Blame it on bogus baggage charges, ash clouds or a strong aversion to decanting beauty products into tiny bottles. But somehow, somewhere (read: an anonymous airport hotel room after another cancelled flight) that we fell out of love with flying. It was just so… soul-sapping. "Never again," we said. Well, never again unless there are first-class tickets, that is.
So, for our next holiday we decided to do things a little differently. Inspired by the recent renovation of London's St Pancras station and it's adjoining hotel (pictured below), plus a memorable Trans-Siberian train journey, our Italian holiday would be done by train. But what really sealed the deal was the encouragement we found on handy train travelling website, The Man In Seat Sixty-One:
"UK to Italy by train? Of course! It's easy, comfortable, scenic, surprisingly quick, environmentally-friendly and affordable."
In fact, it's possible to leave London by Eurostar in the morning and arrive in Milan the same evening, from just £62 one-way, or £115 return. But instead of InterRail, this train trip would be filled with romance and grown-up glamour, Brief Encounter-style (but minus the sad ending).
One Night in Paris
After a couple we know became engaged the St Pancras Champagne Bar, it acquired Grade-A romantic status in our books. If you haven't booked an early Eurostar departure, toast your train trip in style with some celebratory champagne.
From there, the journey flows just as easily (No waiting! No queues!) and we arrive in Paris just over two hours later. While we could have gone straight to Milan, we decided one night in Paris was too good a romantic opportunity to pass up.
Where to stayIf you like your Paris with a bit of quirky enchantment, try L'hôtel les Degrés de Notre Dame. Located near it's famous namesake on a quiet lane just off the Seine, this tiny hotel is full of shabby-chic charm: colourful tiles, antique furnishings and chic market finds. The hotel's restaurant specialises in both French and Moroccan dishes, while breakfast includes plenty of freshly-baked croissants and cafetières of strong coffee.
Hot tipTake advantage of the Eurostar Plus Culture partnership, which gives 2-for-1 entry into paying exhibitions at Paris galleries including the Musée d' Orsay and many others. Alternatively, Eurostar Plus Shopping gives passengers a 10% discount at the Galeries Lafayette flagship store on Paris' chic boulevard Haussman, where they can also receive an invitation to a private fashion show.
Doubles, from €115. L'hôtel les Degrés de Notre Dame, 10 rue des Grands Degrés, Paris, 75005, lesdegreshotel.com.
Eurostar operates up to 18 daily services from London St Pancras International to Paris with return fares from £69. Fastest London-Paris journey time is 2hr 15 minutes. Tickets are available from eurostar.com or 08432 186 186.
An early start on Monday, to catch our 7:49am train from Gare de Lyon to Milan, a seven-hour journey. The train snakes through beautiful countryside and the French Alps. Between vineyard gazing, napping and snacking, time flies by surprisingly fast. There's something wonderfully gentle and seductive about the gradual journey and the large, comfy seats certainly help.
Once in Milan, we have a little bit of time before we're on another train bound for the nearby Verona. A cool, very modern train awaits us and just over an hour later, at 5:30pm on Monday evening, we've arrived at our destination. Not bad, having left Paris that very morning. Molto easy.
Nestled in the north between Venice and Lake Garda, Verona is the second-biggest city in the Veneto region but you'd never know it: intimate and impossibly picturesque, this place oozes small-town charm and romance (after all, this is the city where Romeo and Juliet is based).
Where to stayNew hotel on the block Palazzo Victoria perfectly captures Verona's unique vibe of history and hospitality, splendour and style. As a Verona native, the hotel's president often peered through the ancient Roman gate of Porta Borsari as a boy to get a glimpse of the 14th century palace. Now, 40 years on, he's returned to his hometown to lovingly update the grand palazzo, with careful attention to the museum's worth of historical art and architecture inside. A hotel of two halves, the ground floor is lesson in polished, contemporary cool. Move to the rooms however, and the traditional frescoes and parquet floors emerge. Put together, it somehow works. Each room is unique, and we love the clever touch of positioning the beds at an angle. It's rather like staying at the tasteful chateau of charming host who immediately puts you at ease. Did we mention the Michelin-starred chef at the hotel's brasserie?
Deluxe Rooms start from €230 per night. Palazzo Victoria, Via Adua 8, 37121 Verona, Italy, palazzovictoria.com.
One-way fares from Paris to Milan start at £23 using day services or £59 using overnight services. Alternatively, return fares from London to Milan start at £115 using day services, or £187 using overnight services. One way fares from Milan to Verona start at £19. For more information, call 0844 848 4070, visit raileurope.co.uk or call into the Rail Europe Travel Centre at 193 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EU.
After three days in Verona, we head to our final destination: Rome. With a quick change in Bologna (just enough time to enjoy the local aperitif, Aperol spritz) we arrive in Rome in just a little over three hours. The city might have throngs of tourists, bit sipping wine, sharing gelato and strolling through the charming cobbled streets… now that's amore.
Where to stayBetween the Spanish Steps and the Piazza del Popolo, is Hotel de Russie, perfect for reenacting your own Roman Holiday moment. A chic, boutique bolthole, this historical hotel (Picasso and Stravinskij were former guests) has been given a modern makeover by Sir Rocco Forte and his sister, famed hotel designer Olga Polizzi. Rooms are classically decorated in soothing, muted tones dotted with chic, gleaming accessories and the occasional arty touch. We loved the large bathrooms, squidgy chairs and ultra-comfortable beds… not to mention the large green shutters: perfect for if you need an afternoon nap after indulging in one too many bites of pasta at lunch.The enviable location and cool, calm luxury has made Hotel de Russie the place to stay when in the Eternal City - along with housing one of Rome's best-kept secrets: a grand terraced garden.
The Leading Hotels of the World (Tel: 00800 2888 8882, toll free) offers stays at Rocco Forte Hotel de Russie, Rome from €296 per room per night based on two people sharing, excluding VAT and city tax. Hotel de Russie, Via del Babuino 9, 00187 Rome, Italy. lhw.com/derussie.
Alternatively, when in Rome, live like a local. Make the most of Rome's culinary charms by going the self-catering route. A central base means you can go between markets and must-see sights with ease. We chose a seriously stylish penthouse pad from HouseTrip.com, which has hundreds of smart apartments in Italy's capital, from cosy hideaways to large apartments. With a swish 1960s decor that wouldn't look out of place from a design magazine (or an episode of Mad Men), we had full use of a kitchen, a lounge, TV area, three bedrooms, three bathrooms and two terraces: one for dining, and one for incredible, 360-degree rooftop views.
One-way fares from Verona to Bologna start at £10, and one-way from Bologna to Rome from £51.50. Alternatively, return fares from London to Rome start at £273 using day services, or £345 using overnight services. For more information, call Rail Europe on 0844 848 4086, or visit the Rail Europe Travel Centre at 193 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9EU.
So after eight days, and five trains did the great train experiment work? Absolutely. Although we did have our Brief Encounter sad ending after all: a work deadline meant we had to return via (whisper it) budget airline. Tears were shed all around.
You can reach any of Eurostar's destinations from more than 200 stations in the UK, including two of the most popular, Lyon and Amsterdam.
LyonIt's easy to reach the culinary capital of France with Eurostar. With one easy connection in Lille Europe or Paris, reach the heart of Lyon in under five hours from London St Pancras International. Eurostar offers return fares to Lyon from just £109. For more information or to book, visit eurostar.com or call 08432 186 186.
AmsterdamAll the best things come in small packages and Amsterdam is no exception. With more canals than Venice, this beautifully compact city is the perfect choice for a relaxing and romantic break. One of the most enjoyable and easiest ways to get to this gem of a capital is with Eurostar. With one easy connection in Brussels passengers can arrive in the heart of Amsterdam in just over four hours. Eurostar offers return fares to Amsterdam from just £99. For more information or to book, visit eurostar.com or call 08432 186 186.
The rest of EuropeRail Europe is the UK's leading distributor of European rail tickets and passes. Whether you're looking for Eurostar tickets, overnight trains, scenic routes, high speed services or InterRail passes, Rail Europe is the one stop shop for all your rail travel needs, including the new high-speed Italo services on routes between major Italian cities.
For more information, call 0844 848 4070, visit raileurope.co.uk or call into the Rail Europe Travel Centre at 193 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EU.