Sleeping around Europe: The revival of night trains

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If I ever got a reputation for sleeping around, it would be because I’ve always been drawn to the romance of European sleeper trains. For a while, however, my crush on couchettes was curbed, when budget flights became everyone’s darling and many sleepovers were stopped. Thankfully, my loco-libido can be satisfied once more. As many travellers are seeing the benefits of flight-free travel, train companies are dusting off their rolling stock and refreshing their bed linen.

My most recent rail reawakening was on Great Western Railway’s (GWR) Night Riviera between London’s Paddington station and Penzance in Cornwall. Starting my journey at Paddington at 22.00 hours one Friday evening, my heart was all-a-flutter as the welcoming train host showed me my cabin, with a crisp white duvet all turned down and ready for traction.

Overnight train adventures tend to get people talking, even on English trains

“If you head to the bar, I’ll come and take your breakfast order for you up there,” the host told me, adding “and I recommend you get up around 7am and head to the lounge with your breakfast, so you can watch the sun come over the coast”.

I slept like a baby in my two-berth cabin which I had chosen to have all to myself, as privacy is a price I was happy to pay for. The carriage was gloriously quiet too, the train rocking me to sleep after a nightcap in the bar, where the atmosphere was one of jollity. Overnight train adventures tend to get people talking, even on English trains, which aren’t famous for overfamiliarity.

The Night Riviera’s single-occupancy cabin costs £90 (€108) and, if you are travelling with someone else, a double-occupancy cabin is £120 (€144). However, you also have to pay for your actual journey ticket, so it can add up. The secret to getting cheap journey tickets with the Night Riviera is to book in advance, although the cabin fare is fixed. You can book up to 12 weeks in advance, so keep an eye on the cheap train tickets as they’re released. At time of writing, these were from £39.10 (€46.90) one way.

Another option on the night train to Cornwall is to book an airline-style seat instead of a cabin, and just pay the regular train fare. Plenty of people do, equipped with blankets, cushions and hope that no one books the seat beside them so that they can stretch out. I was travelling in early autumn, and there was certainly lots of stretching room at that time.

Breakfast, included in the price of the cabin, wasn’t going to rock my world – but in fairness Covid-19 has put the brakes on GWR’s catering options. It was delivered to my door at the recommended 7.00 hours, by the host, who was still donning his welcoming smile; Lavazza instant coffee and porridge still hit the spot. The host was also spot on about the sunrise view. Although it was fairly misty, I definitely got the picture. And, as we arrived bang on time at 08.00 hours, the historic fishing town of Penzance, with views out to the tidal island of St Michael’s Mount, were quite a picture.

The Jubilee Lido was just a 10 miuntes’ walk from Penzance train station. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
The Jubilee Lido was just a 10 miuntes’ walk from Penzance train station. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

There are no showers on board the Night Riviera but you do have an option to have a free shower in their lounges at both Paddington and Penzance stations. You can also enjoy complimentary tea, coffee and snacks if you want to kill time either before late-night boarding or heading off to start your day. However, one of my specific reasons for visiting Penzance was to experience the art deco Jubilee Lido. The lido was just a 10 minutes’ walk from the station and with my session booked for 9am, I washed the sleep out of my eyes with seawater and then basked in its geothermally heated section, doing the hot-cold thing for a good hour or so. And breathe, I had struck gold – locomotion and lido love in just one brief holiday fling.

My other hopes for this sleeper train journey to Cornwall were to hike, see some Hepworth and get some much-needed headspace. Also a little bit of hedonism, spending two nights at Penzance’s Chapel House boutique hotel, with a sea view from my roll top bath no less.

Hiking comes easy in this part of the world, straight off the train on to Cornwall’s South West Coast Path, a 1,014km waymarked trail around the entire peninsula. One day I headed east to St Michael’s Mount, an extraordinary, elevated village on an island that is accessible via a causeway when the tide is out. The next day was a more remote 22km ramble to Lamorna Cove, through the idyllic village of Mousehole, along ancient smugglers’ paths and through ancient woodland. It’s all very Daphne du Maurier, with its cast of smoulderingly good-looking seascapes.

Views of St Michael’s Mount Causeway could be seen on board the train. Photograph: Getty Images
Views of St Michael’s Mount Causeway could be seen on board the train. Photograph: Getty Images

Last but not least, and there has to be a climax to this story really, I took the train from Penzance to St Ives, just 40 minutes away, with a station overlooking a long, white sandy bay and inviting turquoise waters, even in autumn. After a quick dip, I headed off in search of the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden which along with Tate St Ives are cocoons of Cornish creativity. Sitting in the gardens of Hepworth’s studio, looking out through one of her iconic bronze sculptures towards the sea, I just didn’t want to leave. The joy of getting the sleeper train back that night was that I really didn’t need to. This beautiful corner of Cornwall was mine right up until about 9pm that night, when my bed would be waiting.

Getting there 
Book the Night Riviera sleeper train, operated by GWR between London and Penzance in Cornwall at gwr.com/travelling-with-us/night-riviera-sleeper. Solo-occupancy cabins from £90 (€108), not including train fare.

Staying there 
Chapel House Hotel rooms are priced from £160 (€192) to £220 (€264) per night, B&B, chapelhousepz.co.uk. For a budget over boutique option, check out Premier Inn, right beside Penzance station, premierinn.com.

Five other sleeper trains in Europe to enjoy in 2022 

Beautiful sea views from the Paris-to-Nice sleeper train. Photograph: oui.sncf
Beautiful sea views from the Paris-to-Nice sleeper train. Photograph: oui.sncf

The Caledonian Sleeper between London’s Euston Station and the Highlands of Scotland is a spectacular journey. There is one train that leaves the big smoke at 21.15 hours, splitting en route to take you to either Inverness, Fortwilliam or Aberdeen. Caledonian beauty spots include Aviemore, gateway to Cairngorms National Park and Fortwilliam, at the foot of Ben Nevis. Refurbished in late 2019, it’s in great nick, with an array of cabins with basins, showers, bunks or double beds, as well as accessible cabins. If you are travelling solo, you don’t have to share with a stranger, but just book a Standard Classic Solo ticket. Prices from £45 (€54) for an upright seat, £140 (€168) for a single-occupancy cabin or more than £400 (€480) for a superior ensuite room; sleeper.scot.

The Paris-to-Nice sleeper train, or Intercités de Nuit, sounds like it should be more glam than it is, but its real gift is that you wake up in the south of France clinging to the coast for a large part of the journey. Also the fact that it has only just been revived again after being stopped in 2016. Leave Paris’ Gare d’Austerlitz at 21.20 hours and opt for Cannes, Antibes or finally Nice, at 09.08 hours, as just a few of the jolie jumping-off points. They are all shared “couchettes”, (although you can request “femme seule” if you book a six-berth second-class ticket. First class just means having four berths and a bit more leg room (and strangely no option for women only). The bed linen is a bit of a flimsy sleeping bag, so this isn’t private luxury, but in many other ways it’s totally dreamy. Sleep your way to the sun for as little as €29. Pas mal; en.oui.sncf/en/intercites/intercites-night.

Nightjet is the sleeper brand of Austrian Railways (ÖBB), taking you through the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Its most exciting recent development is the new sleeper train from Paris to Vienna, launched in December 2021. With shared four- and six-berth couchettes from €49.90, its also has single and double rooms from €89.90. It leaves Paris Est station at 19.58 hours with you waltzing around Vienna just after 10.00 hours. You can step off earlier in Salzburg for breakfast at some of Europe’s finest traditional coffee houses at 07.30 hours. You can also take a Nightjet from Amsterdam to Vienna, which takes nearly 14 hours or Amsterdam to Zürich in 11 hours. Nightjet is running on all cylinders at the moment; nightjet.com.

Another welcome revival in 2021, by RegioJet, is the night train from Prague to Split in Croatia, taking in Bratislava, Budapest and Zagreb, not that you will see much of them if you’re loved up in your leaba. This makes for a long night’s sleep as you cover 1,406km in under 21 hours. In 2021, it ran twice weekly in May, June and September, and in the peak season it ran every day. Depending on Covid travel restrictions, it hopes to offer the same service this year. But this is a space to keep an eye on, if you fancy a long European night of the soul; regiojet.com.

Travel overnight between Stockholm, Hamburg and Berlin between April and September only, with a private operator, snalltaget.se, that launched in the summer of 2021. Departing Stockholm’s Central station at 16:15, you arrive in Hamburg Hbf at 05:31, with a 9am terminus in Berlin Hauptbahnhof. The sleeping compartments are six berth, with upright seats as well if you are on a budget. Fares for the latter start at €49 and a berth in a couchette at €74. A family or group travelling together can book out the whole couchette for €295.

Top sleeper train tips 

Always pack earplugs for sleeper trains. Some snacks too, in case the menu is limited.

Keep your PJs and toiletries handy as there isn’t a lot of room to change, especially in a shared cabin.

Use seat61.com to find everything you want to know about the best seats on every train anywhere.

Treat yourself to Hidden Europe’s magazine subscription. Written by two travel writers and all-round train goddess gurus, their Twitter posts are always on track.

Consider getting an Interrail Card. You may need to pay a supplement for sleeper trains but if you want to adventure further, it’s worth it.

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