Inside Travel: Express routes that bring France closer
Some stunning French destinations now lie within four hours of St Pancras
Saturday 20 February 2010
The high-speed link from London St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel has helped to transform travellers' chrono-geography. Locations that previously took many hours to reach by any means of transport are now accessible between breakfast and lunch. These are some of the finest French destinations within 240 minutes of central London. They are not "advertised" services on Eurostar (08705 186 186;
eurostar.com ), since some have short connecting times. Especially the first one...
Pack your trainers and sense of optimism. With unusual timing, the train south along the coast from Calais-Fréthun station is scheduled to leave at 8.29am, exactly the same moment as the Eurostar train glides in from London. In my experience this service is often a couple of minutes early, which means that with luck on your side you can sprint downstairs to the branch-line platform and arrive at this cheerful resort less than 90 minutes after leaving London, ready for breakfast at one of the many tempting cafés lining the broad promenade that flanks one of northern France's most appealing beaches. And if the travel gods desert you? There'll be another service along in less than an hour.
Perfect timing: depart St Pancras 6.20am, arrive Calais-Fréthun 8.29am; depart 8.29am, arrive Wimille-Wimereux 8.46am.
Total time: 86 minutes. Or, if you miss the connection, 146 minutes.
Around the World in 80 Days? If you are prepared to make do with 181 minutes, by noon you could be celebrating Jules Verne in this mesmerising Picardie city. "The House with the Tower" was the residence of the writer who inspired countless travellers, and it is now a shrine to his creativity and memory.
Amiens has much more besides. It is dominated by a magnificent cathedral, the largest gothic building in France. North of the river you find Saint-Leu, a quartier populated by primary-painted cottages. Amiens was an important Roman town (it is still possible to glimpse the foundations of Samarobriva, as it was known), and in the 21st century provides a fine introduction to a part of France that is often overlooked by visitors.
Perfect timing: depart St Pancras at 7.57am, arrive Lille Europe 10.24am; walk (briskly) to Lille Flandres station, depart 10.37am, arrive Amiens 11.58pm.
Total time: 181 minutes
The closest that the Loire gets to Paris is Orléans – a handsome city whose status as the birthplace of Joan of Arc elevates it in the French psyche. The cathedral, inevitably, is vast and fascinating; from here, the town tumbles down to the river that is also a French icon. You can even swim in it: a fine beach is located at Ile Charlemagne (which is not actually an island) on the Left Bank of the Loire.
Perfect timing: depart St Pancras 6.55am, arrive Paris Gare du Nord 10.17am; take the surprisingly scenic Metro line 5 (direction Porte d'Italie) to Gare d'Austerlitz for a 10.48am departure and a 11.52am arrival.
Total time: 237 minutes.
This pushes the boundaries of the concept in two senses, both by hitting the four-hour barrier precisely and by depositing you at a station that, from its name, does not seem to have a clear idea of its identity. In fact, it is located beside the village of Bezannes, itself only 5km from Reims. Pack a folding bicycle and you could pedal straight off into the sublime patchwork of vineyards strewn across gentle hillsides – or head for the centre of a city
Perfect timing: depart St Pancras 8.27am, arrive Lille Europe 10.54am; depart 11.21am, arrive Champagne-Ardenne 1.27pm.
Total time: 240 minutes
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