Do the French snore, I wonder as I clamber into my bunk. Itâ€™s the kind of question that occurs to you on returning to a darkened sleeping compartment after a boozy dinner in the dining car. Weâ€™re on our way to Florence by train from London and are now on the overnight section from Paris, crossing eastern France, Switzerland and Italy. We should have gone to bed hours ago, but drinking beer in the dining car as the train rattles into the night is strangely compelling.
Sleeper trains can broadly be divided into two classes: transport and luxury. And it is the authenticity of the former category that really excites me. Youâ€™re not part of a heritage experience populated by wealthy retired couples, but on a train full of what the media and politicians insist on calling â€œreal people”.
Whatever the motive â€” dislike of flying, convenience, the need to get a full nightâ€™s sleep â€” you are all sharing the same rails, and as you drift off into sleep, thereâ€™s a common cinematic sense of hurtling headlong into the unknown. Our trip to Florence is a mixed bag. The sleek, cramped Eurostar glides out of St Pancras at lunchtime; a couple of hours, a nip across Paris and weâ€™re at Bercy, boarding the Palatino. The name conjures up in my mind an age of glamorous European sleepers, but the train doesnâ€™t live up to its heritage.
Itâ€™s a bit dingy and uncared for, in contrast to many other European sleepers â€” the shiny, German efficiency of the City Night Line trains to Berlin and Munich, the well-maintained quirkiness of the Elipsos service to Barcelona and Madrid. The views are as good as ever, though. As we chat in Franglais to the friendly couple we are sharing with, we follow a tributary of the Seine dotted with pretty villages, then out into a rural landscape of meadows and poplars. In the sepia evening light, itâ€™s like an elegy for the old France. There wasnâ€™t much old France in the dining car â€” astonishingly poor and overpriced â€” but once dinner is cleared away, and we sip our cans of Moretti, a sense of complicity develops among the last few tables babbling away in French, Italian and English. Itâ€™s rather fun, and before we know it weâ€™re slowing into Lausanne. Itâ€™s one in the morning and weâ€™re in a new country. The miracle of the overnight train. And time for bed.
We doze more than sleep our way to Florence, but as we roll into the centre of one of Europeâ€™s most beautiful cities, I canâ€™t help feeling rather smug. To get to our reunion at a villa in the hills above Siena, most of my family have opted for budget flights to faraway airports. Unlike them, weâ€™ve been on a journey, and when we alight at the grand Santa Maria Novella station, weâ€™re aware of where weâ€™ve travelled through, rather than being dumped out of the sky. And no, the French didnâ€™t snore.
Five more classic sleeper trains:
The Caledonian Sleeper
There are actually two trains on this classic route: the Highland has three portions, bound for Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William respectively; the Lowland has two, serving Edinburgh and Glasgow. Cabins are functional and a bit 1980s, thereâ€™s a lot of clanking, and the excuse for a breakfast is not a treat, but waking up to dawn over the heather-clad mountains makes it all worth it.
How to do it: the Highland sleeper and Lowland sleeper each depart six nights a week, to and from Euston. Book tickets at Scotrail.co.uk; they have a few midweek â€œbargain berths” at Â£19 each way, but youâ€™ll be lucky to get one â€” expect to pay upwards of Â£52 each way for a shared two-berth, second-class cabin.
London to the Alps
The SNCF Snowtrain has been cancelled for this winter – a shame, because it was a riot (as many â€œdisco carriage” hangovers will attest). Eurostarâ€™s direct ski overnight service is no substitute â€” there are no couchettes, only reclining seats. There are still great train options for skiers, though: best is the little-known City Night Line service from Paris to WÃ¶rgl in the Austrian Alps. The German-made trains are modern and efficient, and everything works, from the CCTV in the corridors to the tap water you can actually drink (a rail rarity). No disco, but a very decent restaurant. Leave St Pancras at 4pm, step out into the crisp Alpine air at 9.40am, just a 15-minute taxi from Hopfgarten and the vast SkiWelt ski area.
How to do it: the best booking site is the specialist snowcarbon.co.uk, with masses of information on trains to all resorts and discounted rail-inclusive ski packages. It has links to the best-value booking agency sites for each train: returns from London to WÃ¶rgl in a six-berth couchette, with an easy change from Gare du Nord to Gare de lâ€™Est in Paris, start at Â£175.
The California Zephyr
For Americans, this train has real emotional pull. Itâ€™s the route that won the West, from Chicago to the Pacific in 48 hours â€” across Nebraskaâ€™s endless flat farmland, through the high passes of the Rockies and Sierra Nevada, and down to Oakland, a short bus ride from San Francisco. The â€œroomettes” on the double-decker Superliner sleepers are the last word in small, but the high-level observation lounge is brilliant, the foodâ€™s good and the coffee endless.
How to do it: book direct at amtrak.com. A one-way on the Zephyr in a two-bed roomette can be had from about Â£200, rising to Â£400 at peak times; for a less claustrophobic bedroom, you will need to add on a couple of hundred bucks.
The Indian Pacific
Australiaâ€™s most heralded railway journey in recent years has been the Ghan, crossing the country from top to bottom, Darwin to Adelaide â€” the standard-gauge track was only finished in 2004. Itâ€™s a great journey through the red centre, but itâ€™s pretty touristy. To appreciate the sheer scale of Australiaâ€™s outback, the two-night Indian Pacific (the name denotes the two oceans it links) wins by a nose; Sydney, the tumbling eucalyptus of the Blue Mountains, Adelaide, the endless emptiness of the Nullarbor Plain (with the longest straight section of railway in the world), tiny desert communities and troops of leaping roos, and finally shiny, modern Perth. A classic, and not quite so many retired Americans.
How to do it: book with Great Southern Rail (gsr.com.au). Best value is the Red Service sleeper, with beds in minuscule double cabins, and a lounge and restaurant car to use by day â€” tickets from Â£860. You can more than double that for the superswish platinum service, with roomier double-aspect cabins and top-notch nosh.
The Shosholoza Meyl
The overnighter from Cape Town to Johannesburg is a wonder, sweeping through some of South Africaâ€™s grandest scenery â€” sunrise over the Karoo would move the most hard-bitten Africa hand. The luxury Blue Train offers superb service, but itâ€™s very much a hermetically sealed tourist capsule. The Shosholoza Meyl is much cheaper and infinitely more memorable. Itâ€™s used almost exclusively by locals, so youâ€™ll be swapping stories with people who have a real insight into the place; it has decent beds and good food. The bad news is doesnâ€™t run that often these days â€” check before you book.
How to do it: the Shosholoza Meylâ€™s top-notch â€œpremier classe” trains are running again between Cape Town and Joâ€™burg â€” youâ€™ll find a booking form at shosholoza-meyl.co.za. One-way fares are about Â£180, including meals and a comparatively roomy cabin (theyâ€™re now two-berths, converted from four). If and when it returns, the standard train should cost about Â£40. If you fancy it, the Blue Train (www.bluetrain.co.za) goes from about Â£1,000.
This piece appeared in the Sunday Times on 31 October 2010