Every Sunday evening, amid an array of local trains to Cannes and Monte Carlo, a remarkably different destination pops up on the departures board of Nice-Ville railway station. Train 17 to Moscow chugs out of the station shortly after nightfall and deposits passengers in the Russian capital, after an epic journey across Europe, just before midnight on Tuesday.
The journey, set up by Russian Railways in an attempt to woo passengers away from planes and recreate the romance of old-world long-distance train travel, doesn't come cheap: the luxury compartment in which I travelled costs over £1,000 each way. But for many rich Russians, at whom the train is aimed, this is loose change. The hope is that, as word spreads, the train will become the new way for them to travel to the resorts of southern France and Italy in style.
My experience of long-distance Russian trains began a decade ago, travelling third-class on never-ending Trans-Siberian routes – conveyed in mobile dormitories. So the luxury I encountered on Train 17 came as quite a shock. Gone were the open carriages with bodies extending off tiny bunks, and the stench of sweat mixed with food and vodka fumes. Instead, I was shown to my "lyux" compartment, a comfortable room for one or two, with mahogany fixtures and a spacious private bathroom.
Elizaveta and Galina, the two attendants for the carriage (which has four such compartments but was filled only by myself and one other traveller) breezed in shortly after departure to explain how everything worked: "Toiletries are located in this cupboard... This is the remote control for the flat-screen television and DVD player... In the wardrobe you will find a dressing gown."
For the first hours, we hugged the Mediterranean coastline, and watched evening scenes played out in a number of French and then Italian coastal villages – glimpses of waiters juggling plates in small restaurants, families sitting down to meals, and people waiting for local trains in front of pastel-painted village station-houses. The train stopped at the border station of Ventimiglia and San Remo; in the summer months these are also destinations for the Russian new rich.
As night fell, all that was visible were the silhouettes of palm trees and the occasional white froth of waves on the dark Mediterranean. Still full from the steak-frites consumed at a café opposite Nice station, I flipped the blue sofa in my compartment over, transforming it into a comfortable, spacious bed, and fell into a deep sleep aided by the gentle rocking of the train.
I awoke to find that we had traversed the north of Italy and were pulling into Innsbruck, the ski hub that will help keep the train in business in the winter. Train 17 was scheduled to pause here for half an hour, so I slipped off and bought an espresso at the station bar. I sipped it on the platform, looking around me at the amphitheatre of snowy peaks and listening to the morning church bells.
"Moskau!" exclaimed some girls boarding the commuter train on the adjacent platform in amazement, after deciphering the signs on the strange train that had pulled up alongside them.
Breakfast, which unlike other meals is included in the ticket price, is served in the restaurant car. From watching one-too-many celluloid train journeys, I imagined that this would be a place of edgy banter and crisp one-liners played out between spies on the run, international men of mystery and glamorous femmes fatales. But these romantic notions were swiftly shattered. Instead, my breakfast companions were a chubby Russian woman in an all-in-one pink tracksuit, and her ruddy-cheeked and toad-eyed husband, who was drinking beer.
Despite the lack of glamour, the five breakfast choices looked delicious. I went for ham and eggs, which came with a selection of meat and cheese slices, and sat eating slowly for a good hour, as the train meandered through pretty villages and autumnal Alpine valleys.
While this train is aimed squarely at Russians venturing West, there is no reason why it can't also be used in reverse. In this age of budget airlines, it's a grand and nostalgic way to traverse Europe – even if your fellow travellers will be brash New Russians rather than dapper aristocrats.
Despite the glamour, not quite everything on board is blissful comfort. Russians, perhaps wary of the cold that so often awaits them outside, like their interiors to be toasty warm, and anyone who prefers not to sleep in a temperature that induces a permanent light sweat has little choice; there are no controls inside the compartment to adjust the temperature, and the windows are sealed shut. Many of the fittings might have been specially designed for their ability to rattle and creak.
Perhaps most irritatingly for anyone who thought they might spend a portion of the long journey doing a bit of work, the cabins have no power sockets. But when Alpine valleys are unfolding from the window, the traveller with leisure in mind will probably not care about such minor inconveniences.
The rest of the day was spent traversing Austria, and crossing the old Iron Curtain border with the Czech Republic (without so much as a passport check) around dinner time. For most of the journey, the only sign that we were crossing national borders was when the train shook violently for a few seconds as the locomotive was changed over.
I skipped dinner, and ate snacks bought in France in the bar at the end of my carriage. Alexander, the only other traveller in the carriage, joined me. A retired businessman, he had taken the train to visit family in the South of France and thought it a nice alternative to flying.
I went to bed early and slept through Poland, awaking as we exited the EU at the eastern side of the country. You discover here that Europe is not quite sans frontières, as the Polish and then Belarussian border guards awaken you at 7am for a passport check. (You need a visa not just for Russia itself but also for transit through Belarus. The embassy in London charges a stunning £50 for the pleasure of looking at their country out of a train window for a few hours.)
After passport control, the train is shunted into a hangar where the bogeys are changed and the wheel gauge adjusted to fit the wider tracks of post-Soviet countries – a process that is bumpy but doesn't require disembarking. A Russian-run restaurant car is also attached, replacing the Polish-run kitchen that had previously accompanied us. The food took a turn for the worse after this development – an anaemic breakfast of stale bread and eggs was brought to my cabin (I couldn't face another morning with the pink tracksuit and the beer drinker).
A couple of hours later, I closed the blinds and swapped the landscape of flat plains dotted with wooden gingerbread cottages for a DVD. (Bring your own – the only ones provided by Russian Railways are a history of the Moscow metro system and a series called Manly Cooking, which involves a depressed-looking middle-aged man making various "masculine" dishes such as Wiener schnitzel and explaining just why women are too weak to make them.)
Minsk came and went by early afternoon, and as we crossed into Russia for the home straight, I went for a final visit to the restaurant. The food again was basic – but I had some reasonably priced wine, and the staff were delightfully friendly.
Just after 11pm, the train pulls into Moscow's Belorusskaya Station, 50 hours after departure from Nice, and there is a satisfying feeling of a journey completed that airport lounges just can't match. For lovers of epic adventures, it would also be a tasty appetiser to the week-long Trans-Siberian, or taken as part of an indulgent rail route from London to Hong Kong, for example, with changes in Paris, Nice, Moscow and Beijing. It might not be the Orient Express, but it's certainly more glamorous than flying.
East to west A history of grand journeys
The great trans-European journeys of the past, at least in our literary and historical imagination, tended to be from West to East. This rule applied whether it was adventurous tourists and merchants aboard the Orient Express, Jonathan Harker edging his way towards Romania in search of Count Dracula, or Vladimir Lenin being placed in a sealed train in Switzerland for onward and eastward conveyance to his motherland to foment revolution.
But there were also long journeys made in the opposite direction by Russians, as the pre-revolutionary aristocracy took their delicate constitutions to the spa towns of the Alps and the resorts of the Côte d'Azur. Nice was so popular that the largest Orthodox cathedral outside Russia was built there in 1912; in San Remo, the seafront promenade is the Corso Imperatrice, named after the wife of Tsar Alexander II.
The revived rail route caters to the new Russian rich – less nobly born perhaps, but no poorer or less hungry to spend time in Europe's most prestigious resorts than their forerunners.
* The total journey time of Train 17 (00 49 30 887 1470 eng.rzd.ru) from Nice to Moscow is 49 hours 55 minutes. The service operates once a week, departing Nice on Sundays at 7.22pm and arriving in Moscow on Tuesday at 11.17pm. Train 18 takes 52 hours and 55 minutes and departs Moscow on Thursdays, arriving in Nice on Saturdays.
Single journeys start at €777 per person with breakfast, based on two adults sharing a business-class compartment (in which one under-12 can travel free). Prices for one adult in a first-class cabin start at €514 excluding breakfast, or €1,200 in a deluxe cabin with breakfast.
* Visas are required for Belarus and Russia. Belarussian visas are available from the Embassy of Belarus, 6 Kensington Court, London W8 5DL (020-7938 3677; uk.belembassy.org) and cost £50 for a transit visa. Russian visas are available from VF Services, 15-27 Gee Street, London EC1V 3RD (020-7499 1029; ru.vfsglobal.co.uk) and cost £75.85. Apply well in advance.Reuse content