London-Paris-Milan and back in 3 Days
Ever since I bought my first Brompton in 2003 I have been exploring multimode surface travel to avoid using cars and planes and most of my solo travel in the UK is with a combination of Brompton and train. I’ve also been travelling each year to work for a few days in Belgium, where the Eurostar service connects very well with trains from Sheffield to London to make a much more enjoyable and stress-less way to travel. Other successful business trips include Sheffield-Brussels-Berlin-Weimar using the excellent City Nightline Sleeper from Brussels to Berlin (no longer operating) and Sheffield-Liverpool-Dublin by train and NorfolkLine overnight ferry. Both trips worked out faster overall than flying because of the sleeper portion.
This year I had a bigger challenge when I was asked to do a day’s work in Milan. One might imagine flying there and back would be the fastest route but I wanted to investigate all the options.
So with the help of the excellent Man in Seat 61, I checked the alternatives. By air I could fly from Manchester or Birmingham, both more than an hour away by train. I found quite a few flights, some of them very cheap, but most of them involved leaving home quite early on the day before I was to work and the return trip generally required me to get up early in the morning to trek to the airport and wait for the flight back, arriving home late afternoon. A three day trip whichever way you look at it.
The train option meant leaving Sheffield on a mid-morning train to St Pancras in London, where you can transfer to a Eurostar service to Paris. Eurostar sell through tickets from Sheffield to Paris. In Paris I had to cross the city to the Gare de Bercy for the Artesia sleeper train to Milan, which gets there around 6am. That gave me more than enough time to cycle to my destination about 5 miles away.
On the way back the train (Venice-Paris) leaves Milan at 11:33pm, arrives in Paris around 8am and Eurostar and East Midlands trains will get me home for 3pm. Door to door it’s 2-3 hours quicker than flying. The cost was quite a lot more than the air tickets of course but not so much if you count the two hotel bills saved and I think two people sharing a sleeper compartment could find it quite competitive.
The first leg on Sunday morning was very familiar as I travel very regularly to London and the route to Sheffield Station is almost identical to my daily commute. It was pleasant to be cycling on quiet roads mid-morning rather than weaving through the rush-hour traffic. Also I allowed a bit more time as I couldn’t afford to be delayed by a puncture (not a regular problem with the Schwalbe Marathon tyres despite frequent showers of broken glass from the late nighters on London Road)
The first train was rather slow it being Sunday when they do the track repairs. On a weekday the journey is just over 2 hours but this one took more than 3. However it was one of the comfortable older trains that are just as fast as modern ones but a lot quieter and more spacious, I picked up a Sunday paper and two freshly baked croissants at the station to have with a cup of tea on the train, the weather was sunny and the passing scenery very pleasant so the extra hour was no penance.
At St Pancras the contrast with air travel could not be more stark. It was always a beautiful building but the restoration and extension carried out to make it fit for high speed travellers from Europe has created one of the most enjoyable railway stations in the world. I often spend time there between trains and there is a great choice of cafes and restaurants with seating in the elegant concourse under the spectacular glass roof where you can watch the world go by and check your email free of charge.
Because Eurostar don’t like unclothed Bromptons I picked up a luggage trolley (thanks to the two young Asian guys who helped me out with a pound coin) bagged my bike and wheeled it off to the Eurostar check-in. To get through security you wave your ticket (a downloaded self-printed affair) at the scanner on the entrance gate, then there’s a short queue for the X-Ray machines with very helpful staff (one of them collected my luggage trolley and wheeled it to the other end of the machine ready for me without being asked.) Another short queue for French passport control and you are in the departure lounge which is as spacious and comfortable as the rest of the station. Just time for a proper coffee in the well-stocked café and the train is boarding. No long queues or pressure, no waiting in tunnels or a sweaty airport bus, you have all your luggage with you, a wide seat and good legroom.
The inside of the Eurostar train is looking worn and my coach was a bit noisy, as if the wheel bearings needed some oil. They will shortly be facing competition from German and/or Dutch railways on this route and will need to smarten up. But it’s still quieter than a plane and you can walk down to the café car to collect a snack or hot meal when you feel like it.
Although at that point the facade slips and the microwaved Penne Bolognese was a poor combination of slightly dried out pasta with an unappealing sauce collected at the bottom. Never mind we are on our way to Paris.
In Paris you walk straight off the train onto the concourse of the Gare du Nord and out onto the street. A quick stop at a cash machine for some Euros, fit the mirror on the other side of the bike and I’m away.
I worked out my route across Paris with the aid of Google Maps, Google Streetview and the Paris cycle route map. Streetview was great as I was able to “ride” along most of the route online and also grab a few images of key junctions to ensure that I could identify them. I pasted the route map and images into PowerPoint and printed it all off.
Actually the exercise of doing all that meant that I knew the route pretty well by the time I set off and didn’t need to consult the map once I had identified the right direction from Gare du Nord. Central Paris seems to have an excellent cycle network with segregated tracks alongside the busy roads and very clear road marking to help you across the more complicated junctions.
It was a great pleasure to cruise down Boulevard de Magenta, cut through the evocatively named little Rue des Vinagriers and onto the attractive canalside Quai de Valmy which took me all the way to Place Bastille, the only place where you had to mix with the traffic. A cruise along beside the Seine on Port de la Rapee, dive under the main road and along Rue Villiot and Rue de Bercy to Gare de Bercy. A relaxed 30 minute ride, 20 minutes if you are in a hurry.
At Gare de Bercy the Artesia train company has a special lounge for sleeper passengers but although it had stylish armchairs there was clearly a lack of maintenance, so on a March evening there was insufficient light to read by and refreshments were so cursory as to be pointless, probably better to sit in the well-lit upper floor lounge outside which was comfortable enough. The train was quite old but the sleeping car berths were OK, the cabin is big enough for two although it might be a squeeze for three if they weren’t good friends and there’s room for a Brompton beside the bed with an overhead luggage rack as well.
The Artesia experience was definitely Italian. On the Anglo-French Eurostar the train staff were formidably smart and fashionable and beautifully turned out. The young woman in the buffet car wore a stylish suit with a skirt that made the most of her callipygous physique and was altogether delightful but I just knew she privately despised me despite her perfect manners. I was just a sad middle aged bloke who ate microwaved pasta.
The Artesia dining car, by contrast, was staffed by a pair of girls next door in sensible trousers and waistcoats whose main talent was to handle a huge tray of food and dish it into your plates with great efficiency. It wasn’t exactly the Orient Express, more like your Italian granny had knocked up a pile of comfort food to be served cheerily by your nieces. The dining car buzzed with conversation, the star turn being a college rugby team from the USA touring France and Italy. The nicest girl next door, finding a half serving of tortellini left on her tray, without breaking step, spooned it into the plate of the biggest rugby player (he was very big) as she went by.
I had a reasonable sleep but needing to be awake at 5am was not relaxing, The train arrived at the spectacular Stazione Centrale in Milan where Mussolini had grafted a huge curved steel roof on the back of a neoclassical palace. When I arrived they had just about finished refurbishing the whole place and the marble interior was waiting for the first shopkeepers to move in. I paid 1 Euro to use the smart washrooms for a shave and wandered through the succession of great halls that make up the station buildings, the last of which had three great frescos set in the elaborate neoclassical interior. Actually they were just advertisements for Dolce and Gabbana but the colourful images of blank-faced youths in vacuous postures of enjoyment did not look out of place in the mock-Roman setting. The new fascism of the fashion industry sat very comfortably with Mussolini’s ponderous vision and my train was on time.
6am is a good time to cycle round Milan before the commuters drive in. I threaded through the backstreets near the station, keeping an eye out for breakfast, and soon ended up at Porta Venezia where I bought a street map from a newspaper kiosk. The proprietor had lived in the small English town of Bedford, had relatives in London and was an Arab. I commented that there was a good number of Arab people in London when he said “No. I am a Jew”. Finally we worked out that he had said “I am Europ”, meaning he was a European rather than an Italian, although he also hankered after a life in Thailand. This completed his serial transformation from Italian to Arab, to Jew, to European and finally suspected exploiter of underage prostitutes so I said goodbye and rode off into the city.
After wandering the side streets it was exhilarating to whiz along the smooth tarmac of Corso Venezia and I was in the cathedral square in a very short time. I’d seen the ridiculous wedding cake encrustations of the Duomo before and the cafes were all closed so I wandered down the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II which has been an inspiration to so many of Britain’s shop designers but found the combination of international fashion brands, McDonalds and restaurants with ugly glasshouse extensions projecting into the arcade rather depressing.
I came out into the Piazza Cordusio surrounded by the Victorian self-confidence of the big finance houses whose wealth was the true symbol of Milan and then I finally found something to really enjoy with the Piazza dei Mercanti This is a big version of the Moot Halls to be found in unspoiled English market towns, a substantial stone open market space under a great hall with a fine collection of well preserved old buildings in the square alongside resonating with the rich merchants who had lived and conducted business there.
The sun was up and the traffic with it so I cruised out of town, still looking out for breakfast. The one-way system confounded me and I kept striking out in different directions but always ended up back at the station. The café nearest the station looked inviting but the prices were ridiculous. Eventually the Jumping Café (picture of jumping horse) was open for business in one of the side streets. I had a coffee and warm pastry and sat for a while amid families having breakfast before school and work.
The schoolchildren had sensible trolley cases rather than backpacks to distort their spines under the weight of school books and one family had the tiniest dog I had ever seen, prancing daintily and a great favourite with all the youngsters. The cashiers’ girlfriend was elegant in high heels and a black crash helmet, neighbours exchanged greetings and confidences and the whole experience was a pure slice of local life just off the main street.
Fortified I cycled away in the sunshine and warming air onto the Via Tonale which was the start of a 4 km undeviating route to my destination at the Politecnico di Milano campus on Via Durando. I wove through the slow traffic without difficulty and, as usual, found that the distance was much less than it had appeared on the map. Near the Politecnico I stopped for a moment to watch a worker putting up the final section of a very large poster, 10m above his head with only a very long handled brush to help him. There must be a trick to getting each section of the giant photograph in register but I could not see how it was done. He just slapped the folded section of poster onto the pasted hoarding, flipped it open with his brush and it was perfect.
I was early so I sat in the sun by the student café and read until it was time. Inside the building there was a spacious disabled person’s toilet where I could change into my working clothes and I was ready to start at 9:15am.
7 hours and several cups of coffee later I was cycling back into the city in the warm afternoon sun. I phoned Giuliano Galvani from the Bromptontalk online forum and he came to meet me and show me around. We had tea in a café, the Pasticceria S.Gregorio, that would be inconceivable in the centre of a British city. Family run, just off Corso Buenos Ayres it was entirely bereft of style, a sort of cosy domestic interior with lots of cheap fabrics and fragments of DIY that may not have changed for 30 years.
They served us tea (in a pot) and home made cakes against a backdrop of a great array of Easter eggs, mostly impossibly large in gaudy wrappings. After we left Giuliano phoned his wife to ask where I might buy some chocolates to take home for my family and she sent us back to the same place, which had an array of interesting hand-made chocolates too. G is steadfastly a native of Torino so he refuses to know anything about Milano, phoning his Milanese wife for information about cafes and restaurants and overjoyed to find that the tiled murals in the Stazione Centrale were scenes of Torino.
While walking from the café to the theatre where G runs the computer systems, he spotted a side alley that he had not noticed before. In a short lane parallel with the main road were a couple of very fine old mansions with trompe l’oeil decoration covering the façade. As well as a couple of fashion shops the lane, which was rather like a London mews, housed some discreet looking offices including an aviation company. At the far end was a very expensive looking glass doorway, with an equally expensive steel security door for when you need to shut out the world. No sign, just an unspoken message that you had no need to inquire within.
We picked up our bikes from the cloakroom at the theatre and set off to find a beer. G set a good pace and we shot through the traffic to the Duomo where G knew the direction he wanted but did not wish to go down Via Torino (I wasn’t sure why) but with every route he tried Milan’s one-way system defeated him and dropped us back where we started. It did mean that I saw most of the centre of Milan and became convinced of the wisdom of the authorities in Brussels who allow cyclists to go both ways down one-way streets with no ill-effects. It was also good fun to race around the city with another confident cyclist.
Eventually we gave up and took the Via Torino, which had the double whammy of tram tracks and a broken stone-slab surface, maybe not as nasty as the cobbles in Brussels but a close second so I understood G’s reluctance. We found our beer, followed by a Pugliese restaurant which had the same interesting lack of style as the café earlier and a menu which boasted horse and donkey. G was squeamish about eating horse as he has lived near a knacker’s where he saw the sad old horses being brought in for slaughter so we had pasta with shellfish and a spicy tomato sauce. The pudding was an OK apple pie and a traditional Pugliese pastry dish that has a burnt treacle taste. The waiter warned us it wasn’t to every taste and he was right.
And we talked about many things, including bicycles and the meaning of the word “stochastic”
We had to walk quite a big part of the way to the station thanks to the one-way system. The train was on time with 20 minutes to wait before it left so we chatted on the platform. G was impressed by the ease of it all compared to air travel. You strolled up to the coach, the conductor checked your ticket and took your passport into custody for the overnight border crossings and your berth was waiting with the bed made ready. While we waited a sudden tumult of Italian teenagers poured down the wide platform constantly colliding and tangling, not the purposeful stride of adults. It appeared as if the whole couchette section had been booked for a school trip to Paris and I wondered at the cheerful competence of the teachers shepherding the huge undisciplined flock.
But they all managed to board and the next morning they formed subdued clusters on the platform at Gare de Bercy. I had slept quite well thanks to earplugs and an accumulation of fatigue, not to mention some energetic evening cycling round Milan.
I cycled back across Paris by the same route which was easy except for a market on the central reservation of Bvd Richard Lenoir. It’s predictable that delivery vans and contractors will use a cycle track as a convenient parking place but I’d never seen one blocked by around 100 white vans before, all neatly lined up at right angles to the road with their front wheels in the cycle path. I was looking for a café for breakfast and the Quai Valmy seemed a good place with a canal in the sun between the two roadways but despite the very attractive setting there was just a dark bar with urbanites knocking back functional coffees. In the end I settled for a café just outside the Gare du Nord which was OK but hardly an authentic Parisian experience.
At the Eurostar terminals in London and Brussels they announce when the train is ready to board and you walk on to the platform with no fuss. In Paris they seem determined to recreate the glamourous experience of air travel so the announcer starts telling you which doors to go through for your coach and everybody gets up to board only to find a barrier still across the doors and the staff in no hurry to let you through. When everybody has been queueing up for far too long they let you board, by which time it takes an age for the waiting line of passengers to pass through the ticket check, just like in an airport.
Normally I select my seat on Eurostar when booking online but this time the online booking system wasn’t working properly and had allocated a seat with no choice. So I ended up at a table seat with no legroom in a crowded coach, because they insist on herding passengers together even when the train is not full. I like Eurostar in principle but they don’t seem to have the idea of looking after passengers well-worked out.
However I was restored by a good lunch at St Pancras, and a comfortable ride in the fast weekday train to Sheffield which got me back in time to catch up with a few tasks at work.
So a good trip, three days and two nights and opportunities to have a little fun in the gaps. The sleeper was comfortable enough when you had been cycling energetically around Milan, there was a variety of experiences to savour and most importantly, at no time did I feel detached from real life, quite the contrary. London had the best railway station, Paris the best cycling infrastructure, and Milan the most interesting and friendly people. The Brompton made it all possible.
My best source of information for this trip was, as ever, seat61.com. Thanks to Mark Smith for his indefatigable work in maintaining the world’s best surface travel website. If you buy your rail or other tickets by following the links from his site he will get a small commission that rewards him for the work he puts in. He includes links to two sites I used below to buy tickets.
Tickets from Sheffield to Paris were supplied online by Eurostar who can sell you a ticket from most UK stations to a variety of European Destinations
Artesia don’t sell Paris-Milan tickets direct but you can get them from RailEurope. It’s not possible to use RailEurope for through bookings on this route because the sleeper tickets are treated as first class (if you book a solo cabin) and they will only book you on the same class right through.
For an overview of the Paris cycle route network you can download a map here. This doesn’t give you much detail but together with Google maps you should be able to work out a route.
My routes through Paris can be found on Google maps here and in Milan here. The blue route was my main route to Politecnico di Milano and the red and green ones were put in to work out routes to various restaurants that I didn’t go to in the end, but there’s an interesting cycle route on one of them using dedicated cycle lanes and a quiet canal-side road to the north of the central station. If you keep zooming in an any of the routes you can end up “riding” along them with streetview.
Top tip for a night’s sleep on a sleeper train is earplugs, so you are not startled awake by random train noises.
The Artesia sleepers are sometimes late, mine was on time in Milan going out but 30 mins late in Paris on the way back. If you have an onward connection by Eurostar or any other service, get the conductor to endorse your Artesia ticket with the time of arrival and the onward train company will allow you to travel by a later service if necessary.
While I was writing this I found a blog that was critical of European sleeper trains on the grounds that it was a nice idea but in practice they weren’t that comfortable or convenient (sorry I’ve lost the URL). I think there is a lot of scope to improve the quality and German Railways have done some good work on that, but I was also comparing it with the unpleasantness and indignity of air travel that we tend to take for granted. Last year I was lucky enough to fly business class on a trip to Malaysia, rather than my usual cattle-class experience, and it was OK but the full-length reclining seat was really too hard to lie on and I had a limited amount of sleep, the food was OK but not wonderful.
By comparison the Artesia sleeper gave you a proper bed (still a bit hard for my ageing joints) and bedding, a good restaurant car, fresh air rather than the unhealthy stuff in aeroplanes, plenty of space and privacy and a view from the window. I am told that for a really excellent sleeper train experience you have to go to China where the railways are improving at a huge rate, let’s hope our railways learn something from them.
Postscript 2012. Sadly the Artesia sleeper service has stopped, it appears that they were just hopelessly bad at things like maintenance and paying their staff. There is a new sleeper service between Paris and Milan starting during 2012 with a new operating company so we’ll have to wait and see. Seat61.com will give you the latest information.