London to Southern Italy by rail?
A year ago I took Amber, our wonderful basset fauve, on a train journey down to Italy and back. Exciting and a novelty, I documented the trip on tikichris.com as a miniseries called Continental Canine.
I decided to do it all again this year, because I had enjoyed the experience so much and because I truly wanted Amber to be with us on our summer holidays. When we had taken her by car in the past, having her around in the place where I have spent all my summers since I was 2 was just lovely.
So – Brexit postponed – I booked the whole trip again, following mostly the same route and time table.
How did we fare this year?
Once again, I came to realise how dog friendly the UK is.
Dogs are allowed on any public transport type and do not have to pay for the service. Black cabs, buses, tube, slow trains and Javelin are all dog friendly. I had no problem when leaving (on an early August morning) or coming back (on a hot and sunny bank holiday Monday).
Now this is where the problems begun. Not so much in Calais Frethun, where there is a nice green space outside where Amber could stretch her legs and do her business.
The station itself is small, on two levels but there is a lift which is good with dogs and a small cafe (which makes the most horrid coffee in Europe). It’s in the middle of nowhere so there is nothing to do to kill time.
Paris is where our problems were.
On the way down we arrived at Gare du Nord around 2pm. I asked Info point how to get to Gare de Lyon (as last year I walked for an hour and I did not intend to do the same with a heavy back pack). I was advised to take the RER D, the actual train which in two stops arrives at Gare de Lyon.
I stupidly decided against it, not wishing to let Amber on another train, through throngs of people.
I decided to catch bus 91, which I took last year to get to the Gare du Nord. I found the stop, after letting Amber do a pee in the small and forbidden to dogs gardens by the St Laurent church (yes, I went in – she only pees on grass)
Bus arrived. The driver saw Amber and said ‘no no, il faut avoir un sac’. Meaning a bag. I don’t have a bag for Amber. He did not let me on. The second 91 that came by did not even stop.
My frustration was mounting at this point.
I walked to the Place de la Republique, to the taxi stand. Taxi 1, taxi 2, all shaking their heads towards the dog. Taxi n5 – moved to pity I presume – begrudgingly let us in and took us to the Gare de Lyon.
From there, once left the backpack at the left luggage depot (all the way to the back of the station, flat fee for a number of hours of 6euros or so), I decided to walk towards the parc de Bercy, which looked (on the map) like a green, spacious area where I could perhaps let Amber pee.
The Bercy is a concert / event space housed in a odd, pyramid looking building clad in vertical ‘grass’. Around it, a wide open space, with some playground, fountain, skate park, benches.
Sounds idyllic? It ain’t. In fact, it’s a really run down, derelict area. Full of trash scattered around, drunken people shouting, women ‘touting’. Yet, it’s dog friendly or it seems to be. I was happy! But Amber refrained from doing any business around here, frustratingly.
After a couple of hours loitering, we made our way back to Gare de Lyon to board our Thello and finally relax.
On the way back, arriving at Gare de Lyon late afternoon, I decided to try my luck on the 91 bus and like last year, a friendly driver did not bat an eyelid when I boarded with Amber. So much consistency!
We arrived at our lodging (My Hotel) in a quiet Marais, checked in the tiniest room ever and went out exploring. I headed straight for the Place du Cain where I knew I could sneak in for Amber to pee (which she did) and walking back I noticed a new, small pocked park by the Picasso Museum which – incredibly – allows dogs!
I tried to get Amber to do a pee, she didn’t so I went searching for a dining place. I skipped a few places that had been recommended, I went in and quickly out of the uber trendy bistro opposite our hotel and stumbled upon a Breton creperie (Breizh cafe) which was absolutely delightful.
Great sarasin crepe, beautifully refreshing ice cold Breton cidre and super friendly service, as well as inexpensive food. I loved it, it was simple, quick and relaxing and just what I needed.
The next morning, in order to catch our 6.46am TGV from Gare du Nord, I planned to take a taxi. The hotel concierge rang for one, the guy arrived, saw the dog and refused to take us. At 6am, in pitch darkness. He told me ‘go to find one on the boulevard’.
Swearing, I knew this to be a useless suggestion. I walked to the Place de la Republique, waved at a couple of taxis who did not even have the courtesy to slow down and made my way on foot.
It is not that far (30m walk) but with a heavy backpack, in darkness, surrounded by dodgy drunks, loitering on street corners and homeless men camping in alleyways, it is NOT a pleasant walk.
The stink of piss permeates the air, mixed with the occasional smell of baking, the city is dirty and unappealing despite the glorious historic architecture that make the place beautiful and unique.
I felt so unwelcomed, I wowed not to stop any longer than needed should I do the trip again.
As last year, getting off the Thello onto Milano Centrale’s platform filled me with a sense of relief. Retracing our steps , we headed straight outside for a pee in the lovely grassy areas outside the imposing station, as always full of men hanging around in the early morning hour.
As soon as Amber was done, we went back in a treated ourselves to a proper Italian breakfast at Vyta ahead of our 7am Frecciarossa to Napoli.
On the way back, we broke the longer journey from Sapri to Milano with a 4 hours break in Rome. Long enough to hop on a bus and reach my sister’s place in Monteverde.
We arrived in Milano with the very same Freccia Rossa as last year and once again, retraced our steps to the wonderful Ostello Bello Grande, this time on time for dinner and a pint! I walked Amber in the now darkened streets for a pee by the station and went back to my room to watch some more Netflix (I binged on seasons 4 and 5 of OITNB during the trip).
The next morning, before our 9am Eurocity to Zurich, I walked behind the station to via Andrea Doria to discover a few really nice grassy areas void of horrible men…! So now I know for next time.
Eurocity to Zurich was on time, and I loved the scenery once more, passing Como where – should I do the journey again – I will spend the night next time. It looks stunning, and there’s an Ostello Bello too!
This year the novelty of the journey had worn off. It all went smoothly, apart from the unfriendly french people. All trains were on time and I enjoyed being on my own once again.
Yet I questioned the fact that I spent over 48 hours actually travelling when I could have been on a beach in southern Italy with my family enjoying a couple of more days of relaxation.
My carbon footprint is definitely lower than a flight. Yet the whole trip was very expensive (around £1k again); we cannot all afford to be Greta.
It’s a fine balance between having the time to travel ecologically, the money and the will power.
I loved being with Amber, she’s the best, the calmest. I loved the idea that she was with us in Sapri, in Cilento and that I got to share special moments and memories with her. I do not know if it was hard for her; how much she hated being on a train, I cannot know.
I know how happy she was while in Italy: she spent hours running around in the garden, chasing after cats and lizards. She seeked our company too, and she wagged happy to people and friends. So, for this – it was all worth it.
Our train schedule
London Kings Cross – Folkestone on Javelin
Folkestone – Calais Frethun on taxi with Euroshuttle
Calais Frethun – Paris gare du Nord on TGV
Paris gare de Lyon – Milano Centrale on Thello
Milano Centrale – Napoli Centrale on Freccia Rossa
Sapri – Roma Termini on Intercity
Roma Termini – Milano Centrale on Freccia Rossa
Milano Centrale – Zurich HB on Eurocity
Zurich HB – Paris gare de Lyon on TGV Lyria
Paris gare du Nord – Calais Frethun on TGV
Calais Frethun – Folkestone on taxi with Euroshuttle
Folkestone – Stratford International on Southeastern
Stratford International – Waterloo on Jubilee Line