It’s a beautiful sunny morning on Tuesday, the first day of March, and I’m sitting in a comfy seat on the Stena Adventurer with the Irish Sea stretching ahead towards Holyhead, and as calm as a millpond for as far as the eye can see. It’s years, decades actually, since I’ve been on a ferry, always being one for the get-there-quick option, but now here I am at the start of my slow odyssey to Italy.
Down in a kennel on a lower deck is Dudley, my wire-haired dachshund, none too happy at being left to his own devices for a few hours in such strange surroundings, but I console myself with the knowledge that once we disembark at lunchtime today, Dudley and I will be joined at the hip, as it were, until we alight from the train in Santa Lucia station in Venice at teatime on Friday.
“You’re doing what?” was the general reaction from friends when I told them I was going to Venice for three months, such a response generated not because I was going to have an extended stay in Venice, a city I have spent a great deal of time in over the past 25 years, but because I was taking Dudley and travelling the whole way by train once I got off the ferry in Holyhead.
Was I bonkers? That was the general drift of the response to my trip.
It’s a trip, though, that has been in my head for three years, one that was thwarted two years ago by the arrival of Covid, and a trip that, come hell or high water, I was determined to see through.
It was all about the planning; about precision in terms of dates and times and prices, but also about allowing a bit of flexibility too so that there wouldn’t be any knock-on effects to the schedule if there was a glitch along the way. And when it came to that planning, yes, it was certainly time-consuming and not a little confusing on occasion.
How far in advance can you book the cheapest train tickets? (It depends.) Is it better to book directly with, say, SNCF in France and Trenitalia in Italy, or should you do it all through a central system like Trainline or Rail Europe? (It depends.) Are dogs free or do you pay? (It depends.) Can you get a dog ticket online when you book your own? (Sometimes, but, again, it depends.)
By the time I had secured all the tickets required (including those for my sister, who was joining me in London and travelling on from there) I felt that the planning of the D-Day landings must have been a doddle.
So, what was the exact schedule?
OK, here goes: Dublin to Holyhead on the Tuesday as a foot passenger and with Dudley in a (free) kennel; train from Holyhead to Chester, a beautiful journey along the Welsh coast; collected in Chester by an old schoolfriend and an overnight with her; driven to Crewe on Wednesday morning to catch the train to London Euston; a stroll from Euston to St Pancras to meet with the sister who was arriving there from Leeds, and then (after a celebratory glass of bubbles in the station’s Champagne Bar) on to the train to Folkestone; overnight in the excellent pet-friendly Holiday Inn there (£15 for Dudley in our room); Thursday morning, collected at 8am by the local Pet Taxi company and taken to the Eurotunnel to do all the dog and human check-in paperwork before heading through the tunnel on the 9.20am shuttle (35-minute journey) to be dropped at Calais-Fréthun station; train from Calais to Paris, arriving 2.35pm; overnight in Paris in Hôtel Jeanne d’Arc in the Marais (€5 for Dudley); Friday morning, a very early taxi to Gare de Lyon for the 6.47am TGV’s seven-hour journey to Milan: time for a stroll and a coffee there before catching the 3.45pm train from Milan to Venice, arriving at journey’s end at 6.10pm.
That was the plan. And, amazingly – apart from a hitch with the Eurotunnel journey when we eventually discovered (more information for delayed passengers, please, Eurotunnel people) that, due to earlier train cancellations, we were delayed by over an hour and so almost missed our Paris connection in Calais – it all went like clockwork.
Still, for those few minutes as we charged, dog and all, along the bridge above the platform and watched from on high as the Paris train pulled in, it was certainly heart-in-the-mouth time. But even if we’d missed that train, there was still enough time in the schedule to get to Paris that same day. That’s the plus of taking it slowly.
Essentially, though, the journey was a joy. And what we lost in terms of speed of arrival, we gained from our slower journey in so many other ways.
Like just enjoying the scenery, from the Welsh coast to the Italian Alps; hearing various dog-travel experiences from the group holed up together in the pet section of the restaurant in the hotel in Folkestone on the Wednesday night; strolling around Paris of an evening, taking in the extraordinary sight that is the ongoing Notre Dame restoration, and then meeting old friends who happened to be in the city at the same time, enjoying a few glasses of wine with them in La Tartine, one of my favourite bars on the edge of the Marais, all of us just happy to be there, and together, and alive. And with Dudley lying contentedly under the table and being admired by the barmen.
The complexities worked themselves out along the way. By the time we got to Paris, for example, the antigen tests that I had booked weeks in advance for myself and my sister in order to enter Italy were no longer required, thus taking the pressure off what would have been a very hectic couple of hours.
Nor did I have time in Calais to collect Dudley’s train ticket in the station – you can buy dog tickets online if you book through the French SNCF site but not through the English one. But even with the French version you have to use your ‘purchase code’ to collect the actual ticket (as it happened, I wasn’t even asked for it by the ticket inspector).
When it comes to cost when travelling with your dog, it is half the second-class fare for dogs in both France and Italy (but free at certain times on regional Italian trains), but they go free on trains in the UK.
To be honest, my four-day journey from Dublin to Venice was initially booked to accommodate Dudley and it’s definitely a brilliant way to travel with your dog. There were surprises, all the same. Don’t be fooled, for instance, by all that “oh, the French adore dogs” malarkey; some taxis won’t take them, and not one public park in Paris allows you to enter with a dog, even on a lead. So Dudley never did get to stroll around the lovely little park in the middle of my favourite Parisian square, the Place des Vosges.
With Italians, though, it’s a different story altogether. Venice has always been a very dog-friendly city but, to be honest, until now, I really had no idea of the extent of it. Yes, Dudley is a cute dog and OTT friendly, but he is being treated like a rock star here. “Bello, bello, bellissimo…” is what I hear a hundred times a day.
Bar staff, the refuse collectors, the local residents where I’m staying in the Dorsoduro district – they all think nothing of dropping to their knees to embrace him and tell him how beautiful he is. Alina, a waitress in a local trattoria, took photos of him and sent them on to me later that evening, and just the other morning a tourist-weary gondolier left his pitch to come after us, just to make a fuss of my little dog.
He comes everywhere with me – except into supermarkets. Even then though, when I made a mistake and walked him into one on the Lido on my first weekend here, one of the workers told me that if I wanted I could carry him around. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that at my twice-weekly Italian classes, guess what? Yes, Dudley comes too.
So was it worth all the planning, the text alerts for cheap train fares pinging into my phone at all times of the day and night, the anxiety about how Dudley would cope with boats and trains, the worry about Covid tests and all the fast-moving regulations across Europe, the concern that we might miss a connection or face a cancellation and then where would we be with our cheap tickets and no refunds? Yes. Every minute of pre-trip disquiet was worth it.
Now all we have to do is get home again in June. By then, of course, Dudley will be barking in Italian…
Tips for travelling with canine companions
- Make sure your dog has their European Passport and that their rabies jabs are up to date. They will need a tapeworm test done within five days of coming back into Ireland. europa.eu
- Sign up for text alerts for cheap advance train tickets: sncf.com; trenitalia.com, trainline.com. Check dog regulations with each operator. If booked well in advance, first-class tickets are often only slightly dearer. I travelled first class from Paris to Milan for only €10 more than the second-class fare.
- Travel light – ideally just a rucksack with changes of clothes and dog requirements: food, a collapsible bowl, spare lead etc. Send your suitcase ahead – Send My Bag is a terrific service (sendmybag.com) and is similar in cost to airline check-in bag charges.
- The Folkestone-based pet taxi service through Eurotunnel is excellent. pettravelabroad.co.uk