Track changes | Monocle

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Rail developments tend to be slow-going but there’s a clear direction of travel in 2023. The European Commission recently announced that it is supporting 10 pilot projects to establish or improve cross-border rail services across Europe.

New services (especially night routes) and gleaming trains with smarter and more comfortable cabins are the order of the day, as European governments and rail operators begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel after years of cutting costs. In part, this comes in response to a public fed up with logjammed airports and leg-jammed flights. Add to this an increasingly vocal faction who are rightly concerned about aviation’s climate impact. Rail can play a part in reaching emission-cutting goals over the coming decades and there are even positive signs down the line for the long-underfunded rolling stock in the US.

So what can we expect? Well, Austria’s ÖBB and its Nightjet services have been leading the charge, improving and expanding overnight rail across Europe. This continues with the delivery of 33 next-generation Nightjet trains from Siemens Mobility that will start to pull up on platforms later this year. As well as comfier interiors, they will also have innovative mini-cabins on offer that are akin to sleeping in a capsule hotel room on rails. For about the price of a shared berth, solo travellers can enjoy a greater level of privacy.

Private compartments are also available on the new Stockholm-Berlin service from Swedish state rail operator, SJ. This is an extension of a Hamburg-bound route that launched last year and takes about 15 hours. The onboard offering is more utilitarian than extraordinary (albeit in pleasant, muted hues) but its existence is still remarkable. 

There is a vast and growing demand in the Nordics for more intercontinental rail routes as an alternative to flying – and governments are beginning to act on it. European Sleeper is another service launching this year. It will offer overnight travel from Brussels to Berlin with services timed for connections from the Eurostar, so a London to Berlin rail journey will be easier than ever.

And hats off to Amtrak for finally investing in its long-overlooked trains. The US company began modernising several of its overnight services last year as part of a €26m programme. It has begun the process of replacing trains for its entire long-distance fleet, a reassuring sign that these iconic long-haul routes will operate for years to come.

Finally there’s Midnight Trains,a Parisian rail start-up that is prioritising comfort, luxury and privacy on its proposed overnight network, which is due to launch in 2024. If all goes to plan, it will eventually connect the French capital hub with 12 cities across Europe, including Edinburgh, Porto and Copenhagen, though the rolling stock is not known yet.

While any new stock or improved routes will be a good thing for travellers, it is Midnight Train’s ambition to elevate the standards of service and surroundings that excites us most. Quiet cabins, good food and great amenities are what is required if business and leisure travellers are going to forego the convenience of short-haul flights.
Gabriel Leigh is Monocle’s transport correspondent.


Pretty in pink Marrakech

Behind the blush walls of Maison Brummell Majorelle lies an oasis of storied design in Yves Saint Laurent’s old neighbourhood.

“We made five different colour tests for the façade,” says Christian Schallert, peering upward as he recounts his recent encounter with Marrakech’s stringent planning laws. Schallert’s new hotel is a striking addition to the quiet Majorelle neighbourhood, rendered in the city’s traditional ochre-pink colourway.

The new opening marks the end of a long and sometimes difficult journey for the Austria-born Schallert. He opened his first hotel in Barcelona in 2015 and purchased a prized plot of land behind Yves Saint Laurent’s former Marrakech residence back in 2017.

Now that the site is ready for guests, the self-made hotelier strides through his just-finished maison, gesturing to a wall-hanging made from a repurposed djellaba. Every object has a story: the sunloungers made by a metalworker from the medina; the brass ashtrays and bowls designed by an affable artisan in a souk close to the Ben Youssef Mosque. Three textured paintings hang as testaments to the joys of art-as-therapy – they were made by Schallert during, he says, “peak construction frustration”.

New Zealand-born architect Bergendy Cooke played with Moroccan vernacular ideas of privacy for the hotel, which she likens to “an eight-bedroom home”. Arched and inverted apertures see golden arrows of sunlight pierce different parts of the building throughout the day, creating a slow-moving spectacle of light and shadow. The interiors are almost ecclesiastical, from the curved ceilings to the traditional Tadelakt hand-polished plaster walls.

“I envisaged another Marrakech experience, away from the souk or medina, without trying to reinterpret the riad,” says Schallert. “I want people to feel as though they’re in a sanctuary where they can unwind from the hustle of street traders or bustle of traffic.”

A sunken lower-level terrace, private hammam and pool provide recluse from the sounds (and eyes) of the neighbours. Pointedly, there are no televisions in the rooms; stone bathtubs provide an alternative way to unwind.

A clutch of collaborations with Spanish makers, including bed covers and cushions from Santa Living and small geometric sculptures by Manolo Menéndez of Unvolumen, create a dialogue across the Strait of Gibraltar. “I want guests to connect with each other but also discover the hidden city, which emerges more slowly,” says Schallert, who also remodelled two apartments in the nearby Gueliz district.

For a photographer who moved into private tourist rentals in Barcelona, Schallert shows off both his eye for surprising details and excellent hosting skills at Maison Brummell Majorelle. And with the roof of Yves Saint Laurent’s house poking through the palms next door, his elegant new hotel is certainly keeping up with its neighbours.

Majorelle address book

Moro: Concept shop and restaurant with accommodation.

Plus61: Antipodean-influenced restaurant favoured by expats and locals alike.

Mouton Noir: Canteen- style bistro with a focus on meaty dishes and alcohol- free cocktails.
115 Rue Mohammed el Beqal

Galerie 127: This second-floor gallery in the Gueliz district specialises in conceptual art photography.

Le Jardin Majorelle: Yves Saint Laurent’s former home and garden backs onto Maison Brummell Majorelle.

Yves Saint Laurent Museum:
Near to the designer’s jardin is this 4,000 sq m venue.

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