I love the romance of slow travel. On cruise ships you will find me behind one of the big panorama windows with a good book in my hand, something I can do for hours on end. I love the feeling of making ground, the views of landscapes slowly drifting by, the time to sit and reflect. Flying these days is so hectic, with all the queues and the cramped spaces, that it’s really nice to slow down and actually enjoy the journey. So after our 24 hour flight from Australia to Europe we decided that we had enough of flying for a while and we found what seemed a great alternative to get ourselves from Paris to Venice.
Now, when you think of Paris and Venice you will think of romance. And when you think of overnight train travel you might think of romance too. There are many great railway routes around the world, just think of the Trans-Siberian Railway or the famed Orient Express. So when you have a railway route in front of you that connects two of the most romantic cities in the world, there shouldn’t be much that could go wrong, right? Wrong!
Thello – one of the last surviving overnight trains in Europe
The Thello is one of the few surviving overnight sleeper trains in Europe. It is operated by a joint venture between Transdev and Italian state owned railway company Trenitalia. The route that we boarded leaves Paris Gare de Lyon at 7.59pm and makes one stop in Dijon before descending into the night and resurfacing in Italy, first stopping in Milan at 6.00am and then in succession Brescia, Verona, Vincenza, Padua, Venice Mestre and last stop Venice St Lucia at 9.35am the next day.
Let me show you what it’s like to travel first class on the Thello, and why we didn’t really enjoy it. I cannot really speak about the service and facilities of the other classes, but let me assure you that first-class is not exactly the right way of describing the service level anyway. It’s really a shame as we were so much looking forward to this leg of our European tour! And in terms of affordability, you could probably cover the distance much cheaper on a plane than with the Thello.
The Thello departs in the evening at the Gare de Lyon. You should buy your tickets online before you board the train, which you can easily do on the official website, no matter where you are in the world.
The First-Class Compartment on the Thello
The first class compartments are fitted with three bunks, but no matter whether you will be travelling alone or with a partner or a party of three, you won’t need to share this compartment. Although you may want to double-check that claim if you are travelling with just one companion of the same sex, you may find a stranger filling up the third bunk as you are all from the same sex! Which I hope won’t happen to you, considering how little room there is to move around.
The compartment is fitted with a mirror, some hooks, a wash basin with toiletries that is hidden away in a cupboard, air-conditioning/heater, two bottles of complimentary water, a trash can, a shelf and overhead luggage racks. Be mindful that there is very little space to store your luggage, and it is difficult to get it into the overhead luggage racks anyway. Don’t bother trying to find the conductor to give you a hand.
Don’t even think about opening your conventional suitcase in order to get your change of clothing out… In the end we stored hand luggage items and jackets on the racks but left the two suitcases on the floor which meant that we couldn’t really walk inside the compartment from door to window. At least we managed to store away the ladder in these overhead racks so that we could access the cupboard with the washbasin.
Now, it would have been nice to have a working washbasin but ours was out of order, and no explanation was given either. Of course there is an alternative basin in the communal toilet (there’s two, one for male and one for female), but it’s not exactly what we paid for. The wash basin was not the only thing that was out of order. We also didn’t manage to close the window shut, mainly because you need a key to turn the locks on the window which we didn’t have.
This window was probably the biggest contributor to my sleepless night as the window would open every time we met an oncoming train, or had a gust of wind pressing against it. You can imagine the noise, which was then stopped once the window slammed shut again with the next move. Open and close and open and close, with such a noise as if we were sleeping right next to a highway.
Also, a party of fellow passengers were not able to shut the door of their compartment and they had to use a suitcase to at least keep it open during the waking hours of the journey, so a big suitcase was sitting in the middle of the hallway blocking the best part of the thoroughfare. I think you get the picture of what to expect in terms of maintenance on the Thello.
Overall, while the first-class compartment was reasonably clean it was shabby with scratches on the mirror and cheap linoleum flooring. There was nothing to make you feel overly comfortable here such as plush seating, cup holders or internet connectivity, let alone a TV.
The shared bathroom facilities
The compartments have no shower or private toilet, so you need to share these with your fellow travellers.
Unfortunately, and this is not Thello’s fault, some people are unable to follow simple procedures to keep places like a shared toilet clean. I will spare you the details but be aware that the toilets will not be cleaned in a way during the journey that you would expect on a first-class train. I also didn’t manage to switch on the light when visiting the toilet at night, so this added some suspense to the adventure!
Dinner & Breakfast
When we first boarded the train we found a little leaflet in our compartment with the board menu and the breakfast menu written on it for our convenience. While the board menu was at a cost, the breakfast is included for first-class passengers. We dutifully filled in the form on the back of the leaflet to hand in to our conductor who was supposed to be in charge of delivering the breakfast to our compartment in the morning.
When we gave him the card he looked at it with a puzzled expression on his face. We explained that room service was included for first-class passengers as per information on the card and he just gave the cards back to us with a gesture and a chuckle that indicated that we had just made an incredibly funny joke. We were incredulous, so much so that this conductor’s reaction has now entered our own repertoire of funny responses and will be with our family forever.
Instead of delivering the breakfast to our compartment as advertised on the leaflet we were handed two vouchers for a croissant which we could collect in the restaurant car ourselves in the morning. At least breakfast was included for first-class passengers.
However, since we had done our homework and knew what to expect from the breakfast that is served on the Thello (i.e. not much, in combination with a long queue) we had bought some cookies and juice at the Gare de Lyon before our departure. Rather than having stale croissant and black water (as per the reviews we found online) I enjoy bottled juice and packaged chocolate cookies, thank you very much.
For dinner we luckily had also brought a couple of picnic items. I say “lucky”, even though I would have loved to dine on the train, seeing the landscapes swish, swish, swish by and watching our fellow passengers sharing this experience with us. But as it turned out you cannot lock your compartment (well, you can find your unwilling conductor who would be able to help, but then you would need to find him twice, once to lock, once to unlock), so there is no other way of protecting your valuables other than taking them with you (unless you have locks on your luggage which we didn’t, and even so I didn’t really feel comfortable with leaving my luggage behind unguarded). So instead of a warm meal we dined on fois gras, baguette, artisan cheese and other French delicacies. It could have been worse, I guess.
Sleeping on the train
When it was time to prepare for the night we grabbed our rather unwilling conductor to help us with the bunks. We asked to have the very top one and the bottom one converted so that we could still sit on the bottom bunk and enjoy the rest of the evening. The conductor either didn’t understand or ignored our request, so that we got the bottom and the middle bunk instead. Now our space was even more confined and we decided to call it a day and read our books while settling in for sleep.
To Thello’s credit the bedding was clean and comfortable and if it hadn’t been for the noise of the broken window we would have had a very comfortable night. There’s a private night light fitted so that you can read without disturbing your partner or friends, and you can also make use of a cupholder when you are on the middle bunk. There’s also a power outlet for your electric devices.
“The Thello is definitely a train for adventurers, even when you go for the pricey first-class option. The cheap, scruffy interiors give this train the romance factor of a hospital bed, so this train is definitely not comparable to some other privately operated train services in this world. You do have to have a sense of adventure to fully enjoy the journey and not expect to enjoy a hotel on rails, it is certainly not.
In terms of punctuality: we ran a bit late on our train, about an hour, but since we were on holidays we didn’t really mind. Once you leave the train station in Venice you are immediately thrown into a whole new world altogether and forget about these little inconveniences along the way.
It’s just a bit sad that there is so little love in the operation of this service. I cannot see this train continuing for much longer (it certainly didn’t have the feel that there was any intention of continuing it for much longer), which is such a shame and such a missed opportunity.
Would I do it again? Probably not! I assume that a flight ticket turns out cheaper for the same distance, and in terms of convenience there was not much to be found here, so catching a flight would be a much better option.
Have you had the pleasure of using the Thello from Paris to Venice? Let me know in the comments what you thought about it!