The Tuscan family 'gastronomic adventure' holiday that we were headed for had a strong Slow Food ethos, so it seemed more important than ever to resist the lure of low-cost flight and travel in an ecologically kinder, more thoughtful manner. Friends told me I was crazy – and perhaps they were right. My older boys were then six and five, so able to appreciate the adventure of sleeping aboard a train, but their brother Zac was only 18 months old, and a very mobile handful. Still, I reasoned, in many ways I’d prefer to be on a train with him and able to move about than try to keep him pinned in a plane seat.
I must also confess to a deep love of overnight train travel, having misspent a lot of my late youth wandering around Europe by myself, hopping aboard sleeper-trains across the Continent in search of adventure. I got used to kipping upright in train seats (couchettes far exceeding my student budget), to gratefully accepting food generously pressed upon me by friendly Romanian families, and to somehow holding long conversations with people with even less knowledge of my language than I had of theirs.
Train travel with kids, however, requires military-style planning, so hats off to the truly heroic Man in Seat 61 (seat61.com), without whom our trip would never have got off the ground. This lovingly maintained website is a goldmine, listing not only timetables and fares but also everything you might need to know about the stations you’re passing through, from the telephone numbers of English-language taxi firms to the presence of snack shops and other facilities.
Our Eurostar from London brought us into Paris at rush hour, and without too much time to spare, I was happy that previous experience at the Gare du Nord had endowed me with the priceless knowledge that travellers with young kids are allowed to go to the head of the taxi line. Up we marched to claim our queue-hopping rights, outwardly assertive but inwardly feeling just a little bit cheeky, and within minutes we were speeding off in a monospace (people carrier for 5).
We arrived at Bercy station across Paris with a little time to kill but not enough to eat or go looking for a supermarket. Luckily, having been informed by the trustworthy Man in Seat 61 that the first restaurant-car sitting aboard the train was always packed out and the next one was past 10pm, I’d taken the opportunity to stock up on picnic fare in London, so that we’d be able to board the train without worrying about dinner.
Things seemed to get off to a bad start when, climbing into our carriage, it became apparent that not only was the air-conditioning not working but the windows in our sleeping compartment wouldn’t open. This was August, and unsurprisingly my husband started having conniptions at the very thought of making the 12-hour journey under such conditions. Thankfully, we and our fellow passengers were quickly hailed off the train and shown to a replacement carriage.
From the outset, our fellow passengers – mostly Italians, and a few French – couldn’t have been more friendly, helping us get our luggage aboard and stowed safely away. We’d elected not to book out the whole six berths of our compartment in the hope that the other two would remain free so we’d have the extra space at no extra cost, but unfortunately the train was full and we found ourselves sharing with a young Italian couple. I say ‘unfortunately’, but they were utterly charming and completely unfazed at having to bed down with a family of young children. And after the kids were in bed, we had an interesting conversation with them about the state of contemporary Italy and the effect of Berslusconi’s control over its media.
Of course the children didn’t go to bed for a long time – the older two were too excited, and Zac just plain wasn’t tired after a late nap aboard Eurostar. But where the former were happy to stay in their berths and observe what was going on around them, Zac wouldn’t stay still, so I ended up taking him for endless walks up and down the corridors, where he was kept well entertained by our fellow passengers leaning out of their compartments to chat to him in a variety of languages, and by bumping into other young kids with whom to play peek-a-boo.
When they were finally asleep, my husband and I cracked open the bottle of red we’d brought along and stood out in the corridor chatting with other passengers as the train rattled through the night. When we did go to bed, swayed quickly into slumber by the rocking motion of the train, we slept deeply until morning – as did, amazingly, the children. So much, I crowed, for the terrible journey my friends had predicted.
The Homeward Stretch
I ate my words on the way back. This time the train was leaving later in the evening (about 9pm), so we’d fed the kids already. But it had been a ferociously hot day in Florence, and we’d had perhaps one ice cream too many, and one too many rides on the carousel. This time we found ourselves sharing a compartment with a pregnant woman, who for obvious reasons wanted the bottom bunk. I climbed to the top one with Zac, confident that I could wedge him in sufficiently not to fall, but it was still hot, and he was overtired. I gave him his bottle of milk, and when he still wasn’t asleep, I gave him a bit more. Fatal error…
There was no chance to move him before he started retching, and to be honest, a worse mess might have ensued had I tried to. But it was already bad enough – he’d missed most of himself, but it was all over the sheets and over me, seeping into my top and bra, then flowing over the edge of the bed to drip to the floor three bunks below… where a pregnant woman lay hoping for a restful night.
I would’ve screamed, but I was rendered dumb by the utter nightmarishness of the situation. Passing a wailing Zac down to my similary speechless husband, I began the job of trying to limit the spillage and clean myself up with the unspoilt parts of the sheets to the point where I could climb down. Now the bunks were all lowered, our luggage was wedged into inaccessible parts of the cabin and I hadn’t had the foresight to keep spare clothes for myself close at hand. I made my way red-faced to the tiny bathroom, cleaned up as best I could and slipped into the sweaty T-shirt my husband had not long changed out of. Then I stripped the bed and sought out a conductor to find out what to do with the sheets (which turned out to be: dump them in a corner of the carriage and make do without fresh ones).
Surprisingly, the pregnant woman hadn’t gone into meltdown – in fact, the whole episode seemed to have melted her slight initial frostiness towards us, and she and her husband made pains to keep reminding us it could happen to anyone. We’d made a good job of cleaning up quickly and the smell soon evaporated, although we did keep the window open all night and that made the journey much noisier than on the outward leg.
Arriving back in Paris, the train was – as The Man in Seat 61 had warned that it often is – more than an hour late, meaning our connection was again very tight. This time, because we were arriving at a smaller station and didn’t know if a monospace would be readily available, I called a taxi firm from the train 20 minutes before arriving, and a car was waiting for us. We sped back through Paris, watching the clock anxiously – although ‘international conditions of carriage’ mean you can get the next Eurostar should your previous train be late and cause you to miss your connection, we really wanted to make our train because we also had to make our London–Manchester train that afternoon…
We arrived at the Gare du Nord way past our latest check-in time – in fact, there were only 10 minutes to go until our Eurostar departed. Somehow, against all the odds, with three little kids in tow – two running for England and one in a buggy – and all our luggage, we made it up the lift into the terminal, through customs and security, and all the way to our platform, to leap aboard our train with about four seconds to spare.
The kids found it all incredibly exciting – and we too had a strange sense of jubilance at having ‘beaten the clock’. The downside of it was that we hadn’t had time to stock up on French breakfast goodies at the branch of Paul inside the terminal and had to content ourselves with a very substandard Eurostar snack (there weren’t even any croissants – tsk).
We made up for it in London where, arriving at St Pancras with plenty of time to make our onward train, we headed for its wonderfully decadent champagne bar and had a couple of glasses and then a couple more as the kids scoffed a basket of frites. The fizz tasted all the sweeter after our exertions of the previous 12 hours and we felt we’d thoroughly deserved every delicious sip.
See our trips for train travel with kids.
Writer's note: Thello sleeper trains from Paris to Florence have now ceased running; passengers have to change for Florence at Milan.