“ Country: Spain / Transport Type: Railway / Spanish sleeper train service provided in Spain and France „
The Boyfriend was misty eyed. "It'll be beautiful.... we'll get to see the sun rise over the Spainish landscape. The mountains. Magical, just magical." He hates to fly, but it was that time of year again. We were going to Spain to see his mum and this time we would be introducing her to her gorgeous new grandchild. He'd researched the possibility of taking the train instead of a short flight; his reasoning was that all the additional baggage required by our little M&M would cost a fortune in excess if we flew, that there would be no hanging around in airports, that he would be less stressed. We would get the Eurostar, then the Elipsos Train Hotel from Paris to Barcelona and then some more trains.
As I ran down the modern platform at Paris Austerlitz, pushing the buggy and laden with a travelcot and folding highchair as well as a rucksack full of small clothes, it seemed to me that this was not entirely stress free. I breathed a sigh of relief as we checked in smoothly at a makeshift desk at the end of the platform and waited outside the coach. But when we were shown down the narrow corridor to our minute cabin, The Boyfriend was apologising before I even got in the door. It was the size of a large toilet cubicle, longer than it was wide, with two threadbare grey seats on one grey wall. Facing these seats, so close that you couldn't stretch your legs out, were a shelf with hangers below it for clothes, a metal door and a sink with a cabinet above it. It was reminiscent of a prison cell, albeit a well designed and equipped one.
Before we went on this trip, I was googling the words 'baby' and 'train hotel' / "trenhotel" like crazy. I wanted to be work out what the sleeping arrangements would be and how I was going to manage in this kind of confinement with a very active small person. And disappointingly, I found nothing. So here's the truth; you have no space for a travelcot (even my tiny Phil & Teds) or separate sleeping area. There isn't anywhere safe to put the baby on the floor. On the days we travelled, I counted myself lucky that our little M&M wasn't yet particularly mobile. She and I have been co-sleeping anyway, so having her snuggled up in bed, arms round my neck, wasn't a problem. On most of the continent, sharing a bed with your baby is commonplace and they stay in the train hotel for free under the age of 4 years old. With older children you could just book the cabin next door and give them their own beds, the connecting doors open directly and it would be easy and economical for a family of four to sleep this way. However, with a fragile little newborn and a hard metal wall on one side of the bed and a drop on to a hard floor on the other I can see why you wouldn't want to risk this. And with a toddler, you'd really have your work cut out.
While The Boyfriend was trying to work out where exactly we were going to put two huge bags and a pram, while still leaving room for the three of us, there came a knock at the door. Our smartly dressed hostess politely asked if we would like a dinner reservation in the dining car and what time we would like the beds made up. Given that we'd been up before 7am and eaten in Paris, we asked that the beds be put down early. Pocketing the key card and our breakfast vouchers, we left the cabin to walk down the train while this was done, M&M squirming and pointing out of the carriage windows at the scenery rushing by.
At the end of our carriage was a stainless steel toilet and sink which were shared with the other rooms. The small space was a bit claustrophobic and although clean, the toilet was sufficiently unpleasant that no-one in their right mind would linger. Next came 'Grand Class', the first class version of our sleeping arrangements. The cabins here were much the same as ours from what I glimpsed through the doorways, but with the connecting door leading to a bathroom instead of another cabin and slightly smarter upholstery. The carriage corridor itself was pink instead of the standard grey and there was the faintest whiff of perfume. The Boyfriend suggested that 'next time' we would take Grand Class, but unwilling to concede that there might be a 'next time' and never one to be keen on having a toilet too close to the bed, I merely made a non-committal noise. I was later to hear from some Americans who'd travelled Grand Class that the shower was more of a tepid drizzle than a proper wash in any case. Shampooing long hair seemed to be out of the question. If you don't like to be enclosed in a cabin, there are also reclining seats in the main carriages.
The dining car and bar were at the end of the next coach, looking impressively smart and well lit, with shiny wine glasses and wide seats. We turned and went back to our cabin, where having the beds down and the folded pram stuffed into the connecting doorway made all the difference. The room now looked cosy and comfortable, so M&M and I flopped onto the bottom bunk and pulled out the mini overnight bag from the main case. The Boyfriend lifted the heavy luggage onto the top bunk and then slid it into a deep recess above the door. It occurred to me that it would be 1) impossible to get anything out once it was up there and 2) that you need to be strong to make use of a storage space so far above your head. Not ideal, but it cleared some room. The maximum luggage size is 250cm square, which amused us, because surely that would take up the entire cabin?
Our hostess had taken our tickets and passports, so I'm pleased to say we were spared the frequent checks at the border and left undisturbed for the night, with the train staff taking care of all that.
The sink wasn't quite big enough to bath her in, so I gave M&M a cursory wash, put her into her pyjamas and tucked her in with S, her much loved Giraffe. The Boyfriend was on the top bunk, waxing lyrical about the huge window and the views over France at dusk. The tap at the sink was a push button one, hot only and not drinking water but the cupboard over the sink contained bottled water for this purpose and towels. While I was cleaning my teeth, to our horror, she rolled out of the bed and banged her head, bursting into tears. I comforted her and we settled into the comfortable bed, but between worrying about any possible results from her accident and the volume of The Boyfriend's unfairly untroubled snoring I didn't sleep. On top of this, my nose began to run and I realised I had a cold coming on.
He'd turned the heating control to some kind of super-cold setting and despite my protests, left the blinds open so he wouldn't miss anything. So I huddled, shivering, under the spare blankets, as dawn broke over the Spanish countryside and daylight illuminated the bunks. And at this point I realised he was right. It was romantic and magical, but I was watching it alone. I woke M&M, who was fine, and fed her as we passed through picturesque towns while the sun hung in the sky like a low ball of fire. The whole experience suddenly appealed to my impatient side; we could travel and sleep at the same time. It was wonderful and I was converted.
Around 7am, I began prodding The Boyfriend so that we could get to the dining car for breakfast. On seeing it last night, there hadn't been many seats, it was quite a big train and we'd agreed that we should get there early. We were offered two empty seats next to another couple, with a baby of the same age. Given that M&M doesn't have pierced ears, the Spanish always assumed she was a boy and this was no exception. Better still, she was in her pyjamas, which weren't pink enough. The waiter bringing tea and coffee performed a little song with the pots for our 'little boy' and was rewarded with a round of applause.
The table was nicely laid, with glasses of orange juice poured and were small jars of strawberry jam and pats of butter in the centre of the table. The breakfast itself wasn't great; a continental mix of one slice of bread, one small anaemic croissant, one pain au chocolat (worst one we'd ever tasted) and two slices of apple and a solitary grape rolling on the dish. But I can't judge it on this; the breakfast on the way back was so much better, with yoghurts, toast instead of bread and second helpings of coffee plus a proper pot of tea. Both times M&M swiped buttery fingers of toast from my plate and cheerfully mashed them with her gums as we ate.
As we rolled through Girona (initially misheard by me as My Sharona over the tannoy), we returned to the cabin to pack up and wash. At this point I discovered a half opened 'comfort kit' in the cabinet, containing a toothbrush and some earplugs I would have been very glad of the night before. On arrival at Barcelona Franca, we yawned at the fresh air as the doors opened, but managed to take our entire luggage off the train without feeling hurried and jam up the small bin with dirty nappies. Emptying the cabin was easier than filling it and we rebuilt and reloaded the pram before heading out of the station to get a taxi to Barcelona Sants.
After a week of proving to my in-laws what an overprotective psycho mummy I am, we headed back. Our return journey was much the same, though that time we got two unopened comfort kits and a rude and unpleasant steward in place of the pleasant lady who'd attended to us on the way out. The same waiter puzzlingly sang the same song at breakfast, this time forgetfully holding our daughter aloft and shouting "look at me, first time on a train!." I managed to sleep that time, with the turns in the track occasionally disturbing me in the night, though thankfully there were no further spills involving my daughter. Overall, the night train was a nice experience, if a bit functional and compact and I might even agree to take it again. (Though I won't be telling The Boyfriend that just yet....)
If you book early you can get some great deals. We left it late and paid the full whack. I haven't quoted prices and this is because they fluctuate hugely depending on season, offers and whether you book on the phone or online. Overall I'm giving it three stars thanks to the inconsistencies between the two journeys, the fact that the cabins were in need of a good clean and because on the return leg, we had a surprisingly bumpy ride. So, if you've made it this far, then thanks for reading. And if you've come across this while googling for baby friendly holiday options, I hope it's helped.
For many reasons - so many that they will have to form the subject of a separate review - I would always prefer to travel by rail than by air, time and money permitting. Unfortunately, they don't always permit. Even when they do, there is often a balance to be struck between my preference for rail and the amount of time and money required to exercise it. In weighing up the options, distance tends to be the crucial variable.
Travelling to Paris or Brussels from where I live in Kent - or from London for that matter - I'd regard it as crazy to fly. The Eurostar train service is quicker (taking into account check-in times), more comfortable, much less hassle and generally no more expensive. For the south of France, flying loses a little of its craziness, but generally I'd still consider Eurostar+TGV to be a more attractive choice.
Northern Spain, Barcelona for example? The case becomes marginal. You can still do it by rail in a day from London, but the fares become a little less competitive, and it's a long day, starting earlier than I usually care to be conscious. In order to set out at a more civilised hour, you can break the journey by staying overnight somewhere in France, but then you have to take into account the cost of a hotel, although you could of course regard that night as part of your holiday, for which you would in any case expect to pay.
Or you could consider the Elipsos Trenhotel.
* The Trenhotel service *
Elipsos is a company jointly owned by SNCF and RENFE, the national railway networks of France and Spain respectively. It runs overnight sleeper trains from Paris to Barcelona and Madrid. There are also services to Spain from Zurich and Milan, though these are likely to be of less interest to British-based travellers. You can join the trains at intermediate stops en route (for example, at Blois or Poitiers for Madrid), though these again are likely to be of less interest to passengers starting from Britain.
'Trenhotel', of course, translates simply as 'train hotel'; indeed, some of the logos displayed on the carriages have it in the English version. 'Hotel' is perhaps a slightly pretentious description for what is really a straightforward sleeper service. Accommodation ranges from 'Gran Class' - private compartments with their own shower and toilet facilities - through four-bed cabins all the way down to reclining seats in a twenty-seat saloon car, but even at the top of the range the available space is used very sparingly. To me it was definitely a sleeper compartment on a train rather than a hotel room, or even "roomette" - as it is described on the Elipsos website.
* Our journey *
Having travelled in a leisurely way from Ashford to Paris at lunchtime and spent a pleasant few hours in the French capital in the afternoon, my wife and I joined the Barcelona train at the Gare d'Austerlitz just after 8.00 in the evening. There was (air travellers please note) no queuing, no baggage check-in, no hanging around interminably in departure lounges, no security searches or cross-questioning. We just walked onto the platform, located our carriage, gave our tickets and passports to the attendant and were admitted to our compartment. Everything in it was in order.
By the time the train drew out of the station half-an-hour later we were already sitting down to a glass of cava in the comfortable dining-car. As the southern outskirts of the city rolled by, we relaxed and discussed the menu. By Orleans, an hour down the track, we were eating a pleasant dinner. Another hour after that, somewhere south of Vierzon, we were back in our compartment to prepare for bed, the carriage attendant having transformed the seats into bunks in the meantime. With only a little jostling for position in the cramped space available, we were soon tucked up and being lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the rails. Presumably we stopped in Limoges according to schedule just before midnight, but if so I was unaware of it.
Dawn, illuminating a crest of hilltops to the east, found us in Spain. Dragging ourselves out of bed, we staggered back to the dining-car for breakfast just as we reached Girona, and from there we watched the sun rise over the awakening of the suburban towns on the run into Barcelona. On time, almost exactly twelve hours after leaving Paris, the train pulled into the Estació de França. The carriage attendant returned our passports to us and we walked out onto the concourse, without having to wait at any immigration control points or luggage carousels. From the station it was just a quarter of a mile to our city centre hotel.
* Accommodation and facilities *
The rolling stock used on the trenhotel all seemed newish, modern and well-equipped. The carriage interiors are clean, with gleaming corridors clad in pale pink plastic. Not tasteful exactly, but bright and functional.
We were travelling in 'Gran Class', and I would describe our compartment as acceptable for the price rather than luxurious. If you were thinking Orient Express, think again. When the seats are in position all seems spacious enough, but once adapted for sleeping, the room for manoeuvre is tight, even a little restricted. The luggage space is hard to reach; once your stuff is stowed, you don't want to remember later that you've failed to unpack anything essential for the journey. Similarly, the person in the upper bunk needs to be fairly agile to clamber up and down during the night. The bunks are, though, a decent size; long enough for me to stretch out my full six foot and wide enough for comfort. Bedding was clean and cosy.
Some things are well thought-out: hangers for clothes, for example, and lighting, once one has figured out the switches. My wife, who hates any hint of stuffiness, was alarmed to find that the windows could not be opened, while the ventilation control is odd, allowing one to adjust for heat but not airflow. However, she survived the night unsuffocated. The bathroom basin has a hot water tap, but no cold; since the water was merely warm this was no great problem for washing, and we had bottles of mineral water from the restaurant car (at no charge) for teeth-cleaning. The shower was merely warm too, but sufficiently so to avoid shivering. The loo was clean with aircraft-style suction flush.
Similarly, airline-style washkits were provided, with toothbrush and paste, disposal razor, flannel, shampoo and soap, making us regret having kept our spongebags in our hand-baggage. Finally, an amusing if corny touch, a little dual pack of two tablets of chocolate was on each pillow, the wrapping enquiring "what mood are you in tonight?", and inside offering you the alternatives of "sexy" or "tranquillity". For someone who has always preferred plain choc, it was gratifying to see on opening that this was cast in the role of "sexy".
Sneaking a look at the four-berth compartments, we thought these looked well-appointed enough but distinctly cramped: not perhaps so much when empty, but visions of the game of Twister came to mind when one imagined four people trying simultaneously to organise their luggage, change for bed or use the wash-basin. We didn't see the saloons with the reclining chairs.
* Food and drink *
The restaurant car on the trenhotel is well-furnished in contemporary style without being sumptuous. The food can't be described as sumptuous either, but it's perfectly edible and even tasty given the limitations of a mobile kitchen, and the prices are tolerable.
A three-course dinner, booze to go with it, and breakfast are all included in the fare for those travelling Gran Class - one reason that we were doing so. From five options for each course, we chose: (i) a salad with smoked salmon and nuts (too little smoked salmon, in my opinion, but otherwise satisfactory) as starter; (ii) a steak and an escalope as mains (both okay and cooked as ordered, but slightly short on accompanying veg); and (iii) crème caramel (good) for pud. Had we been paying separately, this would have cost us 27.80Euro each, not wonderful value but I've certainly had worse elsewhere. Similarly, a glass each of cava and a bottle of decent wine would between them have been another 22Euro (incidentally, it's not made entirely clear on the menu whether the wine is included as well as the cava; in fact it is, so if you're travelling Gran Class, go for it). There is also a children's menu at 10.20Euro.
Breakfast was very much of the continental variety: juice, a rather minimal dish of fruit, toast, croissant and pastry. And coffee, of course, plenty of coffee. I understand that a cooked breakfast would have been available if we'd asked, but the continental version was as much as we wanted in any case. List price for the continental breakfast is 6.90Euro; rather like the dinner, it was acceptable enough but nothing special.
Service was friendly and efficient; perhaps a little slow at times, but hey, we weren't in a hurry to go anywhere. The cabin attendant was also polite and helpful, though speaking only Spanish, which is the main language used on the train. You can get by in French or English in the restaurant car, though.
In addition to the sit-down restaurant car there is a bar selling drinks and snacks.
* Frequency and fares *
The Trenhotel timetable is simplicity itself. The trains run nightly, one each to Barcelona and Madrid from Paris, and of course one each the other way.
Fares range from 71Euro, one-way per person, upwards; if you book today via www.raileurope.co.uk, the UK agents for the service, you will find this base price equates to £66.50. Depending on class of service, time of booking and cancellability, this can escalate into several hundred. For our Gran Class extravagance my wife and I paid £149 each, certainly not the cheapest way to travel to Barcelona, but it did include food and drink and - you could say - the price of an overnight stay. And it was in itself an interesting and enjoyable experience.
* Recommendation *
Maybe the appeal or otherwise of the Trenhotel is essentially a matter of how you like to spend your time: whether you regard a day spent en route as a day lost or a day of enjoyment gained. If you're a devotee of arrival rather than hopeful travelling, you may view it as anathema. To me, it was a bonus.
To those of similar outlook, I would cautiously recommend the Elipsos Trenhotel service. It wasn't one of the great, grand railway journeys, but it was a good one. In a way it may have been all the better for not being grand, in that it was unpretentious and relatively economical. I suspect it would be even better in summer, when the long evenings would allow more French scenery to be seen while one dined. Or Spanish scenery, if one were travelling in the opposite direction.
Talking of which, for speed and to use up some Air Miles, we flew home from Barcelona. Compared to the outward journey on the train, it was a horrible experience.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2010