Train from Spain preferred to plane

Lenny Ann Low sets out from Madrid on an overnight 'hotel' journey across the countryside to France.

There's something deeply reassuring about a sleeper cabin on an overnight train. Close the door and your travel experience becomes entirely private - unless, like me, you open your cabin curtains at 7am on the outskirts of Paris and encounter a platform of commuters staring straight back in. And you're dressed only in underwear and a singlet.

This startling moment comes after a surprisingly restful night on the Elipsos Trenhotel, or Train Hotel. Surprising because sleep on rails is often tricky - small beds, rocking trains, loud carriages.

Twelve hours earlier, the sleek 20-year-old Spanish train, the Francisco de Goya, glided out of Madrid's Chamartin station at 7pm on a hot summer's evening with 1400 kilometres of mostly rural Spain and France ahead.

Flying would be quicker but I like avoiding check-in queues and a boring departure-lounge wait. Elipsos has trains travelling between Paris and Madrid, Paris and Barcelona, Barcelona and Zurich, and Barcelona and Milan.

The accommodation ranges from reclining seats (in a 20-seat saloon car) to tourist class (four-person cabins), club class (single or double bed with basin) and Grand Class. Grand Class includes a three-course dinner, drinks and breakfast in the dining car.

My Grand Class roomette is relatively cramped, decorated in unstylish pale salmon hues and has hard plastic walls - a smart, rather than luxurious, space. But I love it. It is a room with a door. There's a bed lurking behind the seats, my bathroom has a shower, toilet, basin and towels, there's bottled water and a selection of hooks, lights and cupboards.

Everything is sparkling clean. A funky grey-felt toiletries case has the usual toothpaste, comb and shampoo, as well as indispensable earplugs.

After a glass of cava in the bar, I walk to the dining car, where a serving of jamon and salad arrives at my table as we barrel across the Spanish countryside north of Valladolid. Cross-table discussions bloom as the sinking sun tinges the grass and trees a golden colour.

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Our no-nonsense waiter, a seasoned sea-legger with plate-laden arms, delivers the mains, a good mushroom risotto. Fresh melon slices follow.

Two hours later, I'm back in my cabin, the bed made by the attendant, who has left chocolates on the pillow.

A night of lurching, seasick-inducing non-sleep surely awaits. But the mattress has depth, the linen is good and, using the earplugs, I wake just twice in the night - miraculous for a bed that never stops swaying.

The morning brings a delivered breakfast (fruit, coffee, cereal and yoghurt) and my undergarment flash in France.

As I disembark an hour later at Paris's Austerlitz station, I am rested and well fed - qualities no plane trip has ever delivered.

Lenny Ann Low travelled courtesy of Rail Europe and Accor hotels.

The Elipsos Trenhotel, run by Spain's RENFE and France's SNCF, has reclining seats starting at $150 a person and Grand Class double sleepers for $498 a person. Eurail pass holders can pay a supplement for night train travel. Phone 1300 555 003; see raileurope.com.au. The Mercure Madrid Santo Domingo, Madrid, has rooms from $100 a night, low season. See accorhotels.com.

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