I am now back after our epic ride to Bologna, and the train journeys further into Italy – to Terontola – and then back. It was a remarkably trouble free journey with, between the four of us, one broken chain, one puncture [in Paris on the way back] and no falls, collisions or major mishaps. We did not, for the record, wear helmets.
When I last blogged, we were about to get on the train to Terontola from Bologna which involved three changes. Although I had bought tickets – you can take a bike anywhere on the railways for 3 euros 50 – I was still apprehensive about getting on the train and encountering stroppy guards who would not let us on.
I could not have been more wrong. The first train, which started at Bologna, was going to Prato Centrale – does Prato really have a non-Centrale? – and was a modern Alstom eletric unit with one of those bendy-bus type platforms between the two coaches. The dedicated bike space was already taken up by two bikes, but the guard simply pushed up the drop seats on the disabled section, told someone to move, and we had our space for four bikes.
The change at Prato was a bit more fraught. We had to carry the pannier laden bikes down a Sottopassagio and up again, and then when the train arrived we were at the wrong end. The other two cyclists cottoned on quicker, and simply jumped on their bikes and hurtled down the platform – I just gasped at amazement, and thought of the reaction this would elicit on a British station platform from the ‘elf and safety trained staff. We, meanwhile, dumped our bikes in whatever corridor we could find, and reached Firenze without trouble.
There it was even easier. The train was in the platform and had lots of bike spaces in the back, although we had to wheel them through the last carriage because the rear door was stuck. But by and large the whole experience was trouble-free largely because the Italian attitude is mostly so much more relaxed than in the UK.
At Terontola, too, on the way back there was no problem. On the platform we were at the wrong end of the train – I had guessed wrongly that the train probably did not turn round at its other terminus – but the guard simply said ‘fondo‘ and we jumped on our bikes, cycling to the other end of the platform, and they actually waited for us – no delay minutes to pay, I presume.
The return on the sleeper train from Bologna to Paris was a different matter. We had been warned that they did not take bikes without being dismantled and put in bike bags, so we spent a happy hour on the platform taking off the wheels and bits and pieces like the pedals, and putting them in the big plastic bags – £6 99 from Wiggle – that I had despatched out to Italy in advance.
Getting four bikes and our panniers, and ourselves, into the compartment was not easy. I had booked a compartment for four, rather than six, knowing we would need one to ourselves, and it certainly was the right decision. We had hoped naively that maybe we could have left a bike in the corridor somewhere but the guard made clear that this was absolutely forbidden. So one bike went on the luggage rack, one under the seat and two on the bottom bunks, while we dropped down the middle bunks. It was a tight squeeze and Deborah had to sleep on the top bunk with a bike hanging perilously over her head.
We reassembled the bikes at Paris without too much trouble, and rode over to the Gare du Nord to find out when we had to register our bikes for the return journey – two hours in advance was the answer, even though we could not actually check in for the train until an hour in advance. So it was off to a very expensive but pleasant cafe opposite the station. It cost 25 euros each, but at least we did not have to dismantle the bikes – it would have been free if we had, but then we would have had to carry them onto the train and the thought of more spanner and screw driver work certainly made the 25 euros cost worthwhile. But while at least now Eurostar take bikes, which they did not do until lobbying by the CTC, the two hour rule and the cost do need looking at.