Abandoned by Ryanair, Tim Heald and his wife decided to return overland. It was a journey that included the best and worst of European rail travel

I have just travelled by train from Trieste, Italy, to Par, Cornwall, at short notice and without, as it were, passing Go. This does not put me into the Sir Ranulph Fiennes bracket but in view of the guff recently talked about railways, it seemed worth sharing.

My trans-continental trip was not what I intended as I sat in the departure lounge at the Aeroporto Ronchi dei Legionari. I was waiting for Ryanair to take me back to London Stansted. Shortly after an ancient JAT prop plane lurched into the fog towards Belgrade the departures board announced Ryanair had cancelled.

When Ryanair cancels, it cancels. What else can you expect at those prices? The print-out makes it perfectly clear. At bargain basement prices you get bargain-basement treatment. No flight, no help, no free bus, no overnight hotel, no smiling hostess, on yer bike.

Most of the passengers seemed disposed to nip into Monfalcone, pig out on pasta and vino rosso, and stagger to the airport the next morning in the hope that a plane would turn up. I had had a long lunch, entertained no such hopes of next-day salvation and was keen to get back to work.

Accordingly, my wife and I took the bus to the Stazione Centrale in the Piazza della Liberta. Informazione was a vaulted hall with two bored-looking clerks. "My wife and I want to go to London," I said firmly. My clerk, pallid, grey-haired in a matching cardigan, rolled his eyes. "Tomorrow there is a strike of the Italian railways."

"Then we'd better leave tonight."

He shrugged and disappeared behind a wall of filing cabinets. Ten minutes later he came back with a piece of paper. If we caught the 19.56 to Mestre we would arrive two hours later, in plenty of time to connect with the sleeper to Lausanne. Just after 1pm the next day, the TGV would leave for Paris Gare de Lyon, arriving three hours later. Further than that he could not go. Not bad. At a crepuscular hole in the wall an agreeable booking clerk studied the schedule with furrowed brow and issued tickets for €250 (£150).

The 19.56 left on time and we had an old-fashioned first-class compartment to ourselves. After a while, a young conductor examined our tickets and said that on Italian railways it was obligatory to have one's tickets franked by the machine on the platform prior to embarkation. It seemed not to matter.

We pulled in on schedule toMestre. The fag-end of Venice, Mestre station had, in effect, closed for the night. Mercifully, a clutch of presentable hotels stood opposite and from one we managed to phone England and regroup before fighting our way through the drunks and beggars to the platform where the night train to Nizza was due. A careful examination of small print on the signs suggested that this train was due to divide at Milano and that one half would go to Nizza (Nice) and the other to Geneva. Which half was which was anyone's guess. Naturally, we chose wrong. This meant a long stagger the length of the elderly, swaying express. Hot and sticky, we arrived at a genial sleeping-car attendant who offered us a two-berth wagon-lit for what, after some slide-rule calculations, turned out to be £79. We had run out of euros by then and he took no plastic. It was only later that we realised this no-credit-card, no-receipt policy meant that he was engaged in a lucrative private enterprise scheme. I was past caring. He was friendly and produced red wine and strong coffee.

We were 34 minutes late into Lausanne. No euros in Switzerland so we bought enough Swiss francs for coffee in the Olympic Hotel opposite the station and converted the balance into euros and sterling. Oh, for a single currency.

The TGV was immaculate and punctual. We were only mildly irritated that the buffet did not open until we passed Frasne, an hour after departure. It reminded me of similarly inexplicable buffet openings and shuttings around Liskeard and Newton Abbot. It was like home except that the ride itself was twice as fast and twice as smooth.

The Gare de Lyon was crowded but we found a taxi which drove us through the rush hour in a parody of Gallic oaths and high-speed lane changes to the Gare du Nord. Somehow, the check-in formalities, the jostling queues, the grey decor and the nasal English whine of the train manager's Franglais announcements seemed dingy and depressing after the Lausanne to Paris express. We arrived at Waterloo 15 minutes late due to "congestion in the London area".

We stayed with long-suffering friends in Putney and, next morning, repaired to Paddington for the final leg. The made-over Paddington is a genuinely stylish station these days – much more so than the Paris terminals. Other parts of the system could do with a similar face-lift and I don't just mean track and rolling stock. The fare "structure" on First Great Western is so arcane that I now deal directly with the company and always allow for a quarter of an hour of haggling. This time I had negotiated a first-class return which was only 80p more than a standard one (an excess made up by having a receptacle or two of first-class coffee).

The rules said that if you did not travel on the specified train the ticket became invalid and by now we were 24 hours late. The polite clerk winced when my wife mentioned Ryanair and gravely wrote a message on the back of the ticket saying that we could still travel.

British first class is rather less impressive than standard on the TGV and the Cornish-bound "express" bumped, rattled and spilled drinks when it attempted anything approaching grande vitesse. Nevertheless, we arrived in Par on the dot; the service was smiling and friendly and there was even a travelling chef who produced passable pasta.

Perhaps it was a variant of A Tale of Two Cities and this was the worst of railways and the best of railways. The service in continental Europe was good but not that good and Britain's efforts were bad but not that bad. The best of the TGV made me horribly envious. Yet few of my experiences with British railways have been as dispiriting as Mestre station at night.


For information about rail travel across Europe contact Rail Europe (0870 5848848; www.raileurope.com) for timetables, fares and tickets.