Across France by Train

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Train Station, Chamonix, France

Train Station, Chamonix, France

Great travel writers like Graham Greene and Agatha Christie wrote of long train journeys.

Greene’s Stamboul Train (1932) told the intersecting stories of carefully crafted characters traveling from France to Constantinople. (This book was also published with the title Orient Express.)

The mystery of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express(1934)  unfolded and was solved (by Hercule Poirot) as the train made the journey in the opposite direction. Actually it was stuck in a snowdrift during the most suspenseful part, but it was headed toward France.

Train travel is ready-made for interesting stories. A group of people who would not know each other under other circumstances spend time together enclosed in small rooms traveling across vast distances.  Proximity provides opportunity for introductions and there is time for interaction. It is natural to get to know your neighbors even when language is a barrier. So if you are creating fiction it is a great way to mix people together to produce any kind of drama, intrigue, or romance.

For most people though, train travel is routine and uneventful. Modern train travel in Europe is comfortable and clean. There is much more room for you and your luggage than on a plane. Trains are usually on time and they are more affordable. It is relaxing to sit back and watch the countryside roll by. The scenery is interesting although you do also see the back sides of buildings and lots of graffiti that you would not normally see if you were walking around a town. On high speed trains you are only able to see flashed glimpses down streets of the villages that you pass through. But there is no worry about rental car damage or driving stress. And you can get up and walk around whenever you want to-no fasten seat belt sign!

Our longest train trip so far was a full day journey from southern France deep into the Alps. The distance was not great, but because of the route we followed it involved five different trains and transected many different kinds of terrain. We were traveling with our daughters which made it an enjoyable and memorable adventure. We started early in the morning on a local train from Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean to Nice. The next train stopped in Marseille for an engine change to convert to a high speed configuration. We stayed on the train during this work and learned about the engine change from the French couple across the aisle from us. The longest segment was to Lyon but as we flew through the countryside we enjoyed snacks from the food service in the next car. There weren’t any mysteries or secret agents on our train (that we knew of) but it was a great time together. From Lyon we traveled to Annecy at the edge of the Alps. As we stood on the platform waiting for the next train I could feel the anticipation building. I love traveling by train in the Alps. Our next train took us through beautiful mountain villages and provided huge and beautiful vistas on our way to St. Gervais les Bains. Now we were really in the mountains. And finally the last train took  us to my favorite alpine village – Chamonix.

Chamonix was the home of the first winter Olympics and is at the base of Mont Blanc. It is surrounded by intimidating extreme rock and ice and exquisite mountain scenery. The village is beautifully maintained and is filled with classic stone buildings, colorful shutters, and hanging flower baskets. It is a climbing and skiing center, but you can also take the cable cars to the summits for sight-seeing and hiking. I have written about Chamonix in other postings in this blog so if you are interested you can enter Chamonix in the search box above and see other photos and read more about it.

Now even though we didn’t have any mysteries on our long train ride we did have a little intrigue when we tried to leave Chamonix. On our departure morning we rolled our luggage up through the village to the train station. All four of us had packed into one small backpack and one rolling carry-on each, so we were pretty mobile. When we reached the station it was deserted. We had our passes so we didn’t have to worry about buying tickets, which was a good thing since there was nobody working at the station. Eventually we found a sign on an office door which included the words “Grève Nationale”. We figured that that meant a national strike, but we weren’t sure if it meant all trains were cancelled or how long the strike would be.

We waited for our train to Geneva but the appointed departure time passed and there was no train in sight. We talked to a few other passengers who were trying to figure out how to get to Geneva also. We finally decided that we would have to take a bus later in the afternoon if no trains arrived, IF the buses were running.

We stayed close to the station just to make sure we didn’t miss an opportunity. We were getting a little frustrated as the time approached for the next scheduled train to Geneva. But a few minutes before the departure time a train rolled into the station, the train number was correct and it was on time. So we got on, found seats, stored our luggage overhead and left the station on time. It was as if nothing had happened and we were never given an explanation. There was a national strike, except for when there wasn’t. In our experience this was the only train that was significantly late or cancelled.

When we got to Geneva the train stopped at the French-Swiss border. Everyone was asked to disembark and were told this was the end of the line. We had made a reservation at a hotel by the main train station, but this train didn’t go there. So we had to buy a local tram ticket to get across town. Our hotel was a block from the station as advertised, but we didn’t know the other train stopped at the border on the outskirts of town miles from the main station. But that is the adventure of travel. If we had known more French we would have probably been more aware of what was going on.

We thoroughly enjoy train travel despite these two little episodes. Most of our experiences have been trouble-free and very relaxing. The European transportation system integrates airports, national trains, local trains, city trams, subways, buses, and ferries across lakes. Most of the time they are connected or are only separated by short walks and if you pack light it is easy to change from one mode to another.

You don’t need to have mysteries or espionage to make train travel memorable. But they sure make for good reading. Happy trails!

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