Until last year, I normally flew when I went to my house in Capena (near Rome in Italy) from Cardiff. I never undertook the mammoth drive more than once a year and only when I went for a couple of months and could justify the three days of travel either end. Then I got Lottie, my Lagotto Romagnolo dog, and decided to try the train. Rail travel is cheaper and more relaxing than driving when travelling solo and also generates only 14 grams of CO2 emissions per passenger mile, compared to 285 grams generated by air travel, and the 158 grams from journeys in cars.
- I took a few trial trips on the bus with Lottie, to get her used to public transport. We went to the railway station and had a sniff round the platforms and trains. I had a cup of tea on the platform with her and fed her some treats as we watched everyone coming and going and got used to the new noises and activities.
- I spent hours researching train times and special dog rules in each country. Sometimes these differ according to train type within the same country, so it’s best to be prepared.
- My guru for train travel was, as ever, The Man in Seat Sixty-One, who told me all I needed to know about travelling with a dog to mainland Europe. I love the blog Miss Darcy’s Adventures. Miss Darcy the indefatigable cockapoo is always setting off on intrepid overland journeys and has a great page on train travel
- I packed and repacked until all I had was my laptop and a few gadgets I’d need to work in Italy, minimal toiletries, only essential clothing (I had more clothes waiting for me in Italy), Lottie’s food for the duration of our trip, collapsible dog bowls and a fleece sleeping mat. I decided she’d just have to switch to local food on arrival and hoped her tummy was up to the challenge (it was). I ditched my slightly too heavy backpack at the last minute in favour of a trolley case and cross-body handbag.
Cardiff to London
The warm-up was a 2-hour train trip from Cardiff to Paddington. Lottie travelled free for the first and last time.
At Paddington we went out onto the street for a loo break. I wasn’t sure if she would differentiate between being outside the train and outside the station, but she never faltered and didn’t pee until we were out in the street. Good girl Lottie!
We had a crowded cross-London trip on the Hammersmith and City line to Liverpool Street Station at rush hour to catch the 19:32 Dutch Flyer to Harwich and the official start of the trip. You’re supposed to carry your dog on escalators, but I wanted to avoid this as Lottie weighs over 15 kg. I selected the option of “step-free access” on the Transport for London journey planner and found the Hammersmith and City line had lift access to the platforms.
I expected the Dutch Flyer to be a bit more impressive-looking. A bit of gold livery or something would have been nice. It’s actually a very normal commuter train to east London and beyond, and was gratifyingly empty at 7:32 on a Monday night.
We were disgorged at the Harwich ferry terminal and funnelled through a series of walkways to the airport-style security check and customs. I was given my meal vouchers and – an unexpected bonus – two one-day tickets for travel within Holland on trains and underground, one for the following day and one for the day of my return ferry trip.
It’s worth nipping outside the station in Harwich for a brisk walk round the carpark, because otherwise there’s no opportunity until the dog exercise enclosure on deck 7 of the ferry.
Stena Line Harwich to Hook of Holland ferry
We headed up the gangway onto the massive Stena Line ferry and were guided by smiling crew members on every corner to Customer Services on Deck 9. Even the trepidatious Lottie started to get in the holiday mood, but her hopes of a sociable trip with her new human friends were soon dashed when she was escorted down to the kennels on deck 8 and firmly locked away opposite an equally disgruntled poodle. We were handed a flyer with simple rules for using the kennels. The Stena Line webite has lots of practical information on travelling with your pet.
The kennels are clean and spacious. Quilts are provided to lie on and I put Lottie’s mat on top of one of those. There’s a sink for washing up and fresh drinking water, plus spare food bowls.
Once I’d got Lottie settled, I went and found my very comfortable cabin with en suite. Most of the journey takes place in the dark, so the cheapest single cabin without a porthole is a good option at £39.50.
Then came a quick dash back to take Lottie to the small dog exercise enclosure on level 7 for a pee. She declined – the smooth blue deck was all too weird.
I returned Lottie to her cage opposite the poodle and headed for the bar. I’d booked dinner and breakfast, but I definitely won’t do that again as it was already 10 pm by the time I sat down to eat. I certainly didn’t feel like anything at 6:30 am the following morning either.
After a good but superfluous meal, I wandered to the stern windows expecting to survey a vast expanse of ocean, only to find we were still tied up in Harwich. Not long after, we were on our way at last, and I had a chance to experience the fabled stability of the Stena Line ferries. I could hardly tell we were sailing.
We were due to disembark at 8 am, Dutch time, i.e. one hour ahead, so I headed for bed. I turned on the TV to check on Lottie via CCTV on Channel 6 (hastily switching over from the dodgy S&M on one of the other channels). She was slumbering peacefully, so I did likewise.
Hook of Holland Ferry to Zurich
I was woken at 6:30 am by the ship’s tannoy warning us to get ready because we’d be docking at 8 am. I had a cursory breakfast, packed up my possessions and, taking them with me, went to take Lottie back to the exercise enclosure on deck 7. This time, she obliged with a pee as she watched the gangplank being brought up and then we were first off the ferry as the disembarkation route on the Harwich-Hoek van Holland route is via deck 7 (it’s the opposite stairway on the way back).
It’s a good idea to grab some paper towels from the handy doggy dispenser as you leave the ferry because it’s a long, long walk to the exit and accidents can happen.
Once outside, we had a quick turn round the car park and then went to the railway platform at the side of the ferry terminal (remembering to check in by holding my ticket up to the ticket reader). I needed to get to Utrecht to intercept the main train route from Amsterdam down to southern Europe and had checked the times on the NS (Dutch rail company) journey planner. We boarded a commuter train in the direction of Nesselande. The information I had was a little out of date because, as of September 2019, you no longer have to get off 9 stops along line B at Schiedam but can continue to Rotterdam. This was great news, because I was able to stay on the same train until Rotterdam Alexander, where I changed for the Utrecht train.
Rotterdam Alexander station is being extensively updated but lifts were still available onto the platforms. I deliberately missed an earlier connection in favour of a cappuccino and Lottie’s breakfast at a convenient outdoor cafe.
Next stop, Utrecht. Though this was a big, confusing station for Lottie, she took it in her stride. Again we had time for a quick walk outside and for me to grab a sandwich to eat on the train.
I’d bought my tickets from Utrecht to Zurich (my starting point for the following day’s Bernina Express trip) from the Deutsche Bahn website and used their trip planner to decide on the route. The best option for me was to go through Frankfurt and it offered me a handy hour and a half stopover at lunchtime. I’ve since checked with the Trainline Europe and Google route planners and the route via Frankfurt still comes out best.
Buying tickets through the Deutsche Bahn website: I was able to download and print my own tickets for the Utrecht-Frankfurt route (or you can add them to the DB Navigator app), but Lottie’s half-price tickets and my Bernina Express ticket (see below) had to be posted to me. The mail service to the UK was extremely efficient and I received all tickets within a couple of days, though I did have to pay postage.
Luckily I’d registered with the Deutsche Bahn site when buying my ticket, because about an hour from Frankfurt, I got an email to say a stop on my route had been cancelled. Shortly after that, a series of train announcements began (in German and English), telling passengers bound for Switzerland to get off at Frankfurt Airport (instead of Frankfurt Central), change to a Mannheim-bound train, get off there and then pick up the original planned train to Zurich.
This threw all my plans awry. Lottie and I had to descend onto a gleaming marble platform inside the airport and she needed a toilet break! Luckily I was able to grab some paper towels on the train before we got off and retreat discreetly to the end of the platform. As the trip progressed, I found that a lot of outside train platforms petered out in a scruffy, weedy area well away from other passengers where it was fine for Lottie to have a pee without having to leave the station.
After that drama, while I was absorbed checking on my phone whether the Zurich train I’d connect with in Mannheim was the one from Frankfurt Central that I had reserved seats on, my Mannheim train quietly came and went from further down the platform. We had to wait another hour for the next one, but luckily were still in time to connect with the Zurich train and gratefully resume our trip in our reserved seats.
We got to Zurich about 8 pm. I needed to be close to the station for our 7:07 start the following morning. None of the hotels near the station were cheap and I’d opted for Hotel Montana, which was the most competitively priced at just under EUR 100 and under 10 minutes’ walk away from the station. I was expecting a standard station hotel in a run-down inner city location but couldn’t have been more wrong. The hotel is quirky and beautifully restored and the surrounding area is full of interesting little bars and restaurants. I also found several small supermarkets and a wonderful Migros store full of vegetarian and vegan options for a picnic on the train next day. I’m not vegetarian or vegan, but it was great to stock up on healthy food after a couple of days living on sandwiches.
Zurich to Lake Como via the Bernina Express
The Bernina Express ride was the centrepiece of my trip and everything had been planned around it. It was my second time on the spectacular route. I’d used The Man in Seat 61’s guide to getting a cheap ticket and reserving a seat in a panoramic wagon and managed to get a ticket for EUR 19.99 but forgot to reserve my seat as I got sidetracked by having to buy a one-day dog travelpass on Swiss railways online for Lottie at CHF 35. The train wasn’t full though, and I was able to buy a panoramic seat from the guard for EUR 10 (the online price). It turned out to be a good option as I was able to choose the best carriage, but I wouldn’t recommend going without a reservation at busier times of year. The Bernina Express route operated by Rhaetian Railway is a feat of engineering and has UNESCO World Heritage status.
We got to the station to catch the 7:07 train from Zurich to Chur (where the Bernina Express starts), but couldn’t find a lift or any stairs. Running out of time, I threw caution to the winds and Lottie on the escalator. She didn’t turn a hair, no bones were broken and – most important – we caught the train.
The train trip to Chur from Zurich takes about an hour and the scenery starts to change to more mountainous terrain.
At Chur station, we swapped to the smart, shiny red-liveried Rhaetian Railway train with its massive panoramic windows and settled in for 4 hours of delight. The train is cosy, the seats are generously spaced and the crew are particularly attentive. The whole experience irresistibly reminded me of an old Italian TV ad for Campari dating from 1984 directed by Fellini. In this, a very eighties-looking girl sprawls boredly across the seats of a train carriage clicking the buttons of a remote control to change the view (remote controls had probably only just been invented). She’s unimpressed, but then the Svengali-like figure in the seat opposite clicks his fingers. A winking waitress appears with a tray of Camparis. Suddenly the view from the window changes to iconic Italian landmarks and the girl cheers up. As confirmation of the enhancing powers of alcohol, the staff of the Bernina Express also offer cold beers and bubbly as the trip progresses.
The train goes through 55 tunnels, crosses 196 bridges and tackles gradients of up to 70 %, climbing to 2,253 metres above sea level. The scenery is spectacular and the engineering is mind-boggling as you traverse precipitous viaducts and see the carriages ahead of you disappearing into the rock face.
At its highest point, the vegetation became sparser. We travelled over a glacial plateau with small lakes that are turquoise from meltwater (on a clear day), and we saw the first snow.
This trip took place on 31 October but when I did it a few years ago in February, we were travelling through snow the whole way from Chur. The train stops for about 15 minutes at the Ospizio Bernina for everyone to get out, snap photos and have a drink at the bar. Not long after that, the train starts to descend, very slowly and gingerly on the steepest bits.
Soon you can see Italy stretched out far below you with Lake Como glistening in the distance and then you are crossing green lowland meadows and even village streets.
The train arrives in Tirano at 12:49, which allowed plenty of time for Lottie to stretch her legs before we crossed the square to the Italian state railways (FS) station and caught the 13:09 regional train to Milan. Regional Trains have different rules about dogs to long-distance Freccia trains. You have to get a ticket for them and sit on the “platform” which is an area between the carriages equipped with folding seats. They’re supposed to have a muzzle too. The guard told me all this, but then continued down the train without a backward glance once he’d thrown the the rule book at me.
We got off the train at Bellano-Tartavalle Terme station, about an hour’s ride from Tirano. The station was only 10 minutes’ walk to the lakeside and lake ferry terminal.
I stayed in an apartment booked through booking.com. It was in a great location for the lake and had room for at least three people, so a couple of friends came over from Milan to join me for the night. The lake had a very end of season feel about it, but was still lovely and we enjoyed a couple of aperitivi and a good meal.
The following morning we wandered round the lake with Lottie and discovered the warren of back streets at the heart of Bellano. It was full of quaint little shops and a great pastry shop, where we had breakfast.
Lake Como to Capena
I caught the 10:39 train from Bellano to Milan to catch the 12:20 high-speed Freccia Rossa train to Roma Tiburtina, where I connected with my last train to Monterotondo-Mentana.
I bought my ticket through the Trenitalia app, which stores details of my free Cartafreccia loyalty card. A certain number of discounted tickets are available for Cartafreccia holders over 60, but you usually have to snap these up months in advance.
I had to get a half price second class ticket for Lottie from Trenitalia. Sometimes promotional EUR 5 tickets are available for dogs, but you have to buy them in person at a FS ticket office. Dogs over 10 kg are supposed to be muzzled. I carried one for Lottie, but no-one asked me to put it on her. Dogs under 10 kg in a carrier travel free.
Italo is Italy’s alternative train company. Its beautiful high-speed trains are usually much cheaper than Frecce trains for human passengers, but it has complicated and expensive rules for dogs over 10 kg not in a carrier (dogs under 10 kg in a carrier go free). They have to wear a muzzle and you have to call Italo on 06 07 08 and reserve a place for them as places for large dogs are limited. Once you’ve done all that, you have to cough up an eye-watering EUR 50 per trip. This option is available with Flex tickets in Prima and Comfort categories and for the Smart option on Evo trains.
We had about 40 minutes at Milan station, so nipped out of a side entrance and found a nice patch of grass and a kiosk where Lottie had a loo break and I bought a panino for the journey.
Then we sat back and sped to Rome Tibertina in about 3 hours, travelling at just under 300 km/h.
Our last leg was a local train to Monterotondo-Mentana (I’d already downloaded tickets onto my Trenitalia app for me and Lottie).
Monterotondo-Mentana station isn’t very appealing, but its drab concrete underpass has been enlivened with mosaics by ceramic artists Nina Kullman and Battista Rea from Capena with contributions from local schoolchildren. Battista offers pottery courses for adults and children.
A friend came to pick me up from the station, much to Lottie’s delight, and we drove into Capena where we found the Halloween celebrations in full swing and gratefully relaxed into village life.
A month later, we did the whole trip in reverse, setting out from Monterotondo-Mentana station on a chilly late November day.
This time we weren’t diverted away from Frankfurt station and were able to sample its wonderful food court.
I managed to miss my Zurich train in Milan because I tried to board from the wrong side of the train. It wasn’t as stupid as it sounds because access wasn’t blocked (as you can see from the photo below). I had to walk the length of another very long out-of-service train with locked carriages first. By the time I realised my mistake, I’d covered a few hundred metres along the platform and it was too late to run back and then pant the same distance up the other side. Hammering on the closed carriages doors was to no avail and I just had to look on in despair as the train pulled out without me. I think it must happen quite often because Trenitalia customer service swapped my ticket for a later train at no extra cost without quibbling.
As on the outward trip, DB made a route change, again announcing it with a “train cancellation or unserviceability of a stop” email. This entailed an unexpected train change in Basel. Fair enough, except we only had 8 minutes to find the train, the announcer neglected to tell us which platform it left from and it wasn’t clear from the board. I hopped agitatedly from foot to foot behind a good-looking guy at the information desk who was being chatted up by a bossy middle-aged woman who looked as though she’d just walked off the set of League of Gentlemen or Little Britain. When she reluctantly deigned to speak to me, I gasped “Train for Frankfurt, which platform?”, whereupon she had the gall to correct my English”: “I think you mean the train TO Frankfurt”. I was outraged – did she know she was talking to a translator and editor? – but no time to retort as I had to hot-foot it to the platform. When I got there, I double-checked I was boarding the right train with another middle-aged female train guard who didn’t fit the mould either: this one was decidely louche with a fag in the corner of her mouth and shirt hanging out.
Processing it all as I slumped gratefully in my seat, having caught the train by the skin of my teeth, I decided that a well-worn slightly scruffy traveller dragging a dog around on a piece of rope was probably in no position to cast aspersions on others. Next time I might go for a more “Orient Express” look.
After those slight niggles, the main highlight of the return trip was meeting two girls travelling solo with their pets on the Hoek van Holland – Harwich ferry. One was bringing a cat from Puglia and the other was bringing a dog from Sweden. We all felt the same sense of pride at having made it. Lottie and I shared part of the trip from Harwich to London with Sophie from Sweden and her dog Charlie who were en route for Edinburgh, and agreed it was a lot of fun travelling as a pack.
The journey was more expensive than flying but not prohibitive, especially when you treat the trip as a holiday instead of a means of getting from A to B. It certainly costs less than driving and is much less exhausting.
The time wasn’t wasted: I carried my laptop and managed to get a lot of work done.
Train routes get changed at the last minute and platforms get switched. You have to be alert for announcements and prepared to be flexible. With trains, it seems there’s always a way…
Travel as light as possible.
It’s great to cross the continent and see how everything is connected – and how people and attitudes subtly change as you cross borders. There’s a special magic in boarding a train in Frankfurt station announcing its destination as “Amsterdam” – and breakfasting in Rome, lunching in Milan and dining in Zurich.
Last but not least, relax! You’ll get there in the end.