The landscapes of France can easily be savoured, or merely glimpsed at high speed, thanks to a new railpass. The Euro-Domino ticket allows a measured approach to rail travel. On any three days in a month, you can go where you wish on French National Railways (SNCF) for a fare of pounds 102. My 1,600 miles cost just over 6p each. This happens to be the same as the average toll on French motorways, without taking fuel into account. Since the speed limit for cars is a measly 81mph, compared with 187mph for TGVs, the ticket has more than just price on its side; travellers can see plenty of the country in three days.
So much for the theory. My mission to test the speed and reliability of French trains began inauspiciously when the Dieppe-to-Paris express went hors de combat at Rouen. Everyone was shunted on to a toutes-gares-a- Paris commuter service that showed no urgency to reach the capital. After only a couple of hours, my carefully planned itinerary was in tatters and time was ticking away at pounds 1.50 an hour.
On most French trains you merely wave your Euro-Domino ticket at the guard, but on a TGV you also need a reservation (price pounds 2.50). In London I had booked a place on the TGV Atlantique, the high-speed link to the south-west, but my seat had departed while I was still battling across Paris on the Metro. So amid the hi-tech hell that constitutes Montparnasse station, I had my first dismal encounter with the booking office.
You might assume a nation that had gone to the trouble of building the world's finest rail network would have come up with a slick way of dispensing tickets and reservations. Since the purpose of the TGV is to save time, it is surprising that the booking procedure is quite so cumbersome. To describe the Gallic anarchy that prevails as a 'queuing system' is to accord it a greater degree of organisation than it deserves.
Only a few of the ticket windows are open at any one time, and those that are serving suddenly close at random while others reopen. As queues shuffle along from one counter to the next, the line gets muddled and the losers get cross. You can avoid these skirmishes by buying a ticket or reservation from an electronic machine - but only if it likes the feel of your credit card. Changing my reservation involved a long wait and heavy negotiations with three different booking clerks.
Once on board, stress seems to vanish. Travelling on the TGV is like flying in a jet at zero altitude. Even though France is speeding past at 187mph, the sense of movement is muted. The line hugs the contours of the countryside, and from the outside the train looks like a streak of silver as it carves through the calm of Touraine. From the inside, looking out, the foreground is a continuous blur while the background appears distant and untouchable through three layers of tinted windows.
The city of Tours rushes into focus, then disappears within a minute. Instead of a clatter of steel wheels, the interior is haunted by a dull, other- worldly hum - the sort of noise that spaceships are popularly supposed to make. In contrast with the nation rushing past outside, everything within the train seems to happen in slow motion.
You feel so cosseted that it is a real effort to get off. I disembarked reluctantly at Poitiers, where the main attraction is Futuroscope - the European Park of the Moving Image. From a distance, this theme park looks like a factory estate devastated by a particularly nasty hurricane. The exhibits resemble three-dimensional crazy paving, a random scattering of misshaped cubes, globes and massive crystalline structures.
Each of the hulks houses a cinema with a different gimmick. At the Cinema Dynamique, for example, victims are strapped into a structure that behaves the same way as a flight simulator. Hydraulic pumps shift the viewer in three dimensions while images flash past. A bit like the TGV, in fact.
The futuristic train south from Poitiers ejected me at Angouleme. The old quarter is drastically pretty, perched on a plateau and encircled by ramparts. Walking among the aged dwellings, the city felt strangely lifeless - as if everybody had enjoyed rather too good a lunch and was sleeping it off. Luckily, the trains were still running. On a rail tour of France your choice of destinations is determined as much by train connections as by historical connections. The southbound express pulled in. Putting aside thoughts such as 'in three more hours I could be at the Spanish frontier', I instead caught a locale - a jolly red and yellow specimen that plodded through the Charente region towards the sea, allowing plenty of time to admire the landscape.
One reassuringly dependable aspect of French trains is that 'there'll be another one along in an hour', so you can afford to take a chance on exploring any small town that looks enticing. Cognac, for example, is seductively ornate, its medieval cottages tottering down cobbled lanes to a broad, docile river. What distinguishes Cognac from its neighbours is the alcoholic vapour escaping from a million barrels of brandy. The town is bathed in an intoxicating haze and a genial joie de vivre.
One narrow vein of the rail network leads out to the Atlantic extremities. Every bend reveals a new view that could be a backdrop for an arty film: decaying farmhouses, derelict churches amid windswept desolation.
The Charente river spills out at Rochefort. This handsome port has miraculously well-preserved 17th-century naval architecture, including the nation's longest building: the 1,000ft- long Corderie Royale, where all the navy's rope was made. Rochefort is especially attractive to the railpass passenger because of its overnight express train to the Mediterranean.
Since you are allowed only three days of travel, you must move through the night to maximise the Euro-Domino effect. A couchette to Marseille costs pounds 10, less than a bed in all but the grottiest French hotel, and a sound investment for a good night's sleep. Each couchette carriage has an attendant.
The first time I travelled in France I decided Marseille was a dirty, noisy city with a lousy beach and social problems worthy of the South Bronx. It is still all those things, but the confusion of cultures and edge of tension give it an exoticism lacking elsewhere in France. Since Olympique Marseille became the nation's only European Cup-winning soccer club, the city has acquired a newfound civic pride.
If you want to be beside the seaside, Cannes is two hours east along 120 miles of track that slews between the shore and the mountains. But I had to start heading home, having first stocked up with comestibles. On- board catering is expensive. A cup of instant coffee costs pounds 1.50, and the best you can say about it is ca se boit ('it's drinkable'). However, most large stations attract a cluster of supermarkets and boulangeries where you can assemble the ingredients for a picnic.
The line north from Marseille clings to the Rhone, its cotes comprising grand sweeps of hillside clothed in vines. For mountainscape, take a detour up to Grenoble before descending to Lyon - the Clapham Junction of France. From here you can get almost anywhere; the 320 miles to Paris take two hours flat.
The scenery is much better on the old line to the capital. Before the first TGV route sliced through the heart of France, all the trains between Paris and the south followed the course of the Saone. Services still run on this line, slowly enough to let you take in the neat precision of the vines. The track runs through one of the world's greatest wine-producing regions. The station names read like the labels in a high-class wine merchant: Macon, Beaune, Nuits-St-Georges. The dedicated taster can take advantage of the hourly trains and the generosity of Burgundy's producers to indulge in a wine-crawl along the Saone valley. (Only bordeaux is sold on trains, at pounds 3 for a quarter-litre.)
I would have liked to be able to describe the attributes of Dijon, but after spending an hour at the station trying to organise the onward leg of the journey there was hardly time to do justice to the capital of Burgundy. Simply procuring a timetable can be tricky. If you ask for a Paris-to-Dijon schedule, you get a leaflet that gives the times from Paris to Dijon, but not back again; these are in a separate publication. I believe my timetable- deciphering abilities are about GCSE standard, but French railway schedules are of degree level. Calculating whether a particular train is likely to circule (operate) today always seems to involve massively complicated footnotes.
Assuming you find a train and secure a reservation, 100 minutes later you are in the Gare de Lyon in Paris. One stop on the RER - the capital's high-speed underground - takes you to Chatelet, where you can see the Matisse exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou before heading for the night train to London.
Day three expires at midnight, but the inspector turned a blind eye to the fact that the Channel port was another 40 minutes away. I asked what the French thought of rail privatisation. He shook his head: 'An impossible dream,' he said. 'In France, we like things to work properly.'
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