Des is besotted with overnight trains. Before the Moscow to Paris Express, we’d taken just two overnighters – Serco’s Caledonian Sleeper from London to Inverness, and Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited from Boston to Chicago. A principal requirement for this trip was to take an overnight train somewhere in Europe. When Des and I go to Europe, we usually spend a couple of days on an adventure but now that he’s a little older, it made sense to do something really special. So, sometime in March, Des and I sat around the living room with a map of Europe and attempted to put together an outline of a plan for our trip. We would start at my dad’s home, in St. Asaph, in North Wales, and end up in the south of Spain where we would finish the long trip with some relaxing days on the beach.
Our first plan had us traveling by train to London (from Prestatyn, near where my dad lives), then Paris on the Eurostar, then an overnight train, one of the few, to a small town in the Pyrenees named Andorre-L’Hospitalet. From there, we’d take a bus into Andorra, the small Pyrenean principality. It was a plan Des and I were particularly excited about yet ultimately had to scrap. It was just too much. Getting to the south of Spain from the Pyrenees is not easy since there are no trains in Andorra. We would have relied heavily on notoriously unreliable mountain buses. The overnight sleeper from Paris is configured with couchette cars and not compartments and so we’d have to share with people we didn’t know. It was a charming plan, bold, but he’s just not ready for that kind of travel, not yet. We needed alternatives but we kept running into a recurring problem. Overnight trains, particularly in Western Europe, are fewer because of the increased utilization of daytime high-speed inter-city trains. There just aren’t that many overnight trains anymore.
We were frustrated, and we were spinning our wheels, so we reverse engineered the plan a little. We knew we wanted to spend time at the beach, and we knew which day we would have to leave to come back to Massachusetts so we worked backwards from there. The gateway to the south of Spain by train from the rest of Europe is Barcelona, that’s the only option. And, the only effective way to get to Barcelona, speedily, is from Paris. That meant we needed to be in Paris by at least 2:20pm on the Friday to make the connection with the high-speed TGV Duplex to Barcelona. Barcelona would be the perfect place for us to rest, do laundry, and of course eat, before taking the final high-speed train to Malaga, two days later. That left us searching for an overnight train, from anywhere, to Paris, that would arrive at any time on the Friday morning. You’d think that’d be easy, right?
We got rather excited about a train called the Thello which runs from Rome (and beyond) to Paris. I’d never been to Italy – it would certainly be a welcome option, a couple of days there, then catch the Thello to Paris. However, I became rather less excited when I read the reviews.
If you’re the sort of person who starts giggling when the next thing on Thello goes wrong, is missing or doesn’t work, you’ll be fine. But, if you’re the sort of person who gets indignant and writes snotty reviews on TripAdvisor, I’d stick to the daytime TGV trains and a hotel.
It’s an ‘experience’ as long as you’re prepared for the basic conditions, and maybe not something you’d want to do twice.
Well, that wasn’t promising. The reviews, of which there were many, made the Thello sound like a clown car, not a mode of transportation to be taken seriously.
So, our attention ultimately shifted to Germany because Berlin and Hamburg are hubs for overnight trains. For the most part, the trains from Germany connect with eastern Europe, through Poland or Austria or Switzerland to Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Zurich, Warsaw, and even as far as Dubrovnik and Istanbul. These are all wonderful places but maybe a little too adventurous for us. Yes, one could make an argument to go from Budapest or Vienna to Berlin, and then a fast train to Paris, but we’d burn up valuable vacation time. It’s all a zero-sum game – time on the train takes away from time on the beach. If only there was an overnighter from Berlin to Paris. There used to be, but not now – I certainly couldn’t find anything on any of the published schedules, but, The Man in Seat 61 said there was.
And there it was, hidden away deep in an international train review website – the Moscow Paris Express. Seat61.com is a wonderful resource for train travel around the world. I seriously recommend it.
The Moscow Paris Express runs just one day per week (that’s why I couldn’t find it in the schedules), departing Moscow’s Belorussky Station on Wednesday evenings and arrives in Paris on Friday mornings. It stops in Belarus, Poland, and Germany. It reaches Berlin on Thursdays at around 9pm then leisurely worms its way through western Germany and eastern France taking about twelve hours to get to Paris. Des and I, with maps sprawled across the living room floor, looked at the schedule, couldn’t believe our luck, and high-fived. Des jumped up and down on the couch, just like I told him not to.
I did my level best to temper our enthusiasm and excitement because I needed to read the reviews first. I didn’t want to raise our hopes as we did with the Thello. I mean seriously, how good is a Russian train? I had absolutely no idea. I couldn’t help but think of Britain’s favorite whiner, Karl Pilkington, on An Idiot Abroad, travelling on a Russian train that resembled a rolling morgue. I would never do that to Des, or anyone else for that matter.
The thought of making this reservation reminded me of when I traveled to Russia with my parents, which was about thirty-five years ago. They hauled me aboard a rickety-old Tupolev Tu-134, a plane which NATO gave the codename Crusty. Yes, this is true. I traveled with my parents on a mode of transportation that the west saw fit to assign a code name for military targeting purposes. I remembered boarding the aircraft in Bulgaria, we were greeted (and I use that term loosely) by a troubled twitchy pilot. He said something to us in Russian, then hurriedly gestured for us all to sit down. We picked the only seats that looked firmly bolted down, and, given that our seatbelts lacked any kind of fastening mechanism, we knotted the belts around our waists as one would tie one’s shoes. Not a double knot mind you – the last thing you’d want in the midst of catastrophic failure is to pick apart a knot you can’t undo. The aircraft’s sole flight attendant, who shared the pilot’s penchant for nervous anxiety, made no safety announcements of any kind. In fact, she didn’t do much of anything other than remain firmly planted in a rear-facing jump seat while holding the main cabin door with both hands, as if it springing open mid-flight was more than just a distinct possibility. And if this is my (albeit flawed) memory of a Russian plane, then what, for Christ’s sake, would a Russian train be like?
Astonishingly, the reviews proved to be rather splendid. Thirty-five years is a long time and the Soviet Union is long gone. Russian Railways employs new trains which use the latest German Siemens rolling stock. That said, Russian trains may have improved greatly since the Soviet era but their website remains locked in 1994. Making the reservation for a Russian train via the website is a traumatic experience, even for Ksenia, my Russian speaking colleague. But she did, and it worked. And we got our ticket.
Months later we arrived at Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof station, the morning of the day we were scheduled to take the train. We dropped off our luggage so we could explore Berlin a little more. We went up the TV Tower, Des had some fun on a Bungee Trampoline, and we went bowling to pass the time before the train came. At about 7pm, we came back to the station and ate at one of the station’s outside restaurants. It was a beautiful evening. Des called his mom, then we recovered our luggage, and headed down deep into the bowels of the station.
The Moscow Paris Express was due to leave platform 1 at 9:09pm. We were ready. We sat around, waiting, waiting, first it was going to be five minutes late, then ten minutes late, then thirty minutes late, then twenty minutes, then not late at all. It was as if the train was simultaneously reversing away and driving toward the station. But eventually, it arrived.
As the train pulled into the station, I noticed the passengers just kind of lazily hung their heads out of the door windows, looking miserably at the surroundings. Unfortunately for them, there wasn’t much to see because this particular platform is in the basement of the station. Now, the top level of the Hauptbahnhof, where the S-Bahn trains come in, that’s where you’d get to see an elevated view of Berlin – that’s the fancy platform, that’s the place to be, but not this one. This could be New York’s Penn Station, but without the smell of vagrants’ urine.
And it was at this precise moment when it struck me how bored these passengers must be. The Moscow Paris Express is an all sleeper train, and with the exception of the lounge car, there isn’t an awful lot to do. There’s no seating area as on the Amtrak or the Caledonian where one could socialize with other humans. And bear in mind that most of the passengers didn’t even know each other and were randomly bunked together in compartments, up to four at a time. They’d been on the train for over twenty-four hours, and the highlight of the last 60 minutes had been the delight of experiencing the grubby innards of Berlin’s main rail station.
After the train stopped, an immaculately dressed conductor in grey uniform opened the door and helped the passengers off the train. There was a conductor for every carriage. When time to board, he checked our tickets. It felt very classy, very up-market. Our conductor, sadly, looked just as miserable and bored as the passengers, and spoke only Russian and German. He told us something in Russian which we assume meant we had to wait. So, Fiona and I both said “okay” like you do when you have no idea what is being said. Then, quizzically, he gestured for us to get on. “Oh!” we both said, nodding, and then we got on the train and found our compartment.
Our compartment door was already open, the lights were on, and all the beds were down in nighttime configuration. But, to our surprise, the beds had already been slept in – our very own Goldilocks and the Three Bears moment. I assumed that we had walked into the wrong room. But a quick check of the ticket confirmed we were in the right room in the right carriage. Fiona, Des, and I, all looked at each other and, well, ugh. This wasn’t good. The conductor appeared again and started stripping the beds. He managed to explain, I don’t remember exactly how, that the people in this compartment left the train at Berlin, and it would just take a few minutes for him to fix the room for us.
He provided us with clean bedding, showed us how to use the fancy room key (like a hotel room), then left the three of us in peace.
Now that I was settled, I breathed a sigh of relief, and Des decided ninety seconds was just about long enough to not be doing anything. “Let’s go explore!” he said, jumping up and down, as he does. So, the two of us set off for the buffet car.
As we walked along the train’s narrow corridors, the passengers, the vast majority of which were Russian, moped around not really doing much of anything. To be honest, I don’t think there was much they could do. But, surprising and shocking to me were the varying degrees of dress, or rather, undress, paraded around as we made our way to the rear of the train. As we wandered the corridors, people lay on their bunks, in very relaxed posture, chatting, reading, or watching a movie wearing clothes they slept in – PJs, shorts – all laid bare, so to speak.
The corridor through the train was narrow, and I’m anything but narrow. And so, well, it’s all a bit of a squeeze, and, you know, when you pass someone in a confined space like that, butts touch. It just can’t be helped. I tried to be social. God. I smiled and said hello whenever I past anyone but my attempt at friendliness was received with the same icy stare you’d get if you told them you’d just bludgeoned their mother to death. You can call me old-fashioned, you can call me conservative, but if our butts are about to touch, and if you’re wearing the clothes you would normally wear to bed, I’d like for us to at least exchange pleasantries first.
The train felt very long. We walked carriage to carriage. At the end of each carriage was a host, who, by now, had removed their spiffy grey uniform, hung it over the door, and sat around in their underpants and vest, drinking tea. About eight carriages down, as Des and I were exiting a carriage, an arm thrust out of a compartment and a Russian gentleman, in underpants, vest, and a conductor’s hat, said “Nyet!” My immediate thought was that he wanted a bribe. He said something in Russian. Then he said “restaurant?” and I said “Da!” and he pointed to the other end of the train.
So, Des and I walked back, back past our compartment, and to the front of the train where the buffet car was. The buffet car was swapped in at Warsaw. It’s a Polish buffet car, complete with Polish staff, who only speak Russian, and presumably Polish. You could tell that they weren’t Russian because they were smiling and happy. I led with the joke “I’ve walked here all the way from Berlin!” but Des didn’t find it funny either. And he laughs at everything.
The good thing though was that our Polish friends could count to five in German, and so I was able point at what we wanted, and specify the correct quantity. We got one big bag (eine) of Polish chips, a couple (zwei) of beers, and some dodgy candy. We took it back to the compartment and shared our bounty with Fiona.
The compartment is designed for up to four people. In day mode, with the beds put away, it has two very comfortable bench seats that face each other. There’s plenty of space under the seats to put your luggage. There’s also a little table by the window suitable for playing games and eating snacks. And, you can fold it up to expose a nifty little sink so you can wash your hands and brush your teeth before bedtime. I suppose if you were using the compartment by yourself and were feeling cheeky, you could have a sneaky little pee in there too – just make sure you pull down the window blind in case the train stops in a station.
In night mode, the beds kind of swing down making two pairs of bunk beds on either side of the compartment. The top bunks have a bar that locks up and is designed to stop whomever is in the top bunk from waking up on the bottom bunk with a concussion.
The ride was surprisingly smooth, probably the smoothest overnighter I’ve been on. Compared to the Amtrak, where the train mainly travels on freight rails, it’s an absolute dream. That track between Buffalo and Cleveland is the worst. Against the Caledonian, I don’t know, in terms of ride, it’s pretty close, but the Moscow Paris Express feels like it travels faster. In terms of compartment, the Moscow Paris Express beats the other two, not even close. The Caledonian’s compartment was a bunk room, nothing else. If you wanted a sit on something that wasn’t a bed, you had to go to the lounge car. On the Amtrak, Des and I shared a Viewliner Roomette which is tiny – so maybe I’m comparing apples to oranges here. I hear that the full-size rooms on the Amtrak have their own bathroom, which neither the Moscow Paris Express nor the Caledonian Sleeper had.
But I never sleep well on trains or planes. I’ve even had one of those fancy beds on a plane once from Japan but I didn’t manage sleep on that either. On the train, Des slept really well though, but I think Fiona was the same as me. For some people, the gentle rocking motion is relaxing but it just makes me clench when the train goes over some points and I’m constantly worried that we’re going to hit something. If I allow myself to drowse, I have one of those weird waking dreams where I’m driving a car and trying not to fall asleep.
Between fiddling around with my phone and trying to get at least some sleep, it’s all just a frustrating mess. When 7am rolled around, the realization that I could give up on trying to sleep was actually quite liberating. Once my mind was made up, I was fine. I climbed down from the bunk and got dressed. I saw that Fiona was awake too. I wandered down the carriage (as day was breaking, in the Ardennes – it was stunning) to the bathroom and then back. By the time I was in the compartment again, Fiona was up, awake and packing her bags. Des, however, was fast asleep. When I tried to wake him, he really didn’t know where he was. Technically, none of us did because we were on a moving train. But when we opened the blind, life jumped into him and we went to get some quick breakfast.
I probably squeezed out a couple of hours of sleep on the bunk. Desmond had hot cocoa, and Fiona and I had three liters of coffee, intravenously.
The train pulled into Paris’ Gare de l’Est station about an hour late, which wasn’t too bad.
About the author Mark
The trip home
La Casita Azul
The Full Monty