I'm lying in bed pouring over a railway timetable. More precisely, I'm searching over and over again the databases of Deutsche Bahn's answer to a well thumbed copy of Thomas Cook's wonderful encyclopaedia of train times, neatly packaged as an app on my iPhone. It doesn't quite have the romantic appeal of the paper and ink version, a thousand or so pages encompassing commuter services in Lisbon, the wonders of high speed travel in France or Germany, ferries in Greece and Italy, and multiple night sleepers crossing Turkey or Russia, but it does have the benefit of being portable, up to date, and - most importantly for me - accessible. And whilst I do miss the smell of the paper, the little city diagrams showing you just how far you'd have to walk to connect between trains at, say Gare Du Nord and Gare de Lyon (about three miles I believe), and the appeal of holding the whole of Europe in my hands, the DB Navigator application somehow makes it all feel a little more tangible - no longer a dream, but real tickets waiting to be bought, and trains ready to depart for destinations new and exciting.
The trip I'm thinking of isn't some pie in the sky adventure to be enjoyed only in my mind. Perhaps some of the options I've looked at would be overly complicated, expensive or ridiculously circuitous, but there is a very good chance that in a little over six months or so I will be watching France glide by outside the 14:41 Paris to Milan TGV, connecting to the Intercity Night service to Sicily, or arriving at Palermo on a sunny summer's morning, having travelled from the tip to toe of Italy. I'm planning a real trip, with long passages, quick connections, and a myriad of changing options to be worked into a coherent itinerary capable of being followed later this year.
But, so far out from the trip itself, plans are already being re-sketched as the European railway map is redrawn by cash strapped operators, seemingly with little regard for the needs of the long distance traveller, still less any nostalgia for the services being erased from history.
I'm not much of a television viewer, I don't own a TV myself and so any programme I do see has generally been pre recorded by my parents in anticipation of me visiting them. Michael Portillo's Great Continental Railway Journeys was one such show, having the fortune to be aired shortly before one of my visits, and to catch the attention of my mum. In this particular episode. Watched - and frankly drooled over - back in the Autumn, everyone's favourite heir to the Palin travelogue journeyed down Italy's west coast, taking in Naples and Vesuvius, crossing the Messina Strait on one of Europe's only remaining boat trains, and finishing up in Syracuse. The scenery was fantastic, the food to die for, but the boat train... I had to do it!
So an outline itinerary was hastily stitched together. The Man in Seat Sixty One ( www.seat61.com ) was, as usual, though unbeknown to him, my travel consultant - suggesting routes that would work, the time it would take and how I should go about booking (not for quite a while yet). We would take the very earliest Eurostar train of the morning, requiring a check in at St Pancras around 5am, then cross Paris in one frantic hour before speeding on down by TGV through the Alps to Italy. After an hour's connection at Turin, apparently one of Italy's most underrated cities, we would continue by Freccisrossa to Rome, and from there to Naples - all in one extraordinary day (particularly if we missed any of the connections... ). In Naples we would break for a day or so, perhaps visit Pompei or Mount Vesuvius, before taking the Intercity day train all the way down to the Straits, across the water on the train ferry, and then onwards to Syracuse. Yes it would be fast, yes it would be exhausting, but how wonderful to travel from London to Sicily, mostly in daylight, and to have ticked off a line on my imaginary bucket list, travelling by train on a ship.
But TrenItalia and Eurostar, it seems, had other ideas. The train ferry link has been under threat for years, apparently losing vast amounts of money, money which the national operator in a struggling Mediterranean economy sorely needs. Several years back they cut some of the long distance services which continued to connect Sicily to cities in the north, leaving only a skeleton timetable of a handful of day and night trains. And then, just a few days ago, came the hammer blow - removing all but one service, the nightly sleeper to and from Rome, taking effect two months before we travel.
Though enormously disappointing this move could have been worse. At least we can still cross the water on a train, albeit at around five in the morning. I won't see the ferry, but I should still experience it, assuming that no further cuts are made. But, the railway gods hadn't finished with my plans - apparently causing eurostar to withdraw their crack of dawn departure, replacing it with a more civilized, though significantly less convenient train ninety minutes later, effectively making it impossible to reach Rome or beyond in a day.
So, I'm pausing for breath and rethinking our options.
In the fast paced world in which we live few of us consciously take the time to do things slowly. Work is about speed and efficiency, we snack as we type, dash for the fastest train connections, and cram as much as possible into every waking hour. So, it probably isn't surprising that something of a revolution has been brewing, a reaction against speed and convenience in favour of comfort and quality. Slow food is one of the ways that this movement has become visible, valuing hand crafted ingredients combined with love and attention, creating dishes to be savored. Slow travel is another such embodiment of the idea, turning our backs on polluting, uncomfortable, frankly undignified aviation, and embracing overland transport once more. I am a big fan of the latter, and would always choose the train over the plane when travelling in Europe, where time and cost allows. But perhaps I've lost my way a little, perhaps the ever expanding tentacles of the European high speed rail network have lured me into thinking that every journey has to be accomplished at 300KPH, with connection times pared to the minimum, and as much distance as possible crammed into a tiny amount of time. Where went my belief in the journey being an integral part of the trip? When did my wish to experience the land through which I travelled depart me? Am I not at risk of taking flights at ground level, knowing little more about the places through which I travel than I would from the window of an aeroplane?
So, I'm starting again, plotting out the lines and services which will not only get us to the ultimate goal of our trip, but will form the straps on which it is suspended, the context in which it is set. Why speed through the Alps when we could pause overnight in Turin, or bypass Milan in the year when it hosts the World Expo? Or spend an hour changing in Rome, not knowing what lies immediately beyond the front door of the station, or be so exhausted from travel that we cannot see the splendors of Etna or the shimmering sea on arrival in Sicily? We still won't see everything en-route, and there will be some compromises along the way. Naples feels, for instance, to be a natural place to pause on our way down the coast, but its tourist centred crime and endemic filth suggest to me a stop elsewhere would be preferable. And, whilst it will be sad to miss the sea views on our way south from Solerno, a night in a sleeper compartment will leave us ready for the experiences of the day to follow.
Arriving at one's holiday destination after a grueling journey, shedding one's luggage, cracking open a beer and enjoying a new found sense of space is a wonderful experience. But how much better will it be knowing that we haven't pushed ourselves to the limit, and knowing a little more about the continent we have just crossed?