France 2007 Day 1: Travelling… Oh So Much Travelling…

Published on 3 August 2007 in , , , , , , , ,

I suspect my love of trains came from my granddad. After returning from a tour of duty in the mounted police in Palestine (he was one of the lucky ones for whom World War II was relatively peaceful and quiet) he came back to Britain and ended up spending the rest of his working life working for British Rail.

As a consequence, when he retired, he had pass entitling him to free railway travel and every now and then during the school holidays, we’d head off somewhere – more so when he discovered he could take children under 16 on board for the token gesture of £1.

I can still remember one particular trip where we went up the West Coast Mainline to Carlisle, toured the castle, had some lunch (presumably – I don’t actually remember) before coming down on the wonderful Settle to Carlisle line.

Due to not having a car, train travel is now the default state of affairs for us if we want to go anywhere. Almost every holiday or trip back to see parents is done via a train.

In 2001 we went abroad on the train for the first time – travelling by Eurostar to Paris, then catching an SNCF train through to Limoges to meet my parents. It was a bit of a long journey – our time on the SNCF train being in a crammed compartment of a crammed train where the “buffet car” was two lads in the next door compartment with a load of plastic boxes filled with ice and drinks.

However I’d been pretty impressed with the Eurostar, and when we were perusing the brochures of Inntravel, we spotted they did a train option for getting to many of their holidays. Given I’m not a big fan of planes, it seemed to make sense.

Which is why we found ourselves booked on a walking holiday in the Queyras Alps of France, travelling by train.

Three trains actually. A Eurostar, a TGV then a local SNCF train from Marseille.

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to London Waterloo International we go

Which is why on Saturday 21 July 2007, we were stood at London Waterloo International waiting for train one.

London Waterloo International

If there’s one reason why Eurostar rocks, it’s the fact that it’s really easy to get to. No horrible journeys to obscure parts of the country.

If there’s another reason why Eurostar rocks, it’s because it’s so easy. Even on this busy Saturday, with Waterloo International full to bursting, everything was running smoothly. Within minutes we were checked in. Security took a few minutes more. Then a pop to passport control and then we were ready. It probably took about fifteen minutes in total.

Fifteen minutes and we’re ready. Now, anyone who has been to Heathrow recently and got through to airside that quickly put up your hands… Yes the journey time to Paris from Waterloo is longer than a plane, but hey, by the time you include all the multitude of queues, insanely stupid security checks and so on, the train takes the strain far better.

One thing that doesn’t rock yet is Eurostar’s performance on UK soil. Actually it’s better than it was, but as you sit on a train that regularly runs at 186mph, it’s very depressing to sit on it as it trundles through Brixton and Hearne Hill. Once it gets on to the new High Speed 1 line, things really begin to take off. Come November and the full opening of High Speed 1 and Eurostar will finally stop looking like a national joke, compared to the way it operates in France and Belgium.

One coffee and a pain au chocolat later (and just under two hours), and we were in France – Gade de Lille Europe actually. Getting off the Eurostar in France is fantastically easy – passport control is done in the UK where the French Gendarmerie took a cursory glance at our passports. No need for customs – who would bring alcohol from the UK to France by train? All that remains is to get off the train, and find out where the next one was.

Lille Europe, this is Lille Europe. Change here for the Northern Line.

Lille Europe is the main Eurostar/TGV hub where we had a fifty minute wait for our TGV to Marseille. We had time to stretch our legs and explore the station. Which had an Irish bar with the amazingly Irish sounding name of "O’Conways" – a name which seemed to be one O’extra and no mistake.

Boarding the TGV Duplex at Lille Europe

Our next train was the 12:15 TGV Duplex. These are double decker trains which were introduced to increase the capacity of the TGV network, and they can run at a top speed of 200 mph – 60mph faster than the fastest train can run in Britain. It takes just 3 and a half hours to go from the top left of France, to Aix-en-Provence TGV station. That’s nearly 1000 miles. In contrast on a GNER train, it takes 3 hours from get from London to Newcastle – a distance of around 300 miles. No surprise given the lack of any proper investment in UK railways over the years…

Our seat on the outward journey was in the lower "duplex" which (it has to be said) is a little dark and dingy. However the seats are comfortable and there’s plenty of legroom – which is something that can’t often be said about newer British trains either…

What’s in a number?

Back in 2001 much confusion had been caused on our French trip by the seemingly odd practice of carriage numbering. Anyone travelling in Britain does get used to the pretty sensible numbering practice we have over here. A is at one end, then it increases to the other end – say H or M. Whatever. Which was why we’d got completely confused trying to find our carriage in 2001, having not realised that French carriage numbering is, to be frank, a little more arbitrary. Ours had seemingly started at 9, then gone through to 18. Then started at 1 through to 8.

The secret is to look at the little sign on the platform as to where your carriage is, but we hadn’t known. To be honest, I’m still completely confused by this practise. It just doesn’t seem to make any sense. Surely its more hassle to put the carriage plan up on every platform than it is to just change the paper numbers on the carriages?

Which was why I rather rather surprised to find our TGV had a rather sensible numbering system of 1 through to 16 and we found our seats within minutes. Given the TGV’s have computerised displays to show the carriage numbers, one wonders why they couldn’t always be like that (true to form, one our return, our train carriages were numbered 9 to 16 then 1 to 8…)

The journey to Aix was a mere four hours – giving us plenty of time to read and relax as we zoomed at top speed through the French countryside. There’s a reason why internal flights have been substantially reduced in France. And that reason is a fantastic railway infrastructure.

It Aix! It Aix!

The original itinerary saw us go on to Mairselle and then catch a SNCF coach to another railway station about a mile away, however with a few days to go, our travel agent told us that some people had been on the coach and got stuck in traffic jams due to roadworks. They told us instead to alight at Aix-en-Provence TGV station. As that station is out of town, we’d then get a taxi to this place – Aix-en-Provence SNCF station.

Waiting at Aix-en-Provence SNCF station

In contrast to the shiny grey of the TGV station, the SNCF station is rather quieter, dustier and less glamorous.

Our final train was sat on the platform waiting for us, but had clearly been baking in the sun for several hours and (as Aix was pretty warm) was roasting inside, so we sat on the platform instead until. The train had clearly seen better days – a motley collection of former intercity style carriages hauled by a diesel loco.

On board the train to Montdauphin-Guillestre

The train was mostly normal seating, but the last carriage also included a couple of compartments and a suspiciously empty first class section. Back in 2001 our seats had been reserved in one of the compartments which we’d found completely crammed when we finally found it. In contrast, we had this one for ourselves.

Whilst it was rather stuffy with the heat, it did have a huge window which could be opened quite substantially and which let in a good breeze when we were moving.

Our train left at 17:41 – up to that point we’d been on trains and platforms for nearly 9 hours and we still had 3.5 hours to go.

That might sound long (and indeed it is) however even if we’d got on the plane, we’d still have had the final 3.5 hours on this train from Aix. Add to that the extra travelling time to and from the airports, plus the extra check in time, baggage collections and general security faff, and we wouldn’t have saved a huge amount of time going by plane – I estimate it would be roughly 90 minutes, or 2 hours at most. And hey, trains are a lot less stressful!

View from the train

We moved along steadily, through some fantastic scenery – the drop down nature of the windows meaning you could comfortably lean on the top of the glass and watch the world go by. For the most part it was an uneventful journey bar being stuck at a station called Serres due to the level crossing barriers not closing!

Final train

Actually it turned out not to be our final train – we had to change further down the line at Veynes Dévoluy – clearly just because it’s one train on the timetable, doesn’t mean it always is one as far as SNCF are concerned.

At this point things started going a bit downhill. We pulled into the station and moved to the other platform, and began to wonder where our train was. There was a train, but it was listed at 2025 – we were due to leave at 1956 but had arrived around 2010. At the time I believed that the train we were connecting with was late, but looking at the timetable, it turns out that the train we were connecting with had already gone and we were all forced to wait for the 2025 from Grenoble.

To further confuse things, the 2025 was listed as being with a 15 minute delay, which was therefore quite impressive when it arrived dutifully on time.

It was another elderly train, but this time refurbished to a nice, high standard. However it was getting dark as we went forth through the mountains and hills.

We arrived at our end station, Mountdauphin Guillestre about 40 minutes late – around 2220 – tired and ready for bed after being on the go for 14 hours. Which was unfortunate as we had to get a taxi to our hotel.

We finally got to the Hôtel La Cascade at around 2240 and were welcomed with a huge tray full of food in our room – bread, cheese, pork, some cheese pastries and a lovely salad – before crashing out on bed.

Oh, and to bode well… it was raining…

Number of different cheeses eaten on day 1
Andrew 3 *
Catherine 3 *

* – although this does include the Red Leicester and soft cheese on the sandwiches I’d made the night before for the journey.

For more photographs of this holiday, have a look at my France 2007 photo set on Flickr