9 Jan 2011

I love Paris...by train

Two years ago we travelled on one of those budget airlines from Barcelona to spend a week in Paris. Getting there was not much fun. We vowed never to fly with that particular airline again as the company seems to take the attitude that customers are a nuisance. I must say that it was not all the airline´s fault that the trip was so dismal. We made some choices about when we wanted to fly but flying has become something one has to endure as opposed to experiencing. Flying is like a visit to the dentist--sit and wait with a rising level of ennui but then hope to get the whole business over as quickly and painlessly as possible. Well, we just returned from another week in the city of lights but this time getting there and back was much more pleasant. We took the train. It was in fact an overnight tren hotel where the four of us had our own cabin complete with fold-down beds. This trip was more comfortable and civilised.

My wife and I love trains and we have both experienced long-distance train journeys either on our own or together as a family. A few years before we met, my wife travelled from China to Germany mostly on the Russian Trans-Siberian railway. It is a trip that she still talks about and will never forget. Railway travel in the dying days of the Soviet Empire may have been at times uncomfortable but it made for an adventure. A few years before that, I had taken The Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver and back. It is a five-day long trip one way and a marvelous way to see how varied Canada´s geography is. I did the trip on a small budget and could not afford a sleeping berth. I spent the trip seated--most of the daylight hours sitting in the train´s famous observation cars watching the landscape roll by. It was a journey that I will never forget.

The distance from Barcelona to Paris, about 1100 kilometres, can be flown in about two hours. The train took 12 hours. However, comparing the two methods is not as simple as that. We live about 20 kilometers outside of Barcelona in the opposite direction of the airport. So if we fly and we want to arrive at the airport the recommended two hours prior to takeoff we have to leave our house about three hours before departure time. On our previous trip to Paris the airline flew out of Girona airport about an hour-long taxi ride from our home. In Girona boarding the aircraft was a disorganized free for all. At the other end of the flight we landed in Beauvais, an hour by bus from Paris. Once in Paris we were still some distance from our accommodation. Even though we left our home at five in the morning it was afternoon by the time we reached central Paris.

For us the train was more convenient for a number of reasons. We took the bus from our town to Barcelona and then a short subway ride to the Estacio de Franca. With our cabin pre-assigned there was no need to line up early. Security was unobtrusive and quick. You can arrive at the station five minutes before departure and not be denied boarding. Border controls involve surrendering your passports to the train staff to be returned to you a couple of hours before arriving at your destination. At arrival you have your baggage already with you. It is an overnight trip and you sleep comfortably for most of it. You arrive early and rested, and ready to go and play the part of a tourist and not of a walking zombie. The terminus of the tren hotel in Paris was the Gare d´Austerlitz with the subway right there. It was a twenty minute subway ride to our Paris accommodations.

Several years ago we took another family train trip from Toronto to New York City and back. That trip was during daylight hours. The scenery along that route is always changing and fascinating. At times it is spectacular especially as the train traces the east bank of the Hudson River from Albany to New York. If you have ever seen the Hitchcock film North by North-West you would be familiar with that part of the trip.

The trip up to Paris had been so pleasant that we were all looking forward to the return to Barcelona. Next time Paris by train.

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