When August arrives, many Parisians choose to escape the city’s swelter and retreat to the shade of the seaside. It’s a romantic notion – heading south to St Tropez or Île de Ré or decamping to some accommodating grand-père in wine country – but one that had slipped my mind when I attempted to buy a ticket for the TGV from Montparnasse to Bordeaux St Jean on the last Friday in July.
The station was sweaty and hectic and, needless to say, the trains were full. An hour of negotiations in broken French and many euros later, the dusty double decker I snuck into might as well have been the Orient Express. The two-hour journey passed in a dizzying haze, the urban sprawl of Paris quickly giving way to green abundance and, eventually, honey-hued châteaux surrounded by the kind of impossibly neat vineyards you find on fine wine labels.
But, a disclaimer: I always romanticise train journeys. There’s just something magical about gazing out, seeing the landscape change in an endless series of tableaux, watching the scenery morph and merge, all while remaining static in perpetual motion. Or falling asleep and waking up somewhere unrecognisable, reaching a different world without leaving the ground.
And before you’ve even got to the delights of the TGV, there’s an excuse to hop aboard one of the best trains of all: the Eurostar. There are so many things to love about this high-speed rail service – its chronometric precision, its comparatively light carbon footprint, the ease with which you can swoop through security (well, on a good day) without worrying about liquids and departure gates and baggage reclaim. And in the ongoing airport omnishambles, it looks ever more appealing.
You can race to King’s Cross in the late afternoon and be in Paris in time for dinner at your favourite bistro (and given the August exit detailed above, you might not even need a reservation). It’s the first place I think of heading to for a romantic adventure; the first place I think of fleeing to after a break-up. And train travel lends itself to that kind of last minute, self-indulgent anonymity. You can be anyone on a train – and meet anyone too (so long as it’s more perfect strangers than the Hitchcock kind). During one particularly memorable Eurostar trip, I unknowingly sat next to theatre maestro Trevor Nunn for two fascinating hours, wondering how my erudite neighbour knew quite so much about Shakespeare.
In the sprawling stasis of lockdown, a chance encounter amid the catapulting progress of a train felt worlds away. I missed the pure, concentrated act of going somewhere – like travel served neat – as much as the room service and the undiscovered shores. A hankering for the proverbial journey over the destination made me nostalgic even for British trains, in all their messy, maddening, congested glory.
Even the most rail-weary Londoner will be seduced by a certain moment on the GWR route from Paddington to Penzance, which runs so close to the sea between Exeter and Newton Abbot that you feel as if you’ve boarded a boat. This particular line is often packed, rarely on time (genuine excuses include ‘sheep on the line’) and exorbitant in price but, my god, it’s worth it. And for the nostalgic traveller, there’s a Pullman dining carriage and a sleeper service.
But for that kind of thing, of course, no train could rival the grandeur of the Venice-Simplon Orient Express. This most famously runs from London to Venice through Paris, and has just upped the opulence with a new ‘suite’ category on board. But for atmosphere, it’s got to be the high-speed Frecciarossa from Roma Termini to Napoli Centrale for me. It only takes 55 minutes but the vibe shift is tangible, and the salt spray from the long pined-for ocean almost seems to steam up the air-conditioned windows. Or take any train in India, where a head spinning mix of 18 million daily passengers and 64,000 kilometres of track makes for unforgettable journeys, from overnight sleepers with narrow blue bunks and chai trolleys to the regal splendour of Maharashtra’s Deccan Odyssey.
From Milan you can dart to the shores of Como in less than an hour, or the coast of Liguria in less than two. For a more languid pace, there’s the slow line from Bari airport down the coast of Puglia, where the keen-eyed can spot Ostuni, the hilltop città bianca, from the carriage window. I once boarded the train from there back to the airport and was so reluctant to complete the journey that I missed my flight by jumping off at the next stop – Polignano a Mare – for one more night of sunset spritzes, abundant burrata and sleeping in the last free room in town.
But train travel will do that to you. It encourages the romantic and the reckless. Zooming along on a train can feel like longing; longing to get out there and explore everything you’ve seen flash coquettishly across the window.
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