On The Road: Love on the tracks that gets stronger with the years

Tristan Rutherford,France
Saturday 23 July 2011 00:00
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As with many love affairs, it started in Paris, under the frescoed ceilings of the Gare de Lyon nearly a decade ago. French air traffic controllers had grounded my transport south, necessitating a run to the sun by rail.

In a budding romance, first impressions are everything. I remember passengers strolling to pre-assigned seats 20 minutes before our sleek blue TGV "took off": no sprinting from the airport bus here. On board, the seats were leather, lumbar support was electronic and picture windows looked set to display the French countryside in all its glory as we sped down to Provence.

This 16-carriage thoroughbred nosed through the Paris suburbs. A canter became a gallop, until any remaining clickety-clack became an unrelenting hum, heading directly to the seaside at 300km per hour. We snorted past cars on the autoroute: a full 100mph faster than the traffic – a Ferrari overtaking an Austin Allegro.

Clouds became sun, and the windows became tourist authority pastels of Provençal stereotypes as we nipped across the Rhône: lavender, sunflowers and acres of vines. Marseille arrived promptly at the three-hour mark. Pastis or rosé?

If anything, our relationship has grown stronger over the years. I've tried the iDTGV service, where passengers enjoy draft beer and sushi in "Zen" class, or hire PSPs or portable DVD players in "Zap". I've learnt the trick of the Eurostar website (eurostar.co.uk): secure a return ticket to any destination in France for £119 by purchasing it exactly three months in advance.

In more affluent times, I've called Railbookers (railbookers.co.uk) for a bespoke hotel and rail trip en famille. And I still fantasise about steak and a glass of Burgundy in Dijon or Lyon, both pretty, five- hour door-to-door journeys from London St Pancras. And you can bring back as many kilos of cheese, wine and mustard as decency allows.

Our first tiff came last year on Paris's Métro line 1, near where our "thing" started. Other connections arrived, mine didn't.

"Is there a strike?"

"Oui, monsieur."

"What for?" I followed.

"It's a pre-emptive action, monsieur. It's to show what would happen if we really chose to strike!"

My train departed without me, and my taxi to Charles de Gaulle airport cost €50. I cried.

Footprint's Provence & Côte d'Azur is out now (£13.99).

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