It’s not the Orient Express, made famous by numerous movies over the years, but it will get you from Paris to Venice overnight. It will also get you from Rome to Paris overnight. We got on in Florence on our way to Paris. The overnight train leaves Florence at about 9 p.m. a couple of times a week. It gets into Paris Gare de Lyon at 9 a.m., give or take an hour.
Pronounced “Tello,” it’s located in the train stations along with the “Grand Lines” such as Eurostar, TGV and others. Unlike Eurostar and TGV, Thello doesn’t regularly go 200 mph. Its cars were built in the 1960s and ’70s and refurbished within the past decade or so. The private system is operated as a joint venture between Italy’s state-run Trenitalia and Veolia Transdev.
The first time I saw the Thello in the Florence train station, I recognized it from my last visit to western Europe in 1973. The cars looked pretty much the same as they did then. I had hoped to experience a ride on one of the bullet trains, but hard as I tried, I couldn’t find one that goes overnight between Florence and Paris or Paris and Venice. Thello was the option, a compartment with three bunks, one with four bunks or one with six bunks and prices appropriate to each. We took the three-bunk option which left us with one unused bunk.
Georgette was motion-sick before the last car left the Campo di Marte Station. She crawled up into the middle bunk and that was it for her the rest of the night.
The compartment is very compact in a fairly cramped sort of way. I could be wrong but I think those cars were generally designed by George Pullman and company back in the late 19th century and were revolutionary at the time. They’re still pretty cool. The wash basin is enclosed in a snug-fitting cupboard, and inside there were three little tubs of fresh water, about the size of a yogurt container and three little linen bags with toiletries, a towel and paper slippers. The slippers are for walking to and from the bathroom in the middle of the night, so you don’t bring any gunk back into the bed. A detachable steel ladder hangs from a rail and allows access to the two upper berths. It gets in the way but can be moved to the other side of the compartment which then makes it pretty hard to get out the door. It’s not unlike living in your laundry closet, but more comfortable.
Early on, it became clear that there was little or no running water on this train. The in-room sink has two pedals on the floor for hot and cold water. There was neither no matter how hard you trod on the pedals. The bathroom likewise had no sink water and no flush water. I caught the attention of one of the young train crew and told him about the situation. He responded with a smile and a Gaulic shrug and advised me to use a different bathroom. I did. It had no water either. I didn’t see that train guy again till we got to Paris and he bade me adieu.
The air went from ripe to rank long before midnight, less than a quarter of the way to Paris. The cafe car, just ahead of ours, was a bit of a sanctuary, separated at each end by those special train doors that slide open when you press the button — mostly.
The price of the ticket included a complimentary beverage, a soft drink or a glass of wine. I took the wine. Slightly larger than a thimble, the plastic glass fairly vibrated from the bubbles or maybe from the rocking of the train. It was good for two sips. I hung out for a while, talking to a few people — many languages were represented in the cafe car. Several North African guys were traveling together. A couple from Mexico City and a few others I didn’t have any contact with. They were all sleeping in the cafe car as it turned out, rumps on stools, heads on arms on the counters along the wall. Someone who just wanted to sit at a stool and have a glass of wine or something was out of luck. I went forward a bit and sat at one of the larger tables. A train guy said the section was closed for the night and ran me back to the sleeping counters.
Apparently, all of the sleepers had bought tickets for the 6-bunk, communal compartments, but for whatever bunch of reasons opted to sleep in the cafe car instead. I could imagine.
At 5 a.m. I awakened and moseyed toward the restroom — knowing full well what I was in for. It was exponentially worse than it had been five hours earlier. At the door, a fellow was just coming out. We laughed at the predicament, and he promptly opened the train crew’s special little sleeping compartment looking for water. That spout didn’t produce either.
As he headed back toward his bunk, I mentioned that the door at the end of our car had just slammed shut. I had tried to open it but the latch would not give. Of course he gave it several tugs to verify my information. He beat on it a bit. I tried again. No go. A couple of sleepy looking folk peered out from their compartments and asked us to keep the noise down. I assumed that’s what they said. Andre (French version of Andrew, he said) and I went at it some more. The damn thing would not give. The handle would go down when we pushed on it but the bolt clearly was stuck inside the brass catch plate. (There’s probably many technical names for these elements, but I didn’t know them at the time and still don’t.)
Through the glass we could see the sleepers sleeping in the cafe car. We pounded on it but between the two closed doors, the eight feet between the cars, the train noise and them sleeping, they couldn’t hear us.
Leatherman! I have a Leatherman I told Andre as I went to our compartment to get it. He didn’t understand and didn’t know what I meant. I wasn’t sure how it was going to help, but nothing else worked and we couldn’t get out to alert the train guys. We tried to pry the bolt back with the knife blade, the saw blade, the bottle opener blade and every other tool that was thin enough to work between the door handle part and the catch plate.
Spying the Phillips-head screwdriver tool, he took the Leatherman and went to work on the metal plate housing the handle. It came loose, but there was no way beyond it to get to the handle mechanism. As we communicated in French, English, Italian and any number of colorful gestures and expressions, we tried pounding on the door again. No luck. We replaced the screws in the housing plate and discussed more tactics.
Meanwhile he told me he recently started his own company selling accessories related to the auto racing industry — helmets and such from what I could gather. He’d been on a sales trip in Italy and was going home to Dijon. He was hoping to make a trip out to one of the big race tracks in California one day soon.
He took the Leatherman again, and using the pliers tool he started pulling on the brass catch plate. Did it just move a hair? No couldn’t have. Wait, I think it did. How in God’s name could we pull it out against the four screws that would hold it secure in the door frame? We couldn’t of course. But, didn’t it just budge a tiny bit? Yes, it did.
I spelled Andre and started really putting pressure on that catch plate. A little more movement. Then a little more. Then none for a while. You can’t get too much force with two hands on a small tool. We rested, and I talked about being a newspaper writer. He thought that sounded pretty cool and asked me to e-mail him if I ever wrote up our adventure. I said I would.
He took another long pull. Rip, tear, he flew backward into me. In the grip of the pliers was a twisted and bent, brass catch plate, one broken screw and a couple of pieces of door and assorted detritus. The door opened nicely. We high-fived and fist-bumped, and suddenly holding the catch plate in his hand, he said we’d better get rid of the evidence. He reached up and dropped it out the open window in the car’s corridor. A notice on the window alerts passengers to the fact that the car is under video surveillance. I haven’t heard anything from Thello yet and really don’t expect to. Why should I think the video apparatus worked when nothing else on the train did?
By way of celebrating, Andre said he was going to go have a smoke. Prohibited of course. He went into the space between our car and the one behind and came back in a few minutes grinning like a Cheshire Cat.
Riding down the French Alps with the sun just coming up over the mountains was spectacular. We rolled along a big lake that someone said was part of the headwaters of the River Seine and eventually dropped down into a lush valley that pretty much extended all the way to Paris.
The overnight Thello from Paris to Venice a week later was what I had been looking forward to. There was plenty of water. The cafe car had food and drink. Georgette wasn’t motion-sick and the train crew were attentive and engaged. I got out at the midnight stop with a couple of other guys to stretch and walk around a bit. We understood the train would be there about 45 minutes. However at the 4.5-minute mark, the door closed and the train lurched forward. A crewman about 100 yards away started hollering so we ambled that way. He got more and more agitated and pretty soon we were running for our lives — well running so as not to be left in the middle of nowhere on a mountain at midnight.
After that it was a smooth, uneventful ride down to Venice where the water taxi man hooked us for about $75 driving back and forth along the Grand Canal pretending not to know where our hotel was. But that’s part of another story.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.