Amber light pooled in the Grand Canal’s black waters as we stepped onto the pontoon in front of Venice’s Santa Lucia station.
At 10:30pm, little more than the odd private water taxi rumbled round the canal’s bends, and it was quiet enough to hear the slosh of waves against the wooden dock. Groups of young people sat on the steps leading up to the station’s entrance, the sweet smell of weed on the breeze, skateboards whacking the ground. Touts sent neon toys spinning into the air, gesturing hopefully toward families milling around with gelato.
Inside the station, shutters were down on all shops and cafes, while travelers crouched in doorways checking phones or paced the concourse watching for changes on the screens.
Restless: that was the feeling as I walked around and glanced up the platforms for headlamps, my five-year-old daughter slung over my shoulder, her godfather wheeling our bags. Restless excitement. The atmosphere was different from daytime, when passengers come and go with a sense of ease and purpose. At this hour, people were waiting, watching, stretching, looking at watches – willing time to pass until they could board and be on their way.
We were here to take the Intercity Notte service to Rome. With barely one full day to spend in the capital before an onward journey to Palermo, we had decided to save time – and money – by taking the overnight train, which departs just after 11pm and arrives in Rome at 6:30am. During the day, the high-speed Frecciarossa takes four hours to make the 325-mile (525km) journey south, with tickets starting from €150 for two adults and one child traveling in standard class. By contrast, three tickets in a four-person couchette on the sleeper train cost just €10 more – a net savings when factoring in the price of a hotel.
Looking around, I could see that we weren’t the only ones with the same idea. A father and his young son stood nearby with a teddy bear strapped to the back of a wheelie bag, and a family with two under-2s in a double stroller were also piling up their bags. It must surely be easier to manage groggy toddlers in bunk beds than attempt to restrain and entertain them for four hours.
It was a nice idea in theory. But would the journey pan out without a hitch?
Fifteen minutes before departure, the train arrived at the platform, and the small crowd spread out, looking for their carriages. For extra comfort and privacy, we had booked a three-person compartment at a cost of €210. We boarded to find pre-made beds, a concealed sink and what looked like a small commissary, stocked with six cans of mineral water, two cartons of orange juice, croissants, wheat snacks and three boxes of Grisbi (chocolate shortbread filled with cream). There was also a “man deluxe kit” containing slippers, a toothbrush, a razor, soap, hand gel and tissues; the “woman deluxe kit” featured the same amenities but with cotton pads and earbuds instead of the razor. It felt like traveling in a capsule hotel.
Having slept after an early dinner, my daughter was now wide awake, kneeling up at the foot of the berth and munching the first of the Grisbi. She watched the platform glide away, waving at other people’s friends and relatives as we pulled out on time, the lights of ships on the Venetian Lagoon twinkling through the darkness. With no dining car on board, passengers were lingering in the corridor, squeezing past one another to brush their teeth and prep for bed. Within 15 minutes, all was quiet but for the thump of wheels.
Running parallel with the freeway, the train beat on at a moderate pace. Yet after departing Padua at midnight it began to bolt, speeding past the commune of Montegrotto Terme – where to the right of the train the Duomo of St Peter was beautifully uplit, gold lights trailing up the hillsides. Cross-legged at the window, I watched the shadows of forests fall on the track and the looming figure of Monte Ricco before the train squealed into the town of Monselice. At this point, a pair of small socked feet appeared down the ladder: my daughter had decided she’d prefer to sleep in my berth, which was wide enough for us to share comfortably. On my way to the toilet, I passed the family with the under-2s, the parents pouring wine into paper cups, the girls asleep in one berth. Success.
At around 6am, we woke to a knock on the door and hot coffee. Beneath the blinds were navy skies and a magnificent mist wrapped like a scarf around forest. A blur of golden moon shone from on high, bobbing alongside as we raced through the suburbs. Empty stations flashed by, the horizon turning paler by the second. Passing warehouses, factories and apartment blocks still dark at dawn, the train slowed into Roma Termini, the city barely stirring. It was 6:15am.
As delightful as it is to arrive with the entire day stretching out ahead of you, it isn’t easy to wander the streets with young children and luggage while waiting for a 3pm check-in. After a bit of research, however, I had learned that The Hoxton allows guests who book online to select what time they’d like to check in – at any time of day. A 10-minute taxi ride brought us to the hotel, where we were settled in and showered by 7, eating fried eggs and Tuscan sausage by 7:30 – and tossing coins into the Trevi Fountain by 8.