It is late January and this is a newly introduced train. I and a lone Korean in the next compartment are the only passengers in the couchette car. As we pull slowly across the causeway that separates Venice from the real world, Daniel, the guard, raids the closed sleeper compartment and brings back chocolates and an orange “because I just have you two.” There is no restaurant car.
In Prague, I have a room waiting for me at the Hotel Hoffmeister. The brochure shows an elegant hotel in the old quarter that claims to offer saunas in its own 15th century caves but who cares about immobile hotels however opulent when you can ride a night train?
The Don Giovanni stops at most of the stations along the way. It is a train of big adventures – a night journey to Prague, and small routines – restaurant employees commute to the next town after the day shift in Venice. As I prepare for bed, I forget this ‘milk-train’ aspect and start to undress. As as we pull into a station, I find myself standing in my underwear as a local train pulls in at the opposite platform. The weary evening passengers, faces sallow in the fluorescent light, stare vacantly back at me.
As I get into bed I am absurdly excited. I’m enchanted by the idea of having my own mobile bedroom moving anonymously through dark, snowy fields and forests and towns that I will never visit, whose names I will never know..
At 2 a.m. I am wrenched out of sleep by a shuddering and rattling in the compartment. For a moment I am righteously indignant, convinced that Daniel is bouncing up and down on my bed. These kids in the service industry have no respect. I pull the blanket over my head and attempt to remove the offending guard with a sharp kick. But still he bounces so I sit up, turn on the light, survey my empty compartment and listen to the hammering that is, in fact, coming from the end of our carriage – the, formerly peaceful last car on the train..
Night trains have secret lives. Italy has vanished behind us, the Venetian hotel workers have long since left and gone to beds on solid ground. We’re now in the Austrian town of Villach where raucous, helmeted , hammering men in greasy yellow outfits seem to be welding us to the train behind.
Venetian rain has been replaced by snow. I leave the blind up and watch the thick flakes falling onto the deserted platform. I could happily ride forever on trains through snowbound landscapes which is probably a good thing because this is 14 hour journey and Daniel says the train is often an hour or two late. I fall asleep reading about Mozart and Prague. The great man himself conducted the premier of Don Giovanni there in 1787. And he had to get there in a horse drawn carriage.
I wake up in a snowbound village in Bohemia. My Don Giovanni’s first stop in the Czech Republic is Horni Dvoristi which seems appropriate enough. The steeples in the villages are different here – more elaborate, extravagant and romantic than in Austria. The tracks are lined with pale blue spruce trees – the only colour in a vast white land where snow seeps into sky – until the beige of a lone baby deer in the forest.
Daniel brings breakfast of tea and roll. The white emptiness suddenly fills with warehouses, factories, paper mills, grain silos and Czechs on their way to work, some of them cycling along ice-covered streets. How do they manage that? Tescos and McDonalds loom as Prague approaches.
An hour later, I’m lying in a candlelit cave at the Hotel Hoffmeister having the rattling night on a couchette smoothed out of my back by a warm oil massage. This hotel is the Prague base of “Amadeus” director Milos Forman. I’m feeling pleased with the Mozart/Don Giovanni connection until later in a real bed in my peaceful room when I leaf through the train timetable and see that the Don Giovanni train broke away, in fact, at 4 am in Salzburg and headed for Vienna. Typical.
Austrian railways Venice-Prague www.oebb.at 80 euros one way with couchette.
Hotel Hoffmeister Prague www.hoffmeister.cz