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New luxury train travels from Moscow to French Riviera

MOSCOW/NICE — “I’m on holiday, I can allow myself to waste fifty-three hours. And there will be some lovely countryside,” said one passenger aboard a new luxury train on its maiden voyage from Moscow to the French Riviera.

Embarking on the two-day journey to Nice, Rafael Kazansky joked, “I’ll spend forty hours out of fifty-three sleeping. The rest I’ll spend talking to you, then going to the restaurant and having some coffees.”

The 48-year-old businessman, equipped with an iPad, said he was more used to air travel than the slower pace of the train.

The red-and-grey striped train owned by Russian Railways (RzhD) is largely aimed at passengers with a taste for luxury. Only one of the 12 carriages is second class, while six are reserved for first class and three are defined as ‘luxury class’. The train also boasts two dining cars.

They are furnished with plush carpets and reproductions of paintings by the French master Matisse. Individual compartments have private showers, toilets and televisions, to ensure passenger comfort over the 3,300-kilometre (2,050-mile) journey.

The train stops at 22 stations, cutting across Europe via Minsk, Warsaw, the Czech Republic, Vienna and Milan before reaching its final destination in France’s Cote D’Azur, a sunny clime that has drawn wealthy Russians tourists for centuries.

The rail route ran from the late 19th century until the outbreak of World War II, often catering to members of the Russian imperial family during the Tsarist era. A Russian Orthodox cathedral that stands proudly in the centre of Nice, built in the early 20th century, is the largest outside Russia.

“Everything is good, everything is comfortable,” Yelena Romeika, an elderly woman travelling in the train’s luxury class, told AFP. “Everything has been done for the passengers’ well-being.”

Making no secret of the train’s target clientele, a representative of the French railway company SNCF hailed the route as a return to the splendour of an earlier century.

“We need to start thinking again about the luxury trains of bygone days, like the Orient Express,” said Frederic Parde.

“We expect that the Russians will be quite a rich clientele,” he said, adding that the price range on tickets was fairly wide and that prices on cheaper seats would be be comparable to air ticket costs.

Fares start at EUR 306 for second class travel and range to EUR 1,200 for travel in the most luxurious compartments. The rail voyage is aimed at people who enjoy the experience of travelling rather than hurrying to their destination, Parde explained.

“It’s not a clientele who is short of time, who needs to get there quickly,” Parade said. The journey from Moscow southwest takes 53 hours, while the route back from Nice takes 50 hours. “This isn’t mass transport, it’s a voyage,” said Parade.

The train is currently scheduled to run only once a week, but the Russian and French railways hope to add more trains in the near future.

Russian passengers, gathered in the dining car to listen to music and share a few drinks in the early evening, insisted the travel time was no issue, saying they were used to even longer rail journeys across the country’s multiple time zones.

“Imagine how long it takes to get from Moscow to Vladivostok (in the Far East),” said Pyotr Samochko, the director of an air company in Saint Petersburg. “That takes a week! We are used to these kinds of distances.”

Laetitia Peron / AFP / Expatica