From Perth to the Pyrenees by train
A number of people have told me they would like to know more about my recent trip by train to the continent, so I hope you find the following example of slow travel of interest.
As I picked at my dry cereal trying to wake myself up, the hotel staff brought the TV to life silently in the corner of the restaurant. I took a swig of my machine-coffee optimistically and focused blearily at the screen. I jolted awake. Had we made a terrible mistake? Here we were, two hours away from catching our early morning train to Paris, and depicted in mute but graphic images was a pall of thick black smoke billowing from the channel tunnel. The next sequence showed migrants charging past trucks in a bid to find passage to Britain. This was not looking good at all.
We walked to St Pancras and checked through security, expecting to be told at any moment that it was all in vain, but the call never came. Everything was running to time, no delays. What a blessed relief. The train before ours went all the way to Marseille, but hardly anyone got on. But bang on time, we were ushered up the escalator and onto the 9:30am London to Paris.
I stopped to take a picture of St Pancras’s glass roof, a beautiful structure which imbues such a dramatic sense of arrival and departure, then hopped aboard to find our seats. It was time to go.
Within minutes we were in a tunnel. “Is this the channel tunnel?” asked one of my boys as the train plunged into darkness for all of fifteen seconds. When we did finally and gently descend through Kent they were distracted and didn’t notice the half hour of darkness until long after our re-emergence into sunlight in the Pas-de-Calais in Northern France. In no time at all, it seemed, we arrived in Paris.
So concluded the most uncertain leg of our journey – a train trip from Perth in East Central Scotland to Tarbes in south west France, near the Pyrenees. It is the third time I had travelled to the continent by train, only the second with the family, and fortunately, the third time everything had gone to timetable.
There is a thrill in getting the train to go on a long journey. Within ten minutes of the house you are on holiday! And once on the train there is nothing to do but read, drink coffee, play games, draw, listen to music and watch the countryside change as it slips past the window. It is instantly relaxing. The kids loved being able to move around, go to the loo and spot things out of the window and the six hours to London went surprisingly quickly. I had totally over-estimated the need for puzzle books and other distractions.
By deciding to break the journey we had planned things to do, so on arrival in Kings Cross we booked into the Travelodge and dumped the bags. We met up with a friend Hazel, whom we hadn’t seen for months and walked across town together. I wanted to take the boys to my favourite shop near Covent Garden, the map shop Stanford’s and my wife had decided to take us all to Wagamama’s on the South Bank for tea. We took in the sites before retiring to our room around 10ish, ready for the next leg to Paris the following morning.
Once in Paris we managed to put our bags into left luggage at the Gare D’Austerlitz before 10:30am and wandered into the city, walking along the Seine and up to Notre Dame. The heat was building, but the city was stunning. We took in the padlocks on the Pont des Arts (and every other bridge), where so many people had declared their love for each other by securing a padlock to the railing, that the integrity of the bridge was now apparently threatened, and the authorities were systematically removing them. We ate bagels by the Pompidou Centre and posed in front of the glass pyramid at the Louvre. Then we jumped on the ‘Batobus’ river taxi in sweltering heat, to see the smaller Statue of Liberty, eat ice cream and avoid the pick-pockets at the Eiffel Tower. In the evening we finally retreated from the heat and took the boat-bus back to Austerlitz to find a restaurant to eat and wile away the last two hours before taking the sleeper train (couchette) from Paris to Tarbes. By the time we jumped onto the platform in Tarbes on Sunday morning we felt like we had been on holiday for a week. Because we had taken our time we were more relaxed, but more acclimatised too – both to local conditions and language. It was a great way to start a break.
After two weeks of sun, fun and vin de vrac, we turned for home. We left Tarbes in thunderous rain at 11pm on the Saturday aboard the sleeper train. We taxied across Paris because of the metro being closed all Sunday, and were in London for the lunchtime train north. The final hour dragged a wee bit, but by 615pm we were back in our house.
It wasn’t the quickest way to travel perhaps (11 hours awake anyway), but it was certainly the most painless. It wasn’t that expensive with our ‘Family & Friends’ Railcard, a bit of planning and a deal on the hotel in London. But the journey itself was almost as fulfilling and packed with memories as the fortnight in our destination. It was far greener. And it felt like we had gently immersed into our holiday as opposed to belly flopping off a high diving board and struggling to de-stress. And by choosing to take our time and travel slowly it added to the adventure.
Slow travel is a different way of thinking about journeys. Please share your experiences with us at RSGS.