The railway children

Tony Grant lets the train take the strain by taking his young family on the rails from London to Pisa
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The Independent Travel
Predictably, it was only during the final leg of the 17-hour train journey to Italy that all four of us - mother, father, two-year-old daughter and one-year-old son - were simultaneously and deeply asleep. We'd left the Gare de Lyon in Paris at 7.30 the previous evening. The Rome Express, with its azure sleeping cars and exotic destination boards, looked thrilling as it stood, gleaming in the evening sunlight, ready to depart for Dijon, Lyons, Modane, Turin, Genoa, Pisa and Rome.

If we'd planned to go hitch-hiking with our children, Sophie and Gus, through Antarctica, sporting only beachwear, the reaction wouldn't have been much different. People went slack-jawed on hearing that we were to take two infants across Europe on a train. They thought we were crazy. Our motive, though, was simple enough: because of the extraordinarily high cost of flying to Pisa (even the "Super Pex" fare is more than pounds 270) a family like ours can save several hundred pounds going by rail. And, of course, it would be a journey to remember - for the right reasons, we hoped.

Eurostar is as beautiful and efficient as everyone says. But it is not really suited to infants despite its excellent nappy-changing facilities and lavatories which, with their blue flush water and jets of hot air, can keep a toddler entertained for hours. The train hardly makes a sound, even when it's cruising along at 300kph. While this may suit a laptopping businessman or someone who fancies dozing from capital to capital, it's a little wearing for those sitting near to a baby investigating how much noise he can make by banging a toy petrol tanker against the metal fold- down table.

The Eurostar staff are friendly, helpful and impressively multilingual. And any buffet car steward who hands out a free biscuit to our passing infant gets our vote. But perhaps ticketing arrangements can be improved: having purchased a family ticket, I'd assumed we'd be allocated automatically a two-facing, two-seating configuration. But this wasn't the case. We were in two pairs of seats many yards apart.

Leaving the Eurostar at the Gare du Nord in Paris, we took a taxi across town to the Gare de Lyon. Sophie had been eagerly anticipating this bit: she was keen to see the Eiffel Tower, which featured in her Madeleine books. After we'd explained to an incredulous cab-driver why we wanted to go the long way round, we set off and, within moments, Sophie was deeply asleep. We drove right past the Eiffel Tower, and she remained unaware of it.

The Rome Express, with its low-tech charm, seemed far more family-friendly than Eurostar. Our children crawled delightedly up and down the corridor playing with toys and visiting the occupants of adjoining compartments. Having decided that the restaurant car was not ready for our junior demolition squad, we had bought baguettes and wine in Paris. We consumed them in the next-door compartment to us, which was empty as far as Dijon. For those readers acquainted with the table manners of young children, it will come as no surprise to learn that the compartment soon looked as if it had been at the epicentre of a nuclear explosion. We tidied up as best we could and returned next door to set up camp for the night.

A couchette compartment, of course, sleeps six. It's not (by a long way) as comfortable as the accommodation in a sleeping car but you can, at least, lie down. It certainly suited the children: lulled by the relentless song of train wheels rolling down towards the Mediterranean, they slept soundly through most of the night.

Couchettes offer no privacy and most people don't bother to get undressed for bed. Who you get as fellow-couchette travellers is of critical importance. Surely, one of the most dreaded combinations must be a family that includes a girl of two with a little brother of one. We were fortunate on the way to Pisa: we were sharing with two friendly Filipina students, plus an Italian who got on at Chambery. He earned our respect very quickly when he deftly prevented Gus, our one-year-old, from crashing to the floor when the slumbering infant rolled over in his sleep. Then the hero snored ceaselessly as the train made its way down the Ligurian Riviera during the small hours.

The final leg of the journey south - between Genoa and Pisa - provides a series of spectacular sea views, even by night. I lay on the top bunk gazing out of the window as the first light of dawn sneaked on to the sky with the train ducking in and out of tunnels along the coastline as it passed seaside resorts such as Rapallo and Sestri Levante.

Then, suddenly we were all asleep, overcome by exhaustion. I awoke with a start as the train slowed down. A glance outside revealed the terracotta roofs of Pisa, and tilting in the distance was the Leaning Tower.

We had just a few minutes to gather up scattered belongings and blearily decant ourselves, children still in pyjamas, on to the platform at Pisa station.

Tony Grant paid pounds 540 for the entire trip through the Rail Shop (0990 300003). The price included three couchettes between Paris and Pisa (the children shared).