Next month, I have a birthday that ends in a zero. I’ve been casting around for some sort of project to mark this occasion, and two recent transport developments have, I hope, put me on the right track (or tracks).
Firstly, since the start of this year, Railcoop, a new railway co-operative, has been offering affordable long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains meander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines. The first service runs from Bordeaux to Lyon, wending its way through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon, and Roanne. Journey time: 7 hours and 30 minutes. This service used to be run by the state railway company, SNCF, but was abandoned many years ago. Other routes will eventually include Caen to Toulouse via Limoges in 9 hours and 43 minutes, and Le Croisic in Brittany to Basel in Switzerland with twenty-five intermediate stops in 11 hours and 13 minutes. These itineraries – unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris – have never existed before, not even at the height of the railway boom at the end of the nineteenth century.
Alongside this new development, SNCF have themselves come up with a new scheme by launching the Max Senior card. For €79 a month, you can travel free to anywhere on the French railway system, and also to Luxembourg and to Freiburg im Breisgau in Germany. Travel is restricted to off-peak hours and must be booked at least two days in advance. A journey that involves changing trains entails separate bookings, one for each leg, but you can book up to six journeys on any given day. None of these restrictions presents any real problems, and the card seems tailor-made for someone like me.
I love travelling by train. By this I really mean journeys that last a minimum of an hour or so. Certainly, in the right frame of mind, travelling on the Paris Métro or the London Underground can be fun, and I always enjoy trying out the underground system in any new city I visit. But on longer train journeys, something happens when one passes the hour mark. Noisy children have usually quietened down, and adults have stopped fussing about their seats and luggage. Conversation has become quieter and more sporadic. Some people read or use their mobile devices. For the rest, a sort of communal daydreaming seems to ensue; the atmosphere is what libraries used to be like before they became “interactive info-centres”. I find this extremely relaxing. The continually changing picture through the window is like a mobile above a child’s cot. One can engage with it at will, or simply stare at it with unseeing eyes. Dozing is not compulsory but highly recommended.
I used to think that an ideal existence might be to be permanently in transit, stopping overnight, or occasionally for a few days, in favourite places. I managed this a couple of times when I was younger, Interrailing around Europe a few weeks at a time, and I loved every minute of it. Now that I am older and wiser … well, now that I am older, I realise that this is not really feasible as a long-term strategy. In the end, it’s exhausting, and one quickly starts to yearn for the creature comforts of home. However, these two new French rail initiatives present an attractive alternative, and this has given me an idea.
My plan is to visit, in order, an A to Z of twenty-six French towns and cities, staying a day or two in each, all journeys to be completed by train (for free, whenever possible), and ideally all to be done within one year. The main objective will be to travel as widely as possible throughout France, visiting all coasts and borders, and criss-crossing the centre in as many ways as I can. For the next month, I will be looking at maps and trying to come up with an outline itinerary, or at least enough of one to get me started. As well as some major cities, I’d like to go to some lesser-known places that are worth visiting for some reason or other – this will almost certainly be the case when it comes to X and Z, for example. Any suggestions for these and other places would be very welcome.
As a birthday treat, Madame has promised to fund my ticket for a year, on condition that I use it as much as possible. She says that, albeit reluctantly, she feels she can live with my being out of the house a little more often.
In the photo section of this blog, I’ve put links to all the photos taken on the April trip to Italy. I was going to write more about it, but what with one thing and another, the moment has passed. I may return to it when I am 99 and dictating my memoirs to Madame, but other things are getting in the way right now.
This week I started an alternative blog, in French. One reason for this is to force myself to think and write in French. I’m still barely above intermediate level, which is a little embarrassing after living here for four years. There are various reasons for this slow progress. Being lazy, and having a gradually deteriorating memory, certainly doesn’t help. Most of what I read, watch, and listen to is in English, and Madame and I speak English at home. Unless I have carefully prepared a few phrases, conversation with French people tends to trigger a brain-numbing panic that erases most of my French vocabulary and grammar. I am making progress, but it is glacially slow. Committing to writing a blog will, I hope, help the process. It will consist mainly of photographs to begin with, but I hope to gradually write more, too. The French blog is here if anyone cares to look at it.
Life in France isn’t perfect. For example, you can’t buy Young’s bitter beer or Clonakilty black pudding here. But when I look at what that government of gobshites are currently doing to the UK, I am quite content to settle for a glass of Gamay and some boudin noir.