Can’t quite decide between Paris and Venice for your surprise romantic city break? Why choose when you can have the best of both worlds?
My girlfriend has no patience with travel planning, so when it came to booking our anniversary mini-break she was more than happy to leave the itinerary to me. Our shared love of Agatha Christie gave us a hankering for a ride on the Orient Express, but our shared budget required a little more creativity.
I said I’d sleep on it, and indeed I did. We’d easyjet it to Paris and then I’d surprise her with a sleeper train all the way down to Venice.
Not to say that Paris didn't earn me brownie points all on its own. After an unremarkable train ride through grey suburbs, we emerged from the murky depths of Saint-Michel Station (Metro line 4) into a merry maelstrom of tabacs, patisseries and locals seemingly plucked straight from the set of Amelie.
The budget part of our trip was spent at the unfortunately-named Hotel Monge (c.90 Euros per night) in the bookish and eclectic Latin Quarter - an area offering laid-back immersion into the classic Parisian experience - wide avenues busy with shops and bars, proudly-tendered public gardens and the elegant buildings of the renowned Sorbonne University.
The Latin Quarter is also home to one of the surprisingly few diners still open late at night - the cute and kitschy Breakfast in America (www.breakfast-in-america.com) with toasters placed on every table.
Hotel Monge is neat and cheery with an elegant maroon bar, fresh furnishings, decent beds and possibly the world’s smallest lift! It offers an interesting view of an old Roman arena that doubles by day as a makeshift football pitch for youngsters.
We found Notre Dame and a bus stop (www.viator.com/tours/Paris) for a whistle-stop open-top tour of the principle sights (with variable audio commentary!). After some retail envy in the truly decadent Printemps department store, we explored the achingly-hip Marais, where after several failed attempts to order a JD and Coke the barman exclaimed with final recognition, "Ah, oui - Jacques Danielle!"
Feeling a little sheepish about taking a rain check on the Louvre, we satisfied our cultural thirst with quick once-around the uber-modern Pompidou Centre followed by a large glass of red outside the nearby Tuilerrie Gardens. We slept soundly, me with a smug knowledge that the real adventure awaited us the next day.
This began with a taxi ride to Paris Bercy, (Metro lines 6 and 14, c.14 Euros) a fairly modest (and consequently mobbed!) station north-east of the Seine that exists solely to provide overnight trains to Italy. Ours was bound for Venice - and bound to please.
Our ingeniously-designed private compartment (two surprisingly spacious bunks) was prepared, just as we breezed through Dijon, and in time for dinner. This experience was more Fawlty Towers than Hercule Poirot. While we hooted at the cutlery hilariously pinging off at every other chicane, our mostly French/Italian neighbours regarded it all with cool detachment.
Undeniably cosy though our pod was, sleep is not really the point of a transnational sleeper train. For less activity-inclined souls like us, there are few ‘thrills’ to compare with shuttling along, toboggan-like, through France, Switzerland and Italy at 200mph, while drifting in and out of a strangely hyper-excited slumber.
With passports, croissants and coffee delivered to our door, we reached Venice at around 9am, after a 13 hour trip.
Still on a high, we navigated the chaotic vaporetto to St Marks Square and then took our private (and inclusive) boat transfer to the Bauer Palladio Hotel Venice, a converted 16th century nunnery on the peaceful islet of Giudecca. At £75 per night, it was an unbelievable steal for a five-star hotel. Our palatial room with brown marble bathroom and toiletries that positively defied oral consumption was hard to resist, but resist it we did for a meander around the city’s beguiling backwaters.
After weathering a dramatic thunderstorm, we settled down to some mouthwatering tagliata and crisp salad in Antica Birraria La Corte Restaurant (Campo San Polo), before retiring to our sumptuous bed.
Breaking the home leg was a Weeze
The last leg was a pragmatically cheap ryanair flight from Venice Treviso to Dusseldorf Weeze, a small ex-RAF town near the Dutch German border. In truth, we saw very little of this pilgrimage town, arriving after midnight at the Hotel am Buhnenhaus for a sleepover to break the return leg. But our hotelier was refreshingly sweet and breezy for a man who had to provide both bed and breakfast for us inside six hours.
Train travel still has a little way to go before it can burst the budget airline bubble. But our trip showed that with a little travel planning, geekery can pay dividends for those who want to have their croissant and eat it on the Bridge of Sighs.
Rail tickets: From €178 with www.raileurope.co.uk