To spice things up I set myself the challenge to get from London to Naples by train. It was the sustrans bit that I wanted to test: the difference between train services saying ‘bikes allowed’ to backing up this pledge with facilities and logistics to make it viable.
The Eurostar set up in St Pancras Station wasn’t cycle friendly but staff were helpful once they had gone through all the don’ts instead of dos of their cycle policy. A bagged and dismantled bike could go free but I had opted for wheeling on my bike which was an extra £30.00. The bikes went in the cargo compartment of the train.
My Eurostar arrived in Paris on time but I wasn’t quick enough down the train to the cargo carriage. My Kona had already been unloaded and taken to the cargo depot, a good walk away in a far corner of Gare du Nord. I had ninety minutes to cycle through Paris to Gare de Bercy to catch my Rome sleeper train. It was always going to be tight but this detour made it even tighter. Having completed the meticulous paperwork I left the station twenty minutes later. I was cutting it very fine now but I was still okay – until I double-checked my route with a gendarme. My accent must have thrown him because he sent me way off course. Arriving at Bercy my mouth was bone dry, adrenalin was swooshing and I dared not check the time. Head down I pushed into the departure area, found a quiet corner and lightning packed my Kona into the bikebag I had brought with me. My concentration was all encompassing but something made me zone in to the announcements streaming from the tannoy. My train was delayed. A thrill of relief rushed me. I sat against a wall with my bagged bike and two panniers and closed my eyes in utter euphoria. A charmed start.
The Paris-Rome Artesia sleeper service was appalling. It was a clapped out 80s throwback of a train. Outbound I had a vile chef-du-car whose face creased from contempt to thunder at my nerve of attempting to get my bike into his carriage. It isn’t coming on my train his pointing finger said. I think you’ll find it is, I thought as I lugged my Kona up the high awkward steps.
I had paid for bike carriage and I was bona fide. Bikes had to be bagged to travel on the Artesia train but there was no sensible space for them to be stored. I left mine over the couplings between carriages, the guard refusing point blank to allow it in my couchette despite the other occupant’s willingness. On the return leg there was no water in the carriage for ablutions of any sort during the fifteen-hour journey, the drop down bunk beds did not work, and the staff were disaffected and disinterested in helping. The outbound train was ninety minutes late leaving Paris and arrived in Rome over four hours late with no announcements to travellers and no apology.
The Italian intercity train service put the Artesia one to shame. It was brilliant: professional, conscientious and courteous. My reserved Naples connection was long gone but the staff straightaway put me on a later train with no quibbling and the rolling stock was designed with passenger needs in mind, not profit margin. Eurostar should take a leaf out of their book too: the luggage storage areas were roomy, as were the seats, and the aisles were actually wide enough to walk down with luggage without knocking the extremities of seated passengers. I leant my cumbersome bagged bike against the luggage rack instead of trying to lift it in, but it didn’t block the aisle and the guard didn’t turn a hair.
Arriving in Naples I couldn’t rebuild my bike fast enough. I didn’t even walk as far as the ticket barrier but took a few steps along the platform and immediately set to work with my Allen key.
Naples terminal is on Piazza Garibaldi and its clamour and chaos and traffic gridlock is quite magnificent. It is not the place to be if you need a bit of tranquility after a long, tiring and testing train journey but I didn’t care. I had reached my starting point and all I wanted was to find my hotel and lie flat on the bed. Which I very soon did.
To give the boats a look in it cost €2.50 to get from Villa San Giovanni, the toe of Italy, to Messina on Sicily. I simply rolled up to the little ticket booth on the dockside, paid and soon the gruff sailors beckoned and pointed me into the bowels of the ferry to knot my bike to a railing with a well-used and oily bit of rope. Basic but effective. In half an hour I had crossed the lively straits and was in Messina. The return sailing from Catania to Naples was also simple, €57.50 for an overnight crossing. There was no fancy departure lounge but I was happy to hang around on the huge dockside for a few hours and watch the freight containers loaded with deft, bravado speed onto the enormous ferry, and push on up the ramp when the coast was clear.