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A Night Train to Paris

March 02, 1986|ELSA DITMARS | Ditmars is a Palos Verdes free-lance writer.

PARIS — Imagine pulling up the covers of your upper berth, securing book and wristwatch on the tiny shelf and snuggling into the rocking rhythm of the overnight express, Pisa to Paris. With the window wide open! A train buff's dream come true.

For the price of a first-class hotel room, my daughter and I reserved a Wagons-lits bedroom. An independent company, Wagons-lits sells tickets only at certain travel agencies and occasionally at large railroad stations.

Cook's "Continental Timetable" has a special section on sleeping-car accommodations. This paperback volume, updated monthly, includes all the train schedules, maps and other data for freewheeling around Europe. It requires a roomy pocket, but I wouldn't leave home without it.

The two Wagons-lits agencies in Perugia, Italy, accept no credit cards or travelers checks, only cash. They said we could board the Palatino (Paris sleeper) in Rome at 6:46 or in Pisa at 9:51.

We chose to transfer through Florence, take time to climb Pisa's Leaning Tower and dine at Ruffino's before boarding at 9:51. Next time we'll board at Rome and try out the dining car.

Old train buffs remember the grit layered on those stiff brown blankets when we awoke in the Pullmans of the '40s. Or the soot on the windowsill, on shoes and jackets not cupboarded during the night. But the smell of coal smoke, the soot and cinders are absent from electric or diesel express trains on the smooth new rails of France. And vive la difference !

I tried to stay awake for all the wondrous night sounds: rolling metal wheels, high whistle on city approach, the platform commotion at Geneva, Torino and Dijon.

But I was rocked to sleep in that suspended cradle, the June breezes of the green French countryside in my face, toes barely inside the train.

What woke me was a spattering of rain in the face, which alerted my roommate in the lower berth to reach up and slam the big window shut. Alas.

After breakfast of juice, bread, cheese and coffee in our cozy nest, we stepped off the train at the Gare de Lyon at 10:07, awash in nostalgia and feeling smug about our leisurely travel style.

To prolong the enchantment, we lockered our bags and strolled down the Boulevard Diderot to the Seine and returned for lunch in the station's three-star Le Train Bleu. In 1972 this elegant restaurant was classified a historic monument.

What a way to enter Paris!

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