Jim Read takes a trip on one of Europe’s fastest train routes.
The 20-car TGV Duplex flashes across the French countryside.
During a recent trip to the UK I was invited to a family wedding in the French Riviera and therefore considered the two main travel options: fly or take the train.There is no shortage of flights from London to Nice with many different airlines offering either full or budget service. Flying time is about the same as from Jakarta to Bali, but if you add on journey time to and from the airports at each end plus minimum check-in times for international travel, total journey time is around six to eight hours.
This is much shorter than the rail-trip time of around 11 to 12 hours, but taking the train means there is no weight limitation on luggage and it allows you to enjoy views of the English and French countrysides along the way. If like me, you are something of a traditionalist, there is also that indefinable thing we call the romance of train travel; Murder on the Orient Express, etc. There is also the opportunity to travel on one of the fastest train routes in Europe. Eurostar trains from London to Paris and the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) Duplex from Paris to the South of France are timetabled to run at 300kph for a substantial proportion of the journey.
The London end of the trip starts at St. Pancras International Station, a stunningly beautiful, neo-Gothic edifice that made a prominent appearance in the epilogue to the last of the phenomenally successful Harry Potter films, where it posed as neighbouring Kings Cross Station, as featured in the books.
St. Pancras lay unused and neglected for decades in the last century until it underwent a total refurbishment and refit that has nonetheless respected its heritage as a Grade I listed building, and it has become a living monument to Victorian-era engineering. It now boasts a five-star hotel, while the concourse is filled with cafes and shops that ensure it has a bustling ambience that must have existed when it first opened.
There’s even an old-fashioned piano in there, with a signboard that says “Please Play Me”. Many do so without embarrassment, keen to display their pianistic prowess to their travelling companions. Curiously, I noticed a similar arrangement at the departure lounge at Heathrow’s Terminal 4, so perhaps this is becoming a regular feature despite appearing charming but anachronistic in this wired era of social media and instant messaging.
The predominantly white exterior of the Eurostar rolling stock means it shows the dirt easily and for much of the time the coaches look as though they are in need of a good wash. The interior is nonetheless plush and comfortable with good sound insulation and excellent suspension – so much so that while whooshing through the pitch-black Channel Tunnel, you get the weird sensation that the train has actually stopped.
The moored Antibes armada is an impressive sight.
If like me, you are something of a traditionalist, there is also that indefinable thing we call the romance of train travel.
Emerging on the French side, the driver can really put the train through its paces as it races along a line specially designed to accommodate high-speed running. On both the English and French sections the line passes through very few stations, making it difficult to track its progress. The only real clue to the speed of the train is the vertical supports to the overhead power cable, which flash past the carriage windows at a rate of two per second, even though they lie some 30 to 40 metres apart.
Once arriving in Paris the downside to the trip is the need to travel by subway from Gard du Nord to Gard de Lyon stations. As in London, the train termini are at different locations, a hangover from the early days of rail travel, when competing railway companies each built their own stations, with little or no coordination between them.
Gard de Lyon is also a memorable building, although it does not have quite the sheer, in-your-face impact of St. Pancras. However, this is more than compensated for by the sleek TGV Duplex trains that serve the station. After the French government introduced high-speed trains on the Paris to Lyon route in the 1980s, they became so popular that a way had to be found to accommodate more passengers. The safest, most practicable way to do so was to give the coaches a second tier, thereby increasing capacity by 45 per cent at a stroke.
A forward-facing window seat on the upper deck is by far the best way to view the French countryside as it flashes by. The large, prairie-like fields of rural northern France eventually give way to smaller enclosures and vineyards as the south beckons. The villages and hamlets also start to take on a more uniform appearance too, with most dwellings finished in a warm, pinkish wash, a colour that is also reflected in roof tiles.
Beyond Marseille the train begins to slow down at last, and after Toulon, a major dropping-off point for vacationers, the Cote d’Azur can clearly be seen on the right-hand side. Its irresistible charm to the French and foreigners alike begins to work its magic. The sea shimmers in the middle distance while beaches fringed with palm trees are a reminder of the year-round balmy climate.
As Cannes comes into view, the multitude of boats moored in its harbours becomes a sea of white, gently bobbing up and down on the ebb and flow of the water. Antibes, my ultimate destination, was the next town along the coast, and was filled with more boats and the impressive sight of full-size, ocean-going yachts moored in its harbours and at anchor a little way offshore. Although smaller than both Cannes and Nice, which fringe it on either side, Antibes is all the more charming as a result. Founded in Roman times, the old town’s pavement cafes and restaurants are a major draw for domestic tourists who flock there by the thousands during the July and August peak.
As the train finally pulled in to Antibes Station I felt the rich experience of the rail trip made the longer journey time all the more worthwhile.