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By Guy Saunders
Before the advent of the Channel Tunnel and then Eurostar, it was quite an undertaking to travel by rail to Italy. Once you had negotiated the British Rail portion of the journey and the cross-channel ferry there was then the prospect of an uncomfortable night on a sleeper. Many people might still be daunted by the prospect of a journey of more than 600 miles across at least 3 countries and opt to jump on a plane instead.
These days, thankfully, we can lay to rest any concerns you might have. What's more with airports and flying becoming an ever-more dehumanising experience, there are more reasons than ever to choose a greener, more civilised mode of travel.
I set off from beautifully restored St. Pancras International aboard the Eurostar. Although it is more expensive, I recommend Leisure Select (formerly 1st Class) as you get more room to stretch out, a tasty meal and free drinks to put you in the holiday mood. Then you can sit back and enjoy the views as Kentish countryside and northern France flash past, before you know it (well, 2 hours 15 minutes actually) you are in Paris!
On arrival at the Gare du Nord I took the RER to the Gare de Lyon, changing trains at Châtelet Les Halles. The journey takes about 20 minutes. However, if you do not fancy lugging your suitcase through the Metro then take a taxi. It can be slightly longer by taxi, depending on the traffic, though you get the benefit of seeing some glimpses of Paris and the Seine and you don't have to worry about getting on the wrong train or dealing with your luggage. Better still give yourself 3 or 4 hours in Paris or stay the night in a hotel and wander along the banks of the Seine, through the Jardins des Tuileries or around Notre Dame and the Ile St. Louis. Whichever method you choose to cross Paris I would always allow 1 hour to 90 minutes between the two stations to ensure you have plenty of time and can enjoy the experience.
My destination was Dijon, chosen because it is a good place to break your journey and it is a very attractive medieval city. The TGV from Paris gets you there in about 1 hour 40 minutes, passing through some lovely French countryside. I stayed the night at the 4 star Mercure Dijon Clémenceau. The hotel is nearly a mile from the station - 5 or 10 minutes in a taxi - and very comfortable. There are 2 and 3 star hotels closer to the station.
Feeling refreshed after a good night's sleep and classic French breakfast of croissant and coffee I continued my journey from Dijon to Milan, changing trains in Bern. The benefit of this route is that enjoy a more scenic route to Italy, through the Swiss Alps and in this instance the beautiful Bernese Oberland. You also get to travel on another stylish TGV followed by the Cisalpino tilting train that snakes its way to Milan. Travelling on daytime trains you get the benefit of all the stunning views from the comfort of your seat.
If you are in more of a hurry you can get to Milan in a day from London or travel overnight on a sleeper train. Though I prefer the more relaxed daytime journey.
Guy Saunders is Managing Director of Planet Rail.
Planet Rail organises holidays by First Class rail to Europe and beyond.
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