The new direct rail route to the South of France
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The Plane or the Train
We've all been hooked
on flying to foreign holiday destinations for so long that we might have missed
the amazing expansion of high-speed trains that now criss-cross Europe. It's
easy to forget that a short 2 hour flight balloons to a 6 – 8 hour journey when
all the queueing, waiting and transfers are taken into account.
This May saw the
latest innovation as the South of France became directly connected to London by
high speed train as Eurostar's new year-round rail service headed for the sun.
Getting to France’s second city of Marseille, on the Mediterranean coast, has
never been more convenient or accessible from London.
High speed rail routes
keep opening across Europe and there's a growing appetite among travellers to
choose trains over planes for journeys across mainland Europe. New high speed
routes have recently opened to Switzerland, Spain and Italy (with a change in
Paris) and non-stop routes to Holland and Germany are on the cards.
St Pancras railway station
For us Brits everything starts at St Pancras railway station. It can be busy at peak times but never anything like the insanity and crushing confusion of the crowds and queues at our major airports.
Check-in, security and
passport control takes around 15 minutes instead of two hours at the airport,
there's no half hour wait (x2) for your luggage and the journey is city centre
to city centre, so no awful 20-25 mile bus transfer to and from airports. The
767 mile, six and a quarter hour rail trip to Marseille is spacious,
comfortable but above all else it's relaxing and hassle free.
On board a Eurostar train
The Marseille train
follows the usual Eurostar route towards Paris but skirts the city by going via
Lille and Marne la Vallee-Chessy (Disney World Paris) before linking up with
the main TGV routes south across France.
On this longer journey
it can be worth paying extra for a Standard Premier ticket as the seats are
larger and more comfortable than in Standard. In addition passengers are served
two meals along with coffee and wine which adds to the experience. However,
economy seats are still more spacious and comfortable than any airline offers,
and there's an onboard cafe carriage but unlike flying there's no problem if
you want to bring your own picnic and drinks for the journey.
Wheelchair users are
well catered for on Eurostar, they’ll reserve a dedicated wheelchair passenger
space for you, either in Standard Premier or Business Premier carriages. You’ll
also be able to take a companion at a discounted rate. Passengers with restricted
mobility, that need a little help walking, can arrange assistance to get to the
platform, on the train and off again at your destination.
Apart from the freedom
of being able to stroll around the train, (walk its quarter of a mile length if
you really want to) it's great sightseeing to watch the countryside roll past,
a great boon if you're travelling with children. After a brief stop at Lyon,
France's central rural landscape really blooms with rolling hills, wooded
valleys, hilltop villages and patches of vineyard everywhere. The Rhone Valley
skirts the Alps and great rocky outcrops dot the landscape while huge white
Charolais cattle graze in little herds.
South of Avignon the
sun blazes down on red roofed houses and classic cypress trees appear heralding
the Mediterranean climate. Just a few
minutes late we pull in to Saint-Charles station in the centre of Marseille, welcomed
by the warmth of the Provençal sun.
Marseille is France’s
oldest city. Greek traders founded it 2,600 years ago, it’s scarcely had a
quiet moment since and this shows in its very cosmopolitan ambience. It's not
just a summer resort destination, like much of the Riviera, Marseille is an
anytime destination that never closes. In winter the weather can be mild enough
for shirtsleeves and lunch on a terrace, spring and autumn are the best times
for exploring and summer is time for one of its many little beaches.
gravitate towards the vibrant Vieux Port (Old Port) area, where sailing boats,
ferries and fishing boats fill the harbour. Restaurants, cafés and hotels line
the quayside and people gather to chat and promenade around the revamped quay.
Every visitor makes a beeline for Norman Foster's quayside architectural
attraction - the Ombriere. This polished metal shelter, with a mirror-like
ceiling, not only provides a focal point, some much need shade, it's also a
magnet for 'selfie' obsessed tourists.
European Capital of Culture
Marseille's award as
European Capital of Culture in 2013 precipitated a range of grand urban renewal
schemes - new trams, designer hotels, galleries, chic restaurants, museums,
shopping arcades and a boringly predictable giant wheel. However, the much
trumpeted area around Joliette has a rather sterile concrete look to it,
although Fort Saint-Jean is impressive and the new museum MuCEM is great for
to Montmartre is the medieval quarter called Le Panier, renown for its shady,
criminal reputation – think Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle in The French
Connection. It's still a jumble of
sloping streets and lanes flanked with ochre buildings and terraced houses, but
in recent years wealthy buyers have developed a serious crush on the area's
pretty town houses, causing rapid gentrification. Artisan shops selling
traditional products such as scented soaps, olive-wood carvings, homemade
biscuits and chocolates have replaced the pimps and drug dealers but it's still
possible to find a little cafe for a pastis, the quintessential Provençal
The other side of the
Old Port is less touristy and the Jardin du Pharo, with its Palace built for
Napoleon III, is well worth visiting and provides the best views of the harbour
and across to Fort Saint-Jean. Just around the headland is Plage des Catalans,
Marseille's local beach and the beginning of the Corniche, a glorious walk
beside the Mediterranean with bays, beaches, island views and stunning
The French Riviera
From Marseille there
is a Regional rail line that hugs the coast, travelling the length of the
French Riviera, all the way to the Italian border of Ventimiglia. So, when
you've had enough of big city life one of Europe's most beautiful coastal
journeys can take you to iconic Riviera destinations like St.Tropez, Nice and
Returning to the UK,
on the direct Marseille service, does require passengers to disembark at Lille
and pass through UK customs and Border Security before re-boarding the train
onwards to the UK.
I travelled with the
UK based Great Rail Journeys Independent who booked my tickets and hotels but for
travellers who want some company and a dedicated guide Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries also run fully escorted tours to Provence and
many other European destinations.
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