A slow trip by train (and ferry) with my Mum

Sicily to London by Train

My mum and I flew from Gatwick to Catania in Sicily in October 2019 for a holiday. Most people also fly home from such a holiday but for a variety of reasons we decided to go home by train. The main reason for me was that I love train travel (slow travel) and had an idea of what to expect, having gone by train from Oban to Venice and back with my 14 year old daughter a few years ago.

Another reason is that I am not particularly fond of flying because of fear and also environmental concerns. I don’t mind flying a couple of times a year but I had already been to Iceland and Croatia in 2019 and felt my ration had been used up!

Punta Secca Sicily

The third reason and the one that clinched it is that the price for the return flight was unusually high and I worked out that I could do the whole journey by train for a similar price. It is too easy to see very cheap flight prices and choose them over relatively expensive train prices (the flight down only cost us £66 each) but I don’t think it should be this way. If you get a flight somewhere for £30 for example, it is hard to pass up that opportunity.

So decision made, I started to do my research. Another thing that possibly puts people off taking long train journeys is that it is much harder to book than booking a flight. An excellent starting point is The Man in Seat Sixty-One a website run by a man called Mark who is on a mission to get more people to appreciate the delights of slow travel. He starts every page with ‘it’s easy to travel to ... by train’ (apart from Australia I think which is not easy to get to without  flying). I have been inspired by his website since the year 2000 and it still is one of my favourite sites.

Having got the basics sorted from Mark’s site, and the dates we would be travelling back, I needed to decide on a route which didn’t involve too much hanging about, and which didn’t include any early mornings or late nights for my mum’s benefit. I looked at a few European train booking sites but the one I ended up using was the trainline.eu. (PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS MAY NO LONGER BE UP TO DATE - Mark from Seat 61 recommends using www.raileurope.com). This didn’t have a booking fee, and I found it very straightforward to use. It also seemed to show more trains than some of the other sites, and the train we ended up getting from Sicily didn’t even appear on one of the other sites I was using. It’s also worth mentioning that all the websites have the same prices so you don’t need to worry that you might get a better price elsewhere. Also, like the trains in the UK and also flights, the prices tend to go up the nearer you get to the date of travel. This is especially true of the Eurostar, which was by far the most expensive bit of the trip.

Mount Etna

One thing I found frustrating is that the booking websites just try to give you the quickest journey home not necessarily the one that might suit better, for example the main option for us was to catch the late night train from Catania, change in Naples very early in the morning, catch another train to Milan then the sleeper train to Paris., another early start and then the Eurostar. This looked exhausting to me, and would have meant hanging around in Catania for hours after checking out of our b&b at 10.30.

After a bit of research I found another train from Catania leaving at 14.54 which was a much better time for us, and this one went direct to Milan taking 21 hours but arriving in Milan at 11.50 which meant no early mornings! The website then suggested we spent a lot of hours in Milan before catching the sleeper to Paris but again this didn’t suit so I looked on the map of Europe and saw that Geneva was on the way to Paris so I decided to go there for the night. Very luckily I have a friend, Anne, who lives in Geneva and she was going to be at home and invited us to stay the night, so this was excellent and made the planning even more exciting. The fast train from Milan to Geneva left at 12.23 giving us just over half an hour to connect but I decided to take the chance otherwise it was a long wait.

The last part of the journey was the easiest to book - there was a train leaving Geneva at 14.41 the following day which took 3 hours to Paris then we would have to cross the Paris on the RER line to get to Gare du Nord before catching the Eurostar to London arriving at 20.36 which was a reasonable time.

Clicking Pay Now on all these tickets was quite nerve wracking and I double and triple checked each time and date. Some of the tickets were exchangeable but none were refundable (that would have cost a lot more) so I had to get it right!

Once I had done that I downloaded the Trainline.eu app and loaded all the tickets into there but I didn’t actually use the app at all after that, printing out all the tickets, but it was good to know I had easy access to them if I had mislaid the tickets etc.

The journey from Sicily to London

Catania Station

This started OK - we were staying in a B&B in a small town called Punta Secca which was about 2 hours away from Catania train station by car. We had originally planned to take the bus there but it would have left at 9.30am so would have had a rushed morning. We decided to get a transfer arranged so we left our B&B at 11am and arrived at the station at the same time as if we’d got the bus, about 13.00. We had quite a long wait but we found seats as Catania is a pretty quiet station (at least when we were there). It has a small cafe selling crisps, pastries etc and a small tobacconist but best was the kiosk just outside selling really delicious and cheap icecream and big bottles of cold water.

Mum Catania Station

The train finally arrived a few minutes late (it had come from Syracuse) and the journey didn’t start well - it is really hard to get onto the train as it is very high and the platform is very low. Luckily some kind men helped me and my mum up with all our bags. I had booked us a 3 berth couchette which is women only and was more expensive than the 4 berth couchette. I thought it would be better as we would be more likely to not have to share but when we got into it, it was very small and dark and hot and a bit smelly and my mum immediately rushed out having a panic attack. I didn’t want to leave all our bags unattended so I waited in the compartment for a while until she came back saying the 4 bed couchettes were much nicer so I went to have a look and indeed they were - much newer, brighter, cooler and larger. We spoke to one of the very helpful staff and she said we could move and that it was unlikely we would have to share so we were delighted.

Taormina
Taormina

After all this excitement the sun was starting to go down and we were looking out of the window at the gorgeous views from the train when we arrived at Messina for what for me was the most exciting bit of the journey; when the train is loaded onto the ferry which crosses the Strait of Messina when it is then put back together and it trundles off on its way up mainland Italy.

Sicily Ferry
Crossing the Strait of Messina to mainland Italy

You sit in your carriage as the train goes onto the ferry and it gets shunted too and fro before it is finally in position. I think I would have been unsure what to do next if I hadn’t read about it but the doors of the train then open and you get off and go up a fair few steps before you get up on deck. You leave all your luggage on board (we took our valuables with us) so that was a bit concerning but when we got back down we saw that the door had been shut by someone and possibly locked we weren’t sure. It wasn’t obvious when to go back down onto the train as there was no announcement but we just went when everyone else did! The crossing itself was pretty uneventful. It was quite a big ferry but not many people were on it and it was dark so we couldn’t see much of the scenery. Apparently you can buy food on board but I didn’t check that out as we had brought plenty with us

Which brings me nicely to a VERY important point - you cannot buy food or drink on the 21 hour journey from Sicily to Milan. I don’t think you can on any of the night trains. They give you a small container of water and in the morning we were given a carton of peach juice and a biscuit but that was all. So we took fruit, loads of water, crisps, nuts, bread, cheese, rice cakes, milk (for my mum to drink), breadsticks, yogurts etc. It would have been a miserable journey if we hadn’t!

Bunk on the train

Once the train was moving again in Villa San Fiorella (sp), a member of the train crew came to give us our bedding which consisted of a lovely crisp, ironed, white cotton liner, a pillowcase and a blanket. We were a bit useless at figuring out how the room worked with the beds etc - we were expected to lie on the seats but they seemed very narrow so we asked in our limited Italian and with many gestures about it, and the man showed us that the beds actually pull out slightly to make them wider and I managed to get one of the higher berths to come down and find the ladder and the lights and attach the seatbelts with his help!

In the 4 berth couchettes there is no sink (there was one in the 3 berth) so we had to go to either end of the train carriage for a sink and toilet. I have had many unpleasant train toilet experiences in my life but this wasn’t one of them! Throughout the journey the toilets were clean and there was toilet paper, soap, water and hand towels. There are no seats on the toilets and you are given paper seats with your welcome pack.

By now it was time for bed! You can lock the door from the inside so you feel very safe. There is the main light and also dimmer personal lights and plugs to charge your phone etc. We also had a 4G signal for most of the journey (apart from the many tunnnels we went though). The train at night was pretty similar to other sleeper trains I have been on both in the UK and in Europe, in that it’s pretty noisy and bumpy! They do give you earplugs in the welcome pack and I did use them. Both mum and I slept remarkably well considering! It maybe wouldn’t have been so pleasant if we had been sharing with 2 strangers but we weren’t!

No one wakes you up in the morning and I got up about 8. Caught the train man walking past and he brought us our breakfast. We were hoping for coffee but that didn’t materialise and I’m not sure why because I could smell it and I did see a coffee machine at the end of the carriage.

Once we were up and sorted we only had about 2 hours to go till we arrived in Milan. I had checked the status of the train and it was saying the time of arrival was going to be about half an hour late which meant that we would miss our connection. I went to find a member of the train crew (who were all very helpful and friendly but didn’t speak English so I had to use google translate on a couple of occasions) and he said that if we missed the train we could go to the ticket office at Milan station and get our onward ticket authorised so we wouldn’t have to pay any more for a new ticket. This was very comforting but I still didn’t want to miss our connection! I needn’t have worried though because the train obviously made up loads of time and we arrived at exactly 11.50! We were very surprised to suddenly be there! This gave us loads of time to walk along to platform 3 to catch the train to Geneva (it was only a couple of minutes walk and very straightforward).

Geneva

There’s not much to say about our journey to Geneva - the scenery was lovely and it was a very comfy train and we were 40 minutes late.

We were catching the bus to my friend Anne’s house as it was rush hour and buses are much quicker than cars at that time of day. However often it’s the little things like buying a bus ticket in a new country that are the the most tricky and stressful things. This blog isn’t about buses in Geneva but basically you have to buy one before you get on board. Once on board they have screens telling you which stop is coming up which I found very helpful and we got off at the right stop to be met by Anne in her car.

Me and Anne

We had such a lovely stay with Anne, it was do good to have a proper rest before the last leg of the journey. Before we caught the train the next day, Anne gave us a quick tour of Geneva and we visited the outside of the house which Lord Byron rented in 1815 and where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

Geneva station is massive and busy so I was glad we had allowed over half an hour to find our train. We also had time to buy some snacks in the very good Coop there.

Our train to Paris left from platform 8, this did seem to be an international platform and we went through a border control section but no one asked to see our passports and we just walked through.

It was only 3 hours to Paris and the train was very comfy and again the journey was straightforward and we arrived into Gare de Lyon on time.

Gare de Lyon
Crossing the Gare de Lyon to the Eurostar

It’s so often the transfers that cause problems, especially if you’re someone, or with someone who can’t walk very far or fast. We were expecting the connection to be quite easy as it’s only 2 stops and surely it’s a connection made by a great many people every day? It’s at times like that that I would like to be employed as a useability person to try to make life easier for poor hapless travellers like me and my mum. We knew to look out for RER line D to Creil but it’s just not particularly easy to see when you first get off the train. Once you know where it is it’s obvious so I have included some photos of the route. Once you have gone down the first set of escalators you need to follow the signs to the RER line D but bear to the right as you want the NORD line to Creil not the SUD. This sounds obvious again but when you’re in a flap it’s easy to miss the word Sud and end up on the wrong platform. Nowhere does it say anything helpful like Gare du Nord or Eurostar. We bought the tickets from the ticket machine which was much easier to use than the one in Geneva for the bus and we paid by card. We weren’t sure if you can use your credit card like you can in the London Underground and I still don’t know!

When we finally made our way down another set of escalators to the correct trains to take us to Gare du Nord, there were 2 double decker trains waiting. Again it wasn’t obvious which one to get on and we hopped on the one on the left only to get off it again when everyone else did for no apparent reason! They all got on the one on the right so we did too and were very relieved to find we were indeed on the correct one. The actual journey on the train is only 2 stops and about 7 minutes. Once we got off mum asked again where to go (still no signs to the Eurostar) and you just have to follow the Sortie signs to Trains Grande Lignes then after a couple of escalators you finally see a sign for the Eurostar. What joy! You come straightaway to security which is pretty much like airport security except you don’t have to put your toiletries into clear plastic bags and there is no liquid limit so we were able to take our water across that was remaining from the ones we bought in Catania!

Although our train was leaving from Gate (Porte) A there was another sign saying that people in coaches 1-10 should board from Gate B which was a bit further down. This was signposted quite well but we still wondered about it and mum had to ask!!

Arriving in London
Mum and me arriving in London

Yet again the Eurostar was a very pleasant and comfortable journey - it’s 2.5 hours and mum and I watched an episode of Inspector Montalbano which I had downloaded in Sicily. Once in London it is a fairly short walk into the main concourse where my sister Ellie and her friend Katie were there to meet us. I felt really emotional that we had made it all that way, with a few stresses and strains but overall it was an excellent journey and one we will remember forever!

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