Late last year, with little fanfare, a piece of Europe’s travel jigsaw fell out of the box, never to be retrieved. In December 2013, it was announced that the Elipsis Trenhotels, the overnighters that ran from Paris to Madrid and Barcelona, would cease operating. I felt a little pang of regret at the news. I was hardly a regular – four trips in three years – but I had a soft spot for them. The trains weren’t perfect – the rolling stock was certainly showing its age – but they had an authentic Spanish feel, particularly if you took the 11pm dining slot and then retired to the lively bar for a couple of hours.
The Trenhotels were the victim of speed. The tracks from France into Spain have been upgraded and a sleek if rather anonymous daytime TGV can now whisk you to Barcelona from Paris in 6.5 hours, shaving close to four hours off the old overnight journey time. That’s progress. It’s a pattern likely to repeated all over Europe, as high-speed negates the need for slow, expensive sleepers. And yet…
I like sleeper trains, even if, for me, they are a misnomer. I rarely actually sleep that well on them, but I love the rituals of the overnighter: dinner, drink, bed, early breakfast, lying watching the train slide into the suburbs of your destination. With Trenhotels gone (some still operate across Spain, although they, too, are threatened by HS developments) I wondered just what overnight adventures were left in Europe. Then a friend raved about the night train to Prague from Amsterdam and decided I had to try it before that, too, was scrapped.
And so I came to be standing on a platform at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, waiting for a City Night Line train (called The Copernicus or The Phoenix, depending on its direction) to take me through Holland, across Germany and over the Czech border. To me, the very route evoked the thrill of a Graham Greene or Eric Ambler novel, an express straight onto the heart of mysterious Mitteleuropa. Well, not that much of an express. You depart Amsterdam at 7pm, arrive in Prague at 9.30am, with breakfast served in bed about an hour before that.
I had booked a double cabin for my wife and I (there are seats or couchette options as well) in coach 171 and counted off the carriages as the train pulled in. It was enormous. It is actually a triplex – at some point in the night the front is uncoupled and heads off to Copenhagen, the middle to Warsaw and, finally, our rear carriages to Prague. As this multi-national monster slid by, I read off the labels on the coaches: 167…168..169…170…172.
No, hold on. You’ve forgotten 171? I asked the guard in my best German (nearly all of it gleaned from Commando comics). Nein, he said. It’s just Kaput. You’ll have to take a couchette.
Six-berth couchettes and I have been so over since I shared one out of Paris with an Amorous American and his new English girlfriend Valerie (yes, it’s etched on my memory a decade later) and a German with a peculiar whistling snore that sounded like he was auditioning for One Man and His Dog. But, the guard assured me, we would have the couchette compartment to ourselves. No Ride of the Valeries, no nocturnal Pavlovian shouts of ‘come by’ from me.
Somewhat mollified, we asked for directions to the dining car. There’s no dining car on this train the guard said, looking as if I had asked for a Swarovski-studded baguette. Oh, for crying out loud. Eating onboard is an integral part of the experience – think From Russia With Love when the villainous Grant slips up by ordering red Chianti with fish. What sort of night train is this? I demanded. On the Trenhotel I’d be well into my second half-bottle of Alabrino by now.
There is a Schnackwagen, he said. Then he frowned. But hold on, that’s always on… coach 171, I completed.
There was another food outlet at the front of this very long train, in Borealis, the Copenhagen section. So I swayed and swung through the carriages where, bizarrely, every single connecting door had a different way of opening. It was like some fiendish puzzle, a tracked version of the live-action ‘exit games’ so popular in Eastern Europe. Eventually I found the cupboard that proclaimed itself the Schnackwagen (actually it was the Deutsche Bahn “Bistro”, which is just as misleading). There were slim pickings on the menu, but I gamely began to order provisions for the long night of the couchette ahead. Pasta? Nein. Sandwiches? Nein. That thing in the picture that looks like a dried cow’s tongue? Nein. This was turning into more Graham Chapman and Eric Idle than Grahame Greene and Eric Ambler.
I returned to the couchettes with a brace of what my wife described as ‘a piece of donkey between two slices of soggy Ryvita’ (we only managed one), a tin of Pringles and every cold beer they had. Still, she had made the beds and, nicely fuzzy from the beer, we climbed between the sheets, knowing we had a good few hours before we reached… BERLIN.
The word pierced my sleep-befuddled brain. Das ist Berlin, the speaker said. No, no, we’re going to Prague, I said to my wife, it’s just an inconsiderate announcement of a stop en route. But no, we were going to Berlin, like it or not. The train had broken down, said the all-too-cheery guard. Like coach 171, it was Kaput. I looked out at a pre-dawn Bahnhof. We were to transfer to a regular service to Budapest that would stop at Prague.
Sitting up? my bleary wife asked him from her soon-to-be abandoned bed. Ja, he replied, miming a seat, or perhaps a trip to the lavatory. My wife’s expression said it all – Eric Idle became Erik the Red. I looked around to make sure there wasn’t one of those in-case-of-emergency-break-the-glass axes within easy reach.
We did make Prague, two hours later than intended, and not quite with the lukewarm-coffee-and-croissant in bed we’d been anticipating. It left my fantasies of night trains somewhat more careworn than before we left Amsterdam. Would I do it again? Yes. I doubt coach 171 goes missing very often and DB locos are not known for their high failure rate. But next time I’d bring a picnic. And a couple of half-bottles of Albarino.
* I booked through Voyages-SNCF (0844-848 5848, voyages-sncf.com). The City Night Line train to Prague is from £43pp in a couchette or £69 in the phantom double cabin. In Prague, I stayed at the Mandarin Oriental (Nebovidská 459/1, 420 233 088 888, mandarinoriental.com), a bright and airy conversion of an old monastery on the quieter side of the river, where doubles are from £219, room-only. Its restaurant Essencia offers a welcome respite from the heavier side of Czech cooking (tasting menus from £47pp exc drinks – go for the Asian one).