It had the promise of a thrilling adventure: a five-week, 4,000-mile odyssey from London to Athens and back by train. But 4,000 miles is a long haul if your legs are only 12 in long — even if you do have four of them.
When I was invited to visit friends in Athens last autumn, I was determined not to leave Roxy, my much-adored — and much-admired, Cavalier King Charles —Spaniel behind.
I wasn’t going to drive, that’s far too exhausting and stressful. We settled on an Interrail ticket, the international rail pass that would give us the freedom of Europe for the duration of our journey.
These days Interrail tickets are no longer aimed only at lank-haired back-packers, impoverished students and unwashed youth hostellers. Holidaymakers of all ages and income groups can enjoy the sybaritic pleasures of train travel — the comfy seats, the eye-wateringly beautiful scenery, the opportunity to unwind over a decent bottle of wine as someone else does the driving.
And first-class seats — even comfier and roomier than those in second — can be a bargain.
Golden hour: Mark Edmonds takes his pooch, Roxy, by train on a round trip from London to Athens (pictured)
I did not need to be convinced. I went on an interrail journey in the late 1970s when I was at school and had a fantastic time. But would Roxy cope? And was it lunacy to take a dog on such a lengthy trip?
Our route to Athens would take us through the Netherlands, France and on to Brindisi in southern Italy on the Adriatic coast where we would pick up the overnight ferry to Greece.
For advice about the best route (the continent has more than 130,000 miles of track), I went to visit Mark Smith, who runs a terrific website, The Man in Seat 61 (seat61.com) — essential reading to anyone contemplating a long trip in Europe by train.
Mark opts to travel using the Interrail ticket, which provides ‘freedom’ to explore Europe. His route to Athens took him through the Netherlands, France and on to Brindisi in Italy where he picked up the overnight ferry to Greece. Above, a train stationed in Lecce, Italy
Travel buddy: Mark and his Spaniel, Roxy
Mr Smith has an unrivalled knowledge of European train travel; he was able to tell me for instance that travelling to Greece by train through the Balkans (my original plan) is impossible since much of the rail network east of Budapest has been closed since the pandemic.
The ferry from Italy was about the only option unless I was prepared for a lengthy bus journey from Bulgaria into Thessaloniki and then on to Athens. No thanks.
Even if you don’t want to travel such a long distance, going anywhere by train in Europe with a dog requires careful planning. Post-Brexit, the bureaucracy and paperwork can be problematic and expensive (see box below).
It probably makes sense to stick to two or three countries — my own marathon trip was probably a bit too ambitious.
The most difficult element, perversely, can be the 21-mile hop across the Channel. Foot passengers travelling with a dog can only use a handful of routes. One option is the Newhaven-Dieppe DFDS ferry, but I would not recommend it after we took it on one recent holiday. While I enjoyed lunch in the bar, Roxy was locked up for three hours in a grim kennel on an outside deck.
So this time, we took the overnight Stena line ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland. It’s relatively expensive — at least £400 return for a dog and two people — but the fare includes a super-comfortable dog friendly-cabin in which you travel with your pet.
Mercifully, there is also a small ‘business lounge’ on deck for the dogs, equipped with hoses and poo bags.
Coastal views: Brindisi in southern Italy on the Adriatic coast (pictured)
THE NEW DOGGIE RULES
Brexit meant UK-issued pet passports are no longer valid in Europe. Travellers must get an Animal Health Certificate from their vet. But some European vets will issue an EU pet passport to dogs based in the UK.
These cost only about £25-£35. You will, however, need to supply a photograph and the address of your accommodation in Europe.
On your way back to Britain, ask the vet administering your dog’s tapeworm tablet (compulsory before returning to the UK) to issue a passport: if you smile nicely, they probably will.
In Holland, a local train then connects you with the international services, though the rail system in Holland seems designed in double-Dutch.
It is almost certain to confuse — complex, complicated and seemingly unstaffed, it made me long for the straightforward chaos of our own strike-prone and over-priced network.
Once in France, the journey picked up and the careful planning had paid off. We’d met some interesting people and enjoyed a terrific lunch at the dog-friendly art nouveau Train Bleu restaurant at Gare de Lyon in Paris. We then boarded the fast TGV to Milan. The plan was to travel on to Bologna before staying overnight and taking the train along the coast to Brindisi.
In the carriage Roxy was in her element — stroked and fussed over incessantly by other passengers; one exceptionally well-dressed Italian nonna even produced small slivers of salami from her Gucci handbag. In the comfort of her roomy first-class seat, Roxy watched the bucolic Burgundy landscape unfold: vineyards, hillsides, craggy peaks and lush valleys, fast-moving rivers and streams.
From Lyon, the train took us at speed into the Jura mountains and on into Italy through the Alps. We sat back in our seats on the upper deck of the TGV and absorbed the view, Roxy gazing longingly at the flocks of sheep at the foot of the mountains.
At 200 miles an hour, we whizzed through the glorious scenery of southern France and then the Lombardy Plain. But soon after we left Milan, the journey took a turn.
Three heavily-armed carabinieri got on board. Short-haired and with pursed, mean-looking lips they marched purposefully into our carriage — ‘Passaporti, prego.’ Nervously I handed over our documents.
For the first time in her life, Roxy was looking down the barrel of an automatic rifle. But mercifully those pursed lips unfolded. Suddenly our inquisitor was sporting a huge smile and he began tickling her under the chin.
‘Going anywhere by train in Europe with a dog requires careful planning,’ says Mark. Above, Roxy makes the most out of the trip
By the end of the five-week trip Marks says that they were both ‘refreshed and exhausted’
‘Bellissima!’ he said, moving on to her trademark Spaniel ears, giving them a gentle massage. He gave our passports a cursory glance and wished us a great holiday. ‘Bellissima!’ was a description I’d hear many times over the next few weeks as Roxy and I took the trains around Italy: we’d hear it in the trattoria of Rome, in the beautiful baroque squares of Lecce in Puglia, in the urban chaos of central Naples and in the mediaeval heart of Bologna. By the end of our trip — which took in a total of six countries — we were both refreshed and exhausted: Roxy’s legs, as predicted, had taken a pounding.
In just one day in Paris, I completed 40,000 steps: goodness knows what this translated to in spaniel terms.
It had been a fascinating journey, all the better for its out-of-season timing. With plenty of room, the ticket inspectors didn’t mind her sitting in her own first-class seat (for which they didn’t charge the official 14 euro dog fare).
Next summer we’re off again, this time via Germany and Switzerland. Even now, as I write, I’m looking over the maps.
An Interrail ticket can be booked through www.thetrainline.com/trains/rail-passes/interrail. A second class ‘global’ pass, valid for four days within a month, costs about £160; a pass for unlimited second class trips over 30 days costs about £600. Some journeys — almost all international ones — have to be booked in advance for which there is an additional fee. A cabin with two bunk beds for two people (foot passengers) and a dog in August costs about £500 return from Harwich to the hook of Holland (stena.com).