provided a cosy refuge.
It's easy to splurge out in Venice, pay 10 euro for a coffee or hot chocolate in Caffè Florian, but off the tourist trail you'll only need to pay 1 euro. At the Brek ristorante near the Scalzi Bridge I ate fresh pasta and a large glass of wine for 6.40 euro and in the evening attended a free Mozart concert at the Malibran theatre, the beautiful sister theatre of the famed La Fenice.
The centuries old structure and layout of Venice is notoriously unfriendly for wheelchair users and with the thousands of steps over the hundreds of bridges much of it is totally unsuitable. But there have been some recent innovations. Ramps have been installed on bridges along the prime canalside promanade of the Riva degli Schiavoni. So if you stay in a hotel on or close to the Riva degli Schiavoni there is a large chunk of this medieval city that is now accessible to wheelchair users.
In winter Venice is less packed, blessed with magical misty mornings and blue sky afternoons, it's less expensive, hotels are cheaper, taxes are halved, galleries and museums are relatively empty and you'll always get a seat on the public vaporetto ferries. Summer's theme park ambience has disappeared and Venice has returned to being a local town, where local people stride along alleys in furs and puffy coats, return to their favorite restaurants and mellow their view of tourists as people rather than gormless invading hordes.
So, what's not to like about Venice?
Fact Box: My London to Venice trip with one night in the 4 star Warwick Hotel in Geneva and one night in the 4 star Hotel Papadopoli Venezia in Venice starts from £449pp based on twin share. This was a tailor made itinerary booked with Great Rail Journeys Independent. For more information call 01904 527180. Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries also offer escorted group rail tours to Italy. Their 10 day Tuscany and Venice tour with Rail Discoveries starts at £1275 pp.
162 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.