Step one: 1,700 kilometres by train


Mountains! View out the window of the train, travelling through the Alps between France and Italy.

On Tuesday morning I left the little apartment in the Canal Saint Martin area of Paris that had been home for a week. I wasn’t going to miss the five flights of stairs or the loft bed I was always terrified of falling out of, but I enjoyed having a place that felt like home. I spent enough years living in hotels while I was on tour to appreciate the luxury of a kitchen and a washing machine.

This was the beginning of my big adventure – overland (and oversea) travel from Paris to Athens. The whole journey involved three days, two long-haul trains, an overnight ferry, a replacement bus, two short-haul trains, and several taxis. And I was so excited to get started!

I boarded my train to Italy at the Gare de Lyon. The first class ticket was less than 20€ more expensive than the regular train ticket (which was already pretty cheap, considering) so I splurged. For a 7-hour journey, I figured it was worth it.

The seat was comfortable with lots of leg room. And it reclined. It was a solo seat by the window, so I didn’t have anyone next to me, either. I got to just curl up and watch the scenery unfold.

It’s weird, if I’m on the move, I can sit for hours and not get bored. Even after seven hours on a train, I didn’t want the journey to be over. Watching out the window is like a meditation for me. I love it. (The only exception to this tends to be aeroplanes, because I’m so physically uncomfortable.)

I had this dream that the train journey would feel like some kind of compressed visit to the parts of France I never seem to get to. I didn’t exactly get my wish. Large sections of the train line passed through industrial areas (which shouldn’t really surprise me) or else had trees or walls or banks lining the path that blocked my view. The further south we got the better it was, though, and when we hit the Alps, the mountain vistas more than made up for any small disappointments.

I arrived in Milan around 6pm. The plan was, originally, to walk to the hotel – I had a map prepared and everything. When I booked my tickets in August, this seemed like a fine idea. I hadn’t realized it would be dark when I arrived in Milan, and wandering around by myself near the train station in a strange city in the dark suddenly didn’t seem like a great idea.

My plans to spend an hour or two exploring the city before bed went the way of the dodo for the same reason.

So, sadly, my night in Milan was underwhelming on several fronts. The hotel room was freezing (it was colder in Milan than in Paris), there was something crusty on the bedspread (which I stripped off instantly – I slept under the spare blanket from the closet and my thickest sweatshirt instead), and the pesto linguine I ordered at a nearby restaurant was depressingly mediocre.


Slightly crooked view out the train window, travelling south down the coast of Italy.

The next morning, I did get to walk to the train station, though. It was just barely light outside and I got a bit of a look at the city. Much more modern and glossy than any other city I’ve encountered in Europe, full of the tall glass buildings I usually associate with North America.

This second train journey was a little less comfortable, but the views made up for it. There had been a frost overnight, and as the sun came up, a thick, white fog hovered just above the ground, softening all the edges.

In the afternoon, we reached the coast and travelled with a view of palm trees and sandy beaches and turquoise water for a long while. It looked like it should be delightfully warm out there, but every person we passed was bundled into scarves and hats and puffy jackets.

This time, at the end of the eight-hour ride I was actually ready to get off and stretch my legs. Two full days on a train had stretched even my love of travel, and I was feeling tired and rumpled.

It was four in the afternoon, I was laden with bags, and I still had a couple of hours to kill before I could check in for my overnight ferry ride. I had hoped to find a restaurant in the train station where I could hunker down for a bit, but the station was both tiny and under construction. Frustrated, I staggered outside. I didn’t want to go too far from the taxi rank, and couldn’t walk far with all my gear. My giant backpack screamed ‘tourist’, and I felt a bit like a walking target.

I crossed the roundabout outside the train station, and I am sad to admit, I have never been so pleased to see a McDonald’s in all my life. Clean bathrooms, familiar food, and somewhere safe to sit and read my book for a couple of hours: Sold!

An hour or so of familiarity and calm helped to recharge my batteries, and I found my excitement again by the time I jumped in a taxi to head to the port.

Next step: overnight ferry across the Aegean Sea.


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