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On board for Aix: St Pancras to Provence

Hidden Europe

"Railway stations and hotels are to the 19th century what monasteries and cathedrals were to the 13th century," observed a contributor to Building News in 1875. "They are the only truly representative buildings we possess."

The departure boards at London's St Pancras station are regaining their eclectic character of yesteryear. Cast back half a century and St Pancras had trains to fire the imagination. A bright star on the morning departure boards was The Palatine, which steamed out of St Pancras at 07.55 and sped north to Manchester, using a beautiful rail route through the English Peak District that has long since disappeared. Then there was The Waverley at 09.10, a handsome express which took in some of the country's finest mountain and moorland scenery on its 10-hour run to Edinburgh.But perhaps the most distinguished morning departure in those days was the 11.20 Midland Pullman to Nottingham. This train consisted only of first-class Pullman cars, affording cushioned comfort for passengers taking a leisurely luncheon as the train cruised north. With two stops along the way, the Midland Pullman reached Nottingham in just two hours.

Beeching's cuts and the demotion of the Midland Main Line saw St Pancras slip quietly into obscurity. The grand expresses no longer left from there and the station and its once-magnificent hotel languished in neglect. But those twilight years ended with a landmark restoration and Eurostar's move to St Pancras in 2007.

Suddenly, the departure boards came alive again. No longer just Luton or Leicester, but Lille now popped up and sleek Eurostar expresses with such names as Voyage Vert now graced the platforms in the superbly restored train shed.

St Pancras is a station born of mighty ambition. When it first opened it was the showpiece London terminal for a mighty railway company: the Midland. Today it showcases Eurostar (although it is well used by other companies).

Eurostar has its own ambitions, symbolised this year by an experimental service in May and June. On the morning of 4 May, Eurostar will operate the first direct train to Aix-en-Provence, a journey of 1,215km taking just over six hours. Just think how that will look on the departure boards.

This link will also earn a place in the record books. Never before has there been a regular scheduled train from London to so far-flung a spot. Even in the days of overnight Continental sleepers there were never services to match this.

Railway stations are temples to modern mobility, veritable cathedrals of transport. And the listings on their departure boards map a city's connectivity. Aix captures the very spirit of the south, the essence of Provence. And this spring it moves a little closer to London.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Eurostar (08432 186186; eurostar.com) is selling services to Aix-en-Provence for 4 May at £132.50 return; if you are booking online, note that the website insists you type in "Aix En Provence TGV" before it will recognise the city.

More information

Hidden Europe is a print and online collection of writing that reflects the Continent's diverse cultures and landscapes. You can subscribe through hiddeneurope.co.uk