Keighley to Sicily - April 2015 - fun with sleepers from Milano!

Discussion in 'Trip Planning & Reports' started by Tim R-T-C, 1 May 2015.

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  1. Tim R-T-C

    Tim R-T-C Established Member

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    So for my XXXth birthday, I wanted to combine my love of hiking with a love of train travel and book to go on a walking trip of the Aoelian Islands setting off from Catania in Sicily, somewhere accessible without too much complexity by train.

    So this is an illustrated description of the trip:

    We set off on Thursday evening, taking NR from Keighley to Leeds then a VTEC from Leeds to Kings Cross, all very standard. I've found the KX Travelodge to be the best value accommodation in the vicinity of the station.

    Next morning, an early start to catch the 0730 Eurostar to Paris, didn't need to be so early, but the tickets for this train were far cheaper than the others available at the time. A quick RER hop to Gare du Lyon and thanks to some advance booking I had got a good deal on 1st class tickets for the TGV journey and so we were able to crash in the Grand Voyageurs Lounge at the station - it is actually rather unimpressive, being a small room in the bowels of the station, but it had the two most important things for any modern traveller - plugs and free wifi. Also a 50cent coffee machine.

    We took over two sofas and made a nice enclave:

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    Should have strung up a British flag too...

    Eventually we got bored (having sat and watched an entire MotoGP race day on my phone) so went up to watch some TGVs and board our train, the 1441 departure for Milano.

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    The trip was comfortable, a nice single pair window seat gave some great views and in the alps the scenery is pretty impressive. The conductor was allowing some slightly longer stops for smoking (or running the length of the train to get a photo) but no time to really stretch legs.

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    That was Modane, high in the Alps and the last stop in France, a station that would become even more memorable on the way back...

    A nice, if obviously microwaved, lasagne with a glass of beer served at the seat was a pleasant dinner. We eventually arrived into Milano Porto Garibaldi to wait for our sleeper connection for Roma and here is where the first fun and games started. The sleeper actually left from Turino which we passed through on the TGV, but for some reason it was cheaper to stay on the TGV to Milano and catch it from there.

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    I was keeping an eye on the departures board when I realised that the sleeper was not appearing. There were no staff visible, so I looked around and eventually found a small notice board which had a small A4 note printed on it about changes to this service during the week in question, 40 minute delays on some nights but on this night the train was running as service 35911, rather than 1911. No other details provided.

    Fortunately I had a data signal on my phone and found a live running site for Italy, typing in the train number it listed the train's next stop as Milano Centrale! Now really concerned we found a closed ticket office with some staff clearly still in there. We knocked on the barrier asking if they could help us, but got nothing more than a shrug as they walked around the corner...

    So we did the only thing we could, got a taxi across to Centrale and lo and behold, the sleeper was listed there, it duly arrived and with no more drama we set off for Roma.

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    We arrived the next morning into Tiburtina after a nice morning coffee from the train guard, who warned Emma that her choice of Italian coffee was rather strong, bless, he was unaware of her massive caffeine tolerances.

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    After hoping off the sleeper, we caught a local service around to Termini - took a bit longer but better than using the Metro with heavy bags. Still not before we saw a kick-off in the ticket office that for some reason saw a chap being carried out by security and then proceeding to lay on the floor and refuse to move. Never did figure that one out.

    A flying tour of Roma followed, I can highly recommend Dark Rome tours by the way, skipping the 2 hour queue at the Colosseum was worth every penny and a fascinating tour of the catacombs too.

    We returned to Termini station where we had left our bags and had a pleasant enough dinner in the station upper floor restaurant.

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    Our sleeper arrived and the trip was drama free. Despite my best intentions to get off and watch the crossing of the straits of Messina, we slept through most of it, I just remember some very rough shunting at one point.

    We awoke to beautiful coastal views and more coffee. Eventually arriving at Catania Centrale, we were now being hauled by one of the beastly class 656s which we only saw on Sicily.

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    We met our guide there and spent a lovely week in the north of Sicily, travelling around on hydrofoils with an unforgettable morning on Strombolli as the crew of one of these beautiful boats spent a good 30 minutes mooring in incredible waves at the very open harbour.

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    So a week later we were back at Catania Centrale awaiting our day train to Napoli. I decided to travel by day so we could enjoy the crossing and see some of the nice coastline.

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    The fun started straight away - we had seats book in std. class coach 3 - when the train arrived it only had three coaches, numbered 2, 4 and 5. I showed my e-ticket to the guard who gestured to us to sit in the first coach until we started moving, this happened to be first class. When he came around a few minutes later he checked the tickets and his PDA and told us that the seats we were in were free through to Napoli so we could just stay where we were and so we took an eight hour first class upgrade.

    No extra services (the train had no food service at all despite the long distance), but nice comfy seats so we were certainly not complaining and the views were as beautiful as promised.

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    Interestingly the standard class coaches in use were both compartment style:

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    We arrived in Messina alongside another four coach set hauled by a ubiquitous Class 656. The locos each uncoupled and disappeared into the large yard, which seemed to have at least a dozen of the class. A bright orange diesel switcher appeared and coupled on the back of the ex-Palmero set, pulling this out of the station and then pushing it onto the back of our coaches.

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    We were then propelled onto one of the waiting ferries for our crossing back to mainland Italy.

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    You remain on the coaches until they stop in the ship, you can then walk about or stay on the train. There was talk again early this year about stopping this practice for the day trains and making people walk to a passenger ferry to connect with a waiting train on the other side, with just the sleepers remaining, but for now the ferry transfer has been retained.

    While moving the trains around did seem like a lot of work, detraining passengers and making them carry their luggage across a quay would surely put people off using the service even more, so I do hope they keep doing it.

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    We arrived about 40 minutes later in Calabria and the train was now pulled off the boat. We had about 20 minutes to wait, presumably allowance for any ferry issues. A new smarter loco was coupled onto the head and we set off north:

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    We arrived in Napoli which is a fascinating city with some beautiful cathedrals and churches, but almost every surface seems to be coated in graffiti. We had planned to visit Pomei the next day, but a heavy rainstorm put us off that and instead we visited the historical museum which has most of the interesting things from Pompei anyway.

    Our plan for the day was to catch the 1700 Frecciarossa up to Milano and change to the Thello sleeper 220 through to Paris. However, when I dialled in the sleeper times online, we were informed that the train was only running as far as Modane (that beautiful but rather remote French alpine town from earlier in the trip) and that from Milano it would be running as train 224, although as before, no information on what that meant. Even more worryingly the Thello website said that the previous night's outbound Paris to Venice train had been cancelled and replaced with a bus.

    Not sure if we were going to get an epic coach ride, or be turfed off a train in the middle of the night in the Alps I tried to call Thello to be told that no customer service was available, I e-mailed them and still have no response. I tweeted Loco2 where we brought the tickets from but they took some five hours to reply. We queued up at the customer service desk at Napoli station and watched an elderly couple spend thirty minutes (really!) filling out some forms, seemingly for a refund on a ticket, that apparently took all four members of the customer service office to sort out, with no attempt from anyone to address the increasing queue behind me or maybe make them fill in the form somewhere else.

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    Eventually we gave up and caught our Milano train. To make up for the annoyance, the Frecciarossa is a thing of beauty. Again I had booked early and picked up the last (only?) super-economy business class tickets, which meant the price was no more than travelling in standard, so we got lovely leather seats and a welcome sparkling wine.

    The train is pretty sophisticated, on arriving into a station, the screens that also show you your location, time to next station and even a camera view from the rear coach, become departure boards.

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    There is also a proper sit down restaurant car, where we enjoyed a very nice waiter service three course meal. €59 for both of us, including a bottle of wine and sparkling water.

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    So we duly arrived in Milano Centrale, about 30 minutes late due to a temporary speed limit but otherwise fine.

    To our consternation however, the sleeper had appeared on the departure boards there as being for Modane. We managed to find a nice lady on the concourse who assured us the train was going through to Paris.

    So passing the time with a last Italian gelato, we waited for the sleeper to arrive, it came in on time, with the boards still telling us we were headed into the Alps:

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    Fortunately the conductor was able to assure us that the train was certainly going through the Paris, but for some reason it would take a lot longer than planned - I never did find out why - and we would get in about 2 hours late. As far as I know we did pass through Modane, but not sure where we picked up the delay or if we took a diversionary route.

    We were rather disappointed to find out there would be no breakfast from the selection card in the room which had promised coffees as there was no restaurant car on the train. The coaches did not have Thello logos, although the supplies in the room where all Thello branded, so I wonder if we had ended up with a Trenitalia set.

    Fortunately a short line-side stop in the middle of the countryside later and we were presented with a nice little breakfast with pate salad and fruit.

    We arrived into Gare du Lyon at midday with this shiny Thello loco at the front:

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    With not too much time, I photographed some TGVs at Gare du Lyon and the wonderfully old fashioned intercity services at Gare d'Austerlitz then a quick walk up to the Notre Dame cathedral and back. RER up to Gare du Nord and a newly livered Eurostar locomotive on our return to London.

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    Followed by a dinner from the nice sushi place on the upper floor in Kings Cross, a VTEC to Leeds and NR train back to Keighley.

    So three new sleeper trains for my collection a few dramas, but no harm done, a free first class upgrade and we didn't get pickpocketed.

    Hope you enjoyed this, stories and photos from your trips on the same routes, particularly in Sicily are welcome.
     
    Last edited: 1 May 2015
  2. gazthomas

    gazthomas Established Member

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    Thanks for making the effort
     
  3. westcoaster

    westcoaster Established Member

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    A nice read, thanks for sharing.
     
  4. 55013

    55013 Established Member

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    Sounds like a good trip.
    The run from Paris to Milan is very enjoyable with some spectacular scenery, as you say.
    Me and the wife did it in 2005 and we also had 4502 (4506 back 8 days later), in first class.
    I'm not a euro-crank but there's a tale to be told about our adventures :)
     
  5. Iskra

    Iskra Established Member

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    Great read. I found this particularly interesting as I use the trains/ferries around Calabria fairly frequently and have considered doing Leeds-Calabria before by train so its nice to see how its done. How much did all the train fares cost return if you don't mind me asking?

    I have thought the shunting at Calabria/Messina does seem a bit ridiculous at times.
     
  6. Kristofferson

    Kristofferson Established Member

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    A fantastic read, one of the best I've seen here - thoroughly enjoyed the photos too!

    Shunting carriages onto a ferry to shunt them off at the other end seems very odd - but like you say, better than the alternative :D

    It seems the train service in mainland Europe is ahead of us in some ways, but the legendary bureaucracy also appears to be alive and well. That'd put me off a bit to be honest!
     
  7. Techniquest

    Techniquest Veteran Member

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    A most incredible trip there, the photos really brought it to life, especially for someone who's never been to Italy.

    Quite an experience I should think with being on a train loaded/unloaded onto a ferry! Sounds like a lot of hassle to do the sleepers though, especially with the delays and alarming confusion over the alterations etc.

    Thanks for sharing the trip report, I very much enjoyed the read!
     
  8. 306024

    306024 Established Member

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    Yes train ferries are a bit of fun, shame they are not as numerous these days.

    Excellent read, reminded me of a trip I did from Naples across on the ferry to Sicily once. A long but enjoyable journey, it was the catering that amused me.

    A normal trolley came through once after Naples offering the usual fare, but wasn't seen again after that. Instead a big guy then comes through a hour later, offering wrapped sandwiches, served out of a black bin liner. He came back a couple more times, made me wonder if the Sicilian Mafia had assumed control of the catering. Perhaps that explains the lack of catering when you did the reverse journey..... :|
     
    Last edited: 3 May 2015
  9. tfesully

    tfesully Member

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    Very entertaining, that. Italians bringing a bit of romance and a little bit of tackiness to rail travel. From the ostentatious glamour of the Frecciariossa to the sublimely ugly 656 (love the way the driver's stepladder appears to have been added on as an afterthought). You have to admire the fact that the a boat train is exactly what it implies and I honestly believed that hydrofoils had gone out with space invader machines. A sign of a good piece of travel writing is that it makes you feel that you wouldn't mind doing the same trip. Many thanks.
     
  10. Tim R-T-C

    Tim R-T-C Established Member

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    Thanks to all for the comments, glad you enjoyed reading it, I'm hoping to take a train to a walking trip in Macedonia in August so hopefully will have some tales to tell there as well.

    Excluding the Thello sleeper, from Paris to Catania and back cost £508 for the two of us, I did book 1st class for a few legs for comfort and since with advance tickets they were not overly more expensive, and cabins on the sleepers where I could have used couchettes which would bring the cost down considerably.

    The Thello sleeper cabin cost £285 although I should get some of this back from Thello for the delay hopefully.
     
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