Think of sitting in a comfortable restaurant car with specially wide windows for good views, quaffing a pleasant Barbaresco to accompany a steak while the train gently skirts the banks of the Rhine. That was what we had hoped for when we booked a train to take us and the car from Holland to Italy.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. The restaurant car was fully booked, despite the €35 per head price for the meal (wine extra), and we had to content ourselves with an airline-style meal in our compartment.
My partner Deborah and I had decided to let the train take the strain – or at least some of it – on the 1,000-mile journey to central Italy as an alternative the longueur of the interminable drive on French autoroutes. There used to be motorail services from Calais and Brussels, but these have disappeared, leaving only the Dutch to connect northern Europe with Livorno in Tuscany.
That creates a dilemma. Den Bosch, the short name for the impossible to pronounce Dutch town of s’ Hertogenbosch, is a good three-hour drive from the Channel Tunnel at Calais, which means you have to allow at least four, given the routine congestion on the Belgian and Dutch motorways – don’t be fooled into thinking that Dutch use only bikes.
Since loading had to be completed by 1.30pm, it meant a 4am start from London, and even that proved to be not quite early enough for comfort, as there was heavy Friday morning traffic. So really the only relaxing way to do it is to book a hotel room the night before in the admittedly very pleasant town, but that adds to the already considerable cost.
Early start: Loading had to be completed by 1.30pm, which meant a 4am start from London
The service used to be run by Nedrail, the Dutch state railways, but was privatised in 1996 and is now run under the name Autoslaaptrein. That has meant the compartments have been upgraded but the rather hard and rigid chairs in the two-person ones – which oddly are cheaper than those for four people – were not very comfy and we pulled down the bed to create a more comfortable sofa-type arrangement.
The evening meal in our compartment was more Ryanair than Emirates: a tray of soggy, over-packaged food. But it was cordon bleu compared with the breakfast, which was two nasty airy bread rolls, insufficient jam and a cheese spread that any self-respecting mouse would have eschewed.
The service, provided by a string of polite and engaging young Dutch people who speak better English than most of us, partly made up for the inadequacies of the food.
We did, too, get the consolation of the restaurant meal on the return from Livorno. The scenery on the plain of Lombardy was far less interesting than the Rhine Valley but nevertheless pleasant enough as an accompaniment to the meal, which, while not entirely living up to its deluxe billing, included an excellent starter and dessert.
The wine, too, was very smooth. Our neighbour at dinner, a charming Dutch ophthalmologist, pointed out that €35 was not expensive for a three-course meal in the Netherlands and reminded me: ‘We are paying for the view and the experience, which makes it worthwhile.’ He was right, of course.
Overall, taking the motorail does save a day of driving, but it comes at a pretty hefty price – perhaps £300 to £400 more than the roads, even taking into account an overnight stop. However, the big plus is that the experience feels part of the holiday.
Given the extra cost, the company does need to sort out its breakfasts waiting, especially on arrival back in Holland when, inevitably, it was raining in contrast to the sunny 32C we had left behind at Livorno.
Next time, I will definitely book early to ensure we enjoy we enjoy dinner along the Rhine as a celebratory way of starting a holiday.
Railsavers (railsavers.com, 01253 595555) offers return rail travel from Den Bosch to Livorno from about £1,200 for a car and two people and return crossings on Eurotunnel from £119. Trains run until early October, going out to Livorno and Alessandria on Fridays, returning Saturdays. Lots of information can be found at www.seat61.com
The trains also run to Slovenia and the company hopes to reinstate services to the South of France in 2014.
On the right track: The motorail service heads through some beautiful scenery